FLUSHING, N.Y. — Given the state of this year’s major league baseball standings, Sunday’s late-August meeting between the then-fourth-place New York Mets and the MLB-worst-Houston Astros at Citi Field obviously lacked the drama produced by the same two franchises during their extremely memorable 1986 National League Championship Series, but it nonetheless provided an exciting finish as the NL chapter of the all-time Mets-Astros series came to a close.
In an otherwise uneventful game involving a pair of clubs simply playing out the string, a late Houston rally, a nice play by New York to nab a runner at the plate, and two blasts over the right field wall by first baseman Ike Davis provided recollections of some thrilling moments when a lot more was once at stake — for one last time — with the Mets and Astros as NL opponents, prior to Houston becoming a member of the American League’s western division next year.
Neither of the largely punchless offenses — the Astros, the statistically lightest-hitting team in the majors, nor the Mets, who had been mired in their worst offensive stretch in three decades — could hit their way out of a paper bag, making a pair of nondescript, young starters, Houston’s Lucas Harrell (in his fourth season, but basically a rookie in terms of big league experience) and New York’s rookie Jeremy Hefner, look like a classic re-match of former aces Mike Scott and Dwight Gooden (who opposed each other in a classic Game 1 pitching duel in the 1986 NLCS, with Scott and the Astros edging the Mets, 1-0).
Harrell (seven innings, two hits, one run, seven strikeouts, two walks) and Hefner (eight-plus innings, five hits, one run, seven strikeouts, two walks) kept their respective non-threatening opposing lineups in check throughout a rapidly-paced contest that — because of the deficiency of offensive production — through eight innings, was on pace to finish in an unheard of (by today’s standards) two hours or less, and which still completed in a very tidy 2 hours and 19 minutes, even with a 24-minute ninth inning.
Five innings after Davis’ first home run of the afternoon — a crushing drive in the bottom of the fourth inning, just below Citi Field’s Pepsi Porch, and well into the upper deck in right field — gave the Mets a 1-0 lead that stood up until the final inning, the Astros tied the game on a run-scoring double by second baseman Marwin Gonzalez, who smacked a liner toward the left field corner.
Gonzalez’s hit glanced off of the glove of left fielder Lucas Duda, who was returning to the majors from a short stint in the minor leagues, where he was converted from a right fielder. That play forced an exit — to a standing ovation from many of the 25,071 fans in attendance (myself included) — for Hefner, who was bidding for the first shutout and first complete game of his career.
It appeared that the Astros would instead take their first lead three batters later however, when right fielder Ben Francisco singled against closer Bobby Parnell to left field, in front of Duda, until the Mets’ third-year outfielder redeemed himself with a good throw that allowed newly acquired catcher Kelly Shoppach just enough time to make a nice play of his own.
Shoppach blocked home plate with his left leg and applied a game-saving tag on Gonzalez, who was trying to score from second base. Gonzalez argued the call (which was a correct one) and was promptly tossed from the game by home plate umpire David Rackley.
That set the stage for Davis, who got just enough of a pitch from reliever Wilton Lopez to send a fly ball barely over the right field fence and just past the glove of a leaping Francisco for Davis’ second home run of the game and a walk-off 2-1 win for New York — the same score the Mets beat the Astros by, in 12 innings, in Game 5 of the 1986 NLCS at Shea Stadium, which used to sit just steps from where Davis and New York beat Houston in an NL contest for the final time.
Just as in that Game 5 victory, the Mets won despite mustering a mere four hits and being outhit by the Astros, but none were bigger than the two home runs from Davis, who did a jumping spin before landing on home plate, where he was mobbed by his teammates.
The win meant little for the Mets in the big picture of the 2012 season, especially when contrasted against those exhilarating October victories against the Astros 26 years earlier.
Instead of paving a way toward their first World Series title since 1986, New York simply avoided suffering what would have been their worst embarrassment of this season — a possible second home loss in three games to MLB’s most futile team — on the heels of getting swept in a four-game series at home by Colorado, the NL’s third-worst team.
The Mets’ recent struggles came during a disappointing second-half swoon which has already caused New York’s season to slip away after an overachieving first half that had the Mets surprisingly in postseason contention by the all-star break, after setting a MLB offseason record for shedding payroll.
Due to those circumstances, Davis’ heroics could hardly be compared to that of ex-Met Lenny Dykstra’s ninth-inning, two-run, homer off of the Astros’ Dave Smith, inside of what is now the Citi Field parking lot, to rally the Mets to a dramatic 6-5 win and a 2-1 series lead in the 1986 NLCS.
Similarly, the importance of New York’s last NL win over Houston was nothing like one of the greatest games in the Mets’ 51-season history — their 1986 NLCS-clinching victory in Game 6 (which led to their remarkable rally to a World Series title against the Boston Red Sox), when New York erased a 3-0 ninth-inning deficit in Houston before hanging on for a rousing 7-6 victory in a then-postseason record 16 innings (ironically, Houston broke that mark with a 2005 divisional series win in 18 innings, over the Atlanta Braves, by the same score, in a win that helped the Astros reach the only World Series in their history).
Certainly, the Mets’ rivalries with teams like the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and others have also far outweighed the intensity of what they shared with the Astros in the 26 years since.
Still, it was an exciting conclusion to a Mets-Astros NL era that included more than 500 games since the teams each joined the majors (the Astros, initially as the Colt .45’s) in 1962.
While they will meet again in inter-league play, the Astros took the all-time NL series, 308-258, with the Mets going 150-132 at home (including 8-4 at Citi Field) against Houston.
What is remembered most over that time though, is that lone playoff matchup between the teams in 1986, and in another lost season for both clubs, the way the final Mets-Astros meeting as NL foes was decided, rekindled thoughts of the historic playoff magic that occurred in a pair of well-remembered NL ballparks — Shea Stadium in Queens, and the famed Astrodome in Houston.
Yet, as with the Mets and Astros moving on to new home stadiums since then, their series with each other will now similarly forge ahead with the teams continuing play in opposite leagues. If they can each turn things around in the coming years and once again meet in the postseason, they would do something they couldn’t do even as long-time NL opponents in 1986 or in any other year thus far — meet in a World Series.