Reyes ignites New York with leadoff homer

Originally Published: October 18, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It shouldn't be possible for one October swing of the bat to change a game, change the course of postseason events, change the fate of so many lives.

It shouldn't be possible. But it happens. Ask Kirk Gibson. Ask Scott Podsednik. Ask Derek Jeter.

And now, some day, if the Mets go on to win this World Series, you can ask another man.

Jose Reyes
Winslow Townson/AP PhotoJose Reyes finished 3-for-4 with one RBI, two runs scored and two stolen bases.
Jose Reyes.

For a few minutes Wednesday night, the Mets looked like a team in danger of seeing their magical season skid off an October cliff. And then Reyes took his first swing of the evening.

A thigh-high Chris Carpenter two-seamer was heading his way. Reyes lifted the back of his front foot, planted, uncoiled and uppercutted a baseball through the ionized Flushing Meadow sky.

It sailed toward the 371-foot sign in right-center field. Juan Encarnacion took off after it from straightaway right field. Jim Edmonds burst toward the gap from his spot in center. And then it began to dawn on you -- and them -- what this was.

First, Edmonds began to slow down. Then Encarnacion reached the fence and hit the brakes. Only the baseball kept going. And going. Until it plopped in front of the giant scoreboard. And the baseball earth was suddenly spinning in a whole different orbit.

"He is the energizer," said Billy Wagner of Reyes, on a night when the local leadoff whiz's game-starting homer propelled the Mets to a 4-2, NLCS-tying victory that means the Mets and Cardinals have to stagger back to Shea Stadium on Thursday for one more Game 7 tug-of-war. "He sets up the whole team."

But what Reyes sets up, others have to finish. And this was a night of many heroes for these Mets -- not just Jose Reyes. Because in baseball, it is never that simple. It is never just about one man or one swing. So this, naturally, was a game with plot lines flying in all directions.

There was the rookie starting pitcher (John Maine) who unleashed 5 1/3 shutout innings on a lineup Tom Glavine couldn't contain the night before.

There was the bullpen parade that followed him, chewing up 14 more gigantic outs in this relief crew's ever-growing October collection. (With who knows how many more to come Thursday, in a Game 7 that will be started by -- gulp -- Oliver Perez.)

There was catcher Paul Lo Duca, driving in two humongous seventh-inning insurance runs -- and this team would need both of them, as it turned out.

And there was Wagner, the ninth-inning nervous breakdown waiting to happen, who just had to give up two runs in the ninth before he was allowed to shake hands -- and then smiled afterward and asked: "Hey, what did you expect?"

They all figured in a Game 6 win that didn't compute: John Maine beating Chris Carpenter? How does this stuff happen, anyway?

But afterward, it felt as if none of it could have happened without the effervescent leadoff man who pours the premium unleaded into this team's engine.

"This guy's amazing," said outfielder Cliff Floyd, three hours after Reyes' electrifying game-opening flash of the bat. "The first thing he does every day when he walks in the door is, he starts smiling. You having a bad day? Just look at him. That'll take care of it."

Well, to be honest, the Mets weren't having such a hot day until Reyes took over. They'd been kicked into a three-games-to-two pit the night before in a painful loss in St. Louis, with Glavine on the mound. Then they flew all night and collapsed into bed at dawn. And they were looking at a scary, scary pitching matchup between a six-game winner (Maine) and a defending Cy Young winner (Carpenter).

But three pitches into the bottom of the first inning, Reyes had rewritten their entire script, with his seventh leadoff homer of the year -- a blast that brought back memories of the last postseason leadoff shot launched in this stadium.

That one rocked through the night in Game 4 of the 2000 Subway Series. It was launched by Jeter, 21 hours after the Mets had won Game 3 and seemingly pulled themselves back into that World Series. So Derek Jeter hit a home run that felt like a statement.

And, on Wednesday, so did Jose Reyes.

"You're talking about two great leadoff guys in New York, guys who could quick-start an offense," said Mets third baseman David Wright. "For us, Jose is no different than Jeter was in that World Series."

Ah, but if you look closely enough, there are some major differences. For one thing, Jeter owns four more World Series rings than Reyes. But on the other hand, as he demonstrated again Wednesday, Reyes has a wide lead on Jeter in handshake repertoire.

"This guy's amazing. The first thing he does every day when he walks in the door is, he starts smiling. You having a bad day? Just look at him. That'll take care of it."
-- Cliff Floyd on Jose Reyes

He unveiled quite the dazzling assortment of them in this first inning, after blitzing through his home run trot, ending with a spectacular hair-rub extravaganza with his buddy, Anderson Hernandez, who apparently was added to the Mets' LCS roster for just this occasion.

"It's pretty impressive, what he comes up with," teammate Shawn Green said, with unabashed awe, of Reyes' handshake skills. "He's got like 10 different ones -- with the guys who are capable of it."

Meaning, in so many words, that Green obviously wasn't one of those guys.

