Figueroa lives a dream as Mets roll
Brooklyn native stymies Brewers to win first game since 2003
NEW YORK -- Eight people crammed into Nelson Figueroa's humble three-bedroom home on Coney Island on Thursday, the place where he grew up and first allowed these big league dreams to seep into his head. There, Figueroa couldn't be nervous. His first Major League start in nearly four years loomed for the following evening, but the mood in Brooklyn on this night was festive. Figueroa, gone for so long, had returned.
Most of Figueroa's life was spent there on Coney Island, before he traveled to Mexico and Taiwan and locales in between, all in an effort to revive a busted Major League career. He was a baseball vagabond, never quite knowing his next destination. He just knew that one day he wanted to start again in the Major Leagues. On Friday, he did.
The Mets expected Figueroa to keep them in the game. Figueroa expected it, too. But few outside of his nearly 100 family and friends in attendance could have imagined that five innings into this start, he would be holding one of the league's most potent lineups in check. No hits, no walks, no runs. This was the Brooklyn boy's dream come true.
When it ended, the Mets had beaten the Brewers, 4-2. Figueroa had won.
"I thought I was going to lose it," he said. "I really did. It was just the culmination of everything -- the intensity of the game. This journey has been so incredible, and to go out there and put forth that kind of a performance ... it's storybook-like."
Figueroa allowed two runs in all, keeping the Brewers completely off the bases until Corey Hart walked with two outs in the fifth. The next batter, J.J. Hardy, drilled a double down the line to drive him in, and Prince Fielder added an RBI double in the sixth.
By the next inning, Figueroa was back on the bench. He watched as Joe Smith tossed a scoreless inning, and Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner retired the final six Brewers.
Somehow, some way, he had won a game for the team he grew up adoring.
"I'm real proud of the kid in front of his hometown people," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "He did what we wanted him to do. He kept us in the game."
The early offense -- RBI hits by Carlos Delgado and Raul Casanova and a sacrifice fly by Damion Easley -- was enough to give Figueroa a cushion. The late offense -- a run-scoring single by Angel Pagan -- was enough to give him some sense of relief.
He had waited too long to see this night spoiled. Figueroa joined the big leagues back in 2000, as a young starting pitching prospect for the Diamondbacks. The next year, he was in Philadelphia. The next, it was Milwaukee. Then Pittsburgh -- then, suddenly, he was out of the game. Nobody wanted a pitcher who couldn't crack 90 mph with his fastball or, seemingly, win a game. Figueroa's Major League career had ended.
He bounced around various other professional leagues for a while, dipping into Asia and Mexico and the Dominican Republic, before hooking up with the Mets this spring. There, he pitched so well that when the first round of cuts came, Figueroa survived. Then he survived the second round of cuts. Soon after, he became a contender for a big league spot that few thought he could win -- and fewer still thought he deserved.
Ultimately, he lost that competition, becoming the victim of too much competition in the rotation and the bullpen. But when Pedro Martinez was injured during the season's second game, the Mets needed someone to start. Figueroa was the only option.
|"It was a great night for Nelson. He accomplished so much, and he had his dream come true tonight to prove that he could really pitch."|
|-- Irsa Figueroa, Nelson's mother|
That was the strange sequence of events that brought him to Shea Stadium on Friday night, and saw him, almost impossibly, dominate the Brewers.
"It was a great night for Nelson," said Irsa Figueroa, his mother. "He accomplished so much, and he had his dream come true tonight to prove that he could really pitch."
Milwaukee was not quite so impressed, and after the game were noticeably irked with some of home-plate umpire Jerry Layne's calls. Some Brewers, too, hit hard fly balls, including a Ryan Braun shot that Carlos Beltran snared just shy of the warning track through a cold mist that had descended on the night. The catch kept the Mets' lead intact.
"I've been able to watch a lot of ESPN highlights not playing for the last few years, and he's one of those exciting players where every time he swings the bat it's dangerous," Figueroa said of Braun. "But Beltran did a great job of getting over there through the fog, the lights and everything else. It was a relief."
David Wright called Figueroa's style the type that gave hitters a "comfortable 0-for-3." They went up, took their hacks, headed back to the dugout and felt as though they could have -- and probably should have -- crushed the ball somewhere.
Figueroa knew his limits, too, instead relying on confidence and guile. Randolph approached him earlier this week to give him a pep talk, and pitching coach Rick Peterson showered him with confidence just the same. The strategy worked.
"It was everything I dreamed it would be," Figueroa said. "To have the opportunity to come back into baseball and pitch for my hometown team, and have the confidence from Willie and Peterson ... I'm very grateful to all of them for the opportunity, and I wanted to put forth a performance that was worthy of that."
After the game, he planned on heading back home with his wife and his parents, walking the streets that he walked as a kid when he grew up rooting for the Mets. He rooted on this night, too, and he succeeded. Better still, he earned an opportunity to do it again.
For now, at least, Figueroa is here to stay. Here, in the place he calls home.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.