Top 100 Mets: #88 - Turk Wendell

Turk Wendell reached the majors for good in 1995.  Although he had auditioned in the minors as a starter, he made the Cubs as a bullpen arm and would remain there for the rest of his career.  His most noteworthy seasons, however, came as a member of the New York Mets. Therefore he earns the #88 spot on our list of Top 100 Mets.

In 1995 he threw 60 innings for the Cubs as a long reliever without any notable success. The following year, with some experience under his belt as a reliever, Turk was primed for what would probably be the most successful season of his career. Turk once again earned his spot in the bullpen and pitched brilliantly. He finished the season with a 2.84 ERA and a team-high 18 saves.

1997, initially, seemed a disappointment for Wendell.  Despite his impressive work in limited time as the team's closer, Turk was demoted from the position by the off-season acquisition of Mel Rojas, who had had some recent success as a set-up man and closer for the Montreal Expos.  Upon reaching the Cubs, however, Rojas struggled, giving up way too many gopher balls and losing his job as a closer.  At the same time, Turk was stumbling a bit in a set-up role, pitching decently but nowhere near as well as his previous year.   On August 8, 1997, after watching only 60 innings, the Cubs decided to cut bait on Mel Rojas' contract.  The Mets liked the chance that he could return to his Montreal form, and acquired him while also swapping centerfielders Lance Johnson and Brian McRae.  Included as apparently the least important part of the deal was Turk Wendell.

It would be wrong to say that Turk Wendell arrived in New York as a total unknown.  He had shown promise as a pitcher, but was not counted on contribute much.  His fame lay elsewhere.  Ever since his promotion Turk had cultivated a reputation as one of baseball's ultimate flakes.  He promised to be one of the most visibly eccentric players in the history of the franchise, guaranteed to confuse coaches and delight fans.  His quirks ranged from a rather innocuous, if exaggerated, hop over the lines between innings to the truly weird.  Turk would chew huge gobs of black liquorice during baseball games, spitting the juice as if it were tobacco.  To prevent his teeth from staining black, he would retreat to the clubhouse, every inning, in order to brush his teeth.

This weird, unexpected man was, perhaps surprisingly, about as predictable a pitcher as they come.  Having fully settled into the relief role, Turk pitched only from the stretch and had jettisoned essentially all of his arsenal but two pitches.  At least 75% of the pitches that Turk would throw to a hitter were sliders - almost always sitting in the low 80s, and almost always plastered onto the outside corner (against a righty).  The only other pitch he relied on was a flat fastball used as a change of pace, hitting the high 80s on the gun.  The combination, however simple, worked.























































Turk made a splash on the Mets during his first full year.  In the first week of the season, Turk got the win in two extra innings games by pitching two scoreless innings in each.  He quickly established himself as an effective pitcher and was soon one of the Mets' primary set-up men.  He also impressed the Mets with his durability: he preferred pitching on consecutive days and prided himself on being available for any game.  He finished the season with a nifty 2.93 ERA in 76 innings, leading the Mets in games and innings pitched in relief.

Wendell permanently endeared himself to Mets fans deep into the 1998 stretch drive.  Three teams spent the final month within a few games of themselves, so every late September win was extremely critical.  The highlight of the drive was one of the most astonishing regular season series in club history: four games, in three days, against  the playoff-bound Astros in Houston. Three of the games went extra innings, and all three featured a ninth inning rally to put the Mets into the extra frame.  The most famous - the third game of the season - was tied in the ninth by a 3-run Mike Piazza shot off of closer Billy Wagner, and the won in the eleventh by a Todd Hundley pinch-hit homerun.  During the series Turk exerted an almost superhuman effort for the Mets, pitching in every single game (including both ends of a double header), allowing no runs in nearly 7 innings, and earning 2 saves. For good measure, Turk just kept on pitching - he pitched in each of the next five games, totalling nine consecutive games in all.  The Mets missed the playoffs despite Wendell's finest efforts.

By this time, Turk had shed some of his old quirks and developed some new Mets-specific ones.  The liquorice/toothpaste routine, in particular, was scrapped for more reasonable options.  To begin every inning, and following every out, Turk would stand behind the mound, hold the rosin bag high, and violently spike it.  It took Mets fans a few months to pick up on it, but soon Turk's routine had become an anticipated ritual of close games, drawing ejaculations of cheer from the fans after each climactic out.  In addition, at some point Turk assembled a necklace from the teeth of bears he had hunted and killed in the offseason, which added a quirkily fearsome aspect to his appearance.

Turk Wendell was able to follow up with another good season.  His work in the preceding year had solidified his role in the bullpen.  He and Dennis Cook teamed up as the primary set-up men, pitching the seventh and eighth and handing the ball to John Franco (or, later, Armando Benitez) in one of the league's best bullpens.  In 1999 Turk again led the Mets in games and innings pitched in relief.  At the end of the year he was able to make his postseason debut.  Turk pitched two scoreless innings in the NLDS, picking up one win.  In the famed 1999 NLCS loss against the Braves, he was used in five of six games, but turned in a mediocre performance, allowing 3 runs in 5.2 innings.

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