To the victor... (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
That the Mets are playing out the string at this point, rather than competing for a playoff spot, is not all that unusual based on recent history. What is out of the ordinary is the fact that they are in the position to play spoiler to other more fortunate teams. The last two seasons, as the Mets came to the end of September, they encountered virtually no opponents whose playoff chances they could damage in any appreciable way. The only exception was when they hosted the wild card-hopeful Braves for three games on September 17-19 last season, and made the least of the opportunity by allowing Atlanta to sweep.
This season, however, not only do the Mets have a chance to play spoiler, but they've already thrown a scare into one contender by taking two out of three in Atlanta last weekend. (It's remarkable in and of itself that the Mets would take a series at Turner Field when it mattered for either team.) They have the chance to do the same to the Cardinals when they begin a three-game series in St. Louis tonight.
It seems like it's been a while since the Mets have been in such a position, and in many intangible ways it is. But chronologically, it hasn't been that long since the Mets--despite being well out of the postseason hunt--ruined several teams' hopes two seasons in a row. Today, I'm going to look at the first instance, which occurred at the tail end of that completely unmagical season of 2004.That year, the Mets played host to the Chicago Cubs for a three-game set beginning on September 24. The Cubs took the first game 2-1 in 10 innings for their fourth win a row. That put Chicago 1.5 games ahead of the Giants for the wild card lead. The Mets, meanwhile, had absolutely nothing to play for, especially since it had already been revealed that manager Art Howe would not return the next season. Given their snakebitten history, I doubt the Cubs or their fans were feeling overconfident. (This was, after all, less than a year after Steve Bartman.) But I also doubt they counted on much resistance from the hapless Mets in the remaining two games.
Especially when Mark Prior pitched 7 2/3 stellar innings in game two, keeping the Mets off the board and limiting them to just four hits. The stands contained more than a few Cubs fans, and though Shea did not resemble Wrigley Field in any visual aspect, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were playing in Chicago if you were simply listening to crowd reaction. Ryan Dempster, who relieved Prior in the eighth, stayed on in the ninth to protect a 3-0 lead. He struck out Todd Zeile to start things off, but then inexplicably walked Eric Valent and Jason Phillips to bring the tying run to the plate.
Dusty Baker called on LaTroy Hawkins to clean up Dempster's mess, and the closer induced a fly out from Jeff Keppinger to bring the Mets to their final out. That brought up Victor Diaz to the plate, the young outfielder dubbed Mini Manny for his supposed resemblance to Manny Ramirez. In retrospect, they were only similar in their lackadaisical approach to fielding and conditioning. In this instance, however, Mini Manny managed a Manny-like swing. With the Mets down to their last strike, Diaz belted a 2-2 Hawkins offering into the Mets' bullpen for a game-tying three-run homer. Ironically--perhaps bitterly ironically--Diaz had grown up in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs as a kid. He was visiting family in the Windy City a few weeks prior when he got the call to the big leagues. "I grew up a Cubs fan and to do that against this team, it's good," he said, in words that I'm sure made other Cubs fans feel quite good for him.
The Cubs would get runners in scoring position in the 10th and 11th innings, but were thwarted each time by a Mets bullpen that could be charitably described as inconsistent. Chicago would get no more chances, thanks to September callup Craig Brazell, who homered off of veteran reliever Kent Mercker leading off the bottom of the 11th to give the Mets an improbable 4-3 walkoff win.
Brazell spoke to reporters afterwards as he, in the words of The New York Times, "was trying to clear out his ears, nose and mouth after teammates twice hit him in the face with a towel full of shaving cream, a major league ritual." (Noted for those who believe the Yankees originated this ritual.) This was Brazell's first major league home run, and also his last; after this September stint with the Mets, he wouldn't return to the majors until 2007, when he lodged four at bats for the Royals and was never seen again.
The finale was even more galling to the Cubs, if that were possible. With ace Kerry Wood on the mound, they had every reason to expect a victory against a Mets lineup comprised largely of September callups, rookies, and other inexperienced hitters. Instead, Wood started things off on the wrong foot in the bottom of the first by walking Jose Reyes, who had just been activated off the DL following a leg fracture. Reyes showed he was fully recovered by stealing second and scoring on a Kaz Matsui single.
Rookie David Wright grounded into a double play, but Wood placed himself right back into trouble by allowing singles to Brazell and Diaz. He then hit Valent to load the bases, hit Phillips to drive in a run, and issued a walk to Gerald "Ice" Williams to force in another. Wood settled in thereafter, stifling the Mets over the next six innings, but he'd already allowed too much.
Gift-wrapped a 3-0 lead, the Mets held on for dear life. Al Leiter, the 38-year-old southpaw who hadn't earned a W since August 14, managed to limit the Cubs to one two-run outburst in six innings pitched. They threatened the lefty several times, but Leiter wriggled off the hook more than once; the fifth inning was especially frustrating, as the Cubs loaded the bases, only to see Moises Alou take a called strike three to end a potential rally. Once Leiter took his exit, the closest the Cubs came to tying things up came in the top of the seventh, when Corey Patterson hit a one out single against lefty reliever Mike Stanton. Patterson undid his good work by getting picked off of first base, and the Cubs went down in order against Tyler Yates and Braden Looper, who didn't have too many 1-2-3 innings on their resumes.
Leiter attributed the win to something that had been missing from Shea virtually all year: excitement. "The atmosphere here this weekend was exciting," he said. "There were a lot of Cub fans. I don't know if they flew up from Chicago. I don't think there's a lot of Cub fans here in Manhattan or New York. It feels good when you play well against a playoff team, but nothing about trying to ruin their chances."
It didn't save Art Howe's job (thank god), and it didn't mean much of anything to the Mets in the grand scheme of things. But it meant a whole lot to Chicago, who completely unraveled in the wake of these crushing losses. The left New York with a slim half-game lead in the wild card standings, but it seemed only a matter of time before that would be gone. To lose two out of three to the miserable Mets, something cosmic and sinister had to be at work against them. Alou, called out on strikes twice by home plate umpire Bill Miller, reflected the haunted feeling of the team when he accused the arbiters of being out to get him.
The Cubs won just two of their remaining seven games against the Reds and Braves. A five-game losing streak allowed the red-hot Astros (powered by trade deadline pickup Carlos Beltran) to leapfrog them in the wild card race. Chicago finished three games out, and the Mets series was seen as the catalyst for their downward spiral. They would pay back the Mets from a different position in 2008, when they came to Shea having already clinched the NL Central yet still managed to split a four-game series, including a few extra inning crushers. But hey, we don't have to talk about that, do we?