Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Almost Perfect Comeback

I've been a Mets fan for over 50 years. I've seen hundreds of players come and go, some great ones, most quite forgettable. Some spend their entire career with the Mets, some only last for a little while. Some break your heart a little when they go, some depart unlamented. Every once in a while, a player comes along that appeals to something deep within me, making me root for them just a little harder. One of those players was a 36-year-old infielder that the Mets signed in December 2005 for some badly needed infield depth

Kaz Matsui was entering his third season with the Mets in 2006. After failing miserably at shortstop in 2004, Matsui had been moved to second base in 2005, allowing young star Jose Reyes to go back to shortstop. Matsui failed to improve his defense at 2B, and also slumped offensively. This poor production at the plate and in the field, along with a propensity for getting hurt, allowed Miguel Cairo to get over 350 plate appearances despite a batting line of .251/.296/324 on the season. While Cairo solidified the defense, that was offensive production that just couldn't be justified in that era.

After failing to deal him over the winter, the Mets entered the 2006 season with Matsui penciled in at second again. But, after acquiring Carlos Delgado in the off-season, the Mets were clearly all-in on 2006, and Matsui would have to perform. To provide some infield depth, the Mets signed a 36-year-old veteran named Jose Valentin. Valentin had 14 years in the majors, mostly with the Brewers and White Sox. He had been primarily a shortstop, but had experience at all 4 infield positions.

Valentin was a solid defensive player who hit for a fairly low batting average but provided above-average power for the position. After spending eight solid years with the Brewers, Valentin had contributed good offensive years for the White Sox from 2000 - 2003, but had slumped to .216/.287/.473 as a 34-year-old in 2004, despite hitting 30 home runs. The White Sox elected to let him go as a free agent after that season, causing Valentin to miss a chance to be on the 2005 World Series Champs.

Jose Valentin signed with the Dodgers for the 2005 season, but he injured his knee in spring training and would only play in 56 games, slashing .170/.326/.265. When the 36-year-old signed on with the Mets for 2006, he was looking at what was likely his last chance to stay in the majors.

Kaz Matsui slumped further offensively in 2006 and quickly lost the starting 2B job. Young infielder Anderson Hernandez, profiled on this blog here, contributed even less offensively. Chris Woodward had an OPS+ of 56. There was a clear opening at second, but the problem for Valentin was that he began 2006 in a horrendous slump.

He began the season 0-15, playing primarily as a pinch hitter and in a utility role. Coming into play on May 13, Jose Valentin was 5 for 30 on the season with no extra base hits, 2 RBI, and looking absolutely lost at the plate. The fans were already turning on him, lustily booing his every plate appearance. The only thing that was keeping him on the team up to that point was the poor production of Matsui, Hernandez and Woodward.

I remember watching Valentin at the plate in the first six weeks of 2006 and having little hope for a positive result. In a way that I can't quite explain, the guy just grew on me. There was a sense of strength and dignity about him as the outs kept coming and the boos got louder and louder. I started rooting for the guy to turn it around, pulling hard for a player who had only been a Met for a short time and was performing so poorly. It just happens that way sometimes. I didn't have any sort of premonition that Jose Valentin would become a valuable contributor, I just wanted to see him turn those boos into cheers.

On Saturday, May 13, the Mets were playing in Milwaukee, against the team where Valentin had played for the first eight years of his career. Valentin was given a start, not at 2B but in LF. Batting eighth behind the light-hitting Chris Woodward, Valentin had a fly out and ground out in his first two at bats, and it looked like another 0-for was in the cards. In the top of the 6th, Valentin came up with one out after Milwaukee intentionally walked Woodward to load the bases. He responded with a 2 RBI single to put the Mets ahead 6-2. In the top of the eighth he contributed a 2-run HR. Valentin had his first multi-hit game, his first multi-RBI game, and his first extra base hit of the season.

Jose Valentin again started in left field the next day. The Mets would lose in extra innings, but Valentin went 4-5 with a double and another 2 RBI.

The next series in St. Louis, Valentin started at second base and contributed a 2-run homer in a loss that the awful Jose Lima gave away. It looked like Jose Valentin was about to turn all the boos around, but then he fell into another slump, going hitless in his next 13 at bats. The boos came back in force.

By the time the Mets were playing a Sunday afternoon game in Miami, Jose Valentin's batting average had fallen back to .212, and he had done little to distinguish himself from the other candidates to fill the void at 2B. Starting at 2B, Valentin finally broke his latest hitless streak and also drove in a run with a sac fly.

