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Say it Ain’t So… Taguchi

Futility Infielder research assistant Peter Quadrino was at Shea Stadium on Friday night for Game Two of the NLCS. Here’s his report of the game…

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When I made it to the train platform at Grand Central it was 5 o’clock and the place was filled with Mets fans. As the Number 7 train pulled up at Grand Central I could already see it was completely packed to the gills. When it stopped and the doors opened, only two or three people got out and I somehow managed to squeeze in along with a few other people while most of the others were stuck to wait on the platform for the next train.

It was an express train so it zoomed past a couple of stops and after we had made into Queens and the doors opened up at the first stop, the people waiting there started just pushing themselves into the train car. This was rush hour on a Friday and these people had probably already let a couple trains pass that were too filled with Mets fans to let them in, so they couldn’t take it anymore. This was followed by some screaming, of course (“You can’t fit!!” “Stop pushing!!”) and the whole scene would have made John Rocker proud. These people that had squeezed in at the last stop couldn’t hold onto any of the bars on the train so as we swayed back and forth and side to side they just used everybody else as a cushion. It made for some discomfort to say the least.

After the whole zoo scene on the subway I finally arrived at Shea, picked up my official NLCS program and started making my ascent into the upper deck to meet my brother John at our seats. The official program, which cost $10, was going to be my only means of keeping score at the game so I was a little disappointed to see that they had squeezed seven miniature scorecards into the middle of the book, making it a very intricate and difficult task for someone like me who was trying to keep a full scorecard of just the one game that I was at, and very convenient for a mouse with good penmanship to keep score of all seven games.

Making my way through the hordes of Mets fans that were all over the concourse of Shea Stadium, I eventually met John at our seats which were straight behind the right handed batters box, in the second to last row of the stadium. I had never sat this high up at a baseball game and I couldn’t have been happier (well, if we were in the last row I might’ve been a little happier). We had the entire stadium right in front of us and if we turned around to look behind us we had a majestic view of the New York City skyline lit up on a cloudless night.

This was my first ever playoff game at Shea (I had been to two at Yankee Stadium, Game 1 of the ’96 World Series and Game 2 of the this year’s ALDS with the great Jay Jaffe himself) and the place was buzzing as the Mets took the field and 25-year-old John Maine began his warm-up tosses. David Eckstein stepped to the plate a couple minutes after 8 PM and as he looked over Maine’s first pitch for a strike, the 56,349 fans in attendance went wild. When he swung at the next pitch and looped the ball into centerfield to be caught by Carlos Beltran, I realized that the angle at which we were watching the game from up so high was going to make every batted ball tough to determine because I thought Mini-Me David Eckstein had smoked one that was going to leave the park (and every time somebody fouled a pitch off into the 3rd base stands it looked at first like a shot up the middle). Chris “The Coach’s Son” Duncan then worked a full count without taking the bat off his shoulders and promptly grounded out to second (there would be many of these). Albert Pujols was up next. After going 0-for-3 against him the previous night, Pujols had ripped the Mets’ future Hall of Fame pitcher and 290-game winner, Tom Glavine saying that “he wasn’t good at all” and that he “did the same thing he always does. Throw a changeup and fastball and that’s it.” Well, he was certainly wrong about one thing, as Glavine had thrown about four or five looping curves to Pujols in the game. And the guy has been using the same repertoire and pitching-strategy for most of his long, successful career so even though Pujols is probably the best hitter in baseball his quote only made himself look like a fool and probably gave Glavine a good snort. Well, when the new Mean and Angry Pujols took his spot in the batters box the crowd was booing their lungs out at the very sight of his awkward looking batting stance. Whereas in the past, Shea fans had booed Pujols just because he was so good, now we were booing him because was an asshole. It felt better this way. Albert launched Maine’s first offering into right field and from my vantage point I thought it was hit into another dimension, but Shawn Green made his way under it and the ball fell into his glove at the warning track. The retirement of Pujols and the Cards in order caused the anxious, chilly crowd to go into a frenzy after which I said to my brother, “I think I lost my voice already.” In the middle of the first inning.

There was much more screaming, jumping, and fist-pumping to come in the bottom half, though. The Mets’ leadoff firecracker Jose Reyes got the New York offense started with a lined double to rightfield on ace Chris Carpenter’s fourth pitch of the evening. Paul Lo Duca sac-bunted Reyes to third and this seemed like a good play because they were facing the Cardinals’ and probably the National League’s best hurler, but it turned out to be a wasted out as Beltran looked at a strike and then four consecutive pitches outside the zone for a walk and his pal Carlos Delgado smashed a three-run homer into the bleachers in left-centerfield to give the Mets a 3-0 lead. Carpenter looked a little shaken as 7 out of his next 10 pitches were balls but he escaped further trouble retiring Shawn Green and Jose Valentin to end the inning.

