WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Even if Jason Vargas never earns the affection of anyone in Queens, he may still be remembered as the best pitcher that several international citizens have ever seen.
Though Vargas has spent most of his first season with the Mets looking like he would struggle against Little Leaguers, the veteran southpaw suddenly resembles a legitimate major league starter again. In Sunday night’s MLB Little League Classic at BB&T Ballpark at Bowman Field, the 35-year-old put forth his second straight strong outing, and earned his first victory since May 30, in the Mets’ 8-2 win over the Phillies.
The scene at the Single-A stadium, holding a rough estimate of 2,500 fans — almost entirely comprised of Little League World Series participants, and their families — was strange, and sweet.
Exotic languages, and accents, colored the aisles and bathrooms and concession lines. Dozens of spectators watched from obstructed view seats on picnic blankets and folding chairs on a grassy hill beside U.S. Highway 15, peering between telephones poles, from opposite sides of an obtrusive pine tree. Todd Frazier got dressed in a cramped clubhouse under a ceiling nearly scratching his head, watching highlights of him and his friends winning the 1998 Little League World Series on the TV across the narrow room. Alex Rodriguez, and the ESPN crew, broadcasted from behind home plate, squeezed between rows of fans.
The sight of Vargas (3-8) opening with five scoreless frames, and picking up a win for the first time in eight starts might have felt most out of place.
Vargas, who had lost five straight decisions, was coming off his longest outing of the season, in which he threw six innings, and earned his first quality start, against the lowly Orioles. Against the division-contending Phillies, Vargas was nearly as sharp.
Entering with an 8.91 ERA in eight road starts this season, Vargas — whose two-year, $16 million deal helped him remain in the rotation over 24-year-old Corey Oswalt — retired the first seven hitters he faced, and kept the Mets comfortably ahead. Vargas, who also collected his second hit of the season, threw 5 ¹/₃ innings, allowing two runs and six hits, while striking out three, and walking none. Over his past two starts, he has lowered his ERA from 8.75 to 7.67.
The lefty’s night will soon be forgotten by the kids in the midst of the most incredible week of their lives. As will Amed Rosario’s three hits and three RBIs, and Jeff McNeil’s two hits and two RBIs.
They’ll remember Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz watching the game from the stands, sitting next to the Little League stars from Staten Island. They’ll remember the conversations they never imagined taking place, and feel the split-second fist bumps for years. Whenever the memories get fuzzy, the autographs and selfies will bring the surreal scene back into focus. Steven Martinez can hold the batting glove Frazier tossed him.
When the Staten Island run is over, the team will meet the Mets again, having been invited to tour the home clubhouse at Citi Field, and take batting practice in Queens.
Frazier, who wore cleats with the names of all his teammates from that title squad, was those kids, surrounded by his friends, thinking life could never be better than being 12, and in Williamsport.
“If you want to be a big leaguer, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t,” said Frazier, when asked what advice he passed to the young players. “Enjoy the moment. Have as much fun as possible.”
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