Conor Gillaspie is the definition of a journeyman player. The 28-year-old infielder suited up for three different teams in six years including two stints with his current team, the San Francisco Giants. He has hit 31 home runs and 150 RBI in his career; for comparison’s sake, Mike Trout, one of baseball’s greats, amassed 168 homers and 497 RBI in that same span of time. The majority of Gillaspie’s playing time came in pinch-hit spots, but with Eduardo Nunez out with a strained hamstring, he manned third base throughout the National League Wild Card game. Cut to the top of the ninth inning. There was one out in a scoreless game, runners on first and second base. Jeurys Familia glared at the strike zone. Gillaspie did not flinch.
The New York Mets entered 2016 with elevated expectations after falling three games short of a World Series title last fall. After they signed Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera, retained Yoenis Céspedes and projected a mid-season return of Zack Wheeler, a playoff berth seemed all but guaranteed. Two weeks into the season the injury bug spread around the locker room, claiming Travis d’Arnaud as its first victim. Lucas Duda, David Wright and Juan Lagares played a combined 163 games and just as Neil Walker and Wilmer Flores began to heat up at the dish, they too were out for the final stretch of the season.
The pitching staff was not immune—Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all missed extended periods of time with shoulder and elbow issues. The Mets patched up their rotation with rookie right-handers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman who performed better than anyone could have hoped. Fellow rookie T.J. Rivera was equally impressive at the plate with a .333 batting average and a .812 on-base and slugging percentage in 105 at bats. What frustrated Mets fans the most throughout this season and last was the team’s inability to hit with runners on base.
The Mets hit .228 with runners in scoring position, good for last in the majors just behind the New York Yankees, according to FanGraphs. They actually ranked 12th in runners left in scoring position with 3.30 per game, but TeamRankings lists their on-base percentage as seventh-worst, which indicates they rarely have anyone primed to score. Not only were they allergic to stringing together base hits, the bullpen was tasked with holding razor-thin leads.
Addison Reed’s precision and Familia’s explosive sinker formed a devastating tandem in the eighth and ninth innings. Familia set a Mets single-season record with 51 saves, but with opponents on base more often than any closer in baseball, according to Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight. He attempted to extend his Houdini act in the Wild Card game, but it came to a thunderous end.
Noah Syndergaard surrendered just one hit through seven innings, yet a high pitch count convinced manager Terry Collins to insert Reed in the eighth. A combination of Madison Bumgarner’s relatively low pitch count, postseason pedigree and the Giants’ lackluster bullpen granted him more leeway to pitch deep into the game. He snagged a line drive off the bat of Cabrera and threw a furious fist pump to end the eighth. Familia, once again, put runners on base in the ninth.
On a 1-1 count, Gillaspie honed in on a 96 mph elevated fastball and parked it over the fence. Citi Field went numb as the Flushing Faithful knew the three runs on the board were two more than Bumgarner needed. The Mets, for the second time in as many years, witnessed another team celebrate playoff success on their home turf. Collins, who turns 68 next May, announced 2017 may be his final season due to health concerns. Uncertainty around free agents and the integrity of the rotation has reduced the luster of this once vibrant team.