The Mets welcomed only 8,492 fans to their home opener on Thursday, but they spaced them all over Citi Field. So when high drama arrived in the bottom of the ninth — tie game, two men on, Francisco Lindor at the plate in his first home game as a Met — the reaction cascaded from all corners of the ballpark.
The Miami Marlins, those spoilsports, called for an intentional walk. Groans rained down from the upper deck to the luxury suites to the center field die-hards in orange T-shirts.
The strategy was sound. The next batter, Michael Conforto, took a slider over the middle for an apparent called third strike. But the pitch, from Anthony Bass, grazed Conforto’s elbow pad as he leaned into it, and the second out of the inning became the game-winning run batted in.
“A win is a win. It’s over, but I’d like to use the bat next time,” Conforto said, adding that he knew he’d been hit but did not realize his elbow was so far out. “At two strikes, I went into battle mode, and I tend to lean over the plate when I’m in battle mode.”
So that was that, a 3-2 Mets victory in the first home game under the new owner, Steven Cohen, who could run the Mets for decades and not see another ending quite like it. For the first crowd at Citi Field since the 2019 regular-season finale, the takeaway was not a new star’s magic moment, but an old game’s quirky charm.
“It was an interesting call, for sure,” Mets Manager Luis Rojas said. “But we’ll take the call and take the walk-off.”
The replay supervisor confirmed that the ball hit Conforto, though that part of the play was not in doubt. Awarding him first base was a judgment call, and Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said the plate umpire, Ron Kulpa, told him replay could not reverse it.
“I really think he knows it was a strike, and he couldn’t go backwards, in his mind,” Mattingly said. “To be honest with you, I bet he feels awful, because they don’t want to do that, either. They don’t want to mess the game — not necessarily mess the game up, but they don’t want to end like that, on a strike.”
He was right about that. As Kulpa told a pool reporter: “The guy was hit by the pitch in the strike zone. I should have called him out.”
The Mets were probably due for some good fortune, anyway. Before the game they lost reliever Dellin Betances to the injured list with shoulder impingement, another rotten blow for Betances, the well-liked, well-used four-time Yankees All-Star.
Betances was signed under the former owner Fred Wilpon, who in recent years had a knack for unwise spending — when he did spend, that is. The arrival of Cohen, who backed his pledge to spend big by signing Lindor to a 10-year, $341 million contract extension last week, is a godsend for fans. They cheered a scoreboard message from Cohen and his wife, Alex, in a pregame ceremony muted by pandemic restrictions.
There was no giant flag, the national anthem performer sang from the center-field plaza and a taped video segment served as the ceremonial first pitch. Fans had to show proof of a vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry; the team erected tents for screening in the parking lot near the Home Run Apple. Inside the park, zip-ties locked the off-limits seats in their upright positions. Mr. and Mrs. Met wore masks as they frolicked — and yes, the masks covered their giant noses.
Some concession stands were shuttered and most enclosed spaces were closed, like the kids’ souvenir store in the right field corner and the newly named Piazza 31 Club in the fifth level of the rotunda. But there were plenty of places to spend money: $18.75 for a helmet full of nachos, $125 for a game-used lineup card from a blowout loss to Baltimore last September. Before the first pitch, dozens of fans clustered in line at Shake Shack, a ballpark haunt not made for social distancing.
The pregame talk — still on video conference only, alas — was largely about the vaccine. The coaches have all gotten it, Rojas said, and the team held an informational session about it in Philadelphia this week. The vaccines were scheduled to be available after Thursday’s game for players, though most have been coy about whether they would receive the shot.
“Well, I’ll put it this way,” first baseman Pete Alonso said. “I’m in a vaccine commercial, right?”
Alonso was more effusive about the return of fans to Citi Field. He missed fans so much, he said, even enemy territory wasn’t so bad.
“Playing the three games in Philly, I don’t think I’ve ever been that happy to see a bunch of Philadelphia fans,” Alonso said. “They were really enthusiastic, they were really into the game. It was awesome. I know they were booing us, but I missed that, in a way.”
The fans in Queens also boo, of course, and a few jeered Conforto when he ended the seventh by grounding into a double play. But the bottom of the ninth was a joy, starting with a game-tying homer to the upper deck in right by Jeff McNeil, who turned 29 on Thursday and flung his bat with both hands in celebration.
“I’ve never bat-flipped before — first time, it was fun,” said McNeil, who had been 0 for 10 this season. “My first hit, hitting a big home run on my birthday. Just an incredible day.”
Luis Guillorme singled with one out, Brandon Nimmo doubled him to third, and then the walk to Lindor brought Conforto to the plate. “Let’s go!” Lindor yelled to him.
“He was fired up for me,” Conforto said. “That fired me up as well. I wanted to make sure I didn’t let that get the most of me.”
Instead, a pitch got the least of him, and the Mets walked away with the win.