NEW YORK—On the third pitch of Carlos Beltran's fifth trip to the plate in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last Thursday, with the bases loaded, the Mets down 3-1, and the count no balls and two strikes, the Cardinals' interim closer, Adam Wainwright, delivered the same pitch he had used to strike out pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd earlier in the inning: a nasty back-door curveball that general manager Omar Minaya would later describe as "unhittable."
Beltran, frozen by the pitch, could only hope that home plate umpire Tim Welke would see it as a ball, granting a 1-2 count and the chance to battle on.
After an emphatic strike call that dashed those hopes and silenced a cacophonous Shea Stadium crowd, Welke himself looked a bit stunned as he removed his helmet. His hair matted by sweat and his face blank, he lingered behind home-plate for a moment before seeming to realize his whereabouts and scurrying into the dugout.
Perhaps he joined the 56,000 fans in attendance in disbelief. How could a season in which the electrifying Mets had dominated the National League, a postseason in which they had, through total reliance on their bullpen, fought the notion that a team can't attain playoff success without strong starting pitching, and a final game—which featured an inspiring start by formerly discarded pitcher Oliver Perez, a homer-saving catch by utility outfielder Endy Chavez in the sixth-inning, and a ninth-inning rally to load the bases—end on a called third strike?
That strike, that Beltran tracked to St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina's glove but could not swing at, will be the series' defining image, and will no doubt haunt Met fans' psyches until the clean slate of next summer.
The reality, however, is that the Mets underachieved throughout the NLCS. While they were scrappy and resilient and unconventional, and managed to overcome the odds of a ragtag starting rotation, they were also wildly inconsistent and often offensively unproductive.
They managed to hold the game's greatest slugger, first baseman Albert Pujols, to one homerun, but gave up damning longballs to such unlikely candidates as So Taguchi, pitcher Jeff Suppan, David Eckstein, and two to Yadier Molina, including the game-winning two-run shot in the ninth inning of Game 7, off of Aaron Heilman.
They were unfazed by the pitching of former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, but baffled by Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver.
The two young icons of the Mets' future showed their inexperience: shortstop Jose Reyes, besides a Game 6 outburst, was kept mostly silent at the plate and on the basepaths, and David Wright, the team's season RBI leader with 116, was held to two in the series, and batted .160.
Game 4, in which the Mets exploded for twelve runs on the strength of four homers—two of them by Beltran—was the only instance in which the team managed to replicate the supreme offensive capability they had showcased all season.
And while the bullpen was a blessing otherwise, closer Billy Wagner, who had a series ERA of 16.88, lost Game 2, almost blew a four-run lead in Game 6, and would have been pitching the ninth inning of Game 7 instead of Heilman if he had instilled more confidence in manager Willie Randolph.
While there is surely blame to be placed, what separates the Mets from their pinstriped counterparts in the Bronx is that heads will not roll following this disappointing exit from championship contention. Randolph's job is safe, and Beltran will not be threatened with trade possibilities.
While the Yankees are forever trying to recapture that great success that has defined their franchise but become so enigmatic in recent years, the general consensus for the Mets is that this is only the slightly thwarted beginning of a great Flushing transformation.