There is no doubt the New York Mets have had their share of lows in the last three seasons. For every up, there were at least two downs. It’s the sort of luck that pushes the fan base to the brink; sports are supposed to be fun, so what happens when they’re not fun anymore? But after reaching the valley, maybe staying there for a while, teams will find there is nowhere to go but up. Sometimes, all it takes is a moment. And oh, what a moment that came with the penultimate game in our Amazin’ Ten countdown.
#2 – The Nieu Year, or: The Decline of Western Civilization (June 16)
The sweep of the Yankees seemed a lifetime past, and the Mets had hit rock bottom by Father’s Day. The team had lost nine of its first 11 in June, including not one but two sweeps at the hands of the hapless Miami Marlins. Ike Davis had been demoted the week before, and New York seemed destined to sink below the bottom of the rock, losing the first two games of a home series with the last-place Chicago Cubs.
Jeremy Hefner didn’t make it seem better in the first inning, allowing three singles in four batters, including the Alfonso Soriano base hit to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. David Wright lined a two-out double in the bottom of the first, but Marlon Byrd’s flyout put an end to that brief rally.
The rest of the game was pretty unremarkable for both sides, with Chicago’s only other runs coming on a play the Mets must have taken straight from Angels in the Outfield. With two on and two out in the top of the fifth, David Wright handled a hard groundball from Soriano. After double-clutching, Wright’s throw sailed over the head of Daniel Murphy at first. As Starlin Castro raced home, Murphy’s throw zoomed right by John Buck at the plate. The ball bounced off the backstop and into the arm of a charging Omar Quintanilla, who in a rush to get Nate Schierholtz at the plate overthrew Buck again. Soriano made it all the way to third, and the Cubs had a 3-0 lead on not one, not two, but three errant throws by the Mets infield. Citi Field had become Circus Maximus.
Meanwhile, Chicago starter Matt Garza was giving New York batters fits all afternoon, finishing with seven scoreless three-hit innings. James Russell managed the eighth inning without any damage. Carlos Torres and David Aardsma kept the Mets close after Hefner’s five innings were over, but with only three hits in the whole game, a three-run hole seemed like the Pit in The Dark Knight Rises. Spoiler alert: Bruce Wayne climbed out of the Pit.
The Mets were about to climb out too, because the Chicago Cubs were giving them a length of rope. Mets fans may think they’ve suffered through a string of unreliable closers; Cubs fans got that in one guy: Carlos Marmol, the man who had no right to be a closer and had not since 2010. The man who would be the New York Mets’ best chance.
Marlon Byrd promptly broke up the shutout with a towering solo home run to the middle of the left field upper deck. Lucas Duda then worked a bases-loaded walk, and Buck grounded a single into right. All of a sudden, the Mets had the tying runs on base, and Quintanilla’s sac bunt put them in scoring position. That brought up Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who had struggled so mightily since his hot debut in 2012. Coming into this game, Nieuwenhuis was hitting a dismal .103 with a .299 OPS; in a baseball world where the Interstate is something to avoid, Kirk was fighting just to stay on. With the pitcher’s spot to follow, the Cubs had the man they wanted up at the plate.
And Nieuwenhuis wouldn’t have it any other way. With one swing on a 1-0 fastball, Kirk struck. The ball flew off the bat at a blistering pace, soaring to right field and only stopping when it rammed into the Pepsi Porch. As suddenly as many of the 30,000 fans in attendance will ever see, the Mets had turned a 3-0 loss into a 4-3 victory. They had won the ballgame. Nieuwenhuis glided around the bases and leaped into a mob of teammates at home plate, and the team celebrated. Oh, how they celebrated. The celebration was even catered: Justin Turner supplied not just whipped cream but a full-fledged apple pie to Kirk’s face. The party was so wild it attracted the ire of Bob Costas, who decried the antics as “another indication of the ongoing decline of western civilization.” You can have your ivory tower on this day, Bob, and we’ll just have fun playing baseball.
The stunning turnaround would mark the end of Carlos Marmol’s career in Chicago – he was designated for assignment almost immediately afterward and was traded to the Dodgers soon after. As for Nieuwenhuis, it was the beginning of a brief renaissance: he got his average back up to .233 by July 5, culminating in a four-hit, five-RBI showing that day in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the turnaround would not last: he would manage only four hits in his next 35 at-bats and was sent back to the minors in late July. With Juan Lagares established in center field and the corner outfield slots upgraded through free agency, Kirk Nieuwenhuis’s time with the Mets is likely all but over.
Nieuwenhuis may have been a Quadruple-A ballplayer, but if you think Kirk will be forgotten as a Met, think again. Before the June 16 game, the Mets were 23-36 in 2013. In the 103 games after his miracle home run, they went 51-52. Yes, it was still a losing record, and the Mets finished the season 74-88, but one game under .500 is far better than 13 under. New York played the game differently post-Nieuwenhuis’s heroics: they played with speed, they played with dignity, and before the Matt Harvey injury in late August, they played a fun brand of baseball. Sure, the Mets have a long way to go before guys are hitting thrilling walk-off home runs in the middle of October, not June, but they are finally on their way. And it all began with a Happy Nieu Year.
June 16: the 2nd most Amazin’ game of 2013. And with that, we’ve got one game to go. Or maybe it’s two games rolled into one day. You’ll have to come back Friday to find out.
Amazin’ Ten of 2013
#2 – The Nieu Year (June 16)