NEW YORK — Daniel Murphy is good — magical, really — at deflecting any and all praise so that it hits only his teammates. He is good — magical, really — at sidestepping any admission that he’s in the middle of an unreal dreamscape of a postseason and that it feels INCREDIBLE to be this hot. Murphy is on a streak so absurd that David Wright says he just might be the hottest hitter Wright has EVER seen and … well, hold on, let’s try using that.
Hey Daniel, David Wright says you are the hottest hitter he’s ever seen, what does that feel like?
“There have been plenty of times this year when I haven’t been swinging the bat well,” he says. “So David swung the bat well tonight. Had a lineout. Had a double. Grandy (Curtis Granderson) is doing what he’s doing. Ces (Yoenis Cespedes) is swinging the bat well. Trav (Travid d’Arnaud). It lengthens out the lineup is the easiest way to describe it.”
See? Masterful. It is like watching Jascha Heifetz play violin or Richard Pryor in his standup prime. The query, you will remember, was built around the white-hot hitting of Murphy, who has now hit five home runs in this postseason and who led the Mets to victory and 2-0 series lead on Sunday and who has been doing things so mind-boggling that every adjective in the thesaurus sounds tinny and unsatisfying.
And when you ask him what it is like to be in the middle of all that magnificence, Murphy talks about lengthening out the lineup.
Let’s try another. Hey, Daniel, the fans have been going crazy for you. That’s got to pump you up!
“I think for all of us, the energy level has been high,” he says. “The fans have done a great job, I think, of helping everybody focus. … So the fans have been awesome. They’ve been unreal.”
See? The question is about fans cheering him. But he hears the question as being about the fans cheering THEM, the whole Mets, and also how great the fans really are.
He’s undefeated at this game. All his life, Murphy has longed to be the kind of hitter he has been for the last week and a half. Nobody thought about hitting more. Nobody studied the art of bat hitting ball as intently as he did. When he got out of high school, only one college even offered him a scholarship. That was Jacksonville University. First day the team got together, the players went around the room, introduced themselves — name and position.
“I’m Daniel Murphy,” he said. “And I hit third.”
He wasn’t being cocky. Third in the lineup WAS his position. Defense, well, defense was what you had to do to get back up to the plate. That was work. He has spent a long time trying to find a position.
But hitting is not work for Murphy, it is music. He loves every part of it, the stance, the movement of the hands, the steadiness of the head, the balance shift, the stride, the finish — these things are the lifeblood of the game for him. He was drafted late by the Mets, he was shuffled around to seven different minor-league teams and the Arizona Fall League. He was called up to the Mets in 2008 mostly as a first baseman. He stayed because he hit.
Murphy’s style of hitting is of another time. He doesn’t walk. He doesn’t hit with great home run power, at least normally. He also doesn’t strike out. He hits around .290 and cracks the ball into the gap with some regularity, and you could imagine him, like that guy in “A Beautiful Mind,” sitting in a room somewhere with schematics of Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby and Tony Gwynn on the walls, just pondering the mysteries and geometries of hitting.
Then comes this postseason, and … it’s pretty inexplicable. Murphy has hit five home runs in seven games, which is startling but not unprecedented, What IS unprecedented is the high quality of pitching that he has crushed. Two of those home runs came against the best pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw. One came against Cy Young-winner and star Zack Greinke. One more came against the sublime Jon Lester.
Then, on a cold Sunday night at Citi Field, Murphy comes up in the bottom of the first inning against Chicago’s Jake Arrieta, who has for the last three months been as good as any pitcher in the long-chronicled history of the game. The Mets’ crowd clearly wants to believe something good will happen, but a sense of realism is in order. Daniel Murphy is a .288 lifetime hitter who has never managed more than 14 home runs in a season. His numbers so far mirror people like Todd Walker or Martin Prado … the Barry Bonds act has to run out soon or later, doesn’t it?
On the second pitch against Arrieta, he cranks a titanic blast toward right field. It is foul from the moment he hits it, but the ball is hit so violently that everyone watches it anyway as it soars into the upper deck right of the foul pole. Wow. Well, the feeling is: That was his pitch, and he just missed it, but, really, what a great show this guy’s putting on.
Two pitches later, he hits the ball into the right-field bleachers for his fifth home run. The Mets led, 3-0, and would not be threatened for the rest of the night.
So, to review: In his regular-season career, Murphy never managed an extra-base hit against the quartet of Kershaw, Greinke, Lester and Arrieta. In these 10 days, he’s hit .500 against them with five home runs. He has been the hero more or less every night.
And so, yeah, you might expect him to strut just a little. He doesn’t have to flip the bat, Jose Bautista-style, but when you’ve dedicated your whole life to the art and science of hitting and then you suddenly find that you can stop bullets in the Matrix, hey, maybe you take a moment to say, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”
Um, no. Here, let’s ask him what it felt like when the Cubs manager Joe Maddon intentionally walked him in the third inning (THIRD INNING!) like he’s Babe Ruth (“I didn’t want to mess with it,” Maddon would say). Let’s ask Murphy what that kind of power feels like:
“Surprised,” he says of his emotion. “Ces hit 35 bombs this year. I was surprised. And Ces comes up and puts a great at-bat right there … smokes one in the hole.”
No, wait, you seem to be talking about Cespedes now. The question was about you, and the amazing run you’re on, and how a manager walked you in the third inning and …
“I definitely am seeing the ball well right now, so that’s nice,” he says, “But if you see my third at-bat, Jake (Arrieta) got me. He threw a front-hipper that undressed me. I gave a squeal. It was a good pitch.”
Wait, no, again, you seem to be missing the point that you are hot, crazy hot, and that after all these years of hard effort, all the injuries you overcame (Murphy missed the entire 2010 season), that it is all coming together for you, and you are a New York hero, and you are hitting baseballs like this is some sort of extended dream. Did you ever imagine something like this was possible for you?
“Again, it’s kind of cliche, but I try not to look too far ahead. I mean, I think around the time I was rehabbing my second injury, I ended up getting engaged to my wife, so that was cool, it was a blessing. So you never think that you’re going to be fortunate enough to be on a ballclub like this. You dream of it, to be able to go to work with 24 men that are absolutely awesome guys and …”
Back to talk about the team. You’re just not going to get Murphy to admit that he’s the star of one of the craziest postseasons ever. He’s a man of faith, a hitting purist, and he’s undoubtedly enjoying this crazy run in his own way.
The Mets are now in a commanding position, eight words that defy all logic. They have beaten the Cubs’ star pitchers, and in the next two games, move on to the less-intimidating Kyle Hendricks and To Be Announced. They have four starters who throw a billion miles an hour and a sense of themselves and the hottest hitter on earth.
Of course, it’s not over. The Cubs have youth and confidence and a manager who always seems to have everything under control and Wrigley Field, and you never know when Daniel Murphy turns back into Bruce Banner.
“Tomorrow has enough to worry about,” Murphy says. “You need to enjoy the moment.”
“Are you enjoying the moment?” you ask him.
“We all are,” he says.