This was a bad night to be a grounds crewman in Shea Stadium. The big house in the Big Apple didn't want to know that it was raining steadily at game time Tuesday. They didn't want to hear about tarps and delays. So, they booed and kept right on booing.
This was the night Mets fans wanted to welcome their new Amazin's home. Home from what probably will be remembered as the road trip of the 1986 season in the National League East.
Sure, they wanted to see Dwight Gooden, Dr. K, the incomparable child who now has a 5-0 record and a 1.04 ERA. Sooner or sooner, he's going to pitch a no-hitter, a perfect game or strike out 21. And you want to be there.
This night he came darn close, taking a one-hitter -- a cheap scratch hit -- into the ninth inning and getting a two-hit, 4-0 victory.
Okay, so a few folks among the 41,722 probably thought it was interesting that the victims of the evening, the Houston Astros, were actually in first place in the NL West for the time being. Their man on the mound was Bob Knepper, a left-handed mortal who, for one month, had performed the way Gooden does almost every month: 5-0, 1.32. Until tonight, when George Foster hit a home run and Gooden a two-run triple off him.
The raucous, celebratory crowd seemed to sense that this particular Mets team already has been touched with specialness. Once every few years a gifted and ornery ball club, usually coming off a bitterly disappointing season, flies out of the box and buries its division rivals by Memorial Day.
Don't look now, but it appears the Mets are about midway through that very process. After a 2-3 start that had folks grumbling at them, the Mets have won 15 of their last 16 games, including a team-record- tying 11 in a row to close April.
Of those 11, four in St. Louis were of special importance since they may have convinced the Cardinals that their run of good fortune ended after the fourth game of last fall's World Series. St. Louis is now nine games behind New York, about two-thirds of the total needed to pronounce the Cardinals 99 percent dead.
The jets that roar over Shea here are a good symbol for the current Mets, who could quickly leave a vapor trail that nobody can follow. In the last 60 years, only three NL teams have had better records after 20 games than these Mets, and just one other club equaled their 16-4 -- now 17-4. Most fans think divisions aren't won in April and May, but sometimes they are. The 1984 Tigers did it. So did the '81 A's, the '77 Dodgers and plenty of others. Once that lead gets close to 10 games, big-leaguers smell the kill. And the Mets smell it now. They mean to grind their cleats in necks.
"We're hungry because of what happened last year when we won 98 games and wound up with nothing. We have something to prove to ourselves," said catcher Gary Carter, who has a team-leading 19 RBI. "We have chemistry, confidence, talent and that hunger."
You'd be hard-pressed to find disbelievers now.
To show how scary the Mets can be, Manager Davey Johnson changed his pitching rotation this evening, taking out the team's one wet blanket, Rick Aguilera (2-2). That means the starting quintet of Gooden, former Boston Red Sox left-hander Bobby Ojeda (4-0, 1.59 ERA), Sid Fernandez (3-0. 2.81), Ron Darling (2-0) and Bruce Berenyi is undefeated. That's right: 15-0.
And it's the hitters who are really carrying the club. The Mets, who in 25 years have never led the league in hitting or scoring, are leading now in both. By a lot. Only one team is within 27 points of their .284 team mark and New York's 5.8 runs a game is almost a full run a game higher than anybody else.
It's early, but it's impressive. Check Darryl Strawberry's five homers and 17 RBI; he just had 13 RBI on that trip as he played one-man road warrior. How about scalding Keith Hernandez; he's up to .325 after a 15-for-38 binge ignited by St. Louis fans who cursed and jeered him. Don't ignore revitalized third baseman Ray Knight, whose current status as the league's No. 1 slugger (.683) no doubt will be short-lived but should prevent him from being referred to as Mr. Nancy Lopez for a few days.
Even the Mets' lighter stickmen, Wally Backman (.380) and Lenny Dykstra (.290), are off crisply. "The winners every season seem like the clubs that get a lot of career best-ever seasons," said Carter.
So far the little things have all fallen in place for the Mets. In one win over the Cardinals, the St. Louis boys expected to see the tying and winning runs cross on a ground smash up the middle. Instead, they saw second baseman Backman dive, snag the ball, flip to Rafael Sanatana and start a game-ending double play.
"Even if Backman was buried six feet under, you'd see his glove sticking up," said Mets reliever Jesse Orosco, ERA 0.00.
"This team expected to win it last year and they're determined to win it this year," says coach Bud Harrelson.
Frustration is a lovely spur. As Hernandez says tartly, "Potential means you haven't done it yet."
As in most things, Gooden is the symbol and the measure of this team. Of his previous start before this evening, Gooden said, "I was terrible. I embarrassed myself. I couldn't hit. I couldn't pitch and I couldn't field." Gooden won that game, 8-1.
So, on this nasty wet night, Gooden retired the first dozen Astros who faced him. In the fifth inning, he hit what should have been the second home run of his career, with a man on. But wind and rain kept it in the park by a yard at the 371-foot sign. Gooden, placidly, just returned to the evening's wet work.
Just that two-hitter. In the Mets' last 145 games, he's 23-1.
As further atonement, Gooden's two-run triple off the 358-foot sign in right in the seventh knocked out Knepper and broke up a 1-0 duel.
In the ninth, Glenn Davis, who had the first Houston hit, came up with three on, one out. Gooden started a pitcher-to-home-to-first double play.
Pitch, hit and field.
For Gooden, for the Mets, no cause for worry. The home run, the no-hitter, they'll come. Anytime now. The best is before them.