NEW YORK — On Monday afternoon, someone asked Don Mattingly why he had not written the name of Chase Utley, the owner of a .333 batting average and a .984 OPS against Mets starter Matt Harvey, into the Dodgers’ starting lineup for Game 3 of the NLDS.
“Baseball reasons,” the Dodgers manager replied.
Was that really it?
“Baseball reasons,” he repeated.
The fans in Citi Field were disappointed not to see the Dodgers’ second baseman take the field on Monday, and they let both him and his manager know it. “We want Utley!” they chanted, again and again, for much of the night. “We want Utley!” They wanted him not for the chance to welcome the longtime Phillie back to Queens, but so that they could see vengeance taken against him, medievally, before their eyes.
Two days before, of course, Utley had broken shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg on a vicious takeout slide in Game 2. Mets fans were sure that had Utley appeared, he would not have had the chance to improve his numbers against Harvey, as it’s difficult to up your batting average against a fastball buried in your thorax.
Although Utley was booed lustily during pregame introductions—and Tejada, who dramatically limped out leaning on a striped cane and wearing an orthopedic boot on his leg, was cheered just as hard—Mattingly declined to put him in the batter’s box. Baseball reasons. And, truth be told, the bloodthirsty cheers for him had all but died out by game’s end. That was because the Mets had provided the only type of baseball revenge that’s more satisfying than a beanball: a thorough, 13–7 thrashing, one that left them with a 2–1 series lead and just one win away from the NLCS.
On Sunday, Harvey had intimated that he might seek retribution for his crippled shortstop. “As far as sticking up for your teammates, I think being out there and doing what’s right is exactly what I’m going to do,” he said, both cryptically and ominously. But Harvey didn’t throw at anyone during Game 3. “For us, it was go out there and let our play do all the talking,” he would explain. Harvey’s own play spoke of mediocrity, by his standards. He allowed the Dodgers to score the game’s first three runs, on four straight singles in the second inning, and he never looked quite comfortable on a night on which he lasted five innings and yielded seven hits and two walks against seven strikeouts.
“You know, I’ve seen the guy pitch a lot of baseball games, and he worked harder tonight to give us five quality innings than I have seen him work at any time at any start,” manager Terry Collins said. “He didn’t have his good stuff.”
Still, when Harvey departed after the fifth, the win was already assured. The Mets led 10–3 at that point, well on their way to setting a franchise record for runs in a postseason game. Against starter Brett Anderson and a parade of six relievers they showed how they had transformed, starting at the beginning of August, from the National League’s worst offense into its best. Yoenis Cespedes, who continues to prove himself the Platonic ideal of a trade-deadline acquisition, went 3-for-5 with a long three-run home run. Travis d’Arnaud, the catcher who spent the entirety of May, much of June and then almost all of July on the disabled list, also went 3-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs.
But the key man for the Mets’ offense, and the leading force in their drive for on-field retribution, was the player who was their lineup’s most consistent, and perhaps most underrated, presence during the regular season. He was Curtis Granderson, the rightfielder and leadoff man. As the Mets’ offense found itself unusually hampered by injury this season, and then saw an influx of new faces in late July, Granderson was always there, playing in 157 games, batting .259 with 26 homers and 70 RBIs and generally acting as a pest to opponents.
“He can probably grind out an at-bat as good as anyone in baseball,” a Dodgers official noted earlier this series. He had in Game 1, drawing the crucial seven-pitch, two-out walk that knocked out Clayton Kershaw in the seventh inning, loaded the bases and set up the Mets’ win.
Granderson was again at the center of things in Game 3. The Mets opened the bottom of the second with four straight singles, just as the Dodgers had in the top of the frame. But they’d only scored one run, and the bases were loaded with two outs when Granderson stepped to the plate.
Granderson might be known for his patience, but in this case he took a rip at the first pitch he saw—a 92-mph fastball from Anderson—and drove it to the wall in left center for a bases-clearing double, and a lead that the Mets would never relinquish.
“That swing right there, on an 0–0 heater, really gave our fans something to cheer about,” said second baseman Daniel Murphy. “I thought it was massive. I thought it was absolutely massive. Grandy’s swing allowed us to capitalize off of all the good at-bats we’d already had. I thought it was the biggest swing of the game, personally.”
It was, in fact, the biggest swing of a big-swing game, one that had hours before officially became a must-win. Before Game 3, and even before Alex Wood got pummeled for four runs over two innings in relief of Anderson, Mattingly had announced that Kershaw, and not Wood, would be starting Tuesday night’s Game 4, meaning that Zack Greinke would start Game 5. Yes, Kershaw would be pitching on three days’ rest; yes, his playoff resume is strangely unimpressive (1–6, 4.99 ERA); and yes, the Mets beat him on Friday. But he is still Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, as Granderson noted: “Regardless of what anyone says in terms of coming out on a short rest, or after his last outing: that’s Clayton Kershaw.”
By the top of the ninth inning, during which the Dodgers scored three runs against Erik Goeddel, the last man in the Mets’ bullpen, to make the final score unreflective of just how lopsided the game was, one fan still wanted blood.
“Where the f--- is Utley?” he slurred loudly. With Game 3 locked up, and with the Mets still needing to beat one of the Dodgers’ two Cy Young candidates to reach the NLCS, it didn’t seem like it mattered any more.