A living trust: Randolph backs Wagner
Reliever delivers harrowing save to complete satisfying trip
LOS ANGELES -- While the Mets were trying to deny the Dodgers and enhance their standing Sunday afternoon, they also were reinforcing the trust essential to a team with championship aspirations. At no point was that more evident than during the final stages of the sweaty, 10-inning victory that made a week-long excursion to Southern California worthwhile and worth remembering.
Two moments of truth -- truth that morphed into trust -- happened as the final three outs of the Mets' riveting 5-4 victory were unfolding.
1. Billy Wagner peered into the dugout until he caught the attention of Willie Randolph and then, he wiggled the four fingers on his left hand, telling the manager his preference was to walk Jeff Kent and thereby put the winning run on base. The Mets reliever was asking his manager to trust him.
Randolph's face said he was incredulous. Extra innings? On the road. But this manager has only a minor aversion to the unorthodox. Randolph sent his pitching coach to the mound to consult with the closer. "If he's emphatic about it," Randolph told Rick Peterson, "OK, we'll do it."
2. After Wagner had walked Kent and struck out Matt Kemp and the Dodgers had two runners in scoring position, Wagner struck Nomar Garciaparra to end the game.
The Mets team that later flew from LAX to LaGuardia probably was a stronger team than the one that made the cross-country jaunt a week earlier, made so by surviving seven games in seven days against the best two teams in the National League West and winning four of them. Before their charter home, the Mets had set off National League mettle detectors in a game as a tight as Lee Mazzilli's pants and, they thought, given other teams in the National League East something to ponder.
"This trip said something about us," Wagner said. "We showed a little brass out here. We won four, but we were in two others. I think we feel it a little more now."
They scored once in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings and then endured the nervous bottom of the 10th and left for home with three victories in four games in Dodger Stadium, the site of a three losses in three games last month. They asserted themselves or, as Tom Glavine said, "We won the way we won a lot last year and not so much this year."
The last two innings were delicious, filled with tension. They provided a most unlikely hero in Chip Ambres, who joined the team Tuesday in San Diego and probably will be a Triple-A player when the Mets play the Pirates at Shea Stadium on Tuesday night. Ambres delivered a two-out single against losing pitcher J.D. Houlton in his third at-bat since 2005.
"Being able to come through in the clutch like that and help out the team, it's one that I'll always remember," Ambres said. "It's unbelievable. I'm on Cloud 9. I just wanted to put the ball in play and get that man in from third base. I'd faced Houlton in Triple-A, and Marlon Anderson reminded me of the pitches that he had."
But Ambres' opportunity never would have developed had David Wright, the preceding batter, not out run a relay to first base and denied the Dodgers an inning-ending double play. "That's the way it should be," said Randolph, who has no aversion effort either. "That's that way you're supposed to play."
"I definitely felt faster, like I was scooting," Wright said, as proud of his effort as he was of his run-scoring hit four innings earlier and also a tad giddy. "Did anyone have a watch on me? What was my time?"
The bottom of the inning, though, is what the gripped the players and ultimately nurtured their confidence and reciprocal trust. "I loved that last [half] inning. That was tight," said Lastings Milledge, who had scored the go-ahead run. "I loved the whole game."
Fleet Juan Pierre led off the 10th against Wagner with a walk. Not known for his move to first, Wagner caught Pierre breaking for second and seemingly had him nailed when he threw behind him. But Shawn Green, who had moved to first base two innings earlier, dropped the ball before he could throw to second. "No big deal," Wagner said. "He probably would have stolen it any other time."
Before Wagner got Russell Martin for the first out, he wore out Pierre, forcing him to return to second base three times without making a throw. Pierre ran twice, but Martin fouled off both pitches.
And then the Mets closer wiggled his fingers. "I know what JK [Kent] can do," he said later. "I played with him [with the Astros] I've seen him. Why do I need to face him there? I don't need to be a hero. We need to win."
At first, Randolph squirmed in his seat. "But," he said later, "if I don't let him do that. I'm not showing confidence in him. That's a bad message to send. And why not let him face the kid [Kemp] and a free swinger like Nomar. I know it's not 'the book,' but you take chances sometimes." Kent agreed. "My history with Billy makes it the right move." Kent had two singles and four walks in 11 plate appearances against his former teammate. And he had watched Wagner from his second-base perspective when both were Astros.
Moreover, Wagner wanted Kent on first base -- winning run or not -- to put the ground-ball double play in order. "I wanted as many options as I could have," he said.
The double play remained in order while Wagner overwhelmed and struck out Kemp. But as he was trying to do the same with Garciaparra, he threw as wild a wild pitch as he could recall. Pierre finally reached third, Kent moved to scoring position and the Mets who weren't on the top step of the dugout moved there.
Wagner needed six pitches to set up Garciaparra for the outside-corner slider that produced his 22nd save and the Mets' seventh victory in 11 games since the All-Star break. The Mets had tied the score in the ninth with assistance from the Dodgers' shoddy defense and two wild pitches by Jonathan Broxton. Carlos Delgado led off the inning with a hard ground-ball base hit that first baseman James Loney couldn't handle. A wild pitch allowed pinch-runner Anderson Hernandez to reach second, and Paul Lo Duca's near base hit -- a ground ball that almost reached center field -- moved Hernandez to third.
Right fielder Kemp dropped Green's fly ball in the bright sun in short right, and Anderson scored. A poor relay by center fielder Pierre allowed Green to reach second and a another wild pitch moved Green to third. But Broxton struck out Ruben Gotay and pinch-hitter Ramon Castro.
Beltran's sacrifice fly against Roberto Hernandez had produced the Mets' third run, in the eighth inning after a leadoff double by Jose Reyes and an infield out. The Mets had scored twice to tie the score at 2 in the sixth inning with a triple by Reyes and a double by Milledge against left-handed starter Eric Stults and a single by Wright against Rudy Seanez doing the damage. But Garciaparra's second home run of the series, against starter Orlando Hernandez with a runner on base, turned the game back in the Dodgers' favor in the bottom of the sixth.
But Mets' resilience had more left than the Dodgers' strapped bullpen. The Mets seemingly are back to their '06 M.O. They again seem to be better late than ever.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.