NEW YORK, SEPT. 13 -- Darryl Strawberry has been called virtually every name imaginable during his eight stormy years with the New York Mets. More often than not, the terms used to describe him have been disparaging, as if anything short of heroism on a daily basis proved his immense talent was accompanied by questionable commitment.
Tonight, Strawberry took another in a recent series of significant strides toward shedding that image permanently. The enigmatic outfielder almost singlehandedly resurrected the Mets from an early deficit against the Pittsburgh Pirates, electrifying soldout Shea Stadium with a fourth-inning outburst that included a game-turning throw from right field and a three-run home run that sent New York on its way to a crucial 6-3 victory before 51,079.
The win was the Mets' fourth straight at the outset of a 10-game homestand. They improved to 82-61 and pulled to within 1 1/2 games of the Pirates (84-60) in the National League East. New York tied a club record with its 11th straight victory at home and has won 36 of its last 46 contests here.
The Mets completed a two-game sweep to help compensate for three losses in Pittsburgh last week and improve to 8-7 this year against the Pirates, who have six games remaining on a 10-game road trip. The two clubs won't meet again until a three-game set in Pittsburgh to close the regular season.
If those games still are meaningful, the Mets will have Strawberry to thank. Tonight's much-anticipated pitching duel between staff aces Dwight Gooden and Doug Drabek never materialized, as Pirates starter Drabek lasted just four innings -- his shortest stint of the season -- and Gooden struggled in a 7 2/3-inning, 10-hit performance.
Center stage was there for the taking, and Strawberry seized the opportunity. Pittsburgh tagged Gooden -- who earned his 14th victory in his past 15 decisions -- for a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but Strawberry took command shortly thereafter.
He gunned down the speedy Barry Bonds at the plate in the top half of the fourth with a cannon-shot throw as Bonds tried to score from second on Mike Lavalliere's single. That play ignited both the crowd and the Mets, who began their half of the fourth with an infield single by Tommy Herr and a walk to Dave Magadan.
Drabek (19-6), who failed in his bid to become the NL's first 20-game winner, was struggling uncharacteristically with his control, and it cost him dearly. He fell behind Strawberry, 2-0, then watched as his high fastball was sent into the mezzanine in right field for a 3-2 New York advantage.
"It was an important home run, but I think the most important play of the game was the throw," Strawberry said. "Not letting them get up three runs was very important, and it was a big lift for us to get on top with the homer."
Said Gooden: "When Straw does stuff like that, it makes everyone click. We have a good chance to win this if he keeps swinging the way he's been swinging because everyone feeds off him."
The blast was Strawberry's 34th homer of the year and gave him 100 RBI -- the third time in four years he has achieved that milestone. He's hitting .333 in his last 16 games and has three home runs and nine RBI over the past six contests -- including a ninth-inning homer that beat the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday.
Strawberry, who's eligible for free agency after the season, insisted after the game: "This isn't a salary drive." But he has hinted that New York officials didn't make a concerted push to sign him at midseason because they were afraid a hefty new contract might lessen his production.
If such a ploy does exist, it has been a success. Strawberry may end up as the NL's most valuable player if he outshines Pirates rivals Bonds and Bobby Bonilla down the stretch.
"He's in a groove because his swing is short and quick," Mets Manager Bud Harrelson said. "If you make a mistake when he's swinging like that, he'll hurt you. . . . He covered for what was in many ways a sloppy performance by us tonight."
The Pirates jumped on Gooden (17-6) quickly, grabbing their two-run lead before the traffic snarls in the parking lots outside Shea had even begun to clear up. With two outs in the first, Andy Van Slyke yanked a double into the right-center field alley.
On the next pitch, Gooden tried to sneak a fastball past Bonilla on the inside corner, but the Pittsburgh slugger turned on the delivery, pulling a shot down the right-field line that he hustled into a run-scoring triple. One pitch later, Bonds got the first of his four hits by dumping a homely RBI double just inside the left-field line.
"I searched for a rhythm all night that I never found," said Gooden, who has lost once since June 2. "Once I got down, I figured I had to regroup and hold them there. Some of our guys were saying Drabek didn't have his best stuff, so I figured as we went along we had a chance."
Strawberry soon stole the spotlight, but the Mets weren't done in the fourth after his homer. One out later, Gregg Jefferies, Daryl Boston and Charlie O'Brien hit consecutive singles to make the lead 4-2.
"I just couldn't make the pitches I wanted to make and should have made," Drabek said. "It was disappointing because this was probably the biggest game of my life, but I'll have to regroup and this team will have to regroup. We will. Our season didn't end here tonight."
Bonds kept the Pirates close with a remarkable catch to take a home run from Jefferies in the sixth, but Boston's home run and Herr's RBI single pushed the lead to 6-2 an inning later. Gooden surrendered Bonds's run-scoring single in the eighth before giving way to John Franco, who recorded the final four outs for his club-record 32nd save.
"This helped us more than it hurt them," Gooden said. "They're still a game and a half up, and we still have to catch them. But now we have the momentum."