Saturday, May 7, 2022

The 0.2 Percent Solution

The Mets' win against the Phillies Thursday night was one for the ages. It reminded me of a win from almost 50 years earlier.

The New York Mets coming back from a 6-run deficit heading into the ninth was a truly historic victory. They matched a feat the club has only accomplished three times since it came into existence. The last time it happened was in 1997. Those Mets only managed to tie the game. It would take another couple of innings before they won the damn thing. They were the home team that night, so a Bernard Gilkey 3-run homer in the 11th was a walk-off game-winner.

The first time it happened was the day of my Grandmother's epic, "I told you so." That was back on July 17, 1973. As with Thursday's win in Philly, the Mets were the road team against the Braves. They went into the top of the ninth trailing Atlanta by the identical 7-1 deficit and scored 7 runs to grab the lead. While the Mets had their closer, Edwin Díaz, to close out Thursday night's win, that victory in 1973 was secured by a pitcher named Harry Parker, who only accumulated 12 saves over his entire MLB career.

Interestingly enough, Tug McGraw, the man who would become a legendary New York Met for closing games out with his screwball, had started that game for the Metropolitans. Tug was beaten up by the Braves to the tune of 6 runs in 6 innings. McGraw had been scuffling in relief that year, blowing 5 saves before the end of June. His ERA was a horrendous 6.17 after that outing. The Mets would give Tug another start against the Astros at the end of July. That one didn't go any better.

McGraw started turning his season around in August, then went on a terrific run, saving and winning games from late August through the end of the season. Tug kept screaming, "ya gotta believe," until belief became a reality. Those 1973 Mets, who managed to come back from the dead on that July evening in Atlanta, came back from last place to win the NL East. The 82-win Mets beat a heavily-favored Cincinnati club in the NLCS, then took the A's, one of the great dynasty clubs of the seventies, to a 7th game before succumbing in the World Series.

The victory over the Braves back in July 1973 seemed to give that Mets club some momentum. They were 12 games under .500 and dead last in the division standings. That historic win began a solid 6-3 stretch for the Mets that got them back to 9 games under. But then they dropped 4 in a row at the end of July, and very few Mets fans accepted McGraw's invitation to believe.

The Mets gave us all hope again with a 4-game win streak to begin August but then dashed the hopes of Mets fans by losing the following 3. Mets fans continued to teeter between hope and despair as the club maddeningly alternated positive stretches with losing. However, things were getting better. The 1973 Mets went 24-9 from August 27 through the end of the season, with Tug McGraw playing a huge role in the turnaround.

Harry Parker, the pitcher who saved that historic win, also had a fine season for those 1973 Mets. The promising 25-year-old righty appeared in 38 games that year, 9 as a starter and 29 in relief. He went 8-4 with 5 saves and a respectable 3.35 ERA. The following season didn't go quite as well for Parker. He started 16 times and relieved in 24 other contests. Parker's ERA ballooned to 3.92, and his record was a dismal 4-12 for a bad 91-loss team. He was even worse in 1975 and was waived by the Mets. Parker only pitched 25 more MLB innings for the Cardinals and Indians and was done at age 28.

Baseball-Reference has a page ranking historic comebacks by the direst Win Expectancy that the eventual winning team faced at one point in the game. By that metric, the Mets' biggest all-time comeback was on September 2, 1972, against the Astros. That Mets team was on the wrong end of an 8-0 score heading into the top of the 8th. The Mets proceeded to score 7 in the 8th and 4 more in the 9th to win the game. Brent Strom, now the 73-year-old pitching coach for the Diamondbacks, started that game. Strom went 0-3 for those Mets. It could have been 0-4 if not for Baseball-References' 17th best all-time comeback.

The next highest-ranked comeback, at #18, was the win over the Expos in 1997 referenced above. The triumph over Atlanta in 1973 came in at #54. Thursday night's win was #58. I know that I'll never forget this historic win.

There is a temptation to see such a great win as a building block of a great season. At least as far as the B-R rankings go, the results have been a bit mixed. That win in 1973 was a huge one for a team that struggled so greatly to score runs. Yet it wasn't until over a month later that the 1973 Mets found their magic.

The top-ranked Mets win in 1972 came for a third-place club that would finish the season still in third place. The 1997 win didn't propel that club to a championship. However, they did win 88 games after losing 91 the season before. It would take a couple of more years, but those Bobby Valentine-managed Mets would make some noise in the playoffs before slipping backward again in the early years of the new century. But even legendary wins guarantee a ball club nothing more than one more W in the ledger. Marking a remarkable comeback as a springboard for later success is always done in hindsight at the end of a great season.

This isn't to say that the incredible comeback isn't more significant than just another run-of-the-mill victory. I'm sure the Mets will take something out of Thursday night's win. As Buck Showalter said after the game, "a night like tonight makes you realize what could be." The Mets have shown that they can battle offensively and work pitchers. They'll never feel completely out of any game.

Successful baseball seasons are built with a series of building blocks throughout a long summer. The comeback wins against St. Louis and Philadelphia, and the combined no-hitter against those Phillies, are enormous contributions to the special season that seems to be building for the Mets this summer. The Mets look like a team that believes in itself, unlike other recent Mets seasons where the club seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. This Mets team has shown the personality of a hard-edged battler, scoring 7 in the ninth against the Phillies and 5 against the Cardinals in their earlier big comeback victory. We haven't seen that in a good many years.

At 19-9, the 2022 Mets are 10 games over .500, which is one short of the apex of their 2021 campaign. After winning three in a row over the Cubs last June 16, that Mets team's record improved to 36-25. They dropped the finale of that series the next day, going 41-60 the rest of the way. A lot went wrong for those Mets, but they also seemed to lack the leadership that this year's club enjoys. This year's offense needs to find more power, but their ability to string hits together is something the 2021 Mets sorely lacked.

By the way, one last indicator of the resilience of this year's Mets is their own ability to overcome a tough defeat. If you scroll down that Baseball-Reference Biggest Comeback Wins page to #101, you'll see that awful game on April 11 where relievers Trevor MayJoely Rodríguez, and Seth Lugo allowed the Phillies to score 5 runs in the bottom of the 8th, turning a 4-0 lead into a disheartening 5-4 defeat. The Phillies believed they had momentum heading into the final two games of that series, but the Mets won both of them behind Tylor Megill and Max Sherzer. This verified Earl Weaver's old adage that "momentum is only as good as the next day's starter." It also offered some early proof that Buck's 2022 Mets are resilient.

Please be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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