David Wright and Carlos Delgado entered the old Jets locker room under the Shea stands, and the roomful of reporters stopped. Delgado was wearing a blue undershirt and Wright was still in his home Mets jersey, covered in dirt.
The two men, who had slugged for five of the Mets’ six runs in a playoff-opening win against the Dodgers, were, after all, bona fide stars.
“I mean, you definitely have the butterflies,” said Wright, 23 years old. “You get anxious, a little nervous.”
“You know, my heart was definitely beating a little faster those first couple innings,” he added.
Delgado, a mountain of a man with a shaved head and goatee, looked away and smiled shyly.
It’s hard to believe that these are the mighty Mets, the team that brushed aside the entire National League during the regular season. And who went on, after that giggly display by Wright and Delgado, to sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers out of the playoffs in three games.
They are not the Yankees, who went into the playoffs expecting to win a World Series and ended up losing to the Detroit Tigers in four games.
But as recently as one week ago, it was the Mets who looked all too vulnerable. They had just lost half of their starting staff—Pedro Martinez to a bum shoulder and legs and Orlando Hernandez to a freak calf injury suffered during warm-ups.
But in the spirit of a franchise whose greatest accomplishments can be chalked up to freak plays (Buckner in ’86) and unthinkable heroes (Al Weis in ’69), the 2006 Mets are succeeding anyway.
Take John Maine, the Mets’ rookie starter in Game 1, who, as heroes go, is both freaky and unthinkable.
He pitched a very solid 4 1¼3 innings and allowed only one run—an impressive feat considering that Maine was only the second rookie to start a playoff game for the Mets. His 90-mile-an-hour fastball was steady and his generally flat change-up and slider were suddenly working.
After the game, which the Mets won 6-5, Maine walked into the pressroom wearing an oversized blue Lacoste polo. The 25-year-old’s cheeks were beet red, and he looked a little dazed with reporters all over the room.
He explained that when he woke up that morning, he didn’t totally believe that he was about to replace the injured Hernandez as the starter.
“I was like, ‘You know what, maybe it was just kind of a cramp or something like that—he might be able to make a start,’” he said.
Then the Mets’ pitching coach, Rick Peterson, told Maine otherwise.
“Once I got here by 11:30, Rick said, ‘You’re starting today.’ I mean, I was prepared anyway. I was like, ‘All right. I’m ready.’”
Seeing Maine in a starting role may end up being the least of the surprises in store for Mets fans. Without Martinez and El Duque, manager Willie Randolph has decided that in addition to Maine, Oliver Perez—a talented, seething mass of potential with a 6.55 E.R.A.—would be his fourth starter.
“I don’t remember anything like this,” Randolph told reporters before the series, by way of explanation.
But the Mets are nothing if not adaptive.
Over the course of the Dodgers series, they got good pitching from their starters, but used their bullpen to throw more than half the total innings.
They won Game 1 on the strength of their hitting power—a monstrous Carlos Delgado homer that bounced off the top of the camera stand in left-centerfield and a David Wright two-run double that sent the Shea crowd into fits so riotous that the press box behind the left-field foul poll literally began to shake.
But in the next two games, it was classic National League small-ball: the two groundball R.B.I.’s for Jose Reyes in Game 2, for example, and the bloop doubles and dying-quail singles from Paul Lo Duca and Shawn Green that broke the back of the Dodgers in Game 3.
It’s worth noting that in such a short series, some of the Mets’ more vulnerable pitchers—namely Perez and the 36-year-old Darren Oliver—didn’t get exposed. The Mets will have a tough time hiding them both against the Cardinals in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.
But against the Dodgers, everyone around the Mets organization simply seemed happy just to savor the moment.
Ron Darling, the last Met pitcher to start a postseason Game 1 at Shea (in the 1986 World Series), sat in the press box in shirt and tie. He kept score and charted pitches, trying to glean material for his post-game show on the SNY Network.
After a double from Wright, the fans started up with the old chant of “Let’s go, Mets.” Darling tapped a pen against the desk in time to the beat.
“I’m trying to soak it in, to tell you the truth,” he said, screaming to overcome the noise. “When I was playing, I was never able to soak it in. It’s amazing how loud they are.”
“In my pre-game show outside, I never realized how much fun people have before a game. All those things are new to me.”
After the game, former team captain John Franco compared this year’s Mets favorably to the postseason teams he played on in 1999 and 2000.
“I think this batting order is much stronger than we were, and the bullpen is much stronger than we were,” he said. “I think we had a better starting rotation. I think this team and the ’99 team is similar in defense. This team is a little deeper.”