Previously: Part 1
On Sunday, August 5, 1973, the Mets were swept by the Cardinals in a doubleheader at Shea Stadium. The team was in last place, 11 and a half games out of first, with one third of the season remaining. It was about this time that M. Donald Grant decided to visit the clubhouse. Grant told the team that management was still proud of them and that the players needed only to believe in themselves. Tug McGraw immediately piped up in agreement, "Ya Gotta Believe!" Grant left the clubhouse, not sure if McGraw was mocking him or not, although McGraw insisted that it wasn't the case. And thus a legendary expression was born.
But did it really inspire the team to stop losing and start winning? It doesn't seem likely: the team actually fell to 13 games below .500 with a 9-0 loss in San Diego on August 15. A more telling stat: the Mets were 8 and a half games out at that point, meaning that they actually gained three games in the standings in ten days while going 4-5. More importantly, the team was starting to put its best players on the field by this time. Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote and Cleon Jones had returned from long stints on the DL. Jim Fregosi, unpopular for a) being traded for Nolan Ryan and b) playing terribly for a year and a half, was sold to Texas, giving the third base job to Wayne Garrett on a full time basis. Garrett responded by having his best season, leading all Mets hitters with a 4.1 rWAR. Adding these players to a lineup which already included John Milner at first, Felix Millan at second and Rusty Stub in right field added to the Mets offense. This is not to say it added a lot -- the team ended the season eleventh out of twelve teams in runs scored. But with their pitching staff, they didn't need all that much. Tom Seaver led the National League -- pitchers and position players -- with a 10.3 rWAR. Jerry Koosman contributed 5.5 and 4.1 rWAR, respectively -- good enough to be ranked among the league's top ten pitchers. George Stone, the fourth starter, and McGraw caught fire -- they would end the season with winning streaks of eight and five games, respectively. By August 31, they had escaped the cellar for good with a record of 62-71. As bad as that sounded, they were only five and a half games out of first in the mediocre NL East.
A few words need to be devoted at this time to why the Mets were so close while being nine games under .500 with a month to go in the season. In particular, this would be the only year in the period 1970-75 that the Pittsburgh Pirates did not win the division. What happened? In short, the Pirates lost because of a death and a birth. Roberto Clemente had been tragically killed in a plane accident in the off season while attempting to bring supplies to a post-earthquake Nicaragua. Clemente had a 3.7 rWAR in 1972. The team moved catcher Manny Sanguillen to right field to start the season but moved him back behind the plate by mid season. While Sanguillen had a 2.7 season, Milt May was 0.5 doing most of the catching in the first half. While it was better in the second half with other outfielders, it was still a substantial gap from what they had with Clemente. As for the birth, it was not a person, but a baseball catchphrase: Steve Blass Disease. Blass, the team's ace, was suddenly unable to throw strikes in spring training. Nothing worked, and Blass went from a 3.8 rWAR in 1972 to minus 4.1 in 1973 -- a loss of eight rWAR all by himself. In only 88.2 innings, Blass walked 84 and struck out only 27, while leading the league with twelve HBP.
In this atmosphere, the Mets were able to keep winning and closing the gap while the rest of the division kept beating up on each other. On Monday, September 17, the began an unusual five game series with the Pirates -- two games in Pittsburgh followed by three in New York. The Pirates were in first by a half game at 74-72. The Mets were fourth at 73-76, two and a half games out at first. The first 17 innings of the series were not good. The Pirates knocked out Seaver after three innings of the first game and won 10-3. The next night, Matlack was also knocked out after three innings and four runs allowed. Ray Sadecki and McGraw combined for 5 scoreless innings, but the Mets entered the top of the ninth trailing 4-1, and the season appeared to be slipping away. But the Mets rallied for five runs to take a 6-4 lead. Now manager Yogi Berra had a decision to make. He had pinch hit for McGraw and had to use most of the rest of his bullpen over the past two nights. Who was going to pitch the ninth? Yogi decided that it was time for a AAA callup named Bob Apodaca to make his major league debut with the season possibly on the line. Apodaca threw eight pitches -- all of them out of the strike zone. Having walked the the tying runs on board, Yogi came out faster than you can say Doug Sisk and replaced Apodaca with Buzz Capra. Capra walked two more men (one intentionally) but managed to retire the side and preserve 6-5 win. (This would be Apodaca's only game for the season. His ERA: infinity. Fortuantely, he would go on to retire many hitters from 1974 to '77.)
The teams resumed the series at Shea the next night. The Mets won that one 7-3 behind six innings from Stone and three from McGraw. Game four went to the thirteenth inning tied at 3, when some leftover 1969 magic took over. Richie Zisk, a lumbering power hitter (think Lucas Duda's upside) singled off Sadecki with one out. He was till on first with two out when Dave Augustine hit a long fly ball to left field. It looked like a go ahead home run. Somehow, the ball didn't quite get over the fence. Instead, it hit the top of the fence and caromed directly to Jones, who was waiting for the ball as if knew this was going to happen all along. Jones threw the ball to Garrett, who was playing shortstop after a double switch. Garrett fired home to catcher Ron Hodges, who was waiting for Zisk and applied the tag. This would become known as the Ball on the Wall Play.
