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The Boys of Spring

They started fast, but are playing dangerous baseball. Can an un-Mets-like optimism and an unusual leader keep them amazin’ through the fall?

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Carlos Delgado on deck against the Phillies.  

Hang on tight. The Mets are turning yet another game into a blindfolded ride on the Cyclone. And it’s only the first inning.

In some ways, this is a relief. The Mets have won three of the past four games in ludicrously dramatic style. Friday night, they fell behind the Yankees and Randy Johnson 4-0 in the top of the first, rallied to tie the game in the third inning and then again in the fifth, and finally won it in the bottom of the ninth. Saturday afternoon brought a shocking, vomit-bag loss, with prized $43 million closer Billy Wagner coughing up a 4-0 advantage in the ninth. Sunday night, another early lead for the Yankees, another comeback Mets win on back-to-back homers. Monday was for sleep—luckily, because Tuesday night, the Mets spotted Philadelphia a four-run lead, tied the game on a two-run Jose Reyes homer in the eighth, and then, after nearly five and a half hours, won the marathon in the bottom of the sixteenth on a blast by Carlos Beltran.

Today, all that’s on the line is the lifelong dream of a Cuban émigré and the future of the Mets’ starting rotation. Alay Soler escaped Castro on a harrowing boat ride, then spent nearly two years trapped in bureaucratic visa hell. In the past six weeks, Soler has been on a vertigo-inducing rise from the minors to Shea Stadium. He’s today’s starting pitcher against the Phillies because the Mets, despite being in first place in the National League East, are desperate for someone competent to follow the geniuses Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine and give the brilliant-but-overworked bullpen a rest. The team’s success is as fragile as the chronically sore sesamoid bones in Martinez’s right big toe. And now the 26-year-old Soler appears to be on the verge of a heart attack. He’s walked the first three batters he’s faced in the big leagues.

Twenty years ago, Mets pitcher Jesse Orosco was seriously rattled. It was the sixteenth inning of an epic, playoff-series-turning battle with Houston. The Astros were teeing off on Orosco’s fastball and had the winning run on base when the emotional leader of the 1986 Mets, first-baseman Keith Hernandez, went to the mound. “Throw another fastball and I’m knocking you on your ass,” Hernandez said. Orosco threw six straight sliders to strike out Kevin Bass. Soon the Mets were spraying World Series champagne.

Today, Mets first-baseman Carlos Delgado goes to the mound. The Mets traded three prospects to the Florida Marlins for Delgado, eager to install the two-time All-Star power hitter in the middle of their batting order. And Delgado has delivered huge hits. But of equal value has been his leadership.

Now Delgado stands talking with Soler. The stakes aren’t nearly as high as they were in October 1986. But it is small moments like this, scattered throughout a long season, that build the camaraderie that is both overly mythologized and utterly necessary.

Delgado returns to first base. Soler climbs the hill. And the strikes start coming. Soler gives up a single and one run, then coaxes what should be an inning-ending double-play grounder—except that the ball skips between the legs of second-baseman Chris Woodward. But Soler has found some calm, and a groove: He retires the next three Phillies, striking out the last hitter on a wicked slider. The Mets charge back to win, 5-4.

“I told him, ‘This is no different than what you’ve done before. Relax,’ ” Delgado says later. Has he ever threatened a pitcher who was blowing a game? “I don’t think,” he says, his brown eyes steady and intense, “that the mound is the place to do it.”

What a great start. For much of April, the Mets owned the best record in the majors. The team has held first place in the National League East for all but one day of the season. The Mets have shown amazing resilience, dropping six of nine games on a recent road trip only to return home and snatch those two thrill-ride wins from the Yankees, then take two of three from the second-place Phillies. The winter acquisitions of Delgado, Wagner, and catcher Paul Lo Duca have largely lived up to the hype, adding to the momentum from the 2005 signings of Martinez and Beltran.

The 2006 Mets aren’t just good, they’re highly entertaining. But they’re playing a dangerous game. Of the Mets’ first 28 wins, twelve were come-from-behind victories, eight came in the Mets’ final at-bat, and six were walk-off stunners. This is the most talented Mets team in two decades, but it’s not a dominant team.

The other reason for the torture is that these are the Mets. This franchise never does things the easy way, which is part of its charm. Now, though, the Mets have picked the perfect time in New York sportsworld to get good: The Yankees are impersonal, the Knicks are a joke, and while the Nets, Giants, and Jets aren’t bad, they’re in Jersey.


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