Sweet relief as Mets take opener
New bullpen preserves win for Johan; Murphy goes yard
CINCINNATI -- Here in the cradle of National League baseball, the Mets won their Opening Day game on Monday afternoon because they played a wonderful National League game -- tight, taught and filled with tension.
After more than a month of inconsequential games, the Mets asserted themselves in their first opportunity, beating the Reds, 2-1, in chilly and damp conditions. And the Mets did so in a manner that encouraged them, their manager and everyone else, with their revamped bullpen playing a primary role.
"Of course I like that we won," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "And I really liked the way we won."
Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel can only hope the team's 31st Opening Day victory in the past 40 seasons was some sort of trailer for the 161 games that remain, that Sean Green, J.J. Putz and Frankie Rodriguez will succeed as they did in relief of Johan Santana and that Daniel Murphy will be what he was on Monday, an important component.
It was Santana who pitched the first 5 2/3 innings, allowing the Reds only three hits. It was Murphy who provided both runs -- one with his third big league home run in the fifth inning against losing pitcher Aaron Harang, and the other with a bases-loaded infield out against left-hander Daniel Ray Herrera in the sixth. He also protected the Mets' lead with a handsome running catch in the sixth.
And it was the three relievers who did their Nasty Boys act once Murphy was done living up to his manager's expectations.
"He is such a good young hitter," Manuel said, still marveling at Murphy hitting a 3-2 pitch for a home run after falling behind 0-2 in the count. He went as far to compare Murphy with Frank Thomas.
When the Mets arrived at Great American Ball Park, they had every reason to suspect this game would run short -- if it even began. The conditions were comparable to those that interrupted Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, but colder. The start was delayed 13 minutes as it was, and ultimately, the game was abbreviated in a different way. Green, Putz and K-Rod made the final 3 1/3 innings lopsided, even though they were scoreless.
Manuel summoned Green with two outs in the sixth inning after the Reds had scored, when they had a runner in scoring position and before Edwin Encarnacion could get a swing at Santana. The Mets needed 10 outs to win the game, and it took 11 batters. Green retired his four. Putz allowed a walk in the eighth, and K-Rod produced a quiet ninth to earn his first National League save.
"They deserve all the credit," Santana said. "That's when the game was won."
More to the point to anyone who witnessed the Mets' slippery slope last September, that was when the game wasn't lost. The last nine outs of a Mets victory in Washington in September required six pitchers. The contrast was stark.
"It's the way you want it to work, the way you draw it up in January," Minaya said.
"Our bullpen may be one of our best assets," David Wright said. "They were lights-out the first game of the season. They really didn't give them one chance."
Encarnacion has four hits, two of them home runs, in five career at-bats against Santana. Two of the four walks Santana allowed in his 5 2/3 innings were to Encarnacion, one leading off an inning, the other with a runner on second. That's called managing an inning.
Manuel managed the sixth. He said he walked to the mound with an open mind. Santana laughed as he told what he saw: "He asked me how I felt. I said, 'Fine.' Then he took the ball out of my glove [and said], 'I'm bringing Greenie in.'"
Murphy made a running catch in left-center of Encarnacion's well-struck fly ball, saving Green once. Wright made a terrific diving stop and threw out Alex Gonzalez in the eighth.
"Everyone saves everyone else," Green said.
Santana pointed to Green when asked who saved the game. Sometimes the save does come in the seventh.
Santana, too, had been spared by an outfield play. After he walked Encarnacion to start the second, Ramon Hernandez hit a sinking line drive toward right-center that Ryan Church momentarily lost in the lights. Sliding and hoping to keep the ball from bouncing past him, Church, unintentionally tapped the ball to himself like a football wide receiver, made the reception, stood up and doubled Encarnacion off first.
"We pitched well and played good defense," Manuel said. "We could have done more with the bats."
The Mets left 12 runners on base, producing one hit in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position. And that hit led to an out -- Wright was thrown out at the plate by right fielder Jay Bruce in the fifth. Not everything worked as well as Manuel had hoped.
But the Mets got one out of the way right away, as they have so often.
"I guess we're pretty good at Opening Day," Santana said. "I didn't know we were that good. Now we have to be good for a lot more games. I think we can be."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.