It was supposed to be a midsummer peek at September, a four-game clash between the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Shea Stadium that would reveal who was destined to be master of the National League East. By late Monday night, after the Pirates averted a sweep by beating Doc Gooden in the last game, 7-2, the immediate issue had been settled three games to one in favor of New York, which led Pittsburgh by four games. Left unsettled, however, was the question that has been nagging New York for weeks: How solid are the Mets? And beyond the unmistakable substance of their pitching, what is real and what is mere illusion? Somehow that lead looked tenuous.
Just as pertinent in Pittsburgh—where, by the way, the two teams resume their rivalry in another four-game series this weekend—was the question of whether the very young Pirates (pitcher Bob Walk, at age 31, is the old man of the team) have the experience or the pitching to give the Mets serious chase in the final two months of the season.
The Mets, with their oddly hollow bats and their zombielike approach to the game, have become the most puzzling of major league teams. Last spring, remember, they were odds-on to win it all; they appeared to be a juggernaut. As things went during much of July, though, the Mets were more naught than jugger, especially with first baseman Keith Hernandez out of the lineup with a hamstring injury. They may have looked invincible in the first six weeks of the season—on May 24 their record was 30-12—but from that date to the eve of the Pittsburgh series, they had been 30-28 and had the look of a ball club as mediocre as those numbers.
The Pirates, meanwhile, with good pitching and hitting, had gone on a summer storm. Over one span in early July they clicked off nine straight victories, while the Mets obligingly fell into a swoon. On July 20, the Pirates were only a game behind, and the Mets' ticket-office switchboard was besieged by callers. In fact, the confrontation at Shea became the first four-game series to be sold out in advance in the franchise's history. The Pirates came strutting into town, eager to get on with it.
August 7, 1988
"I'm really pumped up," said Bobby Bonilla, the brawny, switch-hitting third baseman, all of 25 years old. "I've never been involved in something like this." Of course, the series also provided a grand forum for words of wisdom. Consider those from "Dandy" Andy Van Slyke, who not only is the best fielding centerfielder in the National League, but also has been having such an outstanding year at the plate that MVP talk has followed him everywhere. Before the first game, Van Slyke earnestly uttered the malapropism of the week: "If we go out and play the best baseball we can and don't beat ourselves and they still beat us—then we can hang our heads high."
Pirate heads were hanging high and low all weekend. They had come to town in a bit of a hitting funk—in truth, they could do very little with Dodger pitching in late July—and here they were in New York, about to face the best rotation in baseball, in this order: Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and Gooden. "We've never been in a spot like this," said Pirate catcher Mike LaValliere. "A split of the series would be fine for us."
That was not to be, and it soon became apparent why. The Mets are in first place because their starting rotation is the deepest in the game; that's what decided the series, just as it may ultimately decide the division race. In fact, with both teams slumping at the plate, pitching dominated the series on both sides. After the third game, a dejected Jim Leyland, the Pirate manager, said, "We're pitching good; they're pitching great. They're hitting a little; we're not hitting at all. That about sums it up."
For New York, the first three games were 1988 classics, each an example of what has lately become the Mets' two-step style of winning games: 1) pitch magnificently and 2) wait for one mighty swing of the bat.
In the opener on Friday, Ojeda baffled the Pirates with a thesaurus of pitches that skimmed the black. Pirate lefthander John Smiley threw brilliantly too, and the game was scoreless until the eighth. Then Mets shortstop Kevin Elster, of all people, mashed a Smiley changeup—"That was as hard as I could hit it"—into the leftfield bullpen. That was the only mistake Smiley made all evening. He lost 1-0.
That set the tone for the weekend. In Game 2 on Saturday, with Mets lefty Fernandez popping fastballs, the hapless Pirates could manage only four hits in seven innings, and none against lefty Randy Myers in two innings of relief. The game-winner this time was a home run by third baseman Howard Johnson in the fourth inning, and the Mets won 3-0. In the clubhouse after the game, the Pirates milled about in stony silence. Van Slyke, who struck out twice and popped up twice, looked stunned as he wandered across the room toward LaValliere's locker.
"You were horrible tonight," said LaValliere with a grin. "Just horrible."
Van Slyke smiled weakly and said, "I had a good last at bat."
"What?" asked the catcher, remembering the pop-up to second.
"I put the ball in play," said Van Slyke. That was an achievement against Fernandez, just as it was against righthander Darling in Sunday's game. The Pirates actually got on the board in the first inning—their first run at Shea in 38 consecutive innings—on two singles and a fielder's choice, but that was all they could squeeze out of Darling, who scattered six hits and got the requisite big swing in the bottom of the first. After Pirate starter Walk gave up a walk to Dave Magadan, Mets rightfielder Darryl Strawberry blasted a belt-high strike some 400 feet over the right centerfield fence. Final score: 2-1.
On Monday night, the Pirates' bats finally came awake. They picked apart a shaky Gooden and exploded for seven runs on 16 hits, including homers by LaValliere and Van Slyke. Meanwhile, the Mets filled their one-homer-per-game quota with a two-run shot to left by Strawberry, his 28th of the year. But they failed to take advantage of several opportunities to catch the Pirates.
The Mets have been comatose at the plate for so many weeks now that their pitchers have almost come to accept it. When the hitters hand them a run, they steal away with it like a dog protecting a bone. After Strawberry hit his two-run shot on Sunday, Darling said he just knew that the Mets were finished scoring and that he would have to make do with what Straw had given him. "You don't make many mistakes," said Darling. "You can't."
One basic flaw in the Mets is their palpable lack of emotion, their lifeless-ness. Except for the pitching staff, they are generally dull, uninspired and...well, boring. They miss the drive that former Mets Ray Knight and Kevin Mitchell provided in their championship season two years ago, not to mention the intensity and passion that Hernandez brings to the field.
Is anybody having fun out there? Outfielder Mookie Wilson has been playing as if he has lost interest in the game. Magadan has hit well in Hernandez's absence, but he doesn't have the skill or instinct to play first base on a major league level. Strawberry still plays the outfield with maddening nonchalance. The team is laid-back nearly to the point of lying down.
Take Kevin McReynolds. During spring training, outfielder Lenny Dykstra put a dead fish in the pant leg of McReynolds's uniform while it was hanging in his locker, then waited for the reaction. McReynolds simply picked up his pants, found the fish, removed it, dropped it in the trash and calmly finished dressing. That was it. Nothing more.
None of the Mets emote much, not even the once-ebullient catcher Gary Carter. Carter, 34, who's mired in a long ball-hitting slump, hasn't had much to get excited about.
Some Mets are hoping that the team will come alive again when Hernandez returns on Friday. "When he gets back in the middle of the lineup, we'll be a different offensive team," says Strawberry. "Keith makes things happen. He always has. The problem is that there has been no leadership out there."
The front office pooh-poohs the notion that the Mets are suffering because Hernandez has not been around. "To say that we got fiat due to his absence is a crutch," says Mets G.M. Frank Cashen. "It's a ready-made excuse."
For his part, Hernandez doesn't like to think his absence alone is the cause of the Mets' listless behavior. "I don't think one player should make that much difference," he says. "Suppose I come back and hit .450 and we do the same thing, play the same way. We'll find out, I guess." He shrugs. "We're not getting any clutch hits. When we get behind, we don't come back. We just lay down."
It remains to be seen if Hernandez can provide the emotional charge to drive the Mets through September. But he knows that's his mandate. "We need a spark, and I'm going to try to provide it," he says. "I'm going to try to be energy personified."