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Fat Albert(o)

It was thought that the Mets were bringing back one of their good-luck charms when it was announced last week that they had signed Alberto Castillo to a minor-league contract. Alas, Castillo backed out of the deal at the last moment (after it had already appeared in your newspaper's transactions section) and instead inked on with the Oakland Athletics.

Somewhere, a Phillies fan with a good memory breathed a sigh of relief.

It was March 31, 1998, an Opening Day in which the feeling in the air was optimism rather than chills (game time temperature was in the 80s), even though the starting lineup for the Flushing 9 featured Tim Spehr as the starting catcher (stump your friends with that one!) in the pre-Piazza era.

It was a catcher who would make the biggest impact in this game, but that would take a little while to develop- four-and-a-half hours, in fact- because Mets starter Bobby Jones was busy matching zeroes with Phillies ace Curt Schilling. The bats were weak on this day, as this was a game bereft of extra-base hits.

The game was devoid of serious scoring threats due to both the weakness of the Mets lineup and the surprising strength of the Mets bullpen, which tossed eight scoreless innings behind Jones. Schilling, to no surprise, was his usual brilliant self for Philadelphia (8 innings, 2 hits, 9 strikeouts).

The longest scoreless opener in NL history was good to the last man, which in this case for the Mets was Castillo, since they had already used Luis Lopez, Jim Tatum, Rich Becker and Matt Franco (bench depth was not a strength). Castillo had gone into the clubhouse as the last of the 14th inning began to fetch some hot chocolate (!), but returned when needed.

Matt Franco led off the frame against future Met Ricky Bottalico with a single and went to second on a walk by Brian McRae. Edgardo Alfonzo bunted, but the Phillies were able to get a force play on Franco at third, making McRae the lead runner. McRae killed a lot of rallies in his time with the Mets (note to self: next 'Minutiae Break' subject is rally killers of Mets past) and nearly succeeded in turning a happy day into a crappy day, when he stumbled rounding third base on Bernard Gilkey's apparent game-winning single to left field and had to retreat to the bag. Bottalico got Lopez to pop out, meaning the game came down to the Phillies reliever against the unimpressive Castillo, who had one Mets walk-off hit to his credit, having beaten the Braves with a double on September 27, 1997.

Naturally the count went to 3-2 and this looked like it might be another of those ugly at bats that explained why Castillo's batting average was below the Mendoza line. Bottalico tried a fastball and Castillo punched it to right field on a line for the game-winning hit. McRae was able to stagger home without an issue this time, giving the Mets the 1-0 win.

It should be noted that Castillo was 0-for-9 for his career against the Phillies prior to that at-bat, but he has since been quite good against them. Including the Opening Day single, Castillo is 7-for-his-last-24 against Philadelphia with eight RBI. He might have come in handy this week, or perhaps a month from now, had he signed on as was believed.


True Metillos know...Tim Spehr, the only player with two hits that day, got to play in 20 more games with the Mets, as one of Mike Piazza's plate predecessors. His fortunes were better than the last player to start an opener in right field prior to Darryl Strawberry. Poor Mike Howard suited up on Opening Day, 1983, had a hit and an RBI, then never played a major-league game again.

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