The Montreal expos began their visit to New York City last weekend with all the bright expectations of a confident first-place club. By Sunday night the trip had turned into a nightmare far, far worse than Jason taking Manhattan. Horror of horrors, before the Expos' very eyes the Mets had risen from the grave at Shea Stadium, clawing their way back into contention just when it looked as if Montreal was ready to slam down the lid of the coffin.
With dramatic come-from-behind wins on Saturday and Sunday, the Mets completed a back-from-the-beyond sweep of Montreal and sent a shiver through the entire National League East. The Expos, with the three defeats at Shea, were dragged into a tie for first with the Cubs; sitting four games back were St. Louis—and the dread Mets.
For New York, the ministreak redeemed some lost souls: Righthander Ron Darling finally came up with some numbers to his liking. Outfielder Kevin McReynolds finally threw all of his well-chronicled weight around. Slugger Darryl Strawberry finally delivered in a pinch. And shortstop Kevin Elster finally contributed some hitting that was as valuable as his fielding. All of which was a little ominous for the rest of the league. "I believe, deep down, teams are watching us," said Mets third baseman Howard Johnson. "They might not admit it, but we're the ones they all look at."
Hampered by injuries and revamped by trades, this had been a club of fits and starts. Or make that fists from the start: In March, on the usually congenial occasion of team photo day, Strawberry and first baseman Keith Hernandez came to blows. Second baseman Gregg Jefferies, everybody's favorite phenom, floundered from the outset. In July, New York followed a six-game winning streak with seven straight losses. "All year, what we've expected to happen hasn't happened," said catcher Barry Lyons before the series. "It's been a struggle since the first day of spring training."
No win could have made that struggle more worthwhile than the one on Saturday night, when the Mets were forced to call on every measure of their reserve. Darling, especially, pulled out all the stops. He entered the game with an uncharacteristic 8-9 record and a pair of unfamiliar digits on his jersey—15. "Number 12 really hasn't been showing up this year," said Darling, "so I thought I'd try another number." Number 15 went the distance in the dripping heat, relying on his fastball, scattering six hits and toweling off with ammonia water in the dugout to help invigorate himself.
But through the first seven innings, Expo lefthander Mark Langston, sticking by his number 12, was more than Darling's match. He checked the Mets on six hits, one of them a McReynolds homer to lead off the second, and was grittily protecting a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, and Elster on second and Juan Samuel on first, Langston locked the Mets MVP candidate, Johnson, into a crucial power struggle. Johnson, whom the Mets had unsuccessfully tried to deal for Langston before Montreal plucked the pitcher from Seattle in May, fouled off six pitches to every possible compass point before grounding out to first on Langston's 135th pitch of the game.
"I'm sure he worked more than he wanted to," said Johnson, "because I know I did." Said Langston, "He basically stuck a fork in me. After that, I was done."
Indeed he was, and soon some other maligned Mets sprang to life. McReynolds greeted reliever Tim Burke with a single to start the eighth. Just four days before, McReynolds had hit for the cycle, but he had decided not to share the moment with the New York media. McReynolds is known as K-Mac to his teammates, but some scribes had taken to calling him Mary Kay Mac because, despite his .285 average, most of his hits seemed cosmetic. A few had also made an issue in print of McReynolds's chunky frame, though Mets trainer Steve Garland said McReynolds's 224 pounds were only four more than his heft of a year ago. Deciding to address the press once again last Wednesday, K-Mac was mean, if not lean: "It's like, 'Country boy signs big contract, gets fat.' That's a bunch of——."
With one out and McReynolds on first, up stepped Strawberry, whose recent 8-for-48 skid had dropped his average to .229. Manager Davey Johnson had rested him against Langston, saying, "I think he's on his way back. But this guy here could put him back in a slump." Pinch-hitting against Burke, however, Strawberry stroked an opposite-field double to tie the game. Like McReynolds, he, too, was in a less than talkative frame of mind, telling one reporter in a less than hospitable way last Friday, "Stay away from my locker." Said Darling of his friend, "If anything, the problem he suffers from is trying too hard."
Finally, Elster smacked a two-out single to drive home Strawberry and send 46,175 fans into delirium. Earlier this season, Elster set a major league record by fielding 88 consecutive games at short without an error, but his .200 average had put his playing time in jeopardy. Hearing about his woes every day had only made it tougher. "The power of the press is absolute, especially in this town," Elster said in the clubhouse. "Just ask number 9 [Jefferies] over there. You could write songs about it."