'New guys' earn Citi faithful's good will
Bay, Matthews, Barajas do their part in Mets' Opening Day win
NEW YORK -- Mets fans had so lamented the absence of new, high-profile players for so long that when baseball returned to Citi Field on Monday, some patrons almost seemed blind to who had been imported since the previous Citi play date.
There wasn't a Marquis player among those who gathered on the first-base line before the game, not a Lackey or a Wolf in the bunch; neither a Halladay nor a Holliday. The personnel that did cue up in cream-colored unis with pinstripes prompted a fellow behind the plate to bellow "Hey Omar, where's the improvement?" in a voice borrowed from Phil Foster during a lull in the pregame ceremonies and again when Ollie Perez was introduced.
By game's end, the bellow fellow had been muzzled by events of the day. Somehow, without a shred of input from those who appeared on a November wish list, the Mets had managed to defeat the Marlins and add another entry to the franchise's preposterously good Opening Day resume.
The big bullets in the Mets' 7-1 victory had been fired by incumbents named Santana and Wright. Before Johan Santana would pitch the second third of six innings, reconstituted David Wright had afforded him a 2-0 lead with a home run that seemed to shrink the Citi, at least for a day.
Wright then stepped back like the lead singer in a group during an instrumental interlude -- here guys, you take over now. And to the forefront moved Jason Bay, Rod Barajas and Gary Matthews, the new guys. The public hadn't salivated over the prospect of any one of the three moving to Flushing. But by the end of the High Holy Day of Hope in any baseball household, the three had been hailed.
"Good for the new guys," Barajas said. "We got some of the firsts out of the way."
In his first Citi Field performance, Bay accomplished what Jose Reyes needed five-plus home games to achieve last year; he tripled. Moreover, Bay's three-base hit came when he led off the sixth inning, minutes after the Fish had halved the lead Wright's two-run statement had provided. And it was the first strike in a four-run inning that essentially finished what Santana had started.
The inning also included a well-struck, run-scoring double by Barajas, who then scored on a pinch-hit single by Angel Pagan.
And throughout the Mets' 32nd victory in 49 Opening Day games, Matthews operated in center field as if he had an incentive clause based on putouts. Eight fly balls, some more easily captured than others, fell into his soft glove. Moreover, he contributed a single, one of the team's five extra-base hits, walked once and scored twice.
On a day without pomp and Wright, any one of the three new guys might have been the focal point of the game. (Matthews' two appearances and one at-bat with the Mets in 2002 didn't deny him "new-guy" status. And Mike Jacobs qualifies as a returnee, rather than a new guy. Anyway, his four fruitless at-bats were well-obscured by other developments of the day).
"It was great to see the new guys contribute the way they did," Jerry Manuel said. "They came in here with expectations that 'I can do something here and have some exposure.'"
The triple was Bay's second hit. He had singled in the first inning. But the triple was outside his box. He now has 24 among his 929 big league hits.
"HoJo [hitting coach Howard Johnson] told me, 'Don't be content with a double here [at Citi],'" Bay said. "It's big and there's a lot of room. I was thinking it right out of the box, especially given the situation -- we had just given up a run, tight ballgame, and we don't want to waste an out getting me to third."
That sort of game awareness was as rare as a triple last season.
"I'm not Jose Reyes. I can't flip the switch halfway there," Bay said. "I've got to be thinking it from the get-go. ... I told myself I had it fairly easy, and it was a good time to take it.
Bay also made a good, accurate throw from the left-field corner on what became a run-scoring double by Jorge Cantu in the sixth. The run would have scored regardless, but the safe call -- not completely supported by replays -- cost Santana pitches.
Matthews' play was widely noticed. Eight putouts by a center fielder in one game isn't extraordinary; Carlos Beltran twice had eight in one game in his abridged 2009 season. But the wind and sun made catches more challenging than they should have been.
"I thought he did an excellent job out there," Manuel said. "He called some people off, he played in both gaps. I think he's very excited about trying to prove that he's a guy who plays at a high level. And he played at that level today."
The accolades for Barajas were in the box score, adjacent to the names Santana, Nieve and Rodriguez. They were in the form of zeroes and ones. The Mets pitchers allowed six hits and two walks. The Mets allowed two or fewer walks merely 55 times last season; of course Santana was the starter in 13 of the 55.
But Fernando Nieve and K-Rod allowed none in three composite innings. Barajas gets credit for some of the walklessness.
Maybe some of the folks who filled the Citi Monday wanted Bengie Molina to catch instead. But he's not here. And the Mets are 1-0, and the pitchers seem to like throwing to Barajas. And 161 games remain.
Those facts prompted Manuel to say: "We're out of the gate," and then caution those around him. "But we haven't gone anywhere yet."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.