Sunday, August 14, 2011

An Uphill Battle

It is inevitable -- at some point in everyone's life, adversity will strike.

Whether it is a medical condition, trouble with a relationship, family issue or job can present us with various challenges to test our mettle. How we respond to them can determine one's physical and mental toughness.

On the Major League Baseball diamond, adversity shows itself in various ways. Injuries, slumps, losing streaks, issues with playing time and controversial umpire calls all contribute to making a long, 162-game season even longer.

The Mets have dealt with their fair share of controversy this season

The 2011 New York Mets have been dealing with adversity all season long. At various points, their depleted roster included an injured starting 1st baseman, 3rd baseman, shortstop, center fielder, and ace starting pitcher. During the last month, the Mets traded away their closer and All-Star right fielder.

In addition, the Mets were mired in financial controversy...thanks to the Bernard Madoff scandal and resulting lawsuits from his elaborate Ponzi scheme.

The Mets have found it difficult to escape Bernard Madoff's shadow

As a result, baseball experts wouldn't give New York a chance of contending in the National League this season.

Despite those obstacles, the Mets had battled their way to a 56-56 record -- and sat just 8 games out of a playoff spot -- as they entered last Sunday's (August 7th, 2011) game against the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves, meanwhile, carried some big expectations wherever they went. At 65-49, Atlanta had the 2nd-best record in the NL -- trailing the Philadelphia Phillies for the East Division lead, but holding a 3 1/2 game edge for the Wild Card.

The Mets trailed Atlanta by 8 games for the NL Wild Card as they entered Sunday's game

The threat of rain forced the two teams to abandon batting practice on the field before the game...and as a result, kept many fans from arriving at the ballpark early. For those who did show up during the morning, however...they were treated to quiet, uncrowded walks along the Citi Field concourse, and virtually no lines at the concession stands.

The rain held off...and as the crowd of 29,853 settled into their seats for the game, the Mets' starting lineup read like this: Jose Reyes - SS, Justin Turner - 2B, David Wright - 3B, Scott Hairston - RF, Jason Bay - LF, Angel Pagan - CF, Ronny Paulino - C, Nick Evans - 1B, Dillon Gee - P. Unfortunately for manager Terry Collins, though, he would soon be forced to improvise.

The Mets' starting lineup wouldn't remain intact for very long

The game was scoreless in the top of the 2nd inning, when Braves' outfielder Jason Heyward connected on a long, solo home run into the right-center field bleacher seats. The big story, however, occurred in the bottom-half of the frame, when -- during a Mets' rally -- Willie Harris was announced as a pinch-hitter for Jose Reyes.

Willie Harris pinch-hits for Jose Reyes in the 2nd inning

Suddenly, Mets' fans were distracted. As Harris blooped a single into center field, giving New York a 2-1 lead...many in the Citi Field crowd were searching for information about Reyes on their smartphones. Was it an injury? Illness?

Not only was the Mets' present game affected by this development, but potentially their future. With Reyes becoming a free agent at the end of the season, many were left to wonder what effect another injury would have on the star shortstop's open market value.

Any Jose Reyes injury could have lasting effects beyond 2011

The game forged on...and after the Braves tied it at 2 on a Michael Bourn fielder's choice in the 4th inning, a power surge gave them the lead in the 5th.

After Dillon Gee retired the first two Atlanta hitters in the inning, he walked Heyward. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez then blasted his 9th home run of the season, a 422-foot bomb that hit the facing of the 2nd deck in left field. That was immediately followed by rookie outfielder Jose Constanza's 1st career homer into the right-center field bullpen.

Jason Heyward greets Alex Gonzalez after his go-ahead 2-run homer

As some scattered Braves' fans did the "Tomahawk Chop" in celebration of the 5-2 Atlanta lead, Mets' fans groaned. Gee -- a rookie who entered the game with a 10-3 record -- was suddenly getting knocked around.

Dillon Gee was knocked out after the 5th inning

Meanwhile, Atlanta's prized pitching prospect, Mike Minor, was holding his own against the Mets. Called into duty after starter Jair Jurrjens went on the disabled list, the lefty Minor had allowed just 2 runs in the first 5 innings.

