NLCS homer not affecting Heilman

NLCS homer not affecting Heilman

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The list is neither long nor touched with prestige. It affords those on it varying degrees of celebrity and infamy. Would we recall Ralph Branca so readily now if he hadn't thrown that pitch then? How would Ralph Terry be remembered in '07 if not for Bill Mazeroski in '60? We know where to find Eck -- Cooperstown. And Wakefield -- Fenway. But whither Mark Litell, Tom Niendenfuer and Mitch Williams? And what will we ever know of poor Donnie Moore?

Home run pitchers are what they are: unintentional co-authors of compelling baseball stories that stick with us; pitchers whose resumes have been stained by an October swing; players who are linked forever to an adversary because of one moment of competition.

Branca's profile was raised by the home run by Bobby Thomson that was said to resound globally, his image enhanced by the dignity he has demonstrated in the 55 subsequent summers. Terry proved himself in 1962, two years after the fact, opting to pitch Willie McCovey with everything at stake and retiring him to end the World Series in a more acceptable way.

Eckersley brushed aside Kirk Gibson's moment of 1988 gallantry and moved on. Moore was haunted by Dave Henderson's in '86. And 28 years later, Mike Torrez makes appearances with Bucky Dent, never using the present-participle nickname New England created for a Yankees hero.

The list now includes Aaron Heilman. He threw the most telling pitch of the Mets' 2006 season, the one that added Yadier Molina to a different list and removed the favored team from the National League Championship Series in the decisive game. Heilman pleads guilty, but he hardly is held to the fire for the pitch Molina hit beyond Endy Chavez and the Mets' ability to retaliate.

Heilman says the home run has been the topic of most every reporter's first question this spring. But he also acknowledges the questions haven't led to any calls for his head.

"It hasn't been ... bad," he said.

The newspapers haven't been unkind. The drive-time alarmists have been more consumed by A-Rod's relationships, Carl Pavano's aches and Jimmy Rollins' pronouncements.

"That's OK with me," Heilman said.

He sees no benefit in reviewing or reliving the moment.

But Heilman was a tad intrigued when asked to explain how he had escaped the wrath of the masses and why Mets uniform No. 48 seemingly has been treated with Teflon. A man given to analysis, Heilman considered the possibilities on Sunday, but he came up almost as empty as the Mets had in October.

"It was a pretty quirky game," he said, finally. "Lots of things happened."

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Heilman wasn't denying responsibility, but merely saying Molina's two-run home run in the ninth just got lost in all of what happened that night. It wasn't rationalization at all, but rather realization that other aspects of the 3-1 loss obscured his role.

"I think [Carlos] Beltran took him off the hook," general manager Omar Minaya said.

A season-ending called third strike with three runners on base and a two-run deficit does draw some attention. And as much as the New York market likes to embrace a hometown hero, it hardly is averse to pointing its finger at a hometown villain. And if it's an already established star, so much the better.

Beltran's star is significantly brighter than Heilman's. And the final out did make an impression. Adam Wainwright threw the final pitch of the World Series as well, the Cardinals' first successful World Series in 24 years. But the Cardinals closer has acknowledged his strikeout of Beltran looms larger than the final out of the World Series with most folks.

"If it was me and [Albert] Pujols," said closer Billy Wagner, "it would have been bigger. Or if we had been ahead and then lost it, you would have heard more. I'm just as glad for Aaron. He's dealing with it pretty good, just putting it behind him like you have to do.

"So much happened in that game -- we had so many chances -- one man can't be blamed. You can't put [it] on him. He was asked to do more [after Duaner Sanchez went down], and he pitched so well. It was just a ridiculous series for us -- a pretty ugly NLCS. We didn't play our best, but we didn't play that poor. We just didn't get it done.

"Once Endy Chavez made that catch [in the sixth inning], we all knew we were going to win. And when we didn't score [with the bases loaded and one out] in the next [half] inning, it knocked us down. Even when it was over, we were just sitting there waiting for someone to get the hit we needed. We'd been getting them all year.

"Why not that night?"

No fingers are pointed in the Mets' clubhouse this spring. Even with 62 players in camp, there may not be enough fingers. Guillermo Mota's pitch to Scott Spiezio is mentioned more often than Molina's home run. Wagner brought up the home run he allowed to So Taguchi that put the Cardinals ahead. Willie Randolph also recalls how the team didn't score in the sixth -- with the bases loaded and on out -- after Chavez's catch.

No one blames Chavez for making the third out in the sixth, on the first pitch. But a number of teammates have what-iffed that moment. "What if Endy gets a hit there?" Heilman wondered.

That catch and a hit to put the Mets ahead would have put him with Al Weis, Ron Swoboda and Lenny Dykstra in Mets postseason lore. And they might have kept Heilman off the list.

"I probably would have been on in the ninth if we had the lead," Wagner said. "What if I give it up to Albert? He's an all-time hero, I'm a bum.

"That's why you don't point fingers. They can point back at you in a hurry."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.