The youngster Maine got himself into trouble quickly in the Cardinal half of the second by walking Juan Encarnacion (.317 OBP in the regular season) to load the bases with nobody out after he had let Jim Edmonds reach on a walk (at least according to the umpire’s “strike zone”) and our heroic slugger but atrocious fielder Delgado bobbled a Scott Spiezio grounder. After inducing a pop-up for the first out, Maine gave up a 2-run double to Yadier Molina, he of the .209 EqA this season. We could see this wasn’t going to a pitcher’s duel. But the crowd got behind the kid and he managed to strand runners on second third, striking out the pitcher Carpenter and getting lucky on an Eckstein liner to second base.

Maine’s troubles were far from over, though. After the Mets pieced together a double and single to go up 4-2, Maine found himself bowing to the Red Birds’ two best hitters after dueling with them. He had struck out Chris Duncan to lead the inning off, fell behind Pujols 3-1 after which Pujols fouled off three straight pitches before Maine lost him. As Edmonds stepped up to bat, my brother pulled out some stat sheets he had printed out for both teams. As I started looking for Edmonds’ numbers this year, Maine got right ahead of him with two strikes. At about the same time Edmonds took two balls to make a 2-2 count I remarked “Edmonds had a weak year, he only slugged .471” and the smooth-swinging lefty launched a parabola over the centerfield fence to tie the game, almost on cue. Maine would only make it through 4 innings on the night, leaving for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 4th. Although he only gave up 2 hits, he let 5 men reach by way of the walk, and gave up 4 runs (3 earned).

By the time the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the 5th inning, the temperature had gone down considerably since the first pitch (I didn’t have a thermometer on me but the other upper deck fans and I were visibly starting to freeze our asses off) and with the score still tied at 4-4 we needed something to get excited about. Carlos Delgado would once again provide that for us. With a full count, Carpenter threw a 94-mph dart that Delgado launched into deep left field. Chris Duncan had his eye on it and started edging closer to the wall as the crowd stood up in anticipation. He gave it one last look, leaped, and it was over the fence for Delgado’s second opposite-field homerun of the game. The crowd went into euphoria. Jumping up and down and giving high fives to strangers, I could feel the place shaking. As Delgado was mobbed by his teammates in the dugout, the elated crowd started to chant for him, “Car-LOS, clap, clap, Car-LOS, clap, clap” but before he could make a curtain call (or at least I didn’t seem him do one from up on the roof), David Wright put the first pitch in play and got on by a Ronnie Belliard fielding error. Shawn Green singled and everything was looking beautiful for us Mets rooters. But Carpenter found his composure and retired the next two. Eh, no biggie, the Mets had the lead and they had one of their biggest strengths, the bullpen, taking over the rest of this match.

At this point, the cold was starting to become unbearable and even though I had worn four layers of clothing, I needed to take a walk to get my blood flowing and also get some hot chocolate. After a short wait on the line for the concession stand, I was told they were out of hot chocolate and I should go down to the next concession to get some. So I did. I waited on the line for about 5 minutes and was assured that they still had hot chocolate by the lady working there. When I finally made it to the stand I said “two hot chocolates please” only to notice that the two tall, inconsiderate assholes standing on the line next to me had just ordered 10 (yes, I said 10) hot chocolates and the concessionaires were in the process of filling this insane order. Well, of course on the ninth hot chocolate that they were filling up they announced “that’s it there’s no more.” The people on line started grumbling loudly and a riot was about to ensue but I had to get back to my seat as I didn’t pay $75 bucks to watch the game on a mini-television. Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano combined to keep the Cardinals scoreless in the 6th and the Mets added another run to their lead when Jose Reyes scored from first on a Lo Duca double to left field off of Josh Hancock. Randy Flores relieved Hancock and ended any troubles with two 4 to 3 putouts in a row to end the inning.

The top of the 7th is when the craziness began. This was to be the inning that would drive all the sports talk radio fans mad the next day. With a two-run lead, Mets manager Willie Randolph went to his new favorite toy, former Met-enemy Guillermo Mota. “Why aren’t they bringing in Heilman?” my brother asked me, to which I responded that Mota was pitching well for the Mets lately and told him how the Mets statheads prompted GM Omar Minaya to acquire Mota and have him rely more on his changeup. Mota quickly got two outs on only 4 pitches and Albert Poo-Holes came up to bat once again to a chorus of boos. Mota fell behind the slugger, 3 balls and no strikes but this was followed by another battle where both competitors refused to give an inch. Mota followed with a strike that Pujols looked at and then the probable MVP fouled six straight Mota offerings, slapping souvenirs all over the park, before he ended the duel with a single. This was followed by a four-pitch walk to Jim Edmonds and a rare Willie Randolph mound visit for a pep talk. As Joe Sheehan points out, Mota would get ahead 0-2 on the next hitter Scott Spiezio, but fail to finish him off:

Mota pulled it together in a hurry. He got ahead of Spiezio, a good fastball hitter, 0-2 by pulling the string on a pair of change-ups. At 0-2, he threw a fastball inside that Spiezio hooked foul down the right-field line. Three pitches thrown, two on which Spiezio had looked helpless, one that he hit very hard. You probably want to stick with the first, right?

