Monday, August 24, 2020

Beating the Odds, Part 2

As described in Part 1 of this post, the Wild Card Los Angeles Dodgers were the darlings of the baseball pundits going into the 2006 NLDS vs. the New York Mets. Almost all of them picked the Dodgers to win the series, ignoring the 9-win advantage the Mets had amassed in the regular season. With Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez done for the season, the Mets' starting rotation was seen as their Achilles heel. However, despite having to replace El Duque with rookie John Maine in game 1 against the Dodgers' ace Derek Lowe, the Mets drew first blood with a stirring 6-5 victory in front of their home fans.

Game 2 would also be played at Shea, a night game on Thursday, October 5 with an 8:20 pm start time. Tom Glavine would be starting for the Mets, a future Hall of Famer who had aged into a slightly above-average mid-rotation starter. Still, he was the best the Mets had left that was still healthy enough to pitch. Glavine was opposed by Dodgers rookie Hong-Chih Kuo, a 24-year-old southpaw from Taiwan who had pitched mostly out of the bullpen, making only 5 regular season starts. He had struggled with his control as a reliever, was sent down to the minors, and came back to the bigs in September as a starter, enjoying success.

Both pitchers retired the side in order in the first. Glavine worked around a 2-out walk in the second, while Kuo shut the Mets down after allowing Carlos Delgado's leadoff single in the bottom of the frame. Glavine enjoyed a 1-2-3 inning in the third, and it looked like a pitcher's duel was developing.

The Mets scratched a run in the bottom of the third when Endy Chavez bunted his way on, went to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on Glavine's ground out, and scored on Jose Reyes' ground out.

Glavine went out to protect the lead in the top of the fourth and immediately got into a jam. After retiring Kenny Lofton on a flyball for the first out, Glavine gave up back-to-back singles to Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent. Glavine escaped unscathed by striking out J.D. Drew and getting Russell Martin to fly out to Beltran in center.

The Mets went quietly in the bottom of the fourth, thanks to a Cliff Floyd blast that looked like a sure home run being blown back into play by the infamous Shea winds. The Dodgers threatened again in the fifth with a couple of men on, but Glavine got Kenny Lofton to ground out to end that threat.

The Mets threatened to blow the game open in the bottom of the fifth. A walk to Jose Valentin and a single by Endy Chavez put runners on first and second, no outs. Glavine bunted both runners over, then Kuo issued an intentional walk to Jose Reyes. That was all for Kuo, as Dodgers manager Grady Little brought Brett Tomko into the game. Paul Lo Duca's sac fly brought home Valentin, but that was all the Mets would get.

Glavine kept the Dodgers off the board in the top of the sixth, and the Mets struck again in the bottom of the frame. David Wright and Cliff Floyd led off with singles. Jose Valentin bunted them over and reached first on Tomko's errant throw. Little brought in Mark Hendrickson to face Endy Chavez, who forced Wright at home for the first out. Pinch hitting for Glavine, Julio Franco grounded into a force play, bringing home Cliff Floyd, and Reyes singled home Valentin. The Mets were up 4-0, with the game in the hands of the bullpen the rest of the way.

Pedro Feliciano was first man in. He pitched around a 1 out walk to keep the Dodgers off the board in the seventh. Aaron Heilman came in for the eighth and allowed a solo home run to Wilson Betemit, but retired Kent and Drew to keep it 4-1. Billy Wagner avoided any drama in the ninth by coaxing groundouts from Russell Martin, Marlon Anderson, and Julio Lugo. The Mets now had a commanding 2 games to none lead on the Dodgers, having outplayed them in every facet of the game, leaving the pundits scratching their heads.

The series moved to Los Angeles for Game 3. Steve Trachsel was facing off against Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, and most experts were picking the Dodgers to at least prolong the series with a victory.

The Mets quickly jumped on Maddux for three runs in the top of the first, thanks to RBI singles from Wright, Floyd, and former Dodger Shawn Green. Trachsel survived a single and a David Wright error to keep the Dodgers off the board in the bottom of the first. Neither club scored in the second. Shawn Green doubled home Cliff Floyd in the third to put the Met up 4-0. Trachsel kept the Dodgers off the board in the bottom of the third.

