The Montreal expos began their visit to New York City last weekend with all the bright expectations of a confident first-place club. By Sunday night the trip had turned into a nightmare far, far worse than Jason taking Manhattan. Horror of horrors, before the Expos' very eyes the Mets had risen from the grave at Shea Stadium, clawing their way back into contention just when it looked as if Montreal was ready to slam down the lid of the coffin.
With dramatic come-from-behind wins on Saturday and Sunday, the Mets completed a back-from-the-beyond sweep of Montreal and sent a shiver through the entire National League East. The Expos, with the three defeats at Shea, were dragged into a tie for first with the Cubs; sitting four games back were St. Louis—and the dread Mets.
For New York, the ministreak redeemed some lost souls: Righthander Ron Darling finally came up with some numbers to his liking. Outfielder Kevin McReynolds finally threw all of his well-chronicled weight around. Slugger Darryl Strawberry finally delivered in a pinch. And shortstop Kevin Elster finally contributed some hitting that was as valuable as his fielding. All of which was a little ominous for the rest of the league. "I believe, deep down, teams are watching us," said Mets third baseman Howard Johnson. "They might not admit it, but we're the ones they all look at."
Hampered by injuries and revamped by trades, this had been a club of fits and starts. Or make that fists from the start: In March, on the usually congenial occasion of team photo day, Strawberry and first baseman Keith Hernandez came to blows. Second baseman Gregg Jefferies, everybody's favorite phenom, floundered from the outset. In July, New York followed a six-game winning streak with seven straight losses. "All year, what we've expected to happen hasn't happened," said catcher Barry Lyons before the series. "It's been a struggle since the first day of spring training."
No win could have made that struggle more worthwhile than the one on Saturday night, when the Mets were forced to call on every measure of their reserve. Darling, especially, pulled out all the stops. He entered the game with an uncharacteristic 8-9 record and a pair of unfamiliar digits on his jersey—15. "Number 12 really hasn't been showing up this year," said Darling, "so I thought I'd try another number." Number 15 went the distance in the dripping heat, relying on his fastball, scattering six hits and toweling off with ammonia water in the dugout to help invigorate himself.
But through the first seven innings, Expo lefthander Mark Langston, sticking by his number 12, was more than Darling's match. He checked the Mets on six hits, one of them a McReynolds homer to lead off the second, and was grittily protecting a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, and Elster on second and Juan Samuel on first, Langston locked the Mets MVP candidate, Johnson, into a crucial power struggle. Johnson, whom the Mets had unsuccessfully tried to deal for Langston before Montreal plucked the pitcher from Seattle in May, fouled off six pitches to every possible compass point before grounding out to first on Langston's 135th pitch of the game.
"I'm sure he worked more than he wanted to," said Johnson, "because I know I did." Said Langston, "He basically stuck a fork in me. After that, I was done."
Indeed he was, and soon some other maligned Mets sprang to life. McReynolds greeted reliever Tim Burke with a single to start the eighth. Just four days before, McReynolds had hit for the cycle, but he had decided not to share the moment with the New York media. McReynolds is known as K-Mac to his teammates, but some scribes had taken to calling him Mary Kay Mac because, despite his .285 average, most of his hits seemed cosmetic. A few had also made an issue in print of McReynolds's chunky frame, though Mets trainer Steve Garland said McReynolds's 224 pounds were only four more than his heft of a year ago. Deciding to address the press once again last Wednesday, K-Mac was mean, if not lean: "It's like, 'Country boy signs big contract, gets fat.' That's a bunch of——."
With one out and McReynolds on first, up stepped Strawberry, whose recent 8-for-48 skid had dropped his average to .229. Manager Davey Johnson had rested him against Langston, saying, "I think he's on his way back. But this guy here could put him back in a slump." Pinch-hitting against Burke, however, Strawberry stroked an opposite-field double to tie the game. Like McReynolds, he, too, was in a less than talkative frame of mind, telling one reporter in a less than hospitable way last Friday, "Stay away from my locker." Said Darling of his friend, "If anything, the problem he suffers from is trying too hard."
Finally, Elster smacked a two-out single to drive home Strawberry and send 46,175 fans into delirium. Earlier this season, Elster set a major league record by fielding 88 consecutive games at short without an error, but his .200 average had put his playing time in jeopardy. Hearing about his woes every day had only made it tougher. "The power of the press is absolute, especially in this town," Elster said in the clubhouse. "Just ask number 9 [Jefferies] over there. You could write songs about it."
