Monday, January 23, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Daniel Murphy

When a young player experiences a pennant race for the first time, he's told to savor the moment because there's no guarantee that it'll happen again.  For one former Met who was thrust into the spotlight from the moment he first set foot on a major league diamond, he relished every opportunity to play meaningful games in September.  Alas, the calendar was only thing that made it to October that season, as the Mets fell short of their postseason quest.

The bright-eyed neophyte who tasted the sweet nectar of a playoff chase so early in his career became a grizzled veteran just six years later, one who played for a losing Mets team in each of those half-dozen seasons.  But just as the sun appeared to have set on another season, the Mets shocked the baseball cognoscenti by winning an unlikely pennant, giving their veteran second baseman a chance to finally play in the postseason after having just missed during his rookie campaign.  And once he got there, he turned October into his own personal stage.

Daniel Murphy's good side will always feature a bat in his hands.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Daniel Thomas Murphy was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the 2006 June Amateur Draft.  Murphy, who played third base at Jacksonville University, was a college teammate of Tony Bernazard's son when Bernazard was the Mets' vice president of player development.  Murphy's development in the Mets' minor league system began slowly, as the infielder batted just .213 during his first season as a professional.  Murphy's second year showed a marked improvement in his hitting ability, as he batted .285 for the St. Lucie Mets and led the team with 34 doubles and 78 RBI.  His defensive skills, however, were another story.

Flash back a few years to when Murphy was a student-athlete at Jacksonville.  While attending a team meeting, Murphy was once asked to state his name and defensive position.  Without hesitating, Murphy answered the question.

"I'm Daniel Murphy," he said, "and I bat third."

Defense was never one of Murphy's strong suits, which became quite obvious during his time in St. Lucie, as the third baseman committed 35 errors in 131 games with the team.  But as long as Murphy kept on hitting, his name would always find a way to be included on the lineup card.

In 2008, Murphy began the season playing above A-ball for the first time in his career.  He ended the year in the middle of a playoff race at Shea Stadium.  At Double-A Binghamton, Murphy batted .308 with an .870 OPS and spent time at every infield position except shortstop.  He even played four games in left field while in Binghamton, which came in handy later that summer when the Mets were looking for an injury replacement with some experience at the position.

The Mets began the 2008 campaign with Angel Pagan in left field filling in for the injured Moises Alou.  By the time the dog days of summer began in August, the Mets had used more left fielders than Spinal Tap used drummers.  Through the end of July, the Mets had played 108 games.  Incredibly, a total of 11 players had started in left field for the team by then, with none of them playing more than 20 games at the position.  Players such as Brady Clark, Trot Nixon, Andy Phillips and Chris Aguila all "earned" starts in left field for a team that was considered one of the best in the game.  Another participant in the season-long game of left field musical chairs was Marlon Anderson, who started 20 games before pulling his left hamstring on August 1.  The following night, left fielder No. 12 made his debut for the Mets, and his name was Daniel Murphy.

"I'm ecstatic to be here," Murphy said prior to the game.  "It'll probably hit me when I'm out in left field with 40,000 people around me."

Tony Bernazard, who was instrumental in the Mets' signing of Murphy in 2006, knew that Murphy was the right man to call up at that time.

"(Murphy's) the one who is most ready," Bernazard said.  "He will give you good at-bats all the time."

Put a bat in his hands and Murphy could do anything with the ball, even bunting it.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

For years, Bernazard knew how great a hitter Murphy was, but even he couldn't have expected the start Murphy would have in the majors.  In his first three weeks with the Mets, Murphy started 11 games in left field and appeared in seven games as a pinch-hitter, batting .404 with a .491 OBP in those 18 games.  Murphy also collected two doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBI in his first 55 plate appearances.  A reason for Murphy's early success was his ability to make the pitcher throw many pitches per at-bat, allowing him to see the pitcher's full repertoire.  In fact, Murphy worked a full count in more than 20% of his plate appearances (Murphy saw a 3-2 pitch in 31 of his 151 times at the plate).

Without question, Murphy's promotion gave the Mets a spark they hadn't experienced for the first two-thirds of the season.  When Murphy played his first game with the team on August 2, the Mets were in third place in the N.L. East and stood 3½ games behind the wild card-leading Milwaukee Brewers.  A month and a day later, the Mets completed a three-game sweep of the Brew Crew that gave them a 21-9 record since Murphy's debut.  Heading into the final week of the season, the Mets were in a race with the Phillies for the division title and the Brewers for the wild card.  They began the week with a four-game series against the N.L. Central champion Chicago Cubs.

