Maybe the most frequent refrain around last year’s Mets was Jacob deGrom pitching like a virtuoso but his team losing for him regardless. It didn’t stop him from winning a deserved Cy Young Award then. But it stopped him and the Mets from banking a badly-needed win in Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon.
And it threatened to turn into a rumble in the clubhouse jungle after the game, after manager Mickey Callaway heard one too many questions around the likely theme, “What on earth were you thinking or not thinking when you let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning when he didn’t exactly have even his C+ game to work with?”
Not to mention Mets pitcher Jason Vargas challenging Newsday writer Timothy Healey to a fight as the postgame interviews ended. “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro,” Vargas snapped, when Healey first stood his ground after Callaway demanded team public relations people escort him away.
A man who surrenders four earned runs in four and two thirds innings, as Vargas did Friday in a game the Mets hung in to win 5-4, should spend more time thinking about knocking hitters out at the plate than knocking reporters out for doing nothing more than, you know, their jobs.
Because there was deGrom Sunday afternoon, with a nine-strikeout, two-run, six-hit start, shaving another point or two off his ERA, his breaking balls coming out to play very nicely with others starting in the second, playing a little too nice for the Cubs’ comfort, mostly, and coming out after six innings with a 3-2 Mets lead.
And there was Lugo—arguably the Mets’ most reliable bullpen bull this year so far, after shaking away some early-season struggling—unexpectedly laboring through the seventh, though the box score by itself won’t show it. He needed ten pitches to surrender a leadoff single to Victor Caratini and six to coax pinch hitter Daniel Descalso into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 before getting Albert Almora, Jr. to ground out for the side.
Listen up. It wasn’t the writers who decided it was better to send a less-than-fully-armed Lugo out to pitch the eighth instead of opening with a fresher Robert Gsellman, who’d been loosening up during the seventh.
It wasn’t Healey who fed Kyle Schwarber a sixth-pitch hanger on which Lugo was lucky The Schwarbinator didn’t hit across the street but rather up the middle for a none-too-deep base hit. Or, who walked Anthony Rizzo on 3-1 after Kris Bryant flied out to center. Or, who had Javier Baez in the hole 0-2 before serving him a slider that slid insufficiently enough to be sent into the right field bleachers.
Goodbye, 3-2 Mets lead. Hello, 5-3 Cubs lead to stay, after Pedro Strop took care of Robinson Cano and Carlos Gomez on back-to-back swinging strikeouts before pinch hitter Dom Smith lined out to right for game and series split.
And, goodbye for the time being to the good feelings of Rookie of the Year candidate Peter Alonso busting the National League’s record for home runs before the All-Star break Saturday and becoming the Mets’ all-time rookie home run leader Sunday when he sent Cole Hamels’s changeup seven or eight rows into the left field bleachers in the top of the fourth, leading off and tying the game at one.
Not to mention Tomas Nido—the backup catcher who isn’t much at the plate but is valued because he works so well with deGrom in spite of Callaway’s insistence that not even a Cy Young Award winner should have a personal catcher—surprising one and all in the top of the fourth with a 1-0 rip into the center field bleachers to give the Mets the lead they’d expand when deGrom himself snuck an RBI single through the middle later in the inning.
What did Callaway, Vargas, and any other earthly or otherwise being in Mets silks think the writers were going to ask about after a loss like that? Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance leading the Wrigley faithful in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch?
Actually, the first subject was Edwin Diaz, the Mets’ closer. Why wasn’t Diaz considered for a five-out save at the earliest sign of eight-inning trouble? “Just because you think so?” Callaway retored to Yahoo! reporter Matt Ehalt, who asked the question. “Absolutely not. We have a very good plan, we know what we are doing and we’re going to stick to it.”
If that’s the case, why not send Gsellman out to work the eighth from the outset, since it wasn’t exactly hidden from plain sight that Lugo laboured through the seventh?