In Sunday's finale the same cast of rejuvenated heroes stepped forth for the Mets. In a four-hour, 55-minute, 14-inning drama, Strawberry tied the game 1-1 in the seventh with a titanic homer off Kevin Gross, and McReynolds won it 2-1 when he launched a Steve Frey fastball into the leftfield seats to start the 14th. Afterward, K-Mac was practically chatty. "Just another day at the office," he said. Straw, meanwhile, wasn't stirring, so HoJo spoke for him: "I tell him he can have a big August and September, and that'll be like a whole season."
The Mets' sweep came against a team that parlays some of the same elements that have made the Mets so successful the past five years. The Expos arrived at Shea with the league's foremost starting rotation, a balanced bullpen, a hungry cast of extras and a dependable everyday lineup with platoons at second base and centerfield. And while they may not have had the swagger of the Mets of old, some of the Expos were talking like they were the team to beat. "As long as we play our game, continue to get good pitching, timely hitting and good defense, we don't think anyone can stop us," said Montreal outfielder Tim Raines. "We have a solid ball club, and we're impressed with ourselves. If people want to talk about the Mets, let them talk about the Mets."
It has been hard to know just whom to talk about in New York. In 109 games, the Mets have used 85 different lineups. Injuries have rendered Hernandez and catcher Gary Carter, the team's co-captains, mere shadow players. And New York was dealt a more crippling blow on July 2, when 24-year-old Dwight (Doc) Gooden went on the disabled list with a torn muscle in his right shoulder. In his six seasons with the Mets, Gooden has been the essence of a stopper: He has never had a losing record and never dropped three straight decisions. Two hours before Friday night's game, the team announced that Doc was out of operation for at least another month—two weeks of soft-tossing, and two more to strengthen the shoulder if it has properly healed. "Obviously, we were hoping for a clean bill of health." said Davey Johnson. "We didn't get one."
In response to the injuries and with an eye to rebuilding, the Mets have maneuvered. On June 18 the Mets packaged outfielder Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell for Philadelphia centerfielder Juan Samuel. Then one minute before the interleague trading deadline on July 31. New York picked up '88 Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola from Minnesota for righthander Rick Aguilera, lefty David West and three minor league arms. Along the way, the Mets unloaded their two veteran bench players, Mookie Wilson and Lee Mazzilli.
This fast shuffle had New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica casting comparative glances from Queens to the Bronx and shaking his head in puzzlement. "[The Mets] don't know any more. They guess," Lupica wrote last Wednesday. "Trade the farm, but make today better. Do a Steinbrenner thing." Comparing Mets management with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's leadership is a good way to raise the temperature in the upstairs offices at Shea. "You can sit by and say this isn't our year, but we took the offensive and tried to be aggressive," says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets vice-president of baseball operations. "We had to make some moves—the players expected it and they were playing tentatively, waiting for something to happen. Look at the ages of this team. How many players on the field [last Friday] are over 30? One. Bob Ojeda. If that's Steinbrennerism, then I don't know what I'm talking about."
In his debut last week in St. Louis, Viola picked up for Gooden by beating the Cardinals 4-3. In the clubhouse, he was naturally drawn to Gooden's cubicle, with number 16 on it, the number Viola wore with the Twins but will wear no longer. "I already put my stuff in Dwight's locker," said Viola, now number 26. "Just by accident." His mistake pointed up the fact that before their biggest series of the season, the Mets were playing musical lockers. "I guess this is a team in transition," said Carter, Said Elster, "This is not the time to figure out personalities. These new guys could be crazed ax murderers, but it won't matter as long as we keep winning."
In the opener against the Expos on Friday, the Mets won their old-fashioned way: with solid starting pitching—in this case, from Ojeda—and with power. Johnson led the 11-5 slugfest in the first with a three-run blast off starter Bryn Smith. Samuel later added a two-run homer; Elster, a solo shot. The homer was Johnson's 27th, and with his 31 steals he is closing in on the 30-30 mark for the second time in his career. He has emerged as something of a team spokesman, too—maybe because he is one of the few Mets who speaks. "We can't play laid-back anymore," Johnson said. "If we have the lead, we have the hammer. We should be aggressive."
Expo manager Buck Rodgers tried to keep his club loose. In the ninth inning on Friday, he pinch-hit with relief pitcher Zane Smith, who doubled. "It was one of those nights when you try to have as much fun as you can while you're getting your hind ends kicked in," Rodgers said.
But by Sunday night, fun was clearly the province of the Mets. "We'll see how Montreal responds," said HoJo. "I don't think it was as devastating to them as it was an upper for us." Added Davey Johnson, "We've had to find a new identity. We finally did." He might as well have put on a hockey mask.