Atlanta rookie Mike Minor did relatively well in his emergency spot start

The Mets would make a move in the 6th, scoring 2 runs against Minor to cut the Braves' lead to 5-4. Pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy came through with an RBI infield-single, and that was followed by Harris' 2nd RBI hit of the day. Citi Field was buzzing once again.

Willie Harris produces his 2nd run-scoring hit of the day

In the top of the 7th inning, the Mets were dealt a bad break. Murphy, who went into the game at 2nd base on a double-switch, had to leave the game after Constanza unintentionally slid into his leg during a stolen base attempt.

Suddenly, the Mets were in a bind. They had already lost Reyes to what was later reported as a hamstring injury, and now Murphy was forced out with an apparent knee injury. Murphy had just replaced Harris on the double-switch, meaning that New York was now without 3 middle-infielders!

Manager Terry Collins was forced to get creative. Scott Hairston moved from right field to 2nd base, while Lucas Duda entered the game as the new right fielder. It was a stop-gap measure, and it was only the beginning in a series of moves.

Daniel Murphy is helped off the field following his 7th inning injury

Still trailing 5-4 and now undermanned, New York rallied in the home-half of the 7th against Atlanta reliever Eric O'Flaherty. A two-out single by Bay, followed by a double by Angel Pagan tied things up, 5-5. Mets' fans clapped and cheered, appreciative of the grit that their team has showed all season.

Angel Pagan's 7th inning double tied the ballgame

As the game shifted into the 8th inning, Collins' defensive creativity was taken to a whole new level. Third baseman David Wright moved to shortstop...his first game there since high school. Justin Turner, who moved to short after Reyes' injury, moved back to 2nd base. Hairston went from 2nd base to right field. Duda moved from right field to 1st base. Finally, Nick Evans moved from 1st to 3rd base. It was reminiscent of the rotation during a gym volleyball game.

The Mets' lineup had taken on a decidedly different look by the 8th inning

Later in the inning, backup catcher Josh Thole replaced Paulino on another double-switch. In a series of moves that were mostly borne from necessity, partly borne from strategy...the Mets had used almost every available position player -- and it was only the 8th inning!

During that frame, Braves' 2nd baseman Dan Uggla hit a clean single to right field. While it had no impact on the game's outcome, it extended a personal milestone. Uggla now had a career-long 28-game hitting streak.

Dan Uggla's opposite-field single extended his hitting streak to 28 games

The game remained 5-5 into the 9th inning. With Bobby Parnell on the mound for New York, the Braves came through in the clutch. A leadoff single by Gonzalez, a sacrifice bunt, and a pinch-walk by Eric Hinske set the stage for Atlanta.

Striding to the plate was Chipper Jones, the Mets' longtime nemesis. In 224 career games against New York, Jones had amassed a .318 batting average, with 47 homers and 147 RBI's. On a 1-1 count, he laced a Parnell pitch through the hole on the right side of the infield, scoring Gonzalez to give the Braves a 6-5 lead.

Gonzalez slides in with the go-ahead run on Chipper Jones' 9th inning single

Atlanta would close things out in the bottom of the 9th, as Braves' closer Craig Kimbrel notched his 34th save of the season.

The Braves celebrate a hard-fought win

For the Mets, it was a heartbreaking loss. Despite being shorthanded for much of the game, they had battled back from a 5-2 deficit. Moral victories are only worth so much, however...especially when a team is desperately trying to hold onto their faint playoff hopes.

So close, but yet so far for the Mets

Still, the moral victory has been part of a Mets fan's enjoyment of the 2011 season. Yes, it can be maddening at times...but for a team that was written off by the pundits during Spring Training and suffered significant injuries along the way, a .500 record in August is quite an accomplishment. Sunday's game was a microcosm of the journey.

Will this season's stumbling blocks lead to more success for the Mets in future years? While that answer is unknown, this much is certain -- good, bad or mediocre, it's been a memorable 2011 for the franchise and its fans.

The Mets (mostly out of necessity) used 18 of their 25 roster players in this game

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