Seven Braves up and six Braves down, courtesy of Edwin Diaz. Six outs from the world’s best closer on a night when the Mets showed power and poise and everything a team would want to show at the start of a five-game series with an oppressive rival.
Diaz has grown into a terrifying force of nature, a harder-throwing Mo Rivera. What odds would you have gotten on that in Vegas a few years ago?
So yes, Buck Showalter went for the summertime kill against Atlanta on Thursday night, asking Diaz to do something managers only ask closers to do in October. Showalter once had his Yankees starter, David Cone, throw 147 pitches in a sudden-death playoff game in Seattle. That was really pushing it.
This was kinda pushing it too, in the 105th game of the year. But these were the Braves, the franchise that has owned the Mets and the National League East for so long. Showalter felt the heartbeat of the game and, after Adam Ottavino barely survived the seventh, understood he had no other bullpen arm worthy of the moment.
The Mets’ manager made the right call. Diaz hadn’t appeared since Friday, and interrupted his five days off only to throw 14 or 15 bullpen pitches Tuesday. This game felt bigger than the calendar suggested, the Yankees had the night off and the whole city was watching to see if the Mets could land a first-round haymaker against the defending world champs.
Diaz was expecting to go an inning and a third, or an inning and two-thirds. With the Mets holding a 6-4 lead, he wasn’t expecting to go two full innings for the first six-out save of his life.
Nobody was expecting that on this sweltering night inside Citi Field. When the closer emerged from the bullpen door to start the eighth, his trademark trumpets were as silent as a church at midnight.
“They were doing maybe a promo or something,” Diaz said through a laugh.
That’s OK; he heard the song in his head as he started to warm up, throwing to that imagined beat, at least until the trumpets started finally blaring for real. He got Dansby Swanson on a one-pitch groundout before striking out Matt Olson looking and Austin Riley swinging.
Fans stood and cheered Diaz after he walked out of the dugout with his glove in his right hand and headed to the mound to open the ninth — the same fans who rightfully tried to boo him out of town in those dark, early hours of his Mets career.
“A lot of people don’t rebound from that here, or anywhere,” Showalter said. “Keep in mind that it wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing for him here. That’s what I learned; he’s taken that and drawn from it and actually used it as a springboard.”
Showalter appreciated the fact that Diaz conceded that nearly all of his problems in New York were self-inflicted. The manager spoke of the closer’s fearlessness and resiliency. That’s why he didn’t hesitate to ask him for six outs on Aug. 4, with four games left in this series and a whole lot of season left to play.
Diaz surrendered a single to Eddie Rosario to start the ninth, but that was that. Facing a two-out, 3-0 count against Orlando Arcia, Diaz got a meek grounder on the first-base side off a defensive check swing. He picked up the remains of his 28th and final pitch with his bare hand and jogged to first to record the final out himself.
It was a fitting end to a tense battle that gave the Mets a 4 ½-game lead in the division. After it was over, Showalter tried to downplay the significance of it all. He said five straight days off for a closer is almost unheard of. He said if Diaz had struggled some in the eighth, he might have replaced him for the ninth.
On the other hand, Showalter conceded, “I do think it’s that time of year where we kind of go to a different mode of operation sometimes.”
Especially when the Braves are in town.
“It’s not easy putting those ghosts to rest,” former Mets manager Bobby Valentine said Thursday afternoon. He should know.
Bobby V got the Mets job late in 1996, and made two trips to the National League Championship Series and one to the World Series before losing that job after 2002. Atlanta finished ahead of his team, in first place, every year, and beat his team in their thrilling 1999 NLCS.
Though Queens historians know the Braves have won 16 division titles to the Mets’ two since Atlanta joined the NL East, Valentine suggested that not many current Mets “have wounds that they’re trying to heal that have been inflicted by the Braves.” He was then reminded that the 2021 Mets led the NL East for nearly three months before Atlanta seized it on the way to a World Series title.
Back to the ghosts it was.
“The Mets have got a thing,” Valentine said, “and it’s got to be exorcised.
“I look at the schedule and see how many games are left with the Braves, and I say I wish there weren’t that many games left with the Braves. Beating them never felt like just winning a game. It felt like winning a game and a half.”
It actually felt like the Mets won two games Thursday night. One against Atlanta, and one against the notion that Edwin Diaz couldn’t do what he just did.