By Mike Steffanos
Mets 4 - Reds 2 (10)
You'll have to excuse Jose Valentin if he seems to think the New York Mets already have a pretty good second baseman for 2006. Personally, I'm not inclined to disagree with him. Valentin contributed two terrific defensive plays as the Mets sidestepped disaster for much of the evening en route to a clutch win over Cincinnati.
The 2 hour rain delay in the second inning last night put the Mets bats to sleep, and they seemed to remain there for most of the afternoon. Floyd and Delgado took Bronson Arroyo deep with solo home runs, and other than that the Mets could muster few threats against the Reds right-hander. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine was able to cruise through the first four innings, keeping the Reds off balance thanks to increased use of an effective curve ball.
As has been the case so often since Glavine came back down to earth a month ago, that effectiveness began to slip in the fifth inning. Royce Clayton and Jason LaRue both hit the first pitch they saw for singles, and Arroyo was able to successfully sacrifice them to second and third. Glavine fell behind Ryan Freel, who drove a 3-1 pitch out of Cliff Floyd's reach for a game-tying double. Glavine was able to escape the fifth without further damage, but fell right back into trouble in the sixth.
Rich Aurilia led off with a single, and Edwin Encarnacion hit a ground-rule double that a fan interfered with at the left centerfield wall. Willie showed faith in Glavine by staying with him despite right-handers coming up and Bradford warming up in the 'pen. Brandon Phillips chopped a grounder to the right side that Jose Valentin got a great jump on and made an acrobatic throw to nail Aurilia at the plate. Royce Clayton hit a soft comebacker that Glavine made a nice play on, freezing Encarnacion at third. Glavine intentionally walked Jason LaRue to face Arroyo, who tried to catch the Mets with a bunt. Glavine made another fine play, barehanding the ball and getting it quickly to Ramon Castro who eschewed the force play for some reason and tagged Encarnacion for the final out.
Willie sent Glavine out for the seventh hoping to build on that nice escape in the sixth, but again Glavine fell into trouble. Freel doubled leading off the frame, and Chris Denorfia sacrificed him to third. Glavine walked Dunn and Aurilia, both on 5 pitches, and Willie had seen enough. Bradford came in to a bases-loaded situation and was able to pull a Houdini act by striking out left-handed pinch hitter Scott Hatteberg and inducing Phillips to ground out to Wright.
Heilman came in for the eighth and got burned immediately by a Royce Clayton bloop single. LaRue sacrificed, with David Wright making a high throw to Valentin covering first, but Valentin was able to make a nice play to save Wright. Heilman got Javier Valentin (hitting for Arroyo) and Freel on ground outs to Wright to emerge unscathed.
The Mets wasted a David Wright double in the top of the ninth, and went back into the tightrope act in the bottom of the frame when Pedro Feliciano walked leadoff batter Chris Denorfia. Feliciano was able to strike out Adam Dunn, and then Denorfia attempted to steal second with Aurilia at the plate. Valentin made a terrific play, covering second, blocking the plate with his leg and fielding a one-hop throw to the shortstop side of the bag and tagging out Denorfia for the second out. Aurilia worked a walk off Feliciano, but he struck out Scott Hatteberg to put the game into bonus frames.
Up to that point, the Mets had managed few scoring opportunities while the Reds squandered several -- with some help from clutch Mets pitching and great defense. The newly acquired Gary Majewski took over pitching duties in the ninth and retired Castro for the first out. When he induced a soft fly ball from pinch hitter Xavier Nady near the right field line it looked like the Mets would go quietly again, but right fielder Denorfia made a huge mistake by calling 2B Phillips off a play that he seemed to have and then failing to come up with a diving catch. It looked like Majewski might escape when he struck out Reyes looking for the second out, but Endy Chavez laced the first pitch he saw down the left field line for a run-scoring double. Lefty Kent Mercker came in to turn Beltran around, but Beltran pulled a double down the line to easily score Chavez with an insurance run.
Billy Wagner came in for his first save opportunity since July 9 and did not disappoint. He got Phillips to ground out to Reyes, and then came back from a 3-0 hole to blow Royce Clayton away. He finished the job by smoking Larue on 4 pitches for the final out.
Thoughts on the game
The Mets seemed to have that game well in hand until the rain came last night, and then saw it slip away. The Reds had to feel that same frustration today as they saw opportunity after opportunity slip away, and fell victim to some clutch pitching and great defense. After the Reds tied the game it seemed that every time the Mets needed to make a big pitch or a gutsy defensive stop they were right there. Cincinnati left 12 runners on base for the game, and it felt like more.
I never, ever thought Valentin could take the second base position and do this kind of job with it. If he isn't getting a huge hit, he's making a nice play in the field or making a smart, veteran baserunning play. He's a pro, and I'm sold on him for 2006. We'll worry about replacing him this winter.
Chavez has provided the Mets a clutch bat to go along with his defensive and baserunning prowess. Like Valentin, I am no longer surprised when he does well, as he has earned my respect as one of the finest fourth outfielders the Mets have ever had. Speaking of a solid bench, Ramon Castro was 2-2 in gunning down attempted base stealers.
Glavine was upset with the home plate umpire on some close pitches in the fifth, sixth, and seventh. He had a gripe on a couple, but it's funny how when he was pitching well he didn't worry about the umpire's strike zone as much. Today was a step forward for Glavine over the last few starts, but he still has a long way to go. He simply has to prove he can pitch effectively into the seventh again if he is really to be the guy you want starting the second game of a playoff series. He also had only one strikeout and four walks today. He's lost the ability to put away hitters, and is trying to make too-perfect pitches again.
Bradford, after enduring a short slump, has been good again lately, and great tonight. He has a knack for making clutch pitches under pressure.
Heilman had a nice inning, being hurt only by a soft hit on a very good pitch. Feliciano startled me by walking 2 batters in an inning after walking only 8 all year. Still, he made some nice pitches to Dunn and Hatteberg.
Wagner, despite bringing up my stomach acid when he fell behind Clayton 3-0, was very good today, and really does seem to have turned a corner. Maybe he's not the Billy Wagner he was in his absolute prime, but is no longer looking like he is lost on the mound as he did in May and part of June. Maybe he could even manage to put together a nice string of games and allow Mets fans the rare opportunity to feel somewhat relaxed in the ninth inning of a close game.
This game is being discussed in the MetsMerized Mets Talk Forum.