Back-to-back jacks propel Mets

Back-to-back jacks propel Mets

NEW YORK -- The great ones, they say, find a way to get it done. And Rickey Henderson unquestionably qualifies as one of them, a man of almost incalculable achievement in the game and, it seems, unnatural influence. So it was Thursday night at Shea Stadium, where the Mets coach was conspicuously absent on his first day on the job and seemingly influential nonetheless.

The short row of dominos at work was this. Henderson is the all-time leader in home runs leading off first innings. Eighty-one times in the career he still claims is unfinished, he hit a home run leading off the first. And in the first game his team plays after his appointment, what happens?

Not only does Jose Reyes hit a home run leading off the first inning, but with no one on and no one out in the Mets' first, Ruben Gotay hits another. A second leadoff home run, if you will. A second leadoff home run in one inning if you stretch the definition enough to reach the wall in right-center field.

Otherwise, the Mets' 3-2 victory against the Reds was a tad routine, despite how well the Mets performed in their first game back, just another one-run victory -- they've won 12 of 16 games decided by the slimmest margin -- and another victory against a team from the National League Central. The Mets have won 13 of 18 against baseball's mid-America division.

But these two home runs ... now they provided distinction, not to mention two-thirds of the team's production for the evening. Reyes had led off a first inning with a home run eight times previously, so this was old hat for him as well as a franchise record. But Gotay never had. And never in the 7,244 games the Mets had played before Thursday had their first two batters hit home runs.

"It's gotta be Rickey," Jose Valentin said. "Spirits. It's his spirit. He's not here, but he sent a message."

"Subliminal messaging," Tom Glavine said. "Very impressive."

And David Wright, while not dismissing Henderson's resume, explained it thusly: "Because we have a great, talented player leading off."

It was left to Aaron Heilman, the team academic, to explain how it all came together, how, from afar, Henderson had communicated his influence.

"It's the theory of separate particles interacting without touching," he said, "while being in a vast amount of special separation. It ties in with teleportation."

Henderson will explain it in greater detail Friday.

Clearly it was the Residue of Rickey, influence he left behind during the Mets' most recent homestand last month when Henderson was merely an instructor. Now he's a card-carrying coach -- though his title and real responsibilities still have not been defined. But he does has sway.

Henderson led off first innings with home runs as a matter of course. When he joined the Mets as a player in 1999, he had done so 73 times in 21 seasons. The Mets franchise had 72 leadoff home runs in 37 seasons. Think of that disparity of games. He hit two with them and added six more before suspending his playing career.

"He never told me how," Reyes said, laughing. He was amazed by Henderson's total. "I'll have to play for 50 years to get that."

Reyes swore he had no communication with his new coach before he faced Bronson Arroyo and hit a 1-1 pitch for his fifth home run.

Gotay, who hit a 2-1 pitch for his fourth, had received no messages from the leadoff coach. But, he said, he was sure Henderson would be an asset when he does show up.

And perhaps Henderson's influence manifested itself in other parts of the game. The Mets stole three bases, one by Orlando Hernandez, now perhaps the Mets' senior citizen with Julio Franco permanently absent.

Moreover, the decisive run was the result of a Rickey-like 90-yard dash by Lastings Milledge in the fifth inning. Promoted to the big leagues on Thursday and in the lineup as the left fielder in his first day back, Milledge led off the inning with a single. He still was on first base with two outs when Gotay, playing because Valentin couldn't, hit a line drive to center field. Ryan Freel made an unsuccessful attempt to catch it on a fly, and the ball bounced beyond him by a few feet.

Milledge, stealing on the pitch, arrived at the plate almost simultaneously with Freel's weak throw. He tagged the plate with his hand -- not Willie Randolph's recommended way to slide -- and the Mets had enough to make Hernandez a winning pitcher.

El Duque (5-4) pitched six innings, one less than Arroyo (3-10), allowing three hits, walking two and striking out seven. Afforded that 2-0 lead, he allowed the Reds to tie the score almost immediately. A two-out single by Scott Hatteberg drove in two runs in the second, but only after Hernandez had walked Arroyo to load the bases.

Hernandez pitched well from that point on, retiring 12 straight batters after walking Ken Griffey Jr. to start the third. Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano extended that streak to 18 batters as the Reds provided more evidence of being a last-place team. Not until Brandon Phillips singled against Billy Wagner leading off the ninth did their offense even stir. And then Phillips got himself thrown out, trying to cross from second to third on a ground ball to the shortstop -- more compelling evidence -- to make Wagner's 18th save a tad easier.

The man in charge of happy endings did what he is paid to do for the 342nd time in his career. Now only seven relievers have more saves than Wagner. On this night, though, the happy ending was secondary to the home run happy beginning.

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