Saturday, April 12, 2014

Plunks For The Memories

Jeurys Familia knows that he pitched a plunker of a game.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

If you were one of the many insomniacs who stayed up until 2:03am to watch the conclusion of the Mets' colossally important April interleague game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County near Disneyland where Gwen Stefani grew up, then you were witness to just the fourth walk-off loss on a hit batsman in franchise history.

When Jeurys Familia plunked Hank Conger in the bottom of the 11th inning with the bases loaded, he joined a small, but infamous fraternity that included Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis - pitchers who ended games on the road by throwing a pitch that made contact with the opposing batter.

But it's not who they hit that made Mets fans go to bed unhappy, it's when they hit them.  Of course, when you look at the short list of players who sacrificed their bodies for a bruise-off victory, maybe it's also who the pitchers hit that make Mets fans cringe.

On July 25, 1974, Jerry DaVanon of the Cardinals was hit by a poorly placed Jack Aker pitch, giving the Mets a 4-3, ten-inning loss in St. Louis.  DaVanon played eight years in the big leagues for five teams, collecting just 117 hits.  He had three homers in 574 career plate appearances.  In other words, grooving a pitch right down the middle probably wouldn't have hurt the Mets as much in that situation as throwing one into the body of DaVanon.

The Mets didn't suffer another embarrassing walk-off defeat for another 23 years.  It wasn't until Greg McMichael plunked Houston's Luis Gonzalez on August 3, 1997 that the Mets walked off the field a loser because of a hit batsman.  Granted, Gonzalez was not Jerry DaVanon at the plate, as he produced over 2,500 major league hits and 1,018 extra-base hits over his 19-year major league career.  But most of his success came after the 1997 season.  From 1998 to 2003, an average Gonzo season saw him produce a .306 batting average, 38 doubles, 32 homers, 108 RBI and 102 runs scored.  Prior to 1998, Gonzalez's average annual numbers were not quite the same (.268, 25 doubles, 10 HR, 60 RBI, 56 runs scored).  Perhaps McMichael was afraid Gonzalez would hit a walk-off double against him, explaining why he felt hitting the not-yet slugger was a safer bet.

The third time a Mets pitcher ended a game with a walk-off plunk was not a charm for New York, as Scott Schoeneweis hit San Diego's Paul McAnulty with a bases-loaded pitch in the bottom of the ninth on June 5, 2008.  McAnulty had himself a career that only his mother and Jerry DaVanon were proud of.  The former Padre played parts of five seasons in the majors, producing a fearsome .201 batting average and .325 slugging percentage.  At the time of his beaning by Schoeneweis, McAnulty had produced just 39 hits in his big league career in 214 plate appearances, numbers that clearly scared the Mets reliever in such a way that he couldn't get himself to throw a ball somewhere around home plate.  Fortunately for Schoeneweis, that wasn't the low point of his career with the Mets.  That would happen almost four months later, as he allowed Wes Helms' go-ahead homer in the bottom of the eighth inning in the last game ever played at Shea Stadium.  But hey, at least he didn't hit Helms with the bases loaded, right?  Because that would have been embarrassing.

In the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, Jeurys Familia joined Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis, becoming the fourth pitcher in Mets history to walk off the field as a result of a game-ending hit batsman.  Familia's victim was an unfamilar face in Hank Conger.  The artist formerly known as Hyun Choi Conger obviously changed his name to Hank to evoke fear in the hearts of pitchers and it clearly worked against Familia.  After watching all the tributes to Hank Aaron in Atlanta earlier in the week, Familia must have been spooked into grooving a pitch to another Hank, not knowing that the Angels' Hank had only produced 106 hits in parts of five seasons with Los Angeles/Anaheim/Orange County/Disneyland/Gwen Stefani.

If Familia never does anything else of importance in the major leagues, he can always say he's a member of an exclusive Mets fraternity - one that includes the unforgettable trio of Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis.  The bruises will heal on the bodies of Jerry DaVanon, Luis Gonzalez, Paul McAnulty and Hank Conger, but at least they will always be able to say "plunks for the memories".

Hank Conger has a boo-boo because of Jeurys Familia's boo-boo.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

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