Then came the questions about Lugo starting the eighth, including from Healey, apparently, and then came the testiness from Callaway and, in time, Vargas, who needed Gomez and Noah Syndergaard to restrain him before Healey finally departed.
A manager who’s been considered on the hot seat over dubious in-game strategies and his bullpen management since just about the second week of the season is in no position to bark “Get this [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse” at anyone, never mind a reporter seeking clarification on the non-move that turned the game away from the Mets in the first place.
Callaway said he thought Healey was being sarcastic when saying “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” after the questionings ended. First the skipper told Healey not to be a smartass. Then came the expletives undeleted.
Healey tried to assure Callaway he wasn’t being sarcastic but Callaway wouldn’t quit. He said much later Sunday the testiness began with “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” a harmless pleasantry rendered unpleasant when Callaway snapped back with Vargas in earshot and, apparently staring at Healey for a considerable period. “(I) recalled asking him if everything was OK,” Healey said.
Apparently not. That was when Vargas threatened to knock Healey the [fornicate] out, bro. “[T]hen Vargas took a couple of steps toward me,” Healey said. “Some people said charged—charged is super-strong.”
Whether Healey was right or wrong, so long as he and the other writers in the postgame interviews weren’t insulting Callaway and Vargas and merely asking tough but reasonable questions about the critical moment in the Mets’ loss, Callaway and Vargas stepped over a line. Office holders holler “fake news” as much over reporting they simply don’t like as over false reporting. But even they’re not known customarily to throw obscenities in reporters’ faces under or after tough questioning. (We think.)
“No matter what the reporter did,” veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said, “this can’t happen . . . The problem is Mickey Callaway probably should’ve been fired a month ago . . . ever since, this has been lingering over this team . . . everybody is simply waiting.”
“While Callaway has never had an outburst like this before with a reporter, the second-year manager has pushed back when asked critical questions,” Ehalt himself wrote later Sunday. “Vargas had not had an incident like this with a Mets reporter since he joined the team last year.”
Diaz himself also urged someone, anyone, to get Healey out of the area, but apparently Diaz and other Mets feared the altercation getting even more serious. They had to be unnerved already by their manager and one of their pitchers jumping all over Healey as it was. Especially if it was as much out of character for Vargas as seems to be the case.
After Healey finally disappeared, some reporters lingered to talk to Diaz. Without incident, apparently. But these Mets are a tense outfit right now and may have been long before Sunday afternoon’s follies.
The bullpen new general manager Brodie Van Vagenen built for this season is mostly mis-built. Some of his acquisitions have misfired. Former closer Jeurys Familia, re-acquired for this season, has proven an arsonist as as a setup man. And veteran second baseman Robinson Cano looks too vividly like an aging imitation of the one-time star who parlayed his Yankee success into glandular dollars in Seattle from whom the Mets took him in the deal that made Diaz himself a Met.
Under criticism this year for periodic loafing, Cano looked even more so Sunday, on a second-inning grounder that turned into a too-easy step-and-throw double play. And he showed his age in the fourth, unable to throw on to first while in mid-leap over a slide at second, to finish a likely double play.
And, there are still the Wilpons in the executive command post still unable or (Met fans and some writers accuse) unwilling to overhaul the organisation and allow a sound balance between analytics and game sense to take hold.
The Mets are good at jumping to apologise for their manager’s and pitcher’s out-of-line behaviour toward the reporters doing nothing worse than being reporters. If Callaway, Vargas, and any other Mets really thought no one would ask about why Lugo was left in to work the eighth after he was—by his own admission—less than at full power in the seventh, the question becomes whom among these Mets still have their heads in the game.
The team didn’t need to apologise. It should have been the manager and the pitcher doing it. No matter how beleaguered they are in fact or in supposition, no matter how out of character it might have been, they behaved out of bounds.
Callaway looked at first like he’d survive the vote of confidence he got publicly after the Mets suffered a weekend bushwhacking by the Marlins last month. Now the Mets may yet end up having to apologise for having engaged a manager as far in over his head as Callaway seems increasingly to be.