Chicago had already wrapped up the best record in the National League by the time they arrived at Shea Stadium, but manager Lou Piniella continued to trot out his best players for the critical series.  The Mets and Cubs split the first two games and were knotted in the third contest as it went to the bottom of the ninth.  Murphy then brought the Shea Stadium crowd to its feet by leading off the inning with a triple off veteran reliever Bob Howry.  The 54,416 fans in attendance were eagerly anticipating a thrilling walk-off victory, especially with David Wright about to bat, Carlos Delgado on deck and Carlos Beltran in the hole, but Piniella continued to manage the game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series instead of a meaningless game for his club.

Wright struck out.  Delgado and Beltran were intentionally walked.  Ryan Church grounded out, with Murphy being forced out at the plate.  Ramon Castro fanned on three pitches.  Inning over.  Rally over.

Murphy tried to be the hero, and he would have been had the Mets defeated the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning on September 24.  But the Mets didn't win.  And they also didn't win their season-ending series against the Florida Marlins.  The Brewers won the wild card.  The Phillies clinched the division title and went on to win the World Series.  The Mets got nothing, other than the start of Daniel Murphy's major league career.

Although Murphy started only 30 games in left field for the Mets after his August call-up, that somehow led the injury-riddled team at the position.  Murphy entered the 2009 season hoping to give the Mets more stability at the position after the team saw a dozen players patrol left field in 2008.  It did not take long for the Mets to realize that perhaps Murphy wasn't the best option for the job.

On the first Sunday of the season, Johan Santana dominated the Marlins, striking out 13 batters in seven masterful innings.  But Santana was pinned with the loss, as Florida scored two unearned runs in the third inning after Murphy dropped a routine fly ball.  After the game, a clearly frustrated Santana was quick to throw Murphy under the bus for the loss.

Whoomp, there it isn't.  (Rothstein/Daily News)
"It's one mistake that he made," Santana said.  "It cost us the whole ballgame, but it's part of the game."

Not mentioned by Santana was the fact that he walked Jeremy Hermida prior to Murphy's gaffe and then allowed an RBI single to No. 8 hitter Ronny Paulino after the miscue.  Nor did Santana mention that the Mets' offense failed to show up for the game, as the team was shut out by Marlins starting pitcher Josh Johnson for 8⅔ innings.  Santana very well may have been speaking out of frustration, but the stigma of being a bad fielder, regardless of the position he was playing, stuck with Murphy for the rest of his career as a Met.

After starting 13 of the first 14 games of the 2009 season in left field, the lefty-swinging Murphy began to platoon at the position with the right-handed batting Gary Sheffield, who had played the majority of his career in the outfield.  But when starting first baseman Carlos Delgado suffered what became a career-ending injury on May 10 and after Jeremy Reed - who had played all of three games in his career at first base - made a crucial error at first that cost the Mets a game in Los Angeles a week later, the Mets decided to move Murphy back to the infield.

Murphy adjusted well to the infield life.  But once Murphy stopped worrying about dropping fly balls, it would be his teammates who would start dropping like flies.  In addition to Delgado, Jose Reyes' season also ended in May.  Carlos Beltran, who was among the league's leading hitters during the first two months of the 2009 campaign, eventually missed half of the season with a knee injury.  David Wright remained healthy until he was felled by a Matt Cain fastball to the noggin.  Sheffield, who for a while was the team leader in home runs, missed extended periods of time late in the season.  And how can we forget Luis Castillo falling down the Citi Field dugout steps in August, just two months after he dropped a fly ball of his own?  When everyone else went down, sometimes literally, Murphy remained the last Met standing.

The Mets could not overcome the rash of injuries that befell them in 2009, finishing the year with a 70-92 record, but Murphy's first full season in the majors was one of the few success stories for the team.  Although his batting average dipped to .266, Murphy managed to hit 38 doubles and a team-leading 12 homers.  He also led the club in games played and finished second to Wright in runs batted in.  But Murphy's injury-free campaign caught up with him over the next two seasons.

The 2010 season opened with Murphy on the disabled list due to a right knee sprain suffered at the end of spring training.  Due to the emergence of rookie first baseman Ike Davis, Murphy began to play games at second base during his minor league rehab assignment.  Unfortunately, a hard takeout slide while covering second caused Murphy to tear the MCL in his right knee, ending his season before he could return to the majors.  A year later, Murphy's season ended prematurely once again, and for the second straight year, it involved a collision at second base.

In 2011, Murphy was among the league leaders in hitting, boasting a robust .320 batting average in early August.  But after Braves' outfielder Jose Constanza spiked Murphy at second base on a stolen base attempt on August 7, Murphy suffered his second medial collateral ligament tear in a span of 14 months and would miss the rest of the season.

