Sunday, August 23, 2020

Beating the Odds, Part 1

For all of their flaws, and despite the fact that their season ended short of the goal, the 2006 Mets remain one of my all-time favorites. That team had a wonderful resiliency that allowed them to come just a bit short of 100 wins despite their many flaws. Nothing showcased their resiliency and toughness more than the 2006 Division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the Mets faced the Dodgers in the 2006 NLDS, almost every pundit you could find was picking the Dodgers to win the series. This was despite the fact that the Division-winning Mets had amassed 97 wins in the regular season, while the Wild Card Dodgers had only managed 88 wins. The Dodgers had been a streaky team, alternating impressive winning streaks intermingled with stretches of bad play.

The Dodgers had started the second half of their season losing 13 out of 14 games to seemingly bury their playoff chances but then had won 17 of 18 to put themselves back in the picture. They continued to alternate stretches of good and bad play to the end of the season, finishing with a 7-game winning streak. Pundits were banking on their strong finish and the fact that the Mets would be without Pedro Martinez, who was done for the season. When the Mets best-remaining starter, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, went down with a calf injury just before the NLDS, it was hard to find anyone willing to give the Mets a shot. Many were predicting a Dodgers 3-game sweep. For Mets fans who had waited 6 years to see their club back in the playoffs, this was a disheartening development.

What the experts chose to ignore, however, was that the 2006 Mets had managed to win 97 games mostly despite their starting pitching. Pedro had only made 23 starts, and he was not the dominating Pedro from 2005. Tom Glavine had been their "ace" in the regular season, Steve Trachsel had been awful despite accumulating 15 wins, while Rookie John Maine and the ancient El Duque had been patched onto the rotation during the season. The Mets' 97 wins came while enduring more than a quarter of their starts from the likes of Alay Solar, Brian Bannister, Oliver Perez, Victor Zambrano, David Williams, Mike Pelfrey, Jose Lima, and Geremi Gonzalez. All but Bannister featured ERAs above 5. Winning games by outscoring the other team was a skill that the 2006 Mets most decidedly possessed, despite the utter lack of faith on the part of the experts.

Another factor they all glossed over while crediting the Dodgers' strong finish was all of the stretches of dreadful play by the Los Angeles club. While there often was, and indeed still is, a tendency among the folks who cover baseball for a living to undervalue a New York Mets team, there was an equal willingness to look at a Dodgers team in the best light. But this wasn't the sort of juggernaut that the Dodgers are today, this Dodgers team featured a shaky starting rotation, good but not great offense, and less-than-stellar defense. There was a reason that they lost 9 more games than the Mets.

The series opened at Big Shea on Wednesday, October 4 at 4 PM. Despite all of the predictions of doom, the Mets faithful were there in force, trying to will their team to a playoff victory. Rookie John Maine took the hill in place of the injured El Duque and gave the crowd something to cheer about with a 1-2-3 top of the first. The Mets had a mild threat against Dodgers starter Derek Lowe in the bottom of the frame with two on and two outs, but David Wright grounded out to end that threat.

We Mets fans didn't know this right away, but the whole series likely turned on one play in the top of the second. Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew led off with singles, then Russell Martin hit a ball over Shawn Green's head in right. It seemed clear that the Dodgers would take the lead, but it didn't quite work out that way for them:

The Dodgers started off that inning with three straight hits and all they had to show for it was 2 outs and a man on second. They did get a run when former Met Marlon Anderson doubled home Martin, but Maine got out of the inning after intentionally walking number eight hitter Wilson Betemit and striking out Derek Lowe. Four hits and a walk were only good for a single run.

Maine settled down in the third with a 1-2-3 inning and, after a Jeff Kent leadoff single in the fourth, retired the side to keep the game 1-0. In the bottom of the fourth, the Mets drew blood with solo homer runs from Carlos Delgado and Cliff Floyd, despite the fact that the sinker-baller Lowe had only allowed 14 home runs during the regular season.

Maine allowed a leadoff single to Betemit in the top of the fifth. Lowe bunted him to second, then Maine walked Rafael Furcal. Manager Willie Randolph had seen enough from his rookie pitcher, bringing in reliever Pedro Feliciano to face Kenny Lofton. Feliciano struck him out and then was replaced by Chad Bradford, who enticed Nomar Garciaparra to ground out and end the threat. John Maine had done creditable work in his emergency start, now the game was in the hands of the Mets' strong bullpen.

Lowe set the Mets down in the fifth, then former Dodger Guillermo Mota set his old team down in the top of the sixth. The game headed into the bottom of the sixth with the Mets clinging to a 2-1 lead. David Wright doubled home Lo Duca and Delgado to up the lead to 4-1, but for some reason, Randolph elected to let Mota hit with the bases loaded and two outs rather than trying for a chance to pad the lead. Mota flew out, and I had a feeling watching that game that this would come back to bite them.

It happened in the very next half-inning. Three hits and a Jose Valentin error led to 3 Dodgers runs and, just like that, the game was tied 4-4.

Plenty of teams might have folded after seeing a lead built slowly against the Dodgers' ace handed back so quickly, but the 2006 Mets were resilient. The Dodgers elected to bring starting pitcher Brad Penny into the game in the bottom of the seventh, and the Mets regained the lead on RBI hits by Delgado and Wright. Aaron Heilman came in and retired the Dodgers in order in the top of the eighth, but then the Mets blew a golden opportunity to pad the lead against Jonathan Broxton in the bottom of the eighth, loading the bases with 2 outs. Broxton struck out Delgado to end the threat, leaving closer Billy Wagner to protect the 6-4 lead in the ninth.

Wagner made it interesting, allowing a leadoff double to Wilson Betemit. He retired pinch hitter Olmedo Saenz on a flyout, then struck out Rafael Furcal for the second out. Just as Mets fans were exhaling, pinch hitter Ramon Martinez doubled in Betemit, and the tying run was on second. With all of us Mets fans once again holding our breath, Wagner struck out Nomar Garciaparra to put an end to it. The Mets had defied all predictions and won a game that began with a rookie replacement facing off against the Dodgers ace.

The Mets won that game the same way they had won many games previously that season, by overcoming a disadvantage in starting pitching with an explosive and resilient offense and a pretty good bullpen. The pundits be damned, a team that was given almost no chance going in had struck the all-important first blow in the best of 5 series.

That will do it for today. We'll continue this tomorrow while we're waiting for Mets baseball to resume. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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