Kelly Johnson, the man responsible for Yoenis Cespedes’ heroism on Wednesday
There were heroes all over the Mets roster throughout the course of their remarkable three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals this week, highlighted time and time again by emerging National League MVP candidate Yoenis Cespedes as he pounds one late inning run scoring hit after the next.
But while Cespedes was the fancy choice among the heroes on Wednesday, his moment wouldn’t have been made meaningful if not for a hunch by manager Terry Collins.
Throughout the night Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg had dominated the Mets – in particular with his curveball – to the point it seemed like they’d be forced to settle for a series win and leaving town with a five game lead in the National League East.
Strasburg had recorded strikeout after strikeout with his curveball, leaving the Mets helpless in their attempt for a series sweep against their division rival.
That’s when Collins looked at his bench and saw Kelly Johnson.
“Why not try?” the manager said.
Indeed. After all, who was in the lineup simply couldn’t touch Strasburg, and Johnson had been studying the pitching prodigy all night.
So the left-handed hitting Johnson was asked to hit for Wilmer Flores with one out in the eighth, and he found himself in a 2-0 count, which wasn’t exactly the time to drop a hammer down and into a left-handed hitter.
“Hitter’s count, he needs to throw me a strike,” Johnson said. “And a fastball, I can take my chances with that.”
Strasburg grooved a fastball right down the heart of the plate, as Johnson expected him to, and he swatted that grooved fastball over the right field stands to tie the game at two, sent Strasburg to the shower, forcing in Drew Storen who melted away even faster than he did the night before, thanks to Cespedes’ monumental go-ahead home run just three batters later.
Johnson, who was well aware of the magnitude of his home run, reveled in his defining moment in this series.
“You don’t get to celebrate much in this game,” he said. “But when you get one like that, you maybe get seven seconds to enjoy it, when it leaves your bat, when you’re running to first, when you see it go.”
If not for Johnson’s home run, Strasburg was likely to continue in the eighth inning and hand the ball to Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning with at least a one run lead.
Or, if Matt Williams was managing as if there was a playoff game, perhaps Papelbon would’ve made an appearance if needed with two outs in the eighth inning.
Johnson made all of those moot points.
That hunch by Terry Collins might have ended Washington’s chances of even making the final series of the year meaningful, not to mention winning the division.
Instead, the Mets were in position to do what the Nationals absolutely had to do when play began on Monday: sweep this series.
Unlike the Nationals late inning relief corps, the Mets were indeed able to seal the deal in the eighth and ninth innings – they allowed only a solo home run to Bryce Harper in 11 1/3 innings this series.
And that sweep has put the Mets in a position perhaps the Nationals thought they would’ve been in at this point in the season when the season started.
Said Johnson, “We were going to leave with a lead regardless. But, at the same time, there’s just enough games that if you let them stay close, anything can happen. We’ve still got enough games for them to do some work. I think at this point in the season, two or three weeks left, you’re looking pretty good if you’ve got a six- or seven-game lead. We’ve just got to take care of business from now on. Hopefully those games that we play them in New York won’t matter and we can celebrate early.”
The manager feels this series has defined the team’s statement for the remainder of the season.
“This proves we’re legitimate. This is not a fluke,” the manager emphatically said smiling after the game.
The table has most definitely turned on Washington. And now the Mets are tasked with getting the monkey off their back, and closing the deal over the final 23 games.
That might be all that’s left for the Mets to do after blowing through Washington.