What a difference one series makes

Chicago Cubs versus San Francisco Giants
Pablo Sandoval ends Tuesday night’s game with an opposite-field bomb to win the Giants’ sixteenth of nineteen in July so far.

One month ago every smart dollar was ready to go down on Madison Bumgarner spending the stretch drive in a different uniform. And, every dumb dollar, including numerous held by the Mets themselves, was going down on the Mets clinging to Berra’s Law. (It ain’t over until it’s over.)

That was before the Giants—almost twenty games out of first in the National League West and not even a blip on the wild card radar, both as of the end of May—found ways to spend all July thus far winning sixteen of nineteen, and Bumgarner, with a 2.00 ERA from 25 June through this morning, became Bumgarner again. Somehow.

And, before they took three out of four from the Mets in AT&T Park last weekend, with all three wins coming in the bottom of the extra innings. Including the sixteen-inning series opener in which Mets uber-rookie Pete Alonso hit one through the hovering seagulls into the left field seats in the top of the sixteenth, but Mets reliever Chris Mazza couldn’t buy an out if he’d paid triple its worth in the bottom.

Almost nobody but the Mets themselves thought a good showing in San Francisco would keep them within reach of even a National League wild card. But then almost nobody but the Giants themselves saw them entering July with anything more than an extremely outside prayer of living long enough to even think about such a reach.

The problem with Berra’s Law is that sometimes it’s over before you want, wish, or expect it to be. And if the Mets rudely interrupted the Giants with an 11-4 shellacking in the third game of the set, it proved to be more rude than disruptive and just a mere disruption of the nails being hammered into their 2019 coffin.

Before July it looked like the Giants weren’t going to give final-year manager Bruce Bochy his and their fondest wish of one more postseason visit. Helluva way to send into retirement the guy who piloted them to three World Series rings in a five-season string. Then came July, and before they took care of the Mets:

* They swept the Padres in three to open the month.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and from the Brewers in succession.

* They swept the Rockies in Colorado, including a series-opening, doubleheader-opening 19-2 nuking highlighted by Brandon Crawford’s 5-for-6 including eight runs batted in, including a mammoth three-run homer down the left field line in the middle of a five-run first.

* For good measure, they hosted the Cubs to win a series opener Tuesday night with their fourth walk-off win in six games—and, once again, in extra innings, when Pablo Sandoval checked in at the plate with one out in the bottom of the thirteenth, and Kung Fu Panda sliced one the other way just over the left field fence. The bad news: no seagulls were anywhere near in danger of a conk on the head en route.

“This is the best stretch I’ve ever been part of,” Bumgarner crowed after the 5-4 win. He has no idea. The last time the Giants won four walkoffs in six games? Their first year in San Francisco, 1958, and also during July while they were at it.

And as Jon Heyman—longtime CBS Sports writer turned proprietor of FanCred Sports, which grants me the honour of publishing my writings now and then—said in a Tuesday tweet, “Few see MadBum going anywhere now. Things can change in a hurry but this is typical from rival exec: ‘No way Giants can sell, they’re on fire’.”

The Giants would have to experience a Mets-like collapse for their incumbent streak to turn that swiftly into a pleasant but outlying 2019 memory. And the Mets were into that collapse long before the Giants hosted them so bitterly last weekend. Bitterly for the Mets, that is.

The Giants haven’t got even a small degree of the Mets’ issues. Not even if Bumgarner still can’t resist giving the other guys T-shirt troll material now and again. It’s actually beginning to look like Bochy will get one more postseason visit before he puts paid to his distinguished managing career. He’s the only skipper of the new century to have three World Series rings for his fingers.

For a team whose neophyte general manager entered spring training challenging the league, “Come and get us,” the Mets don’t have egg on their faces, they have omelettes. Brodie Van Wagenen thought he’d put together a team to strike fear into the hearts of his division and his league, and the only hearts into which the Mets struck any fear were the hearts filling Citi Field.

He watched and once in awhile tried meddling as one after another week there came one after another Mets crisis of dubious play, dubious tactics, dubious strategy, and dubious behaviour. He watched his inherited manager offer one after another mealymouthed explanation of all going wrong and still gave the man more votes of confidence in one season than most on-the-rocks managers get in five.

He watched a mostly solid group of starting pitchers left to the mercy of a mal-handled bullpen including and especially the live closer he’d brought aboard—accepting an aging second baseman whose Hall of Fame-looking years were too far in the rear view mirror to be visible without a telescope—in his most notable off-season deal. Now that deal looks like gravy for the Mariners and castor oil for the Mets.

Never mind that Robinson Cano, the aging second baseman in question, played almost entirely like an aging second baseman until Tuesday night. The terminal optimist says his three hefty bombs against the Padres means Cano finding some kind of revival. The terminal realist says it’s closer to the three Babe Ruth blasted in his sixth-to-last game as a weary Boston Brave. Ruth was 40 at that time. Cano is four years younger and looks almost as weary otherwise.

And because Van Wagenen fell for it when the Mariners insisted he take Cano and his albatross contract off their hands if they wanted Edwin Diaz that badly, it forced manager Mickey Callaway to install Cano at second base while sending a promising young second baseman, Jeff McNeil, to a couple of outfield stations and elsewhere around the infield when needed.

