Rookies come up big as Mets take first
Evans and Murphy play primary roles, Amazin's lead division
ATLANTA -- Given Daniel Murphy's rather torrid bat, and given the critical nature of this and every game, Mets manager Jerry Manuel wrestled Friday afternoon with the idea of starting Murphy in left field. The pros were such: four hits over his last nine at-bats, a .488 average in September, and the resulting notion that, in Manuel's words, "There's always a temptation."
But the cons weighed heavily, too. Nick Evans had proven his worth against left-handed pitchers -- the left-handed Jo-Jo Reyes was starting for the Braves -- and Manuel was determined to keep Evans sharp in preparation for future pinch-hitting opportunities.
He settled on Evans. Then, later, he called on Murphy. And both of them produced.
It was Evans' homer that gave the Mets one critical lead, but it was Murphy's pinch-hit, two-run double in the eighth inning that put them on top of the Braves for good. The resulting 9-5 victory at Turner Field alternated between ugly and uglier, but it resulted in a win nonetheless. And, coupled with the Phillies' 14-8 loss in Miami, it put the Mets back into first place in the National League East.
"A lot of things went our way tonight," Manuel said.
Evans was already 1-for-2 with a walk, a run and an RBI when Manuel decided to lift him for Murphy in the eighth inning, with two runners on base and reliever Julian Tavarez -- not left-handed -- on the mound. That decision resulted in Murphy's double, a booming opposite-field shot that split two Braves defenders. Carlos Delgado scored. Argenis Reyes scored. And the Mets later added two additional runs, ensuring that this opportunity to pass the Phillies would not go to waste.
Prior to the inning, Murphy watched Tavarez warm up on the bullpen video monitor, then sized up his potential opponent on the mound. Murphy recalled that Tavarez had fed him a steady diet of sliders and sinkers when he faced him back in New York. And Murphy also knew that Evans was due up fourth, discussing with hitting coach Howard Johnson the likelihood that he would hit.
"You have to manage in order to give him a shot," Manuel said, in reference to his desire to give Murphy as many critical pinch-hit at-bats as possible.
So Manuel gave him a shot. And then Murphy gave the Mets a shot.
"I decided about an inning and a half, two innings earlier that I might sit on a slider," Murphy said. "But I talked myself out of it, and just decided to sit on something in the middle of the plate."
It turned out to be a slider.
"And I just put myself in a good spot," he said.
Murphy's hit came precisely four innings after Evans lofted a solo homer off Reyes, at the time giving the Mets a 5-3 lead. Manuel joked that it traveled "about 500 feet," and Evans -- not joking -- said he didn't think he had hit one so far in his career.
But distance points, like style points, don't matter. And so Evans simply lowered his chin to his chest, rounded the bases, and ensured that the Mets would hold a lead for most of Friday's middle innings.
"You get so excited, your adrenaline takes over," Evans said. "Any time you get in there, you want to do whatever it is you can to help the team."
Yet Friday's game was about more than simply Murphy and Evans. To win this one, the Mets had to endure three errors -- and it could have easily been four -- and another relatively shaky bullpen performance. Many of the relief pitching woes did stem from Jose Reyes' throwing error in the seventh inning, but the fact remains that Manuel has not yet found a reliable bullpen combination.
On this night, he went to Nelson Figueroa, Ricardo Rincon and Aaron Heilman, who played perhaps the most critical role with his strikeout of Omar Infante in the seventh inning. Then Manuel called on Pedro Feliciano for one batter and Brian Stokes for two innings -- hardly the set of relievers he envisioned during the midsummer months.
Oliver Perez pitched passably, allowing three runs in six innings, and extending his outing after seeming all but cooked after five. And Jose Reyes led off the game with a homer, scored three times and engineered his usual brand of havoc. There were positive points, to be sure. Yet the Mets could never manufacture any sort of significant lead, instead enduring three hours and 25 minutes of pure uncertainty.
So no, this was not October baseball, the crisp type that playoff teams are supposed to employ. This was jumbled baseball, a clump of accidents and coincidence -- at times nothing more than a series of gambles. The dice fell favorably for the Mets on Friday, and so they came away clutching a victory and first place.
Considering all the errors, all the walks and all the missed opportunities, this one easily could have gone the other way. But it didn't, which certainly counts for something. The Mets won. The Phillies lost. Even the Brewers, a leading candidate to win the NL Wild Card race, lost. And so the Mets drew yet another massive positive from what could have been an especially ugly night.
"Despite playing somewhat sloppy, we still were able to get it done," Manuel said. "And that's huge for us."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.