Francisco changes up rivalry recipe

NEW YORK -- As the first installment of this latest Subway Series tumbled into a dark and rainy ninth, New York Mets fans were confronted with three mortal locks.

Death, taxes and Frank Francisco blowing this game.

The Mets could have scored 10 runs on Andy Pettitte in the first inning instead of five, and it wouldn't have mattered. Somehow, someway, the New York Yankees were going to rally, drag the home team's closer out of the 'pen, and beat him up until he cried uncle and promised to never, ever mock them again.

Francisco had called them "chickens" in the New York Post and had stated his desire to strike out the side on the Yanks like he once did in a previous life. None of it made any sense, especially since Francisco had just given his fan base a massive coronary the other day against Baltimore while backing into his 17th save.

No man with a 5.14 ERA in a non-DH league should be calling out anyone, never mind the neighboring franchise with 27 World Series titles. But then again, Francisco was only advancing the Mets' recent history of closers (Francisco Rodriguez, Armando Benitez, Billy Wagner) capable of saying and doing some pretty dumb things.

The Mets being the Mets, and the Yankees being the Yankees, everyone knew how this movie would end. And sure enough, even after the Mets took that 5-0 lead in the first Friday, even after they scored again in the seventh to make it 6-2, Robinson Cano delivered a two-run blast in the eighth to force Francisco to confront his demons and doubts.

Hey, the guy was nervous enough to seek divine intervention. He spoke of his faith in a Tebow-like tone and said he made a certain request of his maker. "I asked Him, 'Don't let me get embarrassed in there,'" Francisco said.

This low drama had already been embarrassing enough, with the Post slapping Derek Jeter's head on the body of a chicken, with Tim Byrdak bringing a live chicken he bought in Chinatown into the clubhouse and with Francisco's appearance compelling Justin Turner to program his iPod to play any song that mentioned -- you guessed it -- a real or imagined chicken.

Francisco stood by his comments in the pregame, saying the Yankees constantly complain about calls that don't go their way. Yankees manager Joe Girardi mentioned that three chicken companies had called in an attempt to sponsor the Subway Series ("Actually two and a half," PR man Jason Zillo said), but his good humor couldn't cloak the fact that he's long been a football mentality guy, meaning he's long been a bulletin-board material guy, too.

Sure, the Yankees wanted a piece of Francisco, just like they wanted a piece of Benitez in the 2000 World Series, two long years after the then-Orioles closer drilled Tino Martinez and incited a riot in the Bronx. Relief pitchers usually find their way into the middle of Mets-Yankees dustups. Three years ago, after Brian Bruney publicly ripped him for his exaggerated celebrations on the mound, K-Rod had to be separated from the Yankees reliever in the middle of batting practice.

If there would be no pushing and shoving this time, no Friday night fights, there would be serious tension in the ninth. Russell Martin stepped to the plate, the same Russell Martin who had said before the game, "We'll see if we're chicken when [Francisco] gets in the game."

Martin hit a laser to center on the third pitch, and off the bat it looked like the start of a Mets fan's garden-variety nightmare. Only Andres Torres made a running, falling catch to nullify the threat, at least for the moment.

Francisco walked the pinch-hitting Raul Ibanez, inspiring a here-we-go-again groan in the crowd. Worn down by the misadventures of closers past and by Francisco's own walk on the wild side against Baltimore, the fans gave off that familiar fatalistic vibe when Jeter followed with a single.

This was trouble, real trouble. Mike Nickeas headed to the mound. "He wanted to give me a little break," Francisco said. "I told myself after the base hit that I've got to go right after the next two guys. I cannot give any more opportunities. ... I went after them."

Yes, shockingly, Francisco went after Curtis Granderson, striking him out -- looking -- on three pitches. With two on and two out, Mark Teixeira lifted a sky-high pop-up into the falling rain, and as it reached its apex, there wasn't a soul in the house who wasn't stuck on these two words:

Luis. Castillo.

Only Omar Quintanilla held on to this one, and against all odds, Francisco had made it home safely.

"Oh, it was great," Jonathon Niese, winning pitcher, said through a smile. "Never a doubt with him."

Francisco approached Turner in the clubhouse and ordered him to "play my song." Soon enough, the utility man was blasting Project Pat's rap song "Chickenhead."

The closer was wearing huge ice packs around his shoulder, elbow and ribs when asked whether he had heard the Yankees complain about any calls on this night. "They might be complaining right now," he said. "No, seriously, I've got a lot of respect for those guys, especially Jeter. ... I didn't mean to call them chickens or anything like that. It was a simple comment."

Although Francisco maintained he "didn't mean to hurt anybody's feelings," he did describe his wobbly ninth-inning triumph as "awesome." As it turned out, he wanted the Yanks as much as they wanted him.

It was a most improbable result in a most improbable season. The historic Johan Santana no-hitter. The magical ride of R.A. Dickey. The 39-32 record and a credible place in the October conversation.

Who knows where this is all heading. But on Friday night, against the grain of everyone's expectation, a mouthy Mets closer walked his talk against the mighty Yanks and encouraged his fan base to believe that 2012 isn't a movie they've seen before.