NEW YORK — There have been 871 games played at Citi Field in its 11-year history, but only a handful as important as the one played between the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals Friday night, and even fewer that sent the fans home happy.
There were seven postseason games played here in 2015, including three World Series games which could have drawn the Mets closer to a championship against the Kansas City Royals. But they wound up losing two of those three, including that soul-crushing Game 5, in which Matt Harvey persuaded then-manager Terry Collins to let him pitch the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead. That decision cost the Mets the game and the series.
The last important game played here was in 2016, another disappointment when the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner shut them out in the NL wild card game.
For whatever reason, Citi Field, the Mets’ $1 billion replacement for Shea Stadium, has never been very kind to its resident team. Nor have the Mets and their fans ever been able to establish the place as a true home-field advantage or somewhere that opposing teams feared to play.
Since Citi’s opening in 2009, the Mets’ home record is 431-432, and their postseason record has fallen right in line at 4-4.
For much of Friday night, it looked like another crushing loss in another important game on their home field was in store for the Mets and their long-suffering fans.
Although the Mets had won 13 of their last 14 to climb back, most improbably, into the NL wild card hunt, there was an inescapable air of foreboding since the vast majority of those wins had come at the expense of some truly horrific teams. The Nationals, 2 1/2 games ahead of them in the NL East, were one of the few good teams the Mets had faced in nearly a month.
If there ever was a time for the clock to strike midnight on this team, this would be the night.
But this one had a different ending. This time, the home team won. This time, the fans left the relatively new ballpark in Flushing with a reason to believe that just maybe something special might happen here this year.
‘’Today was probably the most fun I’ve had up here in the big leagues,’’ said Michael Conforto, whose liner over the head of Washington right fielder Adam Eaton in the ninth inning drove in the winning run to give the Mets a rousing 7-6 walk-off win. “What a game.’’
Twice the Mets had to overcome three-run deficits, the second time in the bottom of the ninth against Sean Doolittle, the Nationals closer who’s been pretty good this season against everyone but the Mets. He blew a save against them on opening day in Washington, blew another in New York in May, and has allowed 10 earned runs in his last three appearances against the Mets, totaling 1 2/3 innings.
This time, Doolittle allowed a leadoff double to J.D. Davis, a single to Wilson Ramos and a game-tying home run to Todd Frazier before he got a single out. Five batters later, he left a fastball up and away to Conforto, who swatted it over the drawn-in outfield to win the game.
Within seconds, Conforto was shirtless on the field, his uniform top having been torn off by Pete Alonso, whose two-run home run in the bottom of the fourth broke up Stephen Strasburg’s no-hitter and shutout and breathed life back into a Citi Field crowd that had gone comatose after the Nats took a 3-0 lead off Marcus Stroman.
“I was just happy,’’ Alonso said. “I didn’t know what to do so I ripped his jersey off. It was like magic out there.’’
Stroman, the recently acquired Long Island native who was making his first home start as a Met, had done his part to pump up the crowd from the moment he appeared on the field to begin his warmups more than a half hour before first pitch.
And pitching on adrenaline early, he struck out seven batters in the first three innings, matching his season’s high. (He would add two more before departing in the seventh.) The crowd, so used to being let down, screamed on every pitch for the first three innings and was on its feet for every two-strike count.
But after Anthony Rendon tripled in the first run of the game and Juan Soto followed with a two-run homer, there seemed to be a sick feeling in the park that once again, an important Mets game was going to devolve into a horror movie with a downbeat ending.
That feeling recurred in the seventh when, after the Mets had tied it on back-to-back homers by Alonso and J.D. Davis, reliever Justin Wilson surrendered a two-run homer to Rendon. By the time Luis Avilan wild-pitched another run home in the ninth, at least a quarter of the announced crowd of 39,602 had vacated the premises.
After all, these were the Mets, who throughout their history have rarely been an offensive powerhouse, and this was Flushing, an inhospitable place for hitters whether the ballpark was called Citi Field or Shea Stadium. Already, twice in the new park’s history the fences had been moved in to help the Mets score some runs,
But this Mets team doesn’t seem to need that help. It has a quick-strike offense, led by Alonso, who has 38 home runs, 14 shy of the rookie record set by the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in 2017, with 46 games left to play.
And whether it is illusory or not, right now this team seems to have a self-belief that overrides 57 years of mostly negative history.
“This is a completely different team,’’ said Conforto, who was part of the 2015 World Series team. “I can’t really compare the two teams. We’re young, we’re very energetic, everybody is pulling for one another. This is a special group of guys and we’re putting it all together now.’’
With the win over the Nationals, the Mets put themselves into a great position not just to win the series, but sweep it. Noah Syndergaard goes on Saturday against Patrick Corbin, and Jacob deGrom, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, going Sunday against Anibal Sanchez. No Max Scherzer, on the IL with a rhomboid strain, to spoil this weekend party.
“This one was special,’’ said Conforto, who shook off an outfield collision, his face against Jeff McNeil’s knee, in the fourth inning to come up with the game-winner. “The stadium was packed. The atmosphere was amazing. It felt like the playoffs. And I just happened to be the guy who was up last. I have faith that if any other guy in this clubhouse was up there, they were going to get the job done, too,’’
When’s the last time the Mets had that kind of confidence in one another?
About as often as they’ve won an important game at Citi Field, meaning not often enough.
But they won one Friday night, and from the looks of things, might win a few more.
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