It comes as no surprise to followers of the New York Mets that Gary Carter has been rising to the occasion on so many of these October evenings when the team has needed him most. The veteran catcher has long been known as both a clutch player and a team leader on and off the field. Now in the 12th year of a brilliant major league career, he is getting only his second chance at postseason play -- and his first in the World Series. If anyone was going to turn it up a notch or two, especially when things looked darkest for his ball club, Carter was a pretty good candidate.
The Mets have been up against it most of the time throughout postseason action -- first in the National League Championship Series against Houston and then in the World Series confrontation with Boston -- and Carter has been the man of the hour several times.
He hit the 12th-inning single that won Game 5 of the playoffs, and was involved in two late rallies during the 16-inning pennant-winning thriller the next day. Then came his two-homer, six-RBI explosion in Games 3 and 4 of the World Series in Boston, leading the comeback that ensured a return to New York for at least a sixth game Saturday night.
``We knew when we came in here that our backs were to the wall and we had to win these two games,'' Carter said of the precarious situation the Mets faced after losing the first two at home. Obviously, he came prepared to do his part.
Gary's double helped the Mets jump out to a four-run first inning in Game 3, and he singled home two more runs in the seventh to cap a 7-1 victory. But the big explosion came the next night when he smashed a gigantic two-run homer to open the scoring in the fourth inning, then hit a solo shot in the eighth to cap the 6-2 triumph that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
In all, he went 5-for-9 in the two contests, raising his average for four games to .412, with a Series-leading seven RBIs, while continuing to play his usual outstanding game behind the plate.
``Gary Carter is having the kind of Series everybody knew he would have,'' said New York manager Davey Johnson.
``No one hit in the playoffs. It was just a tough, tense time. But he has done enough already to have a great World Series.''
In his 10 years with Montreal, Carter had only one shot at postseason play -- 1981. He did his part, hitting .421 as the Expos eliminated Philadelphia in the divisonal playoff devised for that strike-abbreviated season, then batting .438 in the league championship series only to see his team lose out to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fifth and final game.
The second chance came this fall, but for a while it seemed neither he nor the Mets would be equal to it. The entire team -- and especially its veteran catcher -- was mired in a dreadful batting slump throughout most of the series with the Astros. When Carter came to the plate in the 12th inning of Game 5, in fact, he had managed just one hit in 21 at-bats. But now with the ball game on the line, Gary battled reliever Charlie Kerfeld to a 3-2 count, fouled off two pitches, then drilled a single to center to send Wally Backman home from second with the winning run.
The next day Gary walked during the three-run ninth-inning rally that tied the score, then singled to start the one that put the Mets ahead in the 14th en route to their eventual victory two innings later.
``Many times something like this is taken for granted,'' he said of his feelings about being in the World Series at last. ``There are many great players with great careers who haven't had a chance to play in a Series. To me, it is a thrill of a lifetime -- the ultimate for my 12 years.''
At first, though, the dream looked like a nightmare as the Mets sleepwalked through two losing efforts in New York. They hardly looked like the team that had rolled to 108 regular-season wins and four more in the playoffs. And several players -- including Carter -- made it clear that they felt the pressure-packed battle with the Astros had left the club too physically and emotionally drained to put forth its best effort.
Johnson, sensing that his players needed rest even at the expense of familiarizing themselves with the enemy ballpark, canceled a scheduled workout on the Monday off-day following the first two games. The move raised a lot of eyebrows elsewhere, but the players felt their manager had made a wise decision.
``I think we all got our second breath and wind,'' Carter said. ``It's not to say we didn't expect a tough series with Boston, but we did have a long, hard series with Houston. The one day off before the World Series was not enough.''
And the bottom line, of course, was that they did look like a different team in Fenway Park, getting sharp pitching from Bob Ojeda and Ron Darling, plus solid hitting from Carter, Lenny Dykstra, and others, and ensuring that whatever happened in Game 5 Thursday night, the final act of this 1986 drama wouild be played out in Shea Stadium this weekend.