May 30, 2006


The Boys of Spring: They started fast, but are playing dangerous baseball. Can an un-Mets-like optimism and an unusual leader keep them amazin’ through the fall? (Chris Smith, New York)

Hang on tight. The Mets are turning yet another game into a blindfolded ride on the Cyclone. And it’s only the first inning.

In some ways, this is a relief. The Mets have won three of the past four games in ludicrously dramatic style. Friday night, they fell behind the Yankees and Randy Johnson 4-0 in the top of the first, rallied to tie the game in the third inning and then again in the fifth, and finally won it in the bottom of the ninth. Saturday afternoon brought a shocking, vomit-bag loss, with prized $43 million closer Billy Wagner coughing up a 4-0 advantage in the ninth. Sunday night, another early lead for the Yankees, another comeback Mets win on back-to-back homers. Monday was for sleep—luckily, because Tuesday night, the Mets spotted Philadelphia a four-run lead, tied the game on a two-run Jose Reyes homer in the eighth, and then, after nearly five and a half hours, won the marathon in the bottom of the sixteenth on a blast by Carlos Beltran.

Today, all that’s on the line is the lifelong dream of a Cuban émigré and the future of the Mets’ starting rotation. Alay Soler escaped Castro on a harrowing boat ride, then spent nearly two years trapped in bureaucratic visa hell. In the past six weeks, Soler has been on a vertigo-inducing rise from the minors to Shea Stadium. He’s today’s starting pitcher against the Phillies because the Mets, despite being in first place in the National League East, are desperate for someone competent to follow the geniuses Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine and give the brilliant-but-overworked bullpen a rest. The team’s success is as fragile as the chronically sore sesamoid bones in Martinez’s right big toe. And now the 26-year-old Soler appears to be on the verge of a heart attack. He’s walked the first three batters he’s faced in the big leagues.

Twenty years ago, Mets pitcher Jesse Orosco was seriously rattled. It was the sixteenth inning of an epic, playoff-series-turning battle with Houston. The Astros were teeing off on Orosco’s fastball and had the winning run on base when the emotional leader of the 1986 Mets, first-baseman Keith Hernandez, went to the mound. “Throw another fastball and I’m knocking you on your ass,” Hernandez said. Orosco threw six straight sliders to strike out Kevin Bass. Soon the Mets were spraying World Series champagne.

Today, Mets first-baseman Carlos Delgado goes to the mound. The Mets traded three prospects to the Florida Marlins for Delgado, eager to install the two-time All-Star power hitter in the middle of their batting order. And Delgado has delivered huge hits. But of equal value has been his leadership.

Now Delgado stands talking with Soler. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as they were in October 1986. But it is small moments like this, scattered throughout a long season, that build the camaraderie that is both overly mythologized and utterly necessary.

Of course, the slider was causing Orosco so much pain by that point in his career that Gary Carter wasn't calling for it. That Orosco, who was a real mess the next season, lasted another 16 years boggles the mind.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2006 3:59 PM

And Lastings Milledge -- aka "The Poor Man's Melky Cabrera" -- made his major league debut tonight, stroking a doulbe down the left field line in his last at-bat.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 31, 2006 3:18 AM

Jim - Posting on baseball? Shouldn't you be working on your World Cup brackets?

Posted by: Foos at May 31, 2006 10:57 AM