Full disclose: I was at the game in 2015 when the Mets completed the sweep of the Nationals. It was the game we are all intimately familiar with by now. Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy, and Lucas Duda all blasted home runs in one inning to power the Mets to victory and send the Nationals packing with their tails between their legs. I have long maintained that the strikeout of Bryce Harper to end Noah Syndergaard’s dominant outing that night was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed on a baseball field. The crowd was in a frenzy all night long, just one long, extended party relishing in every strikeout and oddly showing some confidence that perhaps the tide was finally changing in our favor.
Fast forward four years and that feeling had long been lying dormant for the better part of three seasons. This season seemed destined for just another one of those seasons where all there is left to do is play out the string and plan for the next year. But then something funny happened. The Mets started winning. And winning. And winning. All of a sudden the number of teams ahead of them started dwindling and the team at the very top of the wild card standings was coming into town for a crucial three-game series: the very same Nationals from four years ago.
All day before the game I was nervous and anxious. If you told me I would be nervous for a game in August a month ago, I definitely would have questioned your sanity. My anxiety was also the first hint that the Mets were truly back. They were worth worrying about. They were playing in important games ,and that feeling alone meant the world.
To add to the drama, Marcus Stroman was making his debut in front of the home crowd. Right away, Mets fans showed their love by giving him a standing ovation as he was walking in from the bullpen after warming up. Stroman returned the love, a change from his rotation-mates who usually maintain a stoic, all-business demeanor before taking the mound.
As soon as Trea Turner was announced to start the game, the “Let’s Go Mets” chants started, and it reached a fever pitch pretty quickly. The playoff buzz reverberated throughout the stadium, and Pete Alonso clearly got into it as he was nodding along. Perhaps he got too amped up by the crowd since he got a bit too aggressive and dove for a ground ball that Joe Panik might have otherwise gotten. Turner reached base, which is never a good thing. Stroman worked around it and after a palpable nervousness went through the crowd, the righty from Long Island emphatically ended the inning with two strikeouts of the Nationals’ two most fearsome hitters: Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The crowd exploded.
Forget the final score and forget Stroman’s final line for a minute. Reader, he was magnetic. It was almost boring to see the Mets come out to hit, just something to get through until Stroman could come back out. The Stro Show was the main event and it was glorious. He fed off the crowd. The crowd fed off him. He was absolutely on the top of his game and played to the crowd perfectly. Every strikeout, the crowd got louder and louder.
Yes, he faltered in the fourth, but that was when the offense stole some of the spotlight. Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis went back-to-back against Stephen Strasburg to tie the game. Alonso’s was a clear shot right off the bat, but I lost sight of Davis’s. From the sound and the way the crowd reacted it was obvious. The game was tied.
It was clear from the first pitch this would not be an easy game, but it wasn’t expected to be. The crowd was tense and lived and died on every pitch. The home plate umpire’s every twitch was closely monitored as we waited with bated breath for the correct call and loudly told him if we disagreed. By the sixth inning, my back ached, my palms were sweaty, my throat was hoarse. I messaged my fellow Amazin’ Avenue writers and told them I don’t know how I am going to do this for another two months.
In the top of the sixth, Stroman was in trouble again. It started with a Soto double followed by another single Alonso didn’t let go through to Panik. Some doubt started to creep in at this point. As we all know, magic is just sleight of hand to trick your mind into believing the impossible is real. But somehow, some way, Stroman became Houdini. Todd Frazier first threw Soto out at home. Then Amed Rosario was perfectly placed and snagged a hard-hit liner for the second out. Finally, Stroman struck out Strasburg to end the inning without incurring any damage. The crowd erupted, and when I threw my head back in excitement, all I saw were raised arms in celebration all above me.
On to the bottom of the sixth, where the Mets also have first and third and nobody out. I start taking video, wanting to catch the crowd reaction should the Mets take the lead. The combination of Alonso, Davis, and Wilson Ramos did not put them ahead. I sheepishly put my phone back in my bag and thought, “welp, I’m not doing that again.”
When all was said and done, the Nationals’ taking the lead only set the stage for the drama later to come. The win wouldn’t have been as thrilling or as sweet without Rendon’s home run to give them the lead in the seventh. However, that doesn’t excuse Mickey Callaway for sending Stroman back out after the hard-working sixth. He could’ve left with the roar of the crowd behind him, exiting on a high note. Instead he left after a walk that scored on the home run.
Two runs loomed large, but three loomed even larger when Turner scored on a short passed ball. With the top of the Mets’ lineup not scoring in the bottom of the eighth, it seemed dire. The stadium deflated, and some headed for the exits. I was upset, obviously, but at the same time the team and the game were fun. They fought back. Stroman was electric. The crowd brought it. It was incredible to see just how quickly the life came back to Citi after it didn’t have much to cheer about in recent years.
I was thankful they were even in the race but I was still annoyed at the narratives to come. “They can’t beat a good team.” “It was all a mirage.” “Strasburg’s better.” They were in the game dammit, and they had mostly played well.
Never ones to leave a game early, we stayed wondering how the bottom of the lineup would fare against Sean Doolittle. J.D. Davis wasted no time hitting a double to start the inning, and the crowd once again started to stir. Ramos quickly followed with a single and the tying runs were on. Up comes Todd Frazier and the crowd comes to life once again hoping for, or perhaps willing, the magic that had been missing for far too long. The “Let’s Go Mets” chants were back in full force until one swing of the bat changed it into one collective roar. I went full on Grandpa Matz without even realizing it. Expletives included. The free shirt giveaways turned into makeshift rally towels all around the stadium. Everywhere there was jumping, screaming, hugging, and high-fiving of total strangers. Any way a person could lose their minds at a game, it was totally lost at that point.
As I sat back down my first thought was: “That passed ball looms large now. That should’ve been a walk-off.” All the credit in the world to Joe Panik, who was also making his debut for the Mets. He had a tough act to follow, but his single kept the rally going. He was erased by Juan Lagares’s failed bunt, but it was a crucial at-bat by the local kid.
Jeff McNeil had a tough game, and he hit a clear pop-up that drew quite a reaction from the crowd, myself included. At some point you start watching with your heart and not your head, just waiting for that last finishing touch. The finale to the magic show.
Rosario might get overlooked, but his single kept the inning going with two outs and moved Lagares into scoring position. That left it up to Michael Conforto, who had a two-strike count on him. Finally, he strikes. The ball is obviously well-hit, but Eaton is tracking it. Time freezes. We’ve been here before. The one where an outfielder makes a spectacular grab to end the rally a la Ender Inciarte. But Eaton pulls up and the ball actually drops. Improbably, the Mets win the ballgame.
Howie Rose called it “absolute pandemonium” at Citi Field, and it was. It wasn’t a sleight of hand after all. The magic, for one night, was back. Victory music was playing, but I have no clue what song it was. Nobody could hear it. Nobody heard what a shirtless Michael Conforto had to say post game either. The crowd reached its peak, and it was not slowing down. The celebration continued in the stairwells and in the parking lots as horns beeped out “Let’s Go Mets.”
It was August 9. It was not a playoff game, the Mets still were out of a Wild Card spot, and who knows if they will ever get one. It could end up meaning nothing, but it also means everything because sometimes, magic is real.