The Mets came back home to play Arizona, and Valentin got hot at the plate, going 6-13 in the series with a double and a pair of homers. He had a 3-hit game against the Giants in the next series, and continued hitting as the Mets went on a long road trip with stops in LA, Arizona and Philly. The Mets went 9-1 on that trip, and Jose Valentin established himself as the starting 2B. He was slashing .276/.317/.483 on the season, solid numbers all the more remarkable given his early-season struggles.

Valentin continued to be productive throughout the month of June, slashing .301/.348/.578 for the month with 4 HR and 10 RBI. He also meshed well with Jose Reyes to give the Mets solid middle infield defense for the first time in years. He was a veteran leader on a team that would make it to one game away from the World Series. It was a stunning turn-around from his performance in the first month-and-a-half. For me, it was nice to see a guy who I pulled for actually succeed and even thrive. 2006 was a pretty magical season, and Jose Valentin was a good part of the reason why.

On Saturday, July 8, the Mets were hosting the Marlins at Shea. The big news of the evening was Mike Pelfrey's first major league start. Pelfrey worked around a single, stolen base and a hit batter in the top of the first to hold the Marlins off the board. Jose Valentin came up in the bottom of the frame with a run in, the bases loaded, and one out. Valentin crushed a 2-1 pitch into the Mets' bullpen for a grand slam to put the Mets up 5-0. He wasn't done.

Pelfrey looked nervous and struggled to throw strikes. He allowed the Marlins a pair of runs in the top of the second, a David Wright error making one of the runs unearned.

Valentin came up again with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, this time with 2 outs. He almost duplicated his first inning effort, driving a ball off the base of the RF wall for a 3-run triple. Pelfrey was handed a big enough cushion for his first win, and the quiet veteran who looked like a sure bet to be released a couple of months earlier had 7 RBI in the first 2 innings of a game the Mets would go on to win 17-3

Jose Valentin continued his excellent all-around play through July and August, solidifying his place on the team. On the night of Monday, September 15, the Mets were again playing the Marlins in New York, trying to snag the Eastern Division title. Starting pitcher Steve Trachsel contributed one of his better starts of a rather ragged season, and Jose Valentin contributed a pair of HR as the Mets clinched their first Division title since 1998.

What would have really capped this whole tale off the right way would have been if Valentin continued his strong performance into the playoffs. Unfortunately, real life has a way of ruining a good story, particularly for Mets fans. Valentin struggled through a lot of September, although he did break out with a 3-3 game as the Mets beat Washington in the last regular season game.

When the Mets swept the Dodgers in 3 games in the Division Series, Valentin went 0-9, although he did get a pair of walks and scored 2 runs.

Against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Valentin had some moments. After not doing much in the first 3 games, Jose Valentin went 2-4 with a double and 3 RBI in the crucial Game 4 win in St. Louis that evened the series and got the Mets some positive momentum back. He had a double and a pair of RBIs in Game 5, but Glavine was awful and the Mets were a game away from going home empty.

Valentin went hitless in Game 6, but John Maine and the bullpen pulled out a huge win, despite Billy Wagner's wobbly ninth inning.

I think all Mets fans remember how Game 7 went. After Endy Chavez kept the game tied 1-1 with this remarkable catch in the sixth, the game seemed destined to go the Mets' way.

When Jose Valentin came up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the sixth, I was really sure he was going to come through. It would have made such a nice coda for his remarkable 2006 turnaround. It would have been perfect.

But baseball can be cruel, and it was that day to Mets fans. Valentin struck out, the Mets went on the lose the game and the NL pennant, and we all watched as Detroit virtually imploded against the Cardinals in the Series, thinking that could have been us celebrating a title.

The Mets tried to recapture the magic with Jose Valentin in 2007, but he went down for the season after 51 games, breaking his leg on a foul ball while hitting. He would try to make it back with the Mets the next couple of years but it was not to be, for him or the team. What magic there was left in 2007 and 2008 never held up through the month of September, and the team fell back into yet another dark period.

After retiring, Jose Valentin owned a club in the Puerto Rican Winter League for a while. After selling that team he managed in Puerto Rico and in the Padres system. He was the first base coach for the Padres in 2014 and 2015. He hopes to be a Major League Manager some day.

Jose Valentin's 2006 season with the Mets was a great story, and he'll always have a place in my heart for being one of "my guys". I liked the way he carried himself with dignity and class, whether things were going well for him or he was struggling and hearing it from the fans. Unfortunately, as has happened all too often in the five decades I followed this franchise, Valentin's story made it about 90% of the way to epic, only to come up a little short. Baseball, and Mets baseball in particular, just has a way of breaking your heart. Still, Jose Valentin, it was really cool to root for you in that one not-quite-perfect season.

Thanks for spending some time here today. Please stay well, stay safe, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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