"I wish I could come up with a handshake to do with him," Green said, sadly. "But I'm just not that coordinated."

At least Green is coordinated enough to sing the hottest song in Queens these days -- the old "Jose-O-Lay-O-Lay-O-Lay" song that reverberates around Shea Stadium just about any time Reyes does anything more intricate than hopping out of the dugout.

Now it's hard to walk more than three feet in any direction at Shea without running into somebody singing it, for no particular reason.

"I find myself singing it -- a lot," said Floyd. "You know how you go out sometimes, you go places and you hear it all the time? It just gets in your head, man. The only thing is, some people sing it wrong. It's not, 'Jose-Jo-Say-Jo-Say-Jose,' you know. I just figured that out about a week ago."

Hey, not a problem, for him or any other Met -- not as long as the rest of baseball can't figure out a way to stop Reyes from wreaking his inimitable havoc.

He wreaked it to the tune of 64 steals, 17 triples, 30 doubles, 122 runs scored and 19 homers this year. And Wednesday, after a relatively quiet October, he erupted for three hits, two runs scored and two steals. He also became the second player in history (joining Bert Campaneris) to thump a leadoff homer and steal two bases or more in the same game.

But most of all, said Wright, Reyes "forced the Cardinals to play catch-up the rest of the night" with that leadoff homer. Which was about the best present he ever could have handed his starting pitcher. Right?

"No," laughed pitching coach Rick Peterson. "He could have hit a grand slam."

Uh, wait. No, he couldn't. Even Jose Reyes can't hit a grand slam leading off a game, we're pretty sure.

"Yeah," Peterson conceded, "that would have been a record."

Maine, incidentally, didn't set any records, either. But the 25-year-old right-hander did win the first postseason start of his life. After squirming out of a bases-loaded mess in the top of the first inning, he faced 17 more hitters -- and forgot to give up a hit to any of them.

"I wasn't that nervous," Maine said afterward. "I knew what I had to do."

He was a guy who, clearly, had been making his manager nervous, though. Willie Randolph had proved that by yanking him out of his first two postseason starts before he'd even made it through the fifth inning. But Maine learned something very important Wednesday -- that not giving up a hit for four straight innings is a tremendous way to avoid getting hooked.

By winning, Maine also kept alive one of the most astounding trends ever dug up by the Elias Sports Bureau. He was the seventh rookie starter in history to start a postseason game with his team trailing, 3-2, in a best-of-seven series. Those rookies' teams now have won all seven of those games. Who knew?

And who knew John Maine would ever get a chance to be one of them? Eight months ago, he began spring training at No. 12 (yeah, 12) on this team's starting-pitcher depth chart, behind Jose Lima and the long-lost Yasaku Iriki. But now, his pitching coach says, Maine is a guy who could ride this breakthrough start to a whole 'nother level.

"Let me tell you something," Peterson said. "This was a moment that has a great opportunity to do that. Look at all the guys playing in the big leagues who get a big hit or hit a big homer and say, all of a sudden, 'I can do this,' and realize how to do it."

John Maine
Bill Kostroun/AP PhotoJohn Maine got a hero's welcome after pitching 5 1/3 shutout innings.
But doing it right now, as a starting pitcher for this team, sure doesn't mean having to do it from start to finish. The Mets have won six games in this postseason -- and gotten 67 outs from their bullpen in those wins. That's an average of more than 11 bullpen outs a game -- a nearly unprecedented way to try to win a World Series.

According to Elias, the only team in history that won at least six postseason games and got fewer innings per win from its starting pitchers than these Mets (15.8 outs per start) was the 2002 Angels, who won it all while averaging only 14.6 outs per start.

So at least the Mets know now this can be done this way. But their bullpen phone has been ringing so many times a night, you wonder if these guys are getting paid enough to take on all those phone-answering responsibilities.

"I don't know if we need to hire a secretary out there," laughed reliever Aaron Heilman. "I don't think we want that yet."

What they do want is no secret. They want to find a way to win one more baseball game on a Thursday night in October, a game that would complete their six-month expedition to a destination they were specifically built to travel to.

That destination is the World Series. And their next nine innings could well determine whether they look at their season as an inspirational success story or a devastating disappointment.

Incredibly, they will start those nine innings with Oliver Perez -- a man who won one regular-season game in the big leagues after Memorial Day. And the Mets will have to find a way for him -- or possibly him and 16 relievers -- to beat a pitcher (Jeff Suppan) who shut them out for eight innings Saturday in St. Louis.

But they're not in St. Louis anymore. So if Jeff Suppan and the Cardinals are going to beat them again, it will have to be in the wilderness of Shea Stadium.

"This is one crazy place, man," said Cliff Floyd. "So if they can beat us here, hey, I'll tip my hat to them."

And then, of course, he'll go back to trying to figure out the words to that Jose-O-Lay-O-Lay-O-Lay song.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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