Better late than never for another Mets opener

Ryan Howard’s three-run home run in the sixth inning silenced Shea Stadium. The Mets had just taken a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the fifth despite John Maine’s struggles. Willie Randolph turned over the game to the bullpen, starting with Ambiorix Burgos, who got ahead of Howard, 1-2. All he needed to do was keep the ball out of the middle of the plate, fool him with a splitter or an off-speed pitch that would get the struggling, free-swinging NL MVP to chase a pitch.

But Burgos’ splitter remained whole over the heart of the plate, right in Howard’s wheelhouse, and the big left-hander seemed to flick his bat at it, turning his wrists over effortlessly and driving the ball through a swirling, slicing wind. Shawn Green gave chase in right-center, but it didn’t matter.

The Phillies led, 5-3.

Two runs shouldn’t be a problem for the Mets, but the fans — a Shea Opening Day record 56,227 — sensed the team’s funk. Cole Hamels was baffling the Mets with his changeup, even if his fastball barely reached 90 mph on a frigid afternoon. Only John Valentin, who lined a two-run single earlier to give the Mets a 2-1 lead and hit another ball hard and true for a line-out, seemed to have a good read on Hamels. The bottom of the sixth went by quietly and even though the Mets cut it to 5-4 with a run in the seventh, Shea didn’t hold the same electricity it would on another day.

Maybe that listlessness was because the seventh produced only one run, despite the heart of the order coming to bat. Maybe David Wright’s lineout to end the inning — on a spectacular diving catch by Shane Victorino in right field — to strand two runners seemed like the last great hope. After all, our hopes in the eighth would be in the hands of a newcomer in Moises Alou, the seemingly slowing bat of Shawn Green and Valentin.

But the Phillies bullpen is their biggest flaw, and as the team warmed up for the bottom of the eighth, I turned to my friend Dave with a thought.

“You know, a few years ago, Derek Bell got in the fans’ good graces with a home run in the eighth to beat the Padres,” I said, recalling another cold — though not this cold — opener that was tied at 1 when Bell lined a Donne Wall pitch into the bleachers in left field. “Maybe today is Moises’ turn.”

And it was Alou who got things going with a single to the gap in right-center in the eighth inning. Philadelphia’s Aaron Rowand made a diving attempt, but the ball scooted off of his glove. I won’t replay the whole inning, because it’s easily accessible, but once Alou came to bat again in the inning and delivered a two-run single, Dave and I felt it was an acceptable time to leave our seats, get the blood flowing again in our legs, and start making our way down from the upper deck and toward the exits. We watched from the platform as Billy Wagner fanned two to end it in the ninth, the closer in the game despite an 11-5 score because he had already warmed up when it was merely 6-5.

Making it ever sweeter was Jimmy Rollins’ role, the key error on a ball that never would’ve been a double play with Jose Reyes running down the line. There are some who say it doesn’t matter how outs are made — a strikeout is no worse than a groundout or flyout — but I’d much rather have Reyes hit a ground ball with the bases loaded and the Mets down by a run than strike out. The chances of turning a double play with Reyes running are slim, and if the fielder doesn’t realize that, errors happen. Just ask Rollins. It’s only seven games, but seeing the Phillies at 1-6 after Rollins’ offseason boasting — which may come up during each and every series these two teams play — does make me smile.

The eighth inning brought Shea alive again, the fans breaking the ice on their lungs and cheering each hit, each run and, of course, Rollins. The sing-song chant of “JI-MMY ROLL-INS! JI-MMY ROLL-INS!” began with two outs and continued as he trotted off the field following the final batter of the frame. The fans were smiling again, and the wind seemed to have stopped, even if it was still, technically, swirling. The afternoon felt warm again.

Yesterday’s win puts the Mets at 7-1 in the eight straight openers we’ve attended, the lone loss coming at the hands of the Cubs in 2003, when Corey Patterson hit two homers and drove in seven runs in Tom Glavine’s Mets debut. And once again, things look bright after the first game in Queens.

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