No Mets fan who witnessed Trachsel's continued struggles during the regular season was fooled into thinking that it was going to be easy, and it proved not to be. After the Mets failed to score in the top of the fourth, Trachsel allowed a leadoff single to Jeff Kent, then retired J.D. Drew on a flyball to RF. After that, the wheels came off for Trachsel. Consecutive singles by Russell Martin, Wilson Betemit, and James Loney scored a pair of runs and brought a quick end to Trachsel's outing. Willie Randolph brought in lefty Darren Oliver. The Mets were fortunate to escape further damage when Andre Ethier lined a ball back at Oliver that the pitcher turned into a double play by catching Betemit off third.

After the Mets went quietly in the fifth, Oliver came back out to pitch the bottom of the inning. The southpaw had been terrific for the Mets in the regular season, and when he recorded the first two outs things were looking good for him. Then hits started coming, a single to Marlon Anderson, a home run by Jeff Kent to tie the game 4-4, and a single by Drew to knock Oliver out of the game. Chad Bradford couldn't stop the bleeding, allowing a single to Russell Martin and walking Betemit to load the bases. Pedro Feliciano came on and walked Loney to force in the go-ahead run, before retiring Garciaparra to finally collect that elusive third out.

The Dodgers had a 5-4 lead and all of the momentum after beating up on the Mets bullpen, which had been such a strength for them in 2006. If the Dodgers could take the game and win the next day at home, it would come down to a one-game winner-take-all game back in New York.

The Dodgers brought Jonathan Broxton into the game in the top of the sixth to try to hold the Mets at bay and keep the momentum in their favor. The Mets showed what they were made of by striking right back. Shawn Green led off with a double. After Valentin popped out, pinch hitter Michael Tucker walked, then Reyes, Lo Duca, and Beltran singled home runs, putting the Mets back up 7-5.

Guillermo Mota came in for the Mets and managed somehow to survive a single by Lofton and a ground-rule double by Kent by retiring Drew to keep the Dodgers off the board. After the Mets went quietly in the top of the seventh, Mota worked around a 2-out single by Loney to keep the lead at 2. The Mets tallied a pair of runs in the eighth to push their lead back to 4.

Aaron Heilman pitched the bottom of the eighth and worked around a pair of hits by getting Drew to ground out. Wagner came in to pitch the ninth, striking out Martin and Betemit before giving up a single to Loney. Ramon Martinez pinch hit and put up a long at bat against Wagner. Finally, on the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Wagner came out on top:

The Mets beat the Dodgers the way they amassed 97 wins in 2006, by piling on runs and not letting down when things didn't go their way. I figured for sure that all of the pundits that had picked the Dodgers would finally give the Mets some credit after an impressive 3 game sweep. I was dead wrong.

The story became more about what the Dodgers didn't do rather than what the Mets did. The Dodgers would have won, if only...

One guy, in particular, wrote up the series that way and topped it all off by claiming that the absence of LOOGY Joe Beimel had absolutely cost the Dodgers the series. Beimel had infamously cut his foot on some glass in a bar crawl right before the series started and was unable to pitch. The guy said that if Beimel was available, he would have retired Mets left-handed hitters in key situations. It's hard to argue with "logic" like that, but being a stubborn Italian I got into a back-and-forth via email. I pointed out that the Mets were the better team by record, had outplayed the Dodgers for 3 games, and as magical as Beimel's skills certainly were, the Dodgers could only bring him into a game once.

Don't know why I wasted my time with that. He wasn't the only "expert" that brought up Beimel's absence, although they all seemed to conveniently discount that the Mets had lost both Pedro and El Duque and still won. And certainly, no one was willing to cut the Mets any excuses when they fell to the Cardinals in 7 in the NLCS. Such is the pain of being a Mets fan.

Still, even if the pundits were stingy in their credit, the Mets sweeping the Dodgers out of that NLDS was an impressive feat. If they had managed to somehow beat the Cardinals in that NLCS, the 2006 Mets would be the stuff of legends. Sadly, taking their fans on a wonderful ride only to come up a bit short is something of a Mets' trademark over the years. I did love that team, though, despite how it ended.

That's going to be it for me today. I hope you enjoyed a little look backward during this COVID-forced hiatus. I'm looking forward to the 2020 Mets returning tomorrow. Please stay safe, be well and take care. I have a bit of a crazy week ahead, but I'll do my best to post as often as I can.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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