Van Wagenen should count his blessings that the shuffle didn’t affect McNeil at the plate. Every other Met watcher with even a single functioning brain cell still can’t fathom why Van Wagenen was that accepting of having Cano jammed down his throat when the Mets’ second baseman of the future was right there ready to make his bones.

With the bullpen dubiously built and more dubiously maintained, what a surprise Diaz went from shutdown to shattered, and what a surprise their apparent most reliable earlier-in-the-game reliever, Robert Gsellman, devolved into an inconsistent mess. (Or should that be Mess?)

When Van Wagenen reacted with nothing to the unconscionable attacks Callaway and his pitcher Jason Vargas unleashed postgame on a reporter doing nothing worse than his job, after yet another extremely questionable bullpen non-decision, you didn’t have to remind yourself that on other teams in other clubhouses that manager would have been executed and that pitcher would have been run out of town without the benefit of the proverbial rail.

Last year Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo may have jumped the gun a little too heavily when he ran relief pitcher Shawn Kelley out of town post haste, after a misunderstood mound incident during a blowout in which Kelley, not normally a mop-up man, was sent out to pitch late and surrendered a home run.

Rizzo thought Kelley tried showing up manager Dave Martinez with a gesture that most people including Kelley himself thought was Kelley looking for help with a pair of contradictory umpire instructions. Not to mention slamming his glove to the ground after the home run, as a lot of pitchers do in such situations. Rizzo didn’t even want to hear Kelley’s side of it when confronting the pitcher after the game. The next minute: Kelley was gone.

However wrong Rizzo was in not seeking Kelley’s side of the story, the general message was sent loud and clear: if you’re not with us, you’re out of here. Van Wagenen had far more reason to send that message to Callaway and Vargas and, by extension, to his team, than Rizzo did.

Van Vagenen is no Mike Rizzo. He’s almost equal to the indulgently ignorant parent whose idea of disciplining the child who just put his foot through the neighbour’s glass shower door is to remind the child that the door had no business being in the way of his foot. When Callaway and Vargas put their feet through the shower door glass, Van Wagenen basically told them the door was in the wrong place.

The real trouble is that the Mets’ lack of accountability goes all the way to the owner’s suite. Patriarch Fred Wilpon and his chief operating officer son Jeff keep hitting the snooze button. Van Wagenen’s fiddling while the Mets self-immolate makes Nero resemble Itzhak Perlman and the burning Roman Empire resemble the New York Philharmonic. And the cacophony is deafening.

This year’s Nats have had their hiccups, and second-year manager Martinez hasn’t yet rid himself entirely of the thoughts that he’s in over his head. But just like the Giants, sort of, the Nats two months ago were thought preparing to push the plunger on the season, maybe even putting Max Scherzer, their perennial Cy Young Award candidate, onto the 31 July deadline trading floor.

Just like the Mets, the Nats two months ago had a bullpen with so remarkable tendency to play with matches that there came legitimate fears over whether Sean Doolittle would need Rust-eze rubdowns every other day or night. They also looked rather like the Yankees in that a few too many key parts began spending time on the injured list, too. The M*A*S*Hington Nationals.

When they hit 19-31 at one point this year, even the redoubtable Thomas Boswell couldn’t stop believing Martinez was due for a necktie party. “But just as the Nats have saved their season, so their manager’s prospects have been revived, too,” Boswell wrote a week ago. “I may get my wish: a ‘sincere desire to be proved wrong.’ The Nats players sure think so.”

And lo! The Nats awoke this morning winners of 16 of their last 22. And they’ve danced their way right back to second place in the NL East, a mere five and a half behind the leaders out of Atlanta. It seemed only whipped cream and a cherry on top when Trea Turner hit for his second career cycle Tuesday night against the same Rockies the Giants bastinadoed before finishing off the Mets.

What the proving-to-be-rickety Phillies merely seemed to say they’d do this year, the Nats are doing at last. They’re winning, they’re playing firmly, they’re unapologetic about having a ball doing it, and they even survived the worst of their injuries and loss strings. “This guy understands the grind,” says veteran Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki of Martinez. “He kept us having fun.”

The Mets went to San Francisco riding an unlikely 5-1 string following the All-Star break. After San Francisco, they’re 2-3. Now it might be the Mets looking to sell (particularly pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, both of whom seem to have possible suitors for their remaining upsides despite their seasonal struggles) and the Giants looking to hold, or even look for a bargain on the sales floor.

And nobody seemed to know a thing about how the Mets could have kept having fun. The only fun seems to be when Alonso, McNeil, and Dom Smith are at the plate, or when Jacob deGrom is on the mound. And even they’re only human. Not even Hall of Famers can mash every time they swing the bat or strike out every hitter they face.

But the Mets’ issues run too far deeper. Their youthful core in the making, plus their stalwart deGrom, deserve better. Whether they get it is another question. They may only wish they were just the Giants now. Wishing they were the Nats is almost like a school crossing guard wishing he or she were a cop. Except they have better chances of making the wish come true.

 

 

 

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