Murphy finally stayed healthy in 2012 and 2013, playing in 317 of a possible 324 games, and took over the everyday job at second base.  In 2012, Murphy became the first left-handed hitter in club history to hit 40 doubles in a single season and followed that up with a brilliant 2013 campaign, setting new career highs in homers (13), runs batted in (78), runs scored (92) and stolen bases (23).  And yet, for all the progress Murphy had made as a hitter, the focus still remained on his defense, as Murphy posted a -0.8 dWAR in 2012 and an even worse -1.5 dWAR in 2013.

The 2013 season also marked the fifth consecutive season that Murphy played for a losing team.  But things started to change for the Mets in 2014 and for Murphy as well.  The Mets won five more games in 2014 than they did in the previous season and finished in a tie for second place in the N.L. East.  They also outscored the opposition by 11 runs and saw an improvement in attendance at Citi Field for the first time since the park opened in 2009.  As for Murphy, he was finally recognized for his offensive talents by earning his first All-Star selection.  By the end of June, Murphy was batting .303 with 19 doubles, six homers, 32 RBI, 51 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.   He maintained a .300 batting average until late August, when a strained quad led to a stint on the disabled list.  The injury caused Murphy to struggle upon his return, as he ended the year with a .289 average.

Despite the slow finish, Murphy still led the Mets in hits, doubles and runs scored.  His recognition as a first-time All-Star capped a six-year period in which Murphy pushed himself to improve every facet of his game.  And when he finally received the All-Star nod, Murphy was humbled by the honor.

"It's a blessing," Murphy said.  "And I don't work any harder on this ballclub than anyone else does.  There's no doubt about that.  There's 24 men in here who work really hard.  It's just an honor.  It's humbling.  It's a fantastic blessing."

Daniel Murphy, All-Star.  (Elsa/Getty Images)

Murphy wasn't the only Met in 2014 to receive national attention, as pitcher Jacob deGrom ended a three-decade Rookie of the Year drought for the Mets, becoming the first Met to win the award since Dwight Gooden in 1984.  The emergence of deGrom, plus the return of fellow moundsman Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery and the forthcoming debut of top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard gave the Mets hope that they would finally turn the corner in 2015.

The 2015 season would also be Murphy's final season before becoming a free agent for the first time, giving him extra incentive to have a solid season.  But even though the Mets got off to a fast start, tying a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak in April, Murphy did not.  When the calendar turned from April to May, Murphy was batting just .198.  But Murphy became a one-man hitting machine over the team's next 29 games, batting .352 with an .869 OPS.  Unfortunately, just like it did in 2014, a quad injury caused Murphy to miss 22 games in June.  And faster than you can say abracadabra, the Mets' offense disappeared.

In the three weeks they played without their second baseman, the Mets batted .217 as a team and scored an average of 2.8 runs per game.  The low point of Life Without Murphy occurred on June 9, when the Mets were no-hit by Giants' starter Chris Heston, who had just 12 major league starts prior to his gem at Citi Field.

Murphy eventually returned from his injury and three weeks later, the Mets returned to relevance with the acquisitions of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Yoenis C├ęspedes.  While all the attention was placed on the team's new members - which also included the team's top hitting prospect, Michael Conforto - Murphy quietly began to rake at the plate, batting .309 over the next two months.  Murphy also added something Mets fans weren't accustomed to seeing from him - power.

From July 25 through September 26, Murphy slammed eight homers and posted a .549 slugging percentage.  Included in his home run barrage was a mammoth blast into the Pepsi Porch during a nationally televised game against the Washington Nationals on August 2 and a game-tying, three-run homer in Atlanta on September 13 when the Mets were down to their final out of the game.  And of course, the Mets won both games.  In fact, the Mets had a 33-14 record when Murphy was in the starting lineup from July 25 (the night Johnson and Uribe made their Mets debuts) to September 26 (the day the team clinched the N.L. East division title).

From the night Murphy made his debut on August 2, 2008 until the final regular season game of the 2015 campaign, Murphy had played in 903 games for the Mets and had never appeared in the postseason, breaking Ed Kranepool's club record of 887 games played to start a career without a playoff game in the mix.  But that streak would end in 2015, as the Mets advanced to the National League Division Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It wouldn't take long for Murphy to begin a different kind of streak.

In Game One, Murphy was responsible for the series' first run, homering off three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw in the Mets' 3-1 victory.  Murphy took Kershaw deep again in Game Four, but the Mets lost that game to force a fifth and deciding game - a game that was single-handedly won by Murphy's bat and brain.

