Rain and the look of a storm of doom over Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park delayed game time between the Mets and the Braves by about an hour and a half Wednesday night. By the time the game ended, traveling Mets fans in the ballpark must have wondered if that storm-of-doom look was really an omen of doom.
For the Mets.
If the Mets’ post All-Star break surge and swath turns into disaster the rest of the way, their faithful are liable to look back to the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night. And ask themselves how often even the most heads-up rookies make the kind of rookie mistakes that prove to deflate the re-aspiring.
The kind that turn a two-all tie early in the bottom of the seventh into the open door through which the Braves finally finished a five-run inning that may have had even them wondering whether they were really there even if they were the beneficiaries.
The kind Pete Alonso, to this point a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, including normally steady and heads-up play at first base, instigated when he ran so wide of first to try for a grounder that had “second baseman” clearly in its destination window that it turned into an RBI single. When nobody was left to cover first on the play on which Alonso should likely have stayed in his proper position.
The kind that serve as a prelude to the Braves gifting the Mets the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth, after the Mets scratched their way back to a two-run deficit, and the Mets looking the proverbial gift horse not just in the mouth but all the way down the creature’s throat.
The kind that clear a path to a 6-4 loss that stands an excellent chance of entering Mets lore on the wrong side of the ledger, because it’s the kind of loss that can and often enough does turn what had been baseball’s hottest team until arriving in Atlanta into a collapsing bubble.
Alonso made a plain rookie mistake. It invited more than just a single inning five spot against the Mets. It invited serious thinking as to whether these Mets, as plucky and as willful and as tenacious as they’d been before they arrived in Atlanta this week, played too far over their own heads since the All-Star break to think of any kind of serious contention until next year.
And it was the last thing the Mets needed after learning their top-of-the-order ignition switch, Jeff McNeil, hit the ten day injured list with a left hamstring strain.
With the tying run already home against Mets reliever Seth Lugo and the bases still loaded, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers grounded one toward second. Alonso may have taken a couple of cheat steps to his right at the moment of contact, but the ball headed just too clearly toward Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada.
Alonso still scrambled to his right furiously. And the ball scrambled right past his downstretched glove. And Lugo at the mound may have been caught completely flatfoot by Alonso scrambling for a ball he really had no business trying to play. Tejada would have such a simpler grab that, in proper position, Alonso could have taken the throw for the out at first and thrown home to get Braves left fielder Adam Duvall.
And with Lugo not even close to covering first on a play where he shouldn’t have had to think about it, Tejada did grab the ball after Alonso’s staggering miss. With no place to throw. With Duvall scoring safely and the Atlanta ducks still on the pond.
Then pinch hitter Matt Joyce lined one that Mets right fielder Michael Conforto almost reached before it hit the grass, Conforto having to settle for a sliding short-hop pick and a throw in to get Flowers at second while Johan Camargo scored. And Ronald Acuna, Jr. singled to right center to send Ender Inciarte home and Lugo out of the game in favour of Luis Avilan.
Ozzie Albies greeted him with sixth single of the inning before Avilan got Freddie Freeman to hit into a step-and-throw inning-ending double play.
Too little, too late.
Or was it? After wasting Steven Matz’s solid start against a surprisingly stingy Dallas Keuchel, the Mets found themselves pushing reliever Mark Melancon and the Braves up against the wall in the top of the ninth.
Lagares rapped a one-out single and Joe Panik pinch hitting doubled to shallow left. Amed Rosario singled Lagares home and pinch hitter Luis Guillorme singled Panik home. And up stepped Alonso in desperate need of redeeming himself and his terrible miscue.
He rapped a bouncer toward second, where Albies threw it inside-out to Camargo coming over from shortstop. Camargo caught the ball as Guillorme arrived sliding but—as replays and review showed, strangely enough—Camargo began transferring the ball out of his glove a split moment before his foot touched the base, and he couldn’t hold the ball in his throwing hand, the ball bumping and grinding away from him.
The review overturned the original out call at second. The Mets were just handed the bases loaded and only one out. A base hit was liable to tie the game; an extra-base hit liable to give the Mets a one-run lead at minimum.
But Wilson Ramos struck out swinging on a Melancon curve ball that dove like a fighter plane shot down. And Braves manager Brian Snitker brought in a lefthanded former Met, Jerry Blevins, to work to lefthanded incumbent Met Michael Conforto.
First Conforto missed hammering Blevins’s opening fastball for a grand slam by a couple of feet wide of the right field foul pole. Then, Conforto fouled off a curve ball. Then, he swung on and missed a curve ball.
Even Mets manager Mickey Callaway’s decision to lift Matz when the Mets wrested a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh—after Matz himself hit a two-out single and scored the first of two tiebreaking runs on J.D. Davis’s single up the pipe—won’t be second guessed as heavily as Alonso might be for hustling himself into such a mishap instead of standing his ground and waiting for the putout that might have changed the inning tone. Might.
It’s hard enough when you run yourself into a fateful fielding mistake while in proper position. It’s worse when it happens as you’re scrambling and rambling too far out of position. And don’t ask about when you subsequently scratch, claw, burrow, and shovel your way back to within a pair of runs and ducks on the pond with one out in the ninth, and come up with the ducks quacking fowl over abandonment.
It’s worse to think that Alonso, the rookie who’s been so magnificent for these Mets all year long, through the worst of times and the better of times alike, may yet be remembered the way Met fans remember David Cone leaving the Dodgers bulletin board fodder in the 1988 National League Championship Series.
Or, Kenny Rogers walking home the pennant-losing run in the 1999 National League Championship Series.
Or, Carlos Beltran frozen by strike three to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.
Or, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine battered on the final day to secure their fall out of the 2007 postseason.
Or, Lucas Duda, with the easiest chance on earth, throwing home offline in the top of the ninth of Game Five, 2015 World Series.
Men who had done well enough or better as Mets only to come up, despite careers ranging from modest to good to great to the Hall of Fame, like enough 20th Century (and one or two 21st Century) Cubs and Red Sox to start writing their own snakebite history.
This year’s Mets continue learning the hard way that they can’t win everything at the last minute, or even the next-to-last minute. Alonso’s own rally hashtag, #LFGM, may have begun turning from “L[et’s]F[ornicating]G[o]M[ets!]!” to “L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets!]”
It may take a radical intervention to get the Mets into crisis addiction recovery, after all. And by that time it may yet be too little, too late, to save a season they looked as though they were turning into surrealistic redemption.