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Delayed Attribution

It was 40 years ago Saturday that Rob Gardner won his first game as a New York Met, which may not seem like a big-deal anniversary kind of thing, but let's first examine what Mr. Gardner had to go through to get that inaugural triumph before stating that.

Gardner made his major-league debut on September 1, 1965 and the 20-year old southpaw (who had 37 minor league victories in three seasons) must have been nervous. The first six Astros batters that day reached base, and with the assistance of two errors and Rusty Staub's three-run home run, Gardner's first big league inning concluded with him allowing five runs.

Gardner lost that day and lost his next appearance too, though he allowed only two runs in six innings against the defending champion Cardinals. By the time we got to the final days of the season, Gardner had pitched four times and hadn't really done anything special. That was about to change.

The Mets were concluding a campaign in which they'd drop 112 games, so it was no big deal to throw the kid out to the mound again for the second game of an October 2 doubleheader against the Phillies, after the Mets dropped the opener to Jim Bunning, 6-0.

Given a chance to end his season on a high note, Gardner made the most of it. He escaped a jam in the first inning and survived two miscues by teammates in the third inning before settling into a groove. Mets manager Wes Westrum liked what he saw from Gardner and gave him every chance to win the game. Unfortunately his teammates failed to follow suit.

Through nine innings, Gardner allowed three hits and no runs. His mound rival, Chris Short, was just as good at maintaining zeroes, despite allowing six hits. Short either had a pretty good fastball that night or the Mets were eager to go home, because they swung and missed like there was no tomorrow (actually there was but one day left in the season).

Figuring it silly to mess with a good thing, Westrum left Gardner in the game. He matched zeroes with Short through a whopping 15 innings before Westrum finally pinch-hit for him in the home 15th. The Mets chance to give Gardner that first win ended when Joe Christopher became Short's 18th strikeout victim (tying the NL record at the time) as they failed to convert a two-out scoring chance. Short's strikeout performance was impressive, but how about we give credit to Gardner, who allowed only five harmless hits over 15 innings (he whiffed seven). After three more scoreless innings the umpires called the game a 0-0 18-inning draw, citing the 1 a.m. curfew rule (or more likely, just eager to get the heck out of the park). There's a story on the "Ultimate Mets Database" of a youngster who got an autograph from Gardner after the game ended (which I'm guessing Gardner inscribed "Why aren't you asleep?"), a rather gracious gesture for someone who must have been a little bit perturbed at the lack of support.

Flash forward to May 6, 1966 when Gardner made his third start of the season. He'd grown accustomed to concluding lengthy performances without reward by this point. In his prior start, he yielded one run and four hits in nine innings, but the Mets fell to the Pirates in 11 innings. This time Gardner finally got his due.

Gardner tossed nine splendid innings against the Cubs and helped his own cause with the Mets lone RBI (on his first MLB hit) through the first eight. Apparently mindful of his pitchers quest for victory, Westrum let Gardner work through the heart of the Cubs order in the ninth frame, with the score tied, 1-1. Gardner rewarded the decision, fanning Ernie Banks to end the frame.

A rookie lefty named Ken Holtzman was the opposing pitcher that day and he was nearly flawless as well. His biggest mistake came to start of the last of the ninth, when Cleon Jones roped an 0-2 offering over the left field fence for a walk-off home run and a 2-1 Mets victory.

It was the first of 14 big league wins for Gardner in a career that spanned 109 games, parts of eight seasons for six teams. He was traded on six different occasions, making him rather popular on the transaction page, but his name recognition against this current generation of Mets fans is minimal, at least until we recognize him today.

True Metners know...The Mets have had three walk-off wins on May 5, five walk-off wins on May 6, and one walk-off win on May 7, but none of those nine have come against the Braves.


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