Expectation of Payback Ratchets Up Mets-Dodgers Tension

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Illustration by Sam Manchester/The New York Times

Late Sunday morning, Will from Queens availed himself of the round-the-clock therapy session known as sports-talk radio. By the time he got through to Mike Francesa, the chief clinician at WFAN, his voice was trembling with emotion.

“I would say it’s dirty,” Will said with difficulty. “It bothers me as a Mets fan. But Harvey better step up tomorrow night.”

Less than a half-day earlier, on the other side of the continent, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chase Utley had executed a slide at second base in which the base itself seemed incidental. Intent on breaking up a double play that had no chance of completion, Utley took out Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with such single-minded purpose that he hardly waved at second base as he slid past, a knee-capper in Dodger blue.

Tejada’s leg was broken, Utley was called safe — on legal if not moral grounds — and the Dodgers went on to win the game and tie the best-of-five National League division series at one apiece. Now Will from Queens was all but sobbing as he called upon Matt Harvey, the Mets’ starting pitcher Monday night, to “step up.”

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Matt Harvey, right, came off the mound for a long stare at Chase Utley after hitting him with a pitch in April.

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Al Bello/Getty Images

“Put the team on your shoulders, and then you got my faith back in you,” Will said, now crying. “He has to do it tomorrow night. I want to see it done tomorrow night. Thank you.”

What Will meant is perhaps known only to him and his off-the-air therapist. But many of us who were listening could easily interpret his comments to be a plaintive cry for retaliation. Hitting a batter, preferably Utley, with a pitch. Taking out an infielder, preferably Utley, with a hard slide. Something done — preferably to Utley.

The possibility — even the expectation — of payback has added an extra layer of tension to Monday night’s pivotal game. It has also generated a torrent of cost-benefit analyses by fans and sportswriters about whether retaliation, as much a part of the game as ground-rule doubles and crotch tugs, is warranted, and if so, how it will be delivered.

Let’s take a look at some of those theories, shall we?

First, there is history. Utley, 36, is a veteran player with a win-at-all-cost style of play that some admire and others say is another term for misdemeanor assault. In 2010, for example, he delivered a hard slide to Tejada, then a rookie, that seemed — a bit much.

Even before that history, there is other history that obsessive Mets fans have not forgotten. In 2000, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens hit Mets catcher Mike Piazza in the head; he also twirled a shattered bat toward Piazza during that year’s World Series. That Piazza routinely feasted on Clemens’s pitching may have been a factor.

Two years later — baseball people have long memories, it seems — the Mets had a chance for retaliation when Clemens returned to Shea Stadium. The very first pitch that Mets pitcher Shawn Estes threw to Clemens was a fastball that ended up several inches behind the Yankee’s upper thigh.

Clemens responded with a smirk that lives on.

Now, about Game 3.

Major League Baseball suspended Utley for two games on Sunday night, but that suspension is under appeal, which means that the infielder is eligible to play for now.

But will he play? He was not scheduled to be in the starting lineup.

Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly might decide that Utley’s presence on the field would provide more motivation for the Mets and their fans than for the Dodgers. On the other hand, he might reason that having Utley step into the batter’s box could mess with Harvey’s concentration.

For one thing, Utley has a .333 batting average against Harvey. For another, Harvey has plunked Utley before, and might have a hard time resisting the urge to respond in the name of his teammate Tejada. This would mean awarding Utley a base, at the very least. It could also mean the ejection of the Mets pitcher from the game, especially if the umpires have warned the players against playing a game of payback.

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