Mets give raucous crowd walk-off thrill

June 27th, 2021

NEW YORK -- The largest crowd at Citi Field in 21 months stressed and fretted and booed and cheered, hanging on every pitch but hardly thrilled with all of them. The Mets had seemed primed to lose on multiple occasions Saturday, due in large part to their own mistakes. And yet in each instance, the Phillies gave them -- and their fans -- new life.

So it came to be that Michael Conforto found himself at the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth inning, with the decibel level rising around him. Conforto swung through two Héctor Neris splitters, eliciting some grumbles from the crowd, before fouling off another. Then, with two strikes, he unloaded a line drive just deep enough to force center fielder Odúbel Herrera backward, resulting in a walk-off sacrifice fly and a 4-3 Mets win over the Phillies.

It was New York’s second walk-off in as many days. In three straight games, the Mets have brought the potential winning run to the plate during their final turn at bat.

“We never feel like we’re out of games,” said outfielder Kevin Pillar, who hit a game-tying homer in the seventh. “We always feel like we’re one hit, we’re one at-bat away from getting hot.”

The spirit at Citi is reminiscent to the late summer of 2019, when the Mets delivered walk-off after walk-off in front of their home fans. Unlike two years ago, the Mets have not proven consistent enough offensively to rip off a stretch of 15 wins in 16 games, or anything close to it. But also unlike two years ago, they’ve positioned themselves as the team to catch in the NL East -- not the team doing the chasing. Despite an offense that ranks 29th in the Majors in runs per game, the Mets have strung together enough pitching, defense and a certain je ne sais quoi to maintain first place for seven consecutive weeks.

“The things we’re doing this year, they feel different to me,” Conforto said.

Saturday provided the latest such example. In what was statistically the worst start of Jacob deGrom’s season, the Mets fell behind by a run in both the second and sixth innings. On each occasion, the Mets came back to tie things -- first on a José Peraza RBI double in the second, then on Pillar’s homer in the seventh. Two innings later, the Mets found themselves trailing again when Edwin Díaz hit a batter, walked another, uncorked a wild pitch and allowed a sacrifice fly. But again, the Mets roared back, taking advantage of a Rhys Hoskins error to load the bases with no outs.

As the crowd of 29,205 whipped into a frenzy, creating what Hoskins called “a pretty hostile environment,” Luis Guillorme drew a game-tying, bases-loaded walk off Neris. Two batters later, Conforto lined his sacrifice fly to center field to end things.

“You could feel the energy in the stadium,” Pillar said. “Today was hopefully the first of many. It felt as close to playoff atmosphere as you could get for a Saturday afternoon game.”

The Mets are trying to remain conscious of such luxuries, following a year in which no fans walked through the turnstiles at Citi Field. They are trying to cherish these types of wins as much as possible, to the extent that they’ve changed their postgame clubhouse celebrations. This year, the Mets name a player and pitcher of the game after every win, then have those players make short speeches. They play music in the clubhouse after both wins and losses, in an attempt to maintain what manager Luis Rojas calls a “neutral” attitude day after day.

Many of these changes were instituted by Francisco Lindor, who learned them during the Indians’ World Series run in 2016. The Mets have molded them to their standards, infusing them with their own personality.

“It’s a group mindset right now,” Rojas said.

As the Mets learned in 2019, camaraderie by itself is not enough for teams to achieve their goals. But these Mets feel they also have enough talent to continue winning games, to stay in first place, and to keep providing dramatic moments when when given late chances to excel.

“You go out there and try to win a baseball game every day, and I think that’s what you see this group doing,” deGrom said. “They play till the last out and are locked in from the first pitch of the game till the last pitch of the game. If we keep doing that, hopefully we like where we end up.”