It’s never clear who makes a decision like this, but we do know that the fastball Mota threw was not only a peculiar choice of pitch, but it was horribly located. Paul Lo Duca was set up over the outside edge, perhaps even off the plate. Mota put the fastball over the inside half, and Spiezio jerked it over the right-field fence, and although robbed of a homer by Shawn Green, settled for a game-tying two-run triple.

The Mets were one pitch away from ending the game. The Cards would have been down two with six outs left, with the bottom of the lineup up in the eighth and Billy Wagner ready for the ninth. Instead, for want of a change-up, or for any kind of location on the fastball, the Cardinals now had their first real chance to make this a series. Their bullpen held on, Taguchi had a Bucky Dent moment, and now there’s no guarantee that Shea Stadium will see another baseball game this year.

The at-bat by Spiezio was eerily similar to the one he had in the 2002 World Series with the Angels, when Felix Rodriguez tried to sneak a fastball by him with the Giants up 5-0 in the seventh. Spiezio homered on that one as well, triggering a six-run comeback that put the Angels on track for a championship. Spiezio has a remarkable track record in these situations; Fox reported that he was 13-for-19 in his postseason career batting with runners in scoring position…right before he hit a double to go to 14-for-20. It’s not predictive, and it’s not reflective of a particular skill, but it is an eye-popping number that has meant an awful lot for his teams.

Nobody in the park had any idea where Spiezio’s shot had landed. When LaRussa came out to argue the play, instead of the scoreboard screen showing a replay of what just happened they put up a Mets logo and left it there, not wanting to help the umpires out in any way. The umps eventually ruled it a triple, but Spiezio had tied the game against the mighty bullpen of the Mets and his own pen would hold down the Mets in the 7th and 8th innings, making for a Billy Wagner entrance into a tie game in the top of the 9th. The lead off hitter would be a non-descript, good-field no-hit Japanese import named So Taguchi. Taguchi had come into the game in the bottom of the 8th to replace shaky-fielding Chris Duncan out in left field. At the start of that inning, the Cards’ left field spot was vacant as Taguchi had gone down into the tunnel to prepare for a possible pinch-hit appearance in the 9th. LaRussa called down to him to get out onto the field and there was a short pause as everybody stood around waiting for number 99 to make his way out there. The apprehensive crowd didn’t know what the short pause was for and then the PA announcer called out “now playing left field for the Cardinals, number 99 So Taguchi” and there was a sound of “Huh? Who cares? Let’s get this over with!” all throughout the stadium as it was now nearing 11:30 pm and getting colder.

Billy Wagner got ahead of Taguchi 0-2 before the outfielder worked a full count (this seems to be a common theme) and then hit a 98 mph fastball over the fence in left field and knocked the wind out of everybody in the ballpark. This is the same So Taguchi who had hit only 2 homeruns all year in the regular season and none since June 21st. But this was the playoffs. Taguchi now had 2 at-bats in the playoffs and 2 homeruns (he also hit one against the Padres last week). Two doubles and a single later and the Mets were now losing 9-6 and the ballpark was hemorrhaging Mets fans. Roberto Hernandez got the last out of the inning and ended the horror but this game was over. Even with a 3-run lead, La Russa wasn’t going to take any chances with Carlos Delgado so he brought in lefty Tyler Johnson. Delgado hit .226 against lefties this season and showed why as he flailed at 2-2 pitch for the first out. Adam Wainwright came in to finish off the Mets with two groundouts (Shawn Green ended the game with the 14th 4-to-3 putout of the evening).

I wasn’t as upset about the loss as most of the other fans at the game. From my seat perched high atop Shea Stadium I certainly enjoyed the baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I surely would’ve preferred to see my team win this playoff game that I had paid a lot of money to attend and froze my ass off to sit through and watch. But, it was surely a fun game with a lot of excitement and this is baseball, you can’t win them all. In baseball, as in life, things don’t always work out perfectly. Sometimes in baseball, as in life, a So Taguchi comes along and bops a homerun off the hardest thrower on your pitching staff…

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