Mets 1973 Ball on Wall Play (via TeddyOberman)
The bottom of the inning was almost anti-climactic. Hodges, who had made the tag in the top of the inning, singled home the winning run in the bottom of the inning. The final game of the series had no such drama. The Mets knocked out Blass in the first inning with four runs. (It would be Blass' final start of the season; he would pitch only one more game after that.) That would be more than enough for Seaver, who cruised to a complete game, 10-2 win. The victory finally and brought the Mets to .500 at 77-77. More importantly, they had moved past the Pirates and into first place by a half game. The old right field scoreboard at Shea spelled it out in its crude, huge letters: LOOK WHO'S NUMBER ONE.
The Mets would continue the homestand with two wins over St. Louis and one over Montreal to bring the win streak to seven before losing the home finale to the Expos on Wednesday, September 26. The season would end with four games in Chicago following a day off on Thursday. The Cubs were in fifth place, but only four games back and still mathematically alive. The Cardinals were hosting the last place Phillies , while the Expos were playing in Pittsburgh. The Pirates still had a rainout to make up at home against the Padres, should the game turn out to be necessary.
On Friday, it rained in Chicago. The season would end with back to back double headers.
On Saturday, it rained again. Even Ernie Banks wouldn't play a quadruple header in a Wrigley Field without lights. Sunday's doubleheader would be followed another on Monday, if necessary.
These were the NL East standings on the morning of Sunday, September 30 -- the day the season was originally scheduled to end:
- New York 80-78 .506 --
- St. Louis 80-81 .497 1.5
- Pittsburgh 79-81 .494 2.0
- Montreal 79-82 .491 2.5
- Chicago 76-82 .481 4.0
- Philadelphia 71-90 .441 10.5
Take a look at those standings. Now look at them again. You may never see this again -- the day the season was scheduled to end, only one team had been eliminated. Now try this scenario: the Cubs beat the Mets four straight over two days, the Phillies beat the Cardinals, the Expos beat the Pirates, and the Pirates beat the Padres on Monday. Five teams tied for first place at 80-82.
At 11 AM Central Time on Sunday, September 30 (the early time was in hopes of finishing two games before rain and/or darkness), the Met and Cubs finally began their series. Jon Matlack shut out the Cubs for seven innings. Unfortunately, Rick Reuschel and Bob Locker did not allow the Mets any runs either. Chicago got a run in the bottom of the eight thanks to a Ron Santo single off Matlack to win the opener 1-0.
In the second game, the Mets scored three times off Ferguson Jenkins in the top of the first. Koosman allowed two unearned runs in the second, but nothing after that. Jones homered, Staub drove in three, and the Mets won 7-2. the Mets had clinched at least a tie while simultaneously eliminating the Cubs. The Pirates beat the Expos, which eliminated Montreal. The Cardinals stayed alive with a win over the Phillies.
The standings at the end of the day:
- New York 81-79 .506 --
- St. Louis 81-81 .500 1.0
- Pittsburgh 80-81 .497 1.5
There could still be a three way tie if the Cubs swept the Mets and the Padres beat the Pirates. The Cardinals could do nothing except sit and wait.
Monday morning saw another 11 AM start, this time in the rain. In the second inning, Cleon Jones hit his second homer in as many games, and the Mets were ahead to stay. Seaver didn't have his best stuff but was leading 6-2 going into the bottom of the 7th. Rick Monday hit a two run homer in the bottom of the inning, and the Mets' lead, once 5-0, was now 6-4. Exit Seaver, enter McGraw. The Cubs would not seriously threaten again. In the bottom of the 9th, Ken Rudolph had an infield hit. Dave Rosello struck out. Glenn Beckert hit a soft line drive to first. John Milner caught it and stepped on first to complete the double play.
New York Mets' Bob Murphy Call of Mets 1973 East Clincher In Chicago! (via CourtsideTweets)
For the second time in their history, the New York Mets had won the National League East. With the division clinched and the rain continuing to come down, the nightcap was cancelled. The Pirates' game didn't matter; they lost to the Padres and future Met Randy Jones 4-3. Three teams (Cincinnati, Los Angeles and San Francisco) all had better records than the Mets' 82-79. Houston, fourth in the NL West at 82-80, was only a half game worse. But except for the Reds, they were all staying home. Instead, the Mets were going to Cincinnati for the NLCS.
I was beginning high school that fall. My bus route passed a bar on Francis Lewis Boulevard. The proprietor had replaced the usual message about Happy Hour on its marquee with the following words:
GOD IS A METS FAN.
By October 1, 1973, there were not many willing to take the opposing point of view.