It’s only one game, and there are 161 left to play this season. The Washington Nationals are still stacked, and the New York Mets, while vastly improved, still have question marks and a gaggle of injuries. But yesterday’s win wasn’t just impressive because it was against a team that single-handedly kept them under .500 last season (the Mets were 4-15 against the Nationals, and 75-68 against everyone else); it wasn’t just impressive because it was against one of baseball’s best pitchers, an ace brought in to supposedly vapor-lock the Nationals’ hold on the division.
Yesterday’s win was impressive because it felt like the kind of thing the Nationals would have done to the Mets last year.
How many times, in the past few years of gradually rising expectations, did a Mets starter throw up a gem only to lose 2-1 on a heartbreaking bounce or ill-timed flub? They stopped doing that kind of thing, for the most part, in 2014. Unless they were playing the Nationals. The Nats having the Mets’ number might have been the single biggest impediment to not just the Mets contending, but the Mets thinking of themselves as true contenders.
Then yesterday happened.
In an afternoon game where the shadows made hitting even harder than usual, Max Scherzer came out and dominated for half a game. He walked Curtis Granderson to lead off the game, then didn’t allow a baserunner until there were two outs in the sixth inning. Then he walked Granderson again, on four pitches. David Wright came up as the go-ahead run, swung at the first pitch and skied a spinning popup that tailed toward right-center field, a few yards behind second base. Dan Uggla settled under it and called for it … and Ian Desmond, trucking over from the next zip code, called him off. Uggla deferred at the last second, Desmond stuck his glove out and lunged, and the ball hit the outfield grass. Scherzer, in the midst of walking toward his dugout, screamed in frustration and scrambled to back up home plate. Granderson didn’t score, but now the Mets had runners on second and third. Back at the first-ever Citi Field watch party, fans were going bonkers … but neither team could hear them, and despite Desmond’s gaffe, Scherzer was still in a position to save the day by getting the last out. He opted to pitch to Lucas Duda, the Mets’ rising star who’s turned heads but isn’t quite at the point of convincing all observers he’s an everyday cleanup option. Continuing the afternoon’s dominance, Scherzer got Duda to a 1-2 count, with one of the strikes coming on what looked like it’d be Duda’s one chance at a hittable pitch.
Max Scherzer threw what he called his best fastball of the day, 98 miles per hour, headed for the outside corner.
Lucas Duda ripped it into right-center, right through the teeth of the Nationals’ modified shift. Both runs scored, and the Mets took a 2-1 lead. Back at home, Citi Field celebrated joyously.
The Mets didn’t give the lead back, despite losing their last functional closer to elbow stiffness that prevented him from entering the ninth. Another Desmond error led to yet another unearned Mets run, on a Travis d’Arnaud triple. The oft-doubted, fat-teased Bartolo Colon shut things down and handed it off to shutdown setup man Jeurys Familia. Jerry Blevins, traded from the Nationals to the Mets seemingly five minutes ago, got Bryce Harper to line out to start the bottom of the ninth. Journeyman Buddy Carlyle earned the first save of his career, at age 37.
And just maybe, the Nationals’ hex on the Mets was no more.
This was the kind of game that would have happened in a Mets-Nationals game in 2014, only with the roles reversed. The Nationals’ starting pitcher threw 7.2 innings, save up no earned runs, and struck out eight hitters. He gave up four hits, and only walked one person, albeit twice. And he took the loss, because his team gave the Mets extra outs, and the Mets capitalized. Moreover, the Mets hit one of his best pitches of the day to capitalize. In the Nationals’ own stadium. The Mets pulled some fast ones last season, but not against the Nationals. When it came to the Nationals, it seemed they always found a way to lose, even when their starting pitcher had a great day or they mostly controlled the game.
After the game, David Wright alluded to the dangers of giving good teams extra outs. He said it with conviction, and lately, the Mets have been playing with a conviction they haven’t consistently shown in years. To see them play with such conviction against the one team that always seemed to have their number — and to have that conviction pay off, with a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat — is a good sign. Is it a sign of things to come? It’s obviously too early to tell. But if the Mets do contend all season, as many expect them to, this game might go down in history as a turning point.
The New York Mets still have 161 more games to prove their point.