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It was supposed to be a midsummer peek at September, a four-game clash between the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Shea Stadium that would reveal who was destined to be master of the National League East. By late Monday night, after the Pirates averted a sweep by beating Doc Gooden in the last game, 7-2, the immediate issue had been settled three games to one in favor of New York, which led Pittsburgh by four games. Left unsettled, however, was the question that has been nagging New York for weeks: How solid are the Mets? And beyond the unmistakable substance of their pitching, what is real and what is mere illusion? Somehow that lead looked tenuous.
Just as pertinent in Pittsburgh—where, by the way, the two teams resume their rivalry in another four-game series this weekend—was the question of whether the very young Pirates (pitcher Bob Walk, at age 31, is the old man of the team) have the experience or the pitching to give the Mets serious chase in the final two months of the season.
The Mets, with their oddly hollow bats and their zombielike approach to the game, have become the most puzzling of major league teams. Last spring, remember, they were odds-on to win it all; they appeared to be a juggernaut. As things went during much of July, though, the Mets were more naught than jugger, especially with first baseman Keith Hernandez out of the lineup with a hamstring injury. They may have looked invincible in the first six weeks of the season—on May 24 their record was 30-12—but from that date to the eve of the Pittsburgh series, they had been 30-28 and had the look of a ball club as mediocre as those numbers.
The Pirates, meanwhile, with good pitching and hitting, had gone on a summer storm. Over one span in early July they clicked off nine straight victories, while the Mets obligingly fell into a swoon. On July 20, the Pirates were only a game behind, and the Mets' ticket-office switchboard was besieged by callers. In fact, the confrontation at Shea became the first four-game series to be sold out in advance in the franchise's history. The Pirates came strutting into town, eager to get on with it.
"I'm really pumped up," said Bobby Bonilla, the brawny, switch-hitting third baseman, all of 25 years old. "I've never been involved in something like this." Of course, the series also provided a grand forum for words of wisdom. Consider those from "Dandy" Andy Van Slyke, who not only is the best fielding centerfielder in the National League, but also has been having such an outstanding year at the plate that MVP talk has followed him everywhere. Before the first game, Van Slyke earnestly uttered the malapropism of the week: "If we go out and play the best baseball we can and don't beat ourselves and they still beat us—then we can hang our heads high."
Pirate heads were hanging high and low all weekend. They had come to town in a bit of a hitting funk—in truth, they could do very little with Dodger pitching in late July—and here they were in New York, about to face the best rotation in baseball, in this order: Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and Gooden. "We've never been in a spot like this," said Pirate catcher Mike LaValliere. "A split of the series would be fine for us."
That was not to be, and it soon became apparent why. The Mets are in first place because their starting rotation is the deepest in the game; that's what decided the series, just as it may ultimately decide the division race. In fact, with both teams slumping at the plate, pitching dominated the series on both sides. After the third game, a dejected Jim Leyland, the Pirate manager, said, "We're pitching good; they're pitching great. They're hitting a little; we're not hitting at all. That about sums it up."
For New York, the first three games were 1988 classics, each an example of what has lately become the Mets' two-step style of winning games: 1) pitch magnificently and 2) wait for one mighty swing of the bat.
In the opener on Friday, Ojeda baffled the Pirates with a thesaurus of pitches that skimmed the black. Pirate lefthander John Smiley threw brilliantly too, and the game was scoreless until the eighth. Then Mets shortstop Kevin Elster, of all people, mashed a Smiley changeup—"That was as hard as I could hit it"—into the leftfield bullpen. That was the only mistake Smiley made all evening. He lost 1-0.
That set the tone for the weekend. In Game 2 on Saturday, with Mets lefty Fernandez popping fastballs, the hapless Pirates could manage only four hits in seven innings, and none against lefty Randy Myers in two innings of relief. The game-winner this time was a home run by third baseman Howard Johnson in the fourth inning, and the Mets won 3-0. In the clubhouse after the game, the Pirates milled about in stony silence. Van Slyke, who struck out twice and popped up twice, looked stunned as he wandered across the room toward LaValliere's locker.