8:30 am Apr. 6, 2012
Nobody does Opening Day like the New York Mets.
The franchise moved to 33-18 in openers with a 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday afternoon at Citi Field. That record includes an 0-8 start to openers for the franchise from 1962-1969, meaning that the Mets are 33-10 on Opening Day since 1970, a period that hasn't coincided with a ton of success in the days of the season that follow.
It would be lovely to infuse Johan Santana's start, David Wright's R.B.I. single that gave New York the only run of the game, and even the dominance of the team's revamped bullpen with the significance of an omen.
But on Day One, everyone is a star in blue and orange. Everyone remembers Gary Carter's game-winning Opening Day home run in 1985, signalling the arrival of a new star. Carter, who died this winter and is as meaningful a Met as anyone this side of Tom Seaver, was honored before the game.
But Bobby Bonilla, too, was a star in Opening Day for the Mets back in 1992, with two home runs in his Mets debut back in 1992. Kaz Matsui actually hit a home run on the first pitch he saw as a Met back in 2004, reaching base five times in his debut. Neither player, nor the seasons they began so well, are remembered fondly.
So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the Citi Field crowd was in wait-and-see mode all afternoon. The Mets went to great lengths to fill the park— never mind that the real issue isn't whether the team sells out Opening Day, but how difficult the task was bodes for the team's other 80 home dates. So perhaps it was simply a group of fans who hadn't necessarily been planning all winter to come out to Citi Field.
But while many of the villains, and the lustful boos they engendered, have diappeared—Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo are former Mets, and the only real fan target at this point is Jason Bay— so, too, are the fan favorites. David Wright's cheers have always been matched in years past by those for Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado, and paled in comparison to Jose Reyes. The players each had their own centers of gravity within the clubhouse, too, drawing groups of reporters in various directions.
But David Wright was the feature attraction following the game, ready with his time-tested array of seemingly focus-tested answers to reporter questions.
"A win's a win, and we'll take it," Wright calmly told the assembled group, standing at his locker in a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Wreak Havoc."
"Obviously, the fashion that we won it, Johan pitching as well as he did, the bullpen coming in when they did, we get a few timely hits here or there, I think that was big for us," he said.
If the Mets are to perform better than expected this season, they will have a healthy dose of what the team received from a number of players on Thursday. Foremost was Santana, whose performance made it easy to forget that he's less than two years removed from complicated shoulder surgery. But to expect the Santana of old to return, immediately and consistently, is unfair.
Santana had the Atlanta hitters guessing wrong all afternoon, striking out five hitters, allowing two hits and not walking anyone through 4 2/3 innings. He had Braves batters swinging over his slider and changeup, and coming in late on his fastball, even though his velocity of around 87-88 miles per hour was down slightly from his pre-surgery norm.
He clearly tired around then, walking light-hitting Tyler Pastornicky and, incredibly, pitcher Tommy Hanson, before rallying to induce a comebacker from Michael Bourn. Terry Collins wisely pulled him at that point. Though he didn't get the win, Santana's outing made him look like a legitimate ace, just like he was before the injury.
But he can't be the same, any more than Tom Seaver could back on Opening Day 1983. Seaver made his return to the Mets six years after getting traded, and pitched six shutout innings, earning a no-decision in a 2-0 Mets win at Shea Stadium. But Seaver, 38, was only able to muster his previous dominance in bursts, and pitched to a pedestrian 3.55 ERA for a Mets team that finished 68-94.
This is how Mets Opening Day can fool you.
Santana knows. From his perspective, the real test comes not from his performance Thursday, but how quickly he is ready to do it again.
"I'm happy," Santana said, channeling Mets fans everywhere in a Gary Carter memorial t-shirt as he discussed his outing from the media room podium. "The way everything ended up, I think, finally, I had an opportunity to go out there in a game that counts. I'm still working, we're trying to be very careful. I'm able to throw all my pitches, and as I go out there, and do it more times, it should get better."
"Going back to what I used to be, it was a great feeling," Santana said, smiling. But reality seemed to intrude on the moment for him, as he added, "Now we're getting to that recovery time for my outing. We'll see how that goes."
The bullpen took it from there, pitching four shutout innings. They protected a lead the Mets built in the bottom of the sixth when Andres Torres walked, Daniel Murphy singled him to third, and David Wright lashed a single to left field that scored Torres. Despite the middle of the order coming up with nobody out, the Mets only plated that lone run.
It all seemed about to come apart the next inning, when Atlanta's Pastornicky tripled to right-center. The ball normally would have been cut off, but Torres re-injured the calf that kept him out of spring training games for several weeks, and had to come out of the game. He'll be heading to the disabled list, an immediate test of New York's shallow bench.
Tim Byrdak, just over three weeks removed from knee surgery, entered and struck out Jose Constanza, when just a fly ball would have tied the score. He then struck out Michael Bourn to end the inning, and a Citi Field crowd that had been politely cheering got a little louder. Jon Rauch pitched a perfect eighth, and Frank Francisco earned his first save as a Met with a perfect ninth.
The performances were reminiscent of Billy Wagner, who blew away the Nationals in the ninth inning of Opening Day 2006 in a 3-2 Mets win, setting the stage for his truly dominant first year in New York. It also served a a reminder of Mel Rojas's two scoreless innings in New York's 1-0 win over the Phillies on Opening Day 1998, setting the stage for Rojas's 6.05 ERA and one of the worst reliever seasons any Met ever had.
Still, when Francisco punched out Jason Heyward to end the game, an honest-to-goodness roar came from a crowd that had risen collectively for the first time all afternoon. Tens of thousands of Mets fans went home happy. Whether they return, and whether the Mets will make them happy again if they do, is a concern for another day.