In the first inning, Murphy delivered an RBI double to give the Mets an early lead.  But the Dodgers proceeded to take the lead in the bottom of the first, a lead that remained intact until Murphy came up to the plate in the fourth frame.  On the first pitch delivered by Zack Greinke, himself a former Cy Young Award recipient, Murphy pulled a single to right.  Two batters later, Lucas Duda drew a walk, moving Murphy to second.  But with the Dodgers' infield employing a shift for the pull-happy Duda, third base was left vacated.  An observant Murphy noticed the lack of a fielder near the bag and took off for third, arriving safely without a throw.  Murphy then scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Travis d'Arnaud, literally stealing a run.

Murphy had already contributed to both of the Mets' runs in his first two at-bats.  When he faced Greinke for the third time in the sixth, he introduced the baseball to the right field seats.  On a 3-2 pitch from the Dodgers right-hander, Murphy lined a home run down the right field line, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead.  Starter Jacob deGrom and the bullpen (including Noah Syndergaard, who pitched a scoreless seventh) combined to keep the Dodgers hitless in their last four turns at bat to preserve the one-run lead and send the Mets to the National League Championship Series.

Flip that bat, Daniel!  You just sent the Mets to the NLCS!  (Harry How/Getty Images)

For five games, Murphy teed off against the best the Dodgers had to offer, clubbing three homers off Kershaw and Greinke.  Murphy would face another challenge in the NLCS, facing Jon Lester and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.  Challenge accepted.

  • Game One, first inning vs. Jon Lester:  Home run.  Mets lead, 1-0, and go on to win, 4-2.
  • Game Two, first inning vs. Jake Arrieta:  Home run.  Mets lead, 3-0, and go on to win, 4-1.

With the Cubs' top two starting pitchers out of the way, Murphy and the Mets coasted in the next two games at Wrigley Field.  With Game Three knotted in the fourth inning, Murphy delivered a tie-breaking blast against Kyle Hendricks to give the Mets a 2-1 lead.  The Mets held on to win, 5-2.  Murphy had now hit home runs in five straight postseason games.  Former teammate Carlos Beltran had been the only player to ever accomplish the feat in the playoffs, doing so with the Houston Astros in 2004.  And just one Met had ever homered in five consecutive games prior to Murphy.  That was Richard Hidalgo, who turned the trick during the 2004 regular season.  Both records would fall in a memorable Game Four.

The Mets were one win away from their first National League pennant in 15 years.  It took just 15 batters for the game to turn into a laugher.  New York scored six runs in the first two innings to take a commanding 6-0 lead.  The Mets scored their final two runs of the game in the eighth inning on a home run by - who else? - Daniel Murphy.

Murphy had homered in six straight games - a postseason record and a Mets' all-time mark - to lead the Mets to the World Series.  The former 13th round draft pick who had been with the Mets since they called Shea Stadium home had finally reached the promised land.  But alas, Murphy's dream postseason turned into a nightmare in the Fall Classic.  Not only did Murphy fail to hit a home run, he was also held without an RBI by the Kansas City Royals.  In addition, Murphy struck out seven times in the five-game series after being the toughest player to strike out in the National League during the regular season (38 Ks in 538 plate appearances).  And of course, his costly error in the eighth inning of Game Four allowed the tying run to score and led to the eventual winning run crossing the plate.

The Royals ended the Mets' season in Game Five, winning their first championship in three decades.  Kansas City also ended Murphy's tenure in New York, as the Washington Nationals gave Murphy 37.5 million reasons to leave the only team he had ever known.

"I've seen plenty of Daniel Murphy, believe me, as a general manager - often from the other side of the field," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said.  "He is a player that plays the game the right way.  We love his attitude, his grit.  When the bright lights - not only in New York City - are on, (Murphy) shines the brightest." 

In 2008, rookie Daniel Murphy joined a Mets team that was poised to make it to the postseason, but fell short on the season's final day.  He then suffered through a number of personal injuries, several defensive position changes and more than enough losing baseball for six seasons before finally enjoying another September to remember as a 30-year-old veteran.  This time, Murphy and the team made it to the postseason party and extended their season all the way to November before the glass slippers finally came off.  And along the way, Murphy etched his name into the record books in a way no one could have expected.

Before he became a postseason hero for the Mets, Murphy was criticized for just about everything.  He wasn't a good defensive player.  He didn't hit with enough power.  He was a poor base runner.  Even off-the-field issues like missing Opening Day in 2014 to attend the birth of his first child and his comments about homosexuality due to his religious beliefs left Murphy open for criticism from fans and the media.

But with one amazing and unexpected postseason appearance, Murphy became the brightest star in a city full of them.  No one will ever be able to question his role in one of the most unlikely pennant runs in recent history.  And no one will ever be able to forget the story of the Met who once claimed his defensive position was batting third.

Daniel Murphy and his son, Noah, celebrate a memorable 2015 campaign.  (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman


No comments: