After their magical run to a World Series title in 1969, the Mets continued to play winning baseball over the next three years. But winning baseball was not contending baseball, and New York was well off the pace being set by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the old NL East. The 1973 New York Mets weren’t necessarily improved—in fact, they even regressed a little bit. But so did the Pirates and so did the rest of the division. The Mets won a race that managed to be both wildly exciting and incredibly mediocre all at once. Then they pulled one upset in the NLCS and came oh-so-close to pulling another in the World Series.
It was all about pitching in this era at Shea Stadium and, in particular, it was all about Tom Seaver. One of the great pitchers of all-time had a vintage ’73 campaign, winning 19 games, working 290 innings, posting a 2.08 ERA, and winning the Cy Young Award.
Seaver was backed up by Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack, who combined to start 69 games, work over 500 innings and win 28 games. Koosman’s ERA was 2.84 and Matlack clocked in at 3.20.
This core trio carried the Met staff, but manager Yogi Berra still got good work from George Stone, who went 12-3 with a 2.80 ERA in his twenty starts. The bullpen was a little up and down, with no one notable having an ERA lower than 3.35. But the trio of Tug McGraw, Ray Sadecki and Harry Parker kept it going. New York finished third in the National League for composite staff ERA.
Scoring runs was a little dicier. John Milner was a good young third baseman and the 23-year-old hit 23 home runs. Felix Millan played second base and batted .290. Bud Harrelson and Wayne Garrett, shortstop and third base respectively, didn’t hit much, but they drew their share of walks. Rusty Staub played rightfield and had an OBP of .361.
But no one was a true all-around standout and there were plenty of weak spots. There was enough playing time for the great Willie Mays in the outfield at the age of 42, but with his skills obviously declining, 1973 would be Mays’ final season. All in all, the Mets ranked 11th in a 12-team National League for runs scored.
New York won their first four games and were still 12-8, tied for first place at the end of April. Losing two straight at home to the playoff-bound Cincinnati Reds started a four-game losing streak, but the Mets countered by going into Pittsburgh and sweeping a three-game set. New York was still 19-17, and only 2 ½ games off the pace when they went on a West Coast road trip. When they returned to Queens on June 8, that record was 22-26 and the deficit was 7 ½ games.
It’s worth stepping back to remind younger readers that there were only two divisions per league prior to 1994, an East and a West. Moreover, only the first-place team finisher qualified for the postseason. That made both the 7 ½ game margin, and trailing four teams, an even more urgent situation than it would be today.
The Chicago Cubs were setting the pace in the old NL East, and the Mets also trailed the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). Only the Philadelphia Phillies were behind New York. The good news is that none of the NL East teams were really standing out. It was also good news that Major League Baseball was geographically troubled and had the Reds (along with the Atlanta Braves) stashed in the NL West. Cincinnati, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers would be two of the best teams in baseball and stage a terrific battle in the West.
Anyway, after the bad West Coast trip, the Mets got the Dodgers, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants at home and took six of nine games. But New York then lost three straight to Philadelphia, starting a downward spiral that saw them lose 14 of 20 games. On July 5, the Mets were 11 ½ games out. Taking two of three from the Reds stabilized the ship a bit, and New York started to chip away at the lead. But at the All-Star break, they were still 42-51, 7 ½ games out and providing their fan base little reason for hope.
The schedule offered opportunity out of the All-Star break, with a lot of games against NL East foes. But losing five of seven out of the chute didn’t help. By August 26, New York was 58-70 and in last place.
But the mediocrity of the division was keeping everyone in the hunt. St. Louis, with a record of 65-64, inferior to the top four teams in the West, had the lead in the East. The Mets might be in the cellar, but they were only 6 ½ games out. They won five of seven going into Labor Day to nudge that margin down to 5 ½ games and move up into fifth place.
Teams with pitching can often surge down the stretch and the New York rotation did some serious dealing in the first full week of September. Playing a stacked schedule of eight games, the Mets got three shutouts from three different pitchers—none of whom were named Tom Seaver. They went 6-2, closed to within three games of the lead and moved up into fourth place.
