(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)
So much has changed for the New York Mets since that July 29 night at Citi Field when shortstop Wilmer Flores thought he was headed to the Milwaukee Brewers for centerfielder Carlos Gomez.
That, of course, was the night when Flores infamously failed to hold back his tears in front of his teammates, the opposing San Diego Padres, thousands of Mets fans at the ballpark and so many more watching on television.
But an interesting thing ensued in the city in which a player is always expected to remain as tough as the old nickname of former Met star, Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, through all situations.
Mets fans immediately took to Flores and backed him as more of a family member whom they felt they needed to uplift more than simply as one of many different players they root for. It helped that Flores, in his third year in the big leagues — his first with some regular playing time — had his best season to date, playing in 137 games and finishing fourth on the Mets in both home runs (16) and runs batted in (59).
Yet that would normally earn only a modicum of respect in Flushing. What made Flores an overnight fan favorite who started receiving “WIL-MER! FLOR-ES!” chants on a regular basis in his own park was that by wearing his emotions like the Mr. Met patch that adorns the sleeve of Mets’ jerseys, Flores — in a sometimes cynical sports age, when fans often (rightfully?) think they care more about their team’s success than do the players they root for — signaled that he was right there with them, bleeding orange and blue (even if that was demonstrated instead, by Flores’ regular-colored tears).
It’s hard to envision now, with the New York battling the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, but by the time that night was over, the Mets still trailed the Washington Nationals by two games in the NL’s Eastern Division, long before New York subsequently blew by the preseason division favorites with a strong 38-23 finish and a surprising division win by a comfortable seven-game margin.
At the heart of that late, season-saving surge, was centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes, whom the Mets acquired via a stunning trade just two nights after Flores showed perfectly clear just how much he wanted to stay with the organization that cultivated him.
Suddenly it wasn’t just the tremendous contributions that Cespedes provided on a level that Gomez never would have for New York. The effect of Cespedes’ arrival sent positive shockwaves throughout a previously anemic lineup, with Flores often playing a key role in the Mets’ team-wide resurgence.
Fast forward to tonight, when Mets ace Matt Harvey, in by far, the biggest start of his young career, will have a golden opportunity to win back some Mets fans and even some of his own clubhouse in the wake of his pitch count and innings limit controversies, after he unwisely took the unpopular side of his agent instead over putting his loyalties to his team and Mets fans first.
And so here we are. Game 3, with some extra juice. Series tied with the Dodgers, 1-1, and Flores to presumably be counted on in a much larger role rather than the heretofore plan of splitting time at shortstop with Tejada.
Chase Utley will come to town as the hated villain, and will like play at least the rest of the series as he appeals a two-game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball for his dirty take-out that prematurely ended shortstop Ruben Tejada’s season.
Utley will surely hear resounding boos at Citi Field. Meanwhile, the questions of whether Harvey may or may not send a retaliatory message by intentionally plunking Utley or one of his teammates and whether or not Game 3 will be marred (or depending on your perspective if you’re a Mets fan, ratcheted up even more, in terms of excitement) with a possible bench-clearing brawl will be answered as the series’ pivotal game unfolds.
Yet one thing will be known for sure.
Exactly 75 days after his tears flowed with unquestionable loyalty to his team, Wilmer Flores will get his chance as an everyday starter, in place of Tejada, for as long as the Mets’ magical 2015 ride continues.
While everyone will be focusing on Utley, and especially Harvey, the script could be set up perfectly for the player Mets fans fell in love with just before Cespedes arrived and everything got better.
Perhaps Harvey, in defiance of pitch counts and innings limits, will answer the call in a way befitting of his Dark Knight moniker and throw a complete-game shutout well into the night, following a late 8:37 p.m. scheduled first pitch. And maybe the captain, David Wright, will come through with a big, difference-making hit, the way he did in New York’s Game 1 victory.
Yet how many times in past postseasons has another, somewhat unexpected hero emerged on the grandest of stages? Maybe, after all that happened from July 29, through the Mets’ run to an NL East title and through Utley’s reckless slide in Game 2, the one who wasn’t even supposed to be a Met today, could stand in for Tejada and become the hero himself.
What happened to Tejada was unfortunate, awful and undeserved.
But if it sets up a situation by which Flores ultimately goes from where he thought he might end up 2½ months earlier, to providing some big hits which might help banish the hated Utley and his Dodgers from the postseason, and if the momentarily-traded-only-to-be-called-back shortstop eventually becomes a main contributor toward leading the Mets to their first World Series title in 29 years, that earlier weeping could turn into tears of joy for Flores, his teammates and coaches, and Mets fans everywhere.