The Mets are just having a miserable season, but of course I can’t keep away — and I’m teaching my younger guy how to keep score — so we strapped in today to watch Pedro Martinez come back for the rival Phillies (UGH) to pitch against his old mates. Naturally, it was another excruciating loss for the home-team, Phils 9 – Mets 7. But it also showed, yet again, why baseball is the greatest game ever invented. No matter how many decades you watch the game, you can see something you’ve never seen before.
Today, we had a Met starter, Oliver Perez, who appeared to have pretty good stuff but couldn’t get out of the first inning. The Phillies’ disciplined hitters fouled off great pitch after pitch until the frustrated Ollie, having thrown over 30 pitches without getting anyone out, yielded a three-run homer. Perez is a great talent but very immature, and he had the predictable meltdown after that, giving up yet another a three-run homer four batters later. When the great Pedro came to bat to a pretty good ovation, the wheels came off: Ollie ran the count to 3–0 and the Mets’ manager, Jerry Manuel decided he’d seen enough, yanking him in the middle of the opposing pitcher’s at-bat — a real embarrassment given Pedro’s lifetime .099 batting average.
The Mets could have quit, but they fought back. Their turn at bat in the first inning even featured an inside-the-park home-run by speedy Angel Pagan . . . because the Phils’ usually excellent centerfielder, Shane Victorino, misunderstood a ground-rule in the new Citifield: He thought balls stuck in the crevice beneath the wall-padding were automatic doubles because that’s the rule in Philly; but in Citifield, where the crevice is tiny and the ball doesn’t really get stuck, it’s a live play — the fielder is expected to pick the ball up and throw it in; so Pagan motored around the bases while Victorino just stood there over the ball.
Just to prove he’s no slouch, a couple of innings later, Pagan hit a conventional home-run to the deepest part of the new ballpark. Not to be outdone, Pedro — the weak-hitting three-time Cy Young winner — smacked a single with the bases loaded for the 18th run-batted-in of his 18-year career.
I could go on and on, it was that nutty a game. But the truly unbelievable part was the ninth inning.
Down 9–6, the Mets began to rally again. Pagan smashed a grounder over the bag at first. The Phils’ Ryan Howard — a great power-hitter who is a much improved first-sacker — was hugging the line, but the ball fired through his legs for a three-base error. The Mets’ Luis Castillo then bounced a ball to second. Ordinarily, Philly’s best player, Chase Utley, would be there to eat it up. But he had been given the day off in favor of an unknown, journeyman infielder named Eric Bruntlett. Playing for only the 15th time this season, Bruntlett had entered the game batting a miserable .123. But, this being baseball, he had had the dream game of his life to that point — getting hits in first three at-bats and later making a tremendous bare-hand play on a bunt that should have been a hit. Yet now, finally, it seemed that the clock had struck midnight. Bruntlett booted Castillo’s grounder, and Pagan scored. Then on the very next play, Bruntlett couldn’t handle Met firstbaseman Daniel Murphy’s sharp grounder up the middle. Though he wasn’t charged with an error, you know every Phillie fan was muttering to himself, ”Utley makes that play.”
So it seemed the Mets were in business. Funny thing, though: A minute earlier, before Bruntleff failed to field Murphy’s hot-shot, my baseball-nut almost 7-year-old asked me whether Castillo — who already had three hits and two stolen bases on the day — should try to steal second again. I patiently explained, “No, pal. It’s the ninth inning and we’re down two. You don’t want to run yourself out of the game — and if Castillo gets thrown out trying to steal, we’re toast.” Any experienced baseball guy knows that, right?
Well, astoundingly, down 9–7 with men on first and second, nobody out, manager Jerry Manuel had both runners take off on a pitch to Jeff Francoeur, the best power-hitter in the Mets’ injury-decimated line-up.
Francoeur swung hard and ripped a line drive up the middle — for an instant, the miracle comeback against the hated Phils was on! But, because the baserunners were trying to steal, Bruntlett had broken for second-base to cover the bag in case there was a play on Murphy. By sheer luck, that left him perfectly positioned to snare Francoeur’s screaming liner, which otherwise goes into centerfield for a hit. Bruntlett grabbed the ball, almost in self-defense, and found himself standing right over second base. He promptly stepped on the bag to double Castillo (who had been trying to steal third), and then tagged Murphy (trying to steal second) for an unassisted triple-play.
The feat is incredibly rare. Today’s was apparently the 17th unassisted triple-play in the history of major league baseball (by comparison, there have been 18 perfect games). It was the first one I’ve ever seen. Evidently, it has happened only one time ever — in 1927 — in the ninth inning of a game. (Er, Jerry, love ya babe, but that’s because you don’t send the runners when you’re losing by two with nobody out in the 9th . . . why, even my 7-year-old know that!)
Only the Mets could find this way to lose a game. But only baseball could make it happen.