Diehard Mets fans know that you take nothing for granted when you face the Atlanta Braves. So many New Yorkers’ hearts have been broken over the years by that damn Georgia team that even with a rare 6-0 lead at the top of the ninth inning on Opening Day, you just can’t afford to relax, even if you’re among 44,384 of your closest friends at Citi Field—the second-largest regular season attendance in the ballpark’s history.
After all, the Braves had two men on base after Robert Gsellman came in to pitch the ninth and promptly gave up back-to-back hits to Mets’ nemesis Freddie Freeman and Matt Kemp before registering his first out. Fortunately, everybody could do the math—no matter how many beers drained on that beautiful spring afternoon—and it would take a lot more Braves on base to make the game close, but you still worry. It’s what you do.
So sitting up there in the stratosphere known as the Promenade Section with my Northport comrade, I was a little concerned when suddenly Brandon Phillips made contact and put the ball into play. Then something amazing happened—okay, it’s not that amazing, all things considered—and the Mets suddenly turned a double-play because Kemp had started heading for third by mistake when he should have remained on second.
Just like that, Opening Day 2017 was in the books. The players lined up on the infield and traded high-fives as they headed into the dugout. We fans dutifully headed down the stairs in jubilation, filling the stairwells with chants of “Let’s go Mets!” as we descended from our giddy heights to the ground level below.
On the first day of the season the Mets’ defense had prevailed, but so had the offense, in a great balancing act that portends all kinds of odds-defying omens, prefaced by the thundering dominance of the mighty Noah Syndergaard, the 24-year-old, 6-foot-6, 242-pound righty known as Thor. It was because of him that so many grown men at Citi Field were seen sporting Viking horns and carrying around Styrofoam hammers like some would-be Norse god.
On the mound Syndergaard looked like he was pitching from a mountain top in Asgard. He got seven strikeouts, gave up no walks and scattered five hits, including a triple. With command of his full repertoire, he seemed unstoppable. If a Braves hitter worked out a full-count, you knew that Thor would throw the hammer down and get the out he needed, even when runners were on the corners.
What we didn’t know until much later was that since the second inning he’d been battling a blood blister on the middle finger of his right hand. He seemed to pay it no mind, hurling 86 pitches through six innings. At that point, the game was scoreless because the Braves fidgety starter Julio Teheran, a string-bean of a young man who never looked comfortable on the mound, had dominated the Mets’ line-up, giving up a couple of hits to Mets’ unsung short-stop Asdrubal Cabrera and a single to the mighty Thor himself.
But it was the pitch selection of Syndergaard, the third youngest Opening Day starter in Mets history after Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver, that made him the most dazzling on Monday.
As the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner put it, Syndergaard’s “sinker—or two-seam fastball—veers sharply away from left-handed hitters at speeds few pitchers can reach with their four-seamers.” Newsday’s David Lennon described Thor’s repertoire thusly: “The 99-mph heat, the insane 94-mph slider, the drop-fade, 88-mph power change.”
“I like to say it’s controlled violence,” Syndergaard has reportedly said about his velocity.
The game had great pitching but also wonderful offense with a huge close play at the plate that involved arguably the Mets’ most popular utility player, Wilmer Flores, whose name echoed from fans in the stands when he came into the game. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Flores had reached on a force-out and then stole second. On first stood Jose Reyes, whose name also gets the crowd singing along whenever he’s announced. Reyes, playing third, was wearing a canary-yellow sleeve on his batting arm just like our multi-million-dollar left-fielder Yoenis Cespedes, who twice drove the ball to the warning track in deep center-field but not quite far enough to clear the yard. He will soon enough.
So up came Cabrera, who stroked a single that Braves’ center fielder Ender Inciarte grabbed off the grass. He fired a bullet to his catcher, Tyler Flowers, who faced Flores racing for home. Unlike last September when Flores foolishly slid head-first and wound up on the disabled list when the Mets made their Wild Card bid against the Giants, this time Flores slid like an obedient Little Leaguer, his front right foot bouncing on the plate right before Flowers (whose Spanish name would be Flores) could apply the tag.
But the umpire called out our Flores, outraging us all. Mets’ coach Terry Collins—now in his seventh season, bless him—challenged the call. As we watched the slide replayed on the giant video scoreboard, we knew he’d gotten it right and the umpire was wrong. Flores was really safe, and the Mets had established a 1-0 lead. From that humble beginning, the Mets sent five more batters to the plate—11 in all that inning.
Our inspiring center-fielder Curtis Granderson drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, doubling our score. When it was his turn, right-fielder Jay Bruce, looking a lot more relaxed at the plate than last year, earned a bases-loaded walk, making it 3-0. During the off season, the Mets had unsuccessfully tried to trade the dismal but highly paid Bruce, and whenever he came up to bat Monday, the crowd made his name sound very similar to boos. The guy sitting next to me, who’d come with his 25-year-old son from the far reaches of Westchester County, cracked us up when he loudly proclaimed: “Did you miss the public address system announcement that we should please refrain from throwing bottles and cans at Bruce just yet?” After all, it was Bruce’s 30th birthday so we cut him some slack, and appreciated all three of his walks during the game.
But whose bat would speak the loudest on Opening Day? That was the question. The answer proved to be another good sign of brighter days ahead—although let’s not jinx it. The big blast in the home opener came from Lukas Duda, the Mets’ quirky first baseman, who also has been known to disappoint us occasionally. He hit a double that cleared the bases.
And let’s not forget Cabrera, who went 3-for-5, reportedly the first Met to record three hits on Opening Day since Mets captain David Wright battled the Nationals on March 31, 2014. On this day, sadly, Wright watched from the dugout, nursing another possible career-ending injury, a cervical disc herniation, which will force him to recuperate in Florida as the team travels without him.
But we fans showered Wright with cheers when he stood with the team along the first base line for the pre-game introductions. Later we all got to greet Hall of Famer Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who looked rather snappy in a dark blue business suit as he presented a folded American flag to the veteran of the day in a ceremony by home plate. Social media circulated a nice photo of three Mets greats: Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and John Franco sharing a laugh—proving that the so-called feud between the two D’s was over. (It had begun after Strawberry had publicly accused Gooden of a drug relapse.)
Mets fans also showed some very impressive magnanimity—if I do say so myself—to a few former players now wearing Braves uniforms who joined their team along the third base line. A standing ovation greeted the great knuckle-ball thrower R.A. Dickey and everybody went hoarse cheering for our favorite big guy on the mound, Bartolo Colon. When he turns 44 in May, he’ll be the oldest active player in Major League Baseball. We don’t know what his earned run average will be this year, but we’ll never forget when he hit his first home run last year. Letting Colon leave Queens for a $12.5 million one-year contract with Atlanta seemed like a sensible move on the part of Mets’ ownership, given all the presumed riches on our pitching roster (not to mention the team’s record $154 million payroll).
But after the season opener, the normal sense of Mets fan dread is rearing its ugly head again. Will Syndergaard’s blister heal for good? Will Long Island’s own Steve Matz overcome his elbow inflammation? What about Seth Lugo, who’s got some serious elbow issues of his own? And for that matter, will the Mets’ Dark Knight, Matt Harvey, ever return to his lights-out form?
These are all valid worries, but we’ll save them for another day. After all, when you’re a Mets fan, you’re always thinking about tomorrow, if not waiting ’til next year.