El Mago's 1st trick? A HR! Then, Mets walk-off

August 1st, 2021

NEW YORK -- When Javier Báez walked into Citi Field on Saturday for the first time as a Met, he received a savior’s welcome. A team photographer chronicled Báez’s entrance into the home clubhouse. A videographer scrambled to follow him toward the on-deck circle for his first at-bat, then all the way to the batter’s box. When Báez caught a routine popup in the second inning, fans showered him with an ovation. When Báez came to bat for the first time, they stood and cheered and chanted his name.

So imagine their elation when he launched a two-run homer in the sixth, cutting a three-run deficit to a single run. That hit gave the Mets the runway they needed to steal a 5-4 win from the Reds on Brandon Drury’s walk-off RBI single in the 10th.

“Clutch situations for Javy,” manager Luis Rojas said, “he’s built for things like that.”

Whether Báez indeed becomes the savior of a turbulent Mets season remains to be seen, but he’s certainly off to an ideal start. Batting with a man on base in the sixth inning, Báez launched a Wade Miley cutter 412 feet to left field, throwing the crowd into a frenzy.

Báez became the 30th player to homer in his Mets debut, and the first since Aaron Altherr two years ago. And this was a crowd that appreciated history, with many showing up early to honor the Mets Hall of Fame Class of 2021. After Báez returned to the dugout, those in attendance kept chanting until he obliged with a curtain call, extending both arms above his head in celebration.

“I’m really excited, man, really excited to hear the fans cheering my name,” Báez said. “That’s the biggest thing that motivates me to be out there, that I play for the fans. The love for the fans means so much to me. The love that they showed me tonight, it was really special.”

Three innings after Báez’s homer, the Mets tied things on Dominic Smith’s RBI single off Sean Doolittle with two outs in the ninth. In the top of the 10th, Edwin Díaz survived a leadoff walk and a wild pitch to keep the score knotted, stranding two baserunners in the process. Then Drury followed with his second game-winning hit in four games -- this one an opposite-field, walk-off single that marked his 11th hit in 15 at-bats since returning from the Minors earlier this week.

“I think in those situations, I really simplify everything,” Drury said. “I know it doesn’t take a homer or a big swing. It takes just a base hit.”

The victory marked the Mets’ eighth walk-off and 20th comeback win of the season.

“You can feel something building,” said starting pitcher Rich Hill, another recent trade acquisition. “We have two months left, and the atmosphere -- not only outside in the stadium during the game, [which] is incredible and is going to be continuing to build over the next two months -- but also the guys in the clubhouse. You start to feel this little steamroll come downhill and really pick up pace that we’re going to be an exciting team to watch down the stretch.”

If that vision comes true, it will be due in large part to Báez, an electric player who spoke pregame about “trying to bring that energy to the team, to the clubhouse.” He certainly has the credentials for it; just three years ago, Báez finished second in National League MVP Award voting, thanks to both his power -- his homer Saturday was his 23rd of the season -- and defense up the middle.

In New York, Báez figures to start most days at shortstop until his childhood friend, Francisco Lindor, returns from the injured list. At that point, Báez will likely shift to second base, forming one of the flashier double-play combinations in franchise history.

If Báez keeps hitting home runs along the way, the Mets will consider their Trade Deadline acquisition of him a coup.

“So much energy this kid brings,” Rojas said. “I’m excited. I was so excited at the beginning of the day. What a pro. What a presence in the clubhouse and out there on the field. We’re fortunate to have Javy right now.”