What really cost the Mets in Wednesday night’s disaster in Atlanta? And does it really mean the Mets’ astonishing enough post All-Star break self-resurrection imploding before their and our eyes and ears?
Two cases of overthink. One calamity of a bottom of the seventh. One close-but-no-cigar final stand in the top of the ninth. And a 6-4 loss that lands prominently on the roll of bad, very bad, don’t even think about it Met immolations.
You be the judge.
Was it overthinking Mets manager Mickey Callaway lifting Steven Matz after letting Matz bat for himself in the top of the seventh? Or, was it Rookie of the Year candidate Pete Alonso’s rookie fielding mistake costing the Mets maybe two critical outs in the bottom of the seventh?
Matz was as secure on cruise control as a pitcher can be Wednesday night. Six innings pitched, two hits and one earned run surrendered, and only 79 pitches thrown. Almost as much of a masterpiece as he pitched two days before the new single mid-season trade deadline, when he threw a five-hit shutout at the Pirates.
Then Matz thanked Callaway for letting him swing in the top of the seventh, the game tied at one apiece, with a two-out base hit that set him up to be the eventual tiebreaking run when Amed Rosario singled him to third and took second on the play and J.D. Davis promptly singled him home.
All of a sudden it looked as though the Mets really were going to shake off the bad news that Jeff McNeil, their top-of-the-order ignition switch, would spend ten days on the injured list thanks to the left hamstring he strained hustling out a grounder late Tuesday night.
And Callaway thanked Matz by hooking him in favour of Seth Lugo, lately the Mets’ best relief pitcher, but last seen pitching the final two innings last Saturday and shaking off Juan Soto’s eight-inning home run to win it after the Mets came back late on the Nationals a second straight night to win.
This wasn’t exactly the same thing as Gene Mauch pushing a panic button after a stolen home plate loss and going to a three-man pitching rotation of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, Chris Short, and whomever else he dared let himself trust otherwise with the 1964 Phillies six games up and a pennant in hand—only to see it blow a ten-game pennant-costing losing streak up in his face.
But after Wednesday night it could portend the end of the Mets’ bootstrap postseason hopes.
Because Lugo, the owner of an 11.6 strikeouts per nine rate this season, didn’t have his best, and surrendered a leadoff walk to Josh Donaldson, two followup singles to load the bases, and Ender Inciarte’s RBI single to left center promptly after that, re-tying the game at two each.
And then it really happened.
Braves catcher Tyler Flowers grounded one between first and second that clearly looked like a second baseman’s play. Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada looked like he was ready to spear it. But Alonso playing first, and in proper positioning except for maybe a two-small-step cheat to his immediate right, scrambled hard to his right trying to get that ball.
And, failing by about an inch when the ball snuck just under and past his downstretched glove.
Even with the two-step cheat right Alonso could have reached his pad with room to spare to take a throw from Tejada. And the throw would have hit him in plenty of time to throw home and nail Adam Duvall coming down the third base line.
But Alonso’s derring-do attempt cost the Mets a tiebreaking run instead of helping the Mets to two critically swift outs. And, the chance to escape without further calamity. And, most significant, an easier time of winning the game than they’d end up having losing it.
Consider: Matt Joyce hit a sinking liner that Mets right fielder Michael Conforto took on a sliding short-hop, with Conforto springing up sharply and throwing to second to get Flowers. If Alonso played proper positioning and nailed that double play, the run represented by Johan Camargo running from third would be vaporised by Flowers as the side-retiring out.
Instead, Camargo’s run scored and Ronald Acuna, Jr. promptly singled Inciarte home, chasing Lugo out of the game in favour of Luis Avilan. Who promptly surrendered Ozzie Albies’s RBI single before getting Freddie Freeman to whack into a step-and-throw double play.
“I thought I made a bunch of good pitches. They didn’t really hit anything hard,” Lugo said after the game. “A little brain fart there not covering first base, I should have known where the defense was, but I thought I made good pitches.”
Lugo was right about the Braves not hitting particularly hard balls against him. But he wasn’t to blame for the first base mishap. He was probably caught as far off guard as anyone else in the park when Alonso scrambled out of position instead of letting Tejada have it and being ready for a throw to first.
Callaway refused to second guess lifting Matz and sending Lugo out for the bottom of the seventh. Apparently, he preferred to let just about everyone else do it for him.
“I’ll make that move 100 times out of 100, that’s the right move in my mind,” the manager said after the game ended. “Lugo is our best reliever, he’s been our best pitcher overall lately, so the reward is he puts up two zeroes, you win the game.” Never mind that Jacob deGrom might make an argument as to whom the Mets’ best pitcher overall has been this year.
“The plan was to go two innings with Lugo and see who was coming up in the ninth,” Callaway said. The Braves love it when a plan doesn’t come together.
What about Matz having been so efficient against Dallas Keuchel, who’d been as stingy with the Mets as Matz was with the Braves, until the Mets got into the Braves’ otherwise skittery bullpen to break the one-all tie with more bullpen treats yet to come? What about Matz having retired fourteen straight Braves before he scored the tiebreaker in the top of the seventh?
All Callaway saw was his pitcher running the bases in the top of the seventh. He didn’t see how his man actually did feel, even after that. “I was feeling good and my command was starting to come together,” Matz said after the game.
If he was feeling good and his command was starting to come together after fourteen straight outs, only one run on his evening’s jacket, and only 79 pitches on his left arm to that point, Callaway—formerly a respected pitching coach who’s supposed to know and measure these things on the spot—was asleep on his feet.
Instead, the Mets now have their first three-game losing streak since the All-Star break. It’s their longest losing streak since the seven-game streak that took them to the last day of June. Until this week their dog days of June began seeming like distant memories.
And Callaway lifting Matz before Alonso scrambled too far out of position for a grounder to second he couldn’t snatch makes formerly distant memories like David Cone giving the Dodgers bulletin board fodder, Kenny Rogers walking home the pennant-losing run, Carlos Beltran frozen solid on a pennant-losing strike three, and Hall of Famer Tom Glavine killed to death in the first at the end of 2007, become only too vivid all over again.
“Don’t think,” Crash Davis admonished Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham. “Because it’ll only hurt the ball club.” Don’t overthink, either. It has the potential of nuking the ball club. Or forcing it to hope for one salvage instead of potentially winning a set against the division leaders.
Now we really get to see what these Mets are really made of. On Thursday night, they’ll do one of two things: 1) They’ll acquit themselves and begin shaking off Wednesday night’s disaster as if it was just a one-night nightmare. 2) They’ll get clobbered or implode.
If the former, there’s plenty of hope yet, especially with the Indians due to meet them back in New York after a weekend in Kansas City that shouldn’t be too arduous against a collection of Royals who’ve won only three of their first twelve August games.
If the latter, hope springs infernal, no matter what happens in Kansas City, because the Indians aren’t the Royals, and the implosion of these Mets may continue drastically. Enough to make that 21-8 second half before Wednesday night seem like a pleasant dream ended by a very rudely exploding alarm clock.