LOS ANGELES -- You know that moment in the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire when Ali was up against the ropes and Foreman was throwing those roundhouse body blows, and then all of a sudden Ali peeked out from behind his gloves, opened his eyes wide, and grinned as if to say, "That's it? That's all you got?" You know how right in that moment, even before he started scoring with jabs and uppercuts, you knew the fight was over?
That's what it was like in Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Mets on Saturday night.
In the fourth and fifth innings, the Dodgers, after being down 4-0, piled up five runs on seven hits, including a two-run home run from second baseman Jeff Kent. They took the lead with the flurry, and when they did, Dodger Stadium crowd was rocking; the jumbotron flashed back on Kirk Gibson's heroics, Sandy Koufax looked on approvingly from the owner's box behind home plate, and Tommy Lasorda pumped his fists in the air like a pep-rally madman.
It looked for all the world like L.A. had staggered New York, and maybe turned the tide of the series in the process.
But the Mets just peeked out from behind their gloves, opened their eyes wide, and grinned.
They peppered the Dodgers for four hits and three runs in the sixth, taking a 7-5 lead they would never relinquish. Shawn Green, who celebrated his L.A. homecoming with three hits (including two doubles) and two RBI, laced a double to right, Jose Reyes followed a Michael Tucker walk with a looping single to center to score Green, and Paul Lo Duca tweaked a broken-bat something-something into left to plate Tucker and Reyes.
Boom. Off the ropes. In command. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
They'd done the same thing to start the game, stringing together five straight singles off Dodgers starter Greg Maddux (on the night, 11 of the Mets' 14 hits were singles) for an early 3-0 lead, setting the tone, making it clear they weren't letting up after going up two games to none in the series.
"We didn't exactly knock the cover off the ball," Game 2 winner Tom Glavine said afterward. "But guys stayed focused and found spaces and kept coming. We've done it all year. We feel like regardless of the circumstances, whether we're ahead or behind, on the road or at home, we can string together hits and give ourselves a real good chance to win."
Part of it is approach. From the jump New York batters were being smart in the box, working Maddux the way Maddux wants to work -- away, with patience. At one stretch in the first inning, David Wright, Cliff Floyd and Green all flared balls to left field off the veteran right-hander, and Floyd and Green did it again in the third.
"We put good at-bats together," Lo Duca said when it was over. "We kept pressure on them."
Part of it is intensity. After his hit in the sixth, Reyes rounded first shouting and clapping his hands. After his RBI humpback, Lo Duca did the same, rounding the bag with a Tiger Woods fist pump. The Mets could have come in flat, figuring if they lost this one they'd have a chance to fatten up on the very vulnerable Brad Penny in a Game 4 on Sunday. But that's not how this club rolls. Even after a season in which they put the National League East crown in their back pocket around about June 1, they play the hungry-wolf role, scraping, hounding, howling.
"There's a resiliency about us," Lo Duca said, watching Reyes, Carlos Beltran and reliever Guillermo Mota jump and dance in a giddy clubhouse circle. "We never give up. But we know we haven't done anything yet. This is just our first step. We've got two more steps to go."
A resiliency, a determination. Yeah, but an innate confidence, too.
"We proved we can outslug people, we can win with our legs, and we can play small ball. I think we're a complete team."
-- Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca
And why not? They absorb the other team's best blow and shrug it off like nothing ever happened. They get contributions from up and down the lineup (nine different players had hits in Game 3, and nine different players scored a run). They go down two key starters before the series even begins, and they sweep it anyway. They're a hitting machine. They're the Robocops of these playoffs, deflecting bullets and cleaning up the streets.
"We're clicking right now," reserve outfielder Michael Tucker said, wiping celebratory champagne from his eyes. "Things are working for us."
And that simple, relentless, rat-a-tat-tat fact is why the Mets are moving on to the National League Championship Series.
You can talk about Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew getting doubled up at home plate in Game 1 as a series changer. You can focus on the broken-glass, weak-excuse absence of Dodgers reliever Joe Beimel crippling the Dodgers' pen. You can question Grady Little using Brad Penny in relief, and Kenny Lofton at all. But if you do any of that, you're missing the point.
The point is this: None of that would have mattered. The Mets would not be denied. They got hits in bunches, and when they needed them, from first pitch to last in this series. Big bombs? Little dribblers and dying liners? It made no nevermind to them. They hit the ball all day and all night, and scored 19 runs in three games, and there wasn't anything the Dodgers were going to do about it; not with Derek Lowe, not with Hong-Chih Kuo, and not even with Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
"We proved we can outslug people, we can win with our legs, and we can play small ball," Lo Duca said. "I think we're a complete team."
That ought to scare the daylights out of both the St. Louis Cardinals (who despite being up 2-1 in the other NL Division Series have scored just eight runs) and the San Diego Padres (whose three runs in a win Saturday were 75 percent of their entire postseason output).
The Mets, even without Pedro and El Duque, are waiting on them now, peeking out from behind their gloves, ready to take their best shots, and then start beating them about the head.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.