Impact Index: I Like Mike

Kids who grow up playing baseball dream of playing for their hometown team. Or for their favorite team if their hometown doesn’t have one. Of, even if their hometown has a team, they dream of playing for a different team because they like to do things differently. Whatever the team, whatever the reason, baseball-loving kids grow up pretending to be at the plate, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the game on the line, and getting the big hit to give their team the win.

Mike Baxter had that dream. And his dream is coming true.

Baxter grew up in Whitestone, New York, a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets played their home games from 1964 through the end of the 2008 season. He played baseball at Archbishop Malloy High School, nationally-known for its outstanding athletics program. Baxter then enrolled at Columbia University, in Manhattan, and played baseball for the Lions for one year, after which he transferred to Vanderbilt University. Baxter played two seasons for the Commodores (including one with Rays pitcher David Price), batting .348.

The San Diego Padres drafted Baxter out of Vanderbilt in 2005 and he bounced around the Padres minor-league system for five years before getting his first major-league at bat in September 2010. The Mets picked up Baxter off waivers last season. In his first at bat in a Mets uniform on August 8, 2011, he doubled off the wall, igniting a rally and a Mets comeback victory over — who else — the San Diego Padres.

The Mets included Baxter on their Opening Day roster expecting to use him largely as a left-handed pinch hitter off the bench. The proverbial twenty-fifth guy on the roster. Just the type of player we like to focus on here at the Impact Index.

Last week, Baxter made precisely the impact the Mets were hoping for.

On Wednesday, the Mets were playing at home against the Miami Marlins. New York took a 2-to-1 lead in the bottom of the 6th when David Wright smacked a two-run home run over the center-field wall at CitiField. There was no scoring in the 7th. In the bottom of the 8th, shortstop Ruben Tejada doubled to lead off the inning, followed by a strikeout and a walk to David Wright. Outfielder Lucas Duda singled in Tejada, putting the Mets up 3-1. Then Baxter came in as a pinch hitter and did this:

With that double, Baxter drove the Mets’ Win Expectancy to 98.9%, as seen here on this Win Probability Added graph from FanGraphs. The Mets won 5-to-1.

Source: FanGraphs

After the series with the Marlins, the Mets headed west to take on the Colorado Rockies for three games at Coors Field. Baxter played a pivotal role off the bench in the Mets victories on Saturday and Sunday. In Saturday’s tilt, the Mets headed to the 9th inning with a 6-to-4 lead. In most ballparks, a two-run lead in the 9th is a fairly sure bet. Not at Coors Field. No matter the inning, no matter the score, no lead is safe at the ballpark that sits a mile above sea level. The Mets experienced the Coors effect on Friday, when they held a 6-to-2 lead in the 5th inning, only to see the Rockies score eleven runs in the bottom of the 5th, on their way to an 18-to-9 victory.

With a two-run lead in the 9th, Mets manager Terry Collins sent Baxter to lead off the inning as a pinch hitter. Baxter hit a double, eventually coming around to score, padding the Mets lead at 7-to-4. Which they needed, because in the bottom of the 9th, Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler hit a solo shot to make the score 7-to-5. Tyler Colvin followed with triple, bringing the tying run to the plate. Mets closer Frank Francisco got Jason Giambi to fly out to the warning track to end the game.

Baxter was a hero again yesterday. Johan Santana was pitching a gem for the Mets, who took a 4-to-0 lead into the 8th inning. Reliever Jon Rauch then gave up single and two walks and the bases were loaded with two outs. The Mets brought in Tim Byrdak. The Rockies countered with Todd Helton. Five pitches later, Helton deposited one over the right field wall and the game was tied.

The score remained knotted at four into the 10th inning. With one out, Baxter came to the plate as a pinch hitter and knocked a single to right field. Then Kirk Nieuwenhuis rapped a double down the left-field line, sending Baxter home with the go-ahead run. Sure, the Mets coughed up the lead again in the bottom of the 10th when Frank Francisco gave up a solo homer to Carlos Gonzalez. But Baxter gave the Mets the chance to win in extras, a chance they took advantage of the next inning, when New York took another one-run lead. Ramon Ramirez closed the door on the Rockies in the bottom of the 11th and the Mets had escaped Coors with two victories in three games.

Mike Baxter. The Whitestone Kid. Playing for his childhood team. And making an impact day in and day out. Here’s our Impact Index player of the week.