Going 4-2 the following week chipped the lead down to 2 ½ games. New York still trailed Pittsburgh, Montreal, and St. Louis, but a big week was ahead. Beginning on September 17, the Mets would play the Pirates for a rare five-game series—each night, Monday through Friday, there would be a game. The first two nights were in Pittsburgh, the latter three back in Queens. It was make-or-break time.
Seaver took the ball for the opener, and it couldn’t have gone worse. The ace lasted only three innings and New York lost 10-3. On Tuesday night, they trailed 4-1 in the ninth inning with one out. It was now that the 1973 New York Mets campaign turned decisively upward.
In short order, Jim Beauchamp singled, Garrett doubled, and Millan tripled. It was 4-3 and the tying run was on third. Staub worked a walk. Ron Hodges delivered an RBI single that tied the game. Don Hahn knocked a two-run base hit that gave New York the lead. They won 6-5 and had new life.
Back home on Wednesday night, the Mets led 4-3 after six innings. McGraw came out of the bullpen, tossed three shutout innings and New York added three insurance runs. On Thursday, the Mets trailed 3-2 in the ninth inning when Duffy Dyer hit a game-tying double with two outs. Hodges ultimately won it in the 13th with a walkoff RBI single.
By Friday night, the rotation had circled back to Tom Terrific, and Seaver didn’t miss the chance for redemption. Staked to an early 4-0 lead, Seaver went the distance and the Mets won easily, 10-2.
By week’s end, New York was up to .500, with a record of 77-77. And that was enough to be in first place, a half-game ahead of the Pirates, a full game ahead of the Cardinals, plus 1 ½ on the Expos and up 2 ½ o the Cubs.
The Mets kept their momentum going on the weekend, beating the Cardinals on Saturday and Sunday. New York split two with Montreal. That took New York into the final weekend of play with a record of 80-78. Pittsburgh still had a shot, at 79-80, with St. Louis barely hanging on at 79-81. Improbably, the Mets not only led this race, but they were in pretty firm command.
New York was in Chicago and rain kept them off the field until Sunday. Doubleheaders were scheduled for both Sunday and Monday, which seemed a fitting way to conclude this bizarre race. The Mets lost 1-0 in the opener on Sunday. But with Staub delivering three hits and driving in three runs, they scored nine runs in the nightcap and Koosman won 9-2. New York was 81-79. Pittsburgh and St. Louis each had 81 losses. The Mets only needed to win once on Monday.
It was a drizzly, rainy afternoon at Wrigley. Staub had another big game, with four hits. Seaver wasn’t sharp, but he worked six innings and left with a 6-4 lead. McGraw took over from there. That score held to the bottom of the ninth. The Cubs had a man on first with one out. A line drive went directly at Milner who stepped on the bag to create a game-ending double play.
The Mets were NL East champs. The second game was called off, ostensibly because of the weather, but likely because it no longer mattered. The champagne could flow.
As crazy as this celebration was, improbable champagne parties weren’t yet finished. New York was a heavy underdog to Cincinnati in the NLCS. But pitching will do wonders. The Met staff held the potent Big Red Machine to eight runs over five games and New York won was then a best-of-five round.
The great pitching continued against the defending champion Oakland A’s in the World Series. With the exception of a strange 10-7 affair in Game 2 (which the Mets still won), the New York staff matched up with a stacked Oakland staff and held a 3-2 series lead. Alas, the magic finally ran out. The Series went back West, Seaver lost a tough Game 6 against the great Catfish Hunter, and the A’s took home Game 7.
It was a magical year and concluded a five-year stretch where the Mets played consistently winning baseball, captured two National League pennants and won a World Series title. But the end was at hand. New York fell hard to 71-91 a year later. A brief rebound to winning baseball over 1975 and 1976 wasn’t enough to put them in serious contention. And from 1977-83, the Mets fell off the map. It would take the arrival of Davey Johnson, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry to make the franchise contenders again for a new generation, in an era that began in 1984.