Andrew Luck, meet Sandy Koufax

2019-08-25 LuckKoufax

Andrew Luck does at 29 what Sandy Koufax did at 30—walking away from the sport at which he excelled, and shocking his sport while he was at it.

The football world, and a few other worlds in sports, took a jolt when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided it was time to retire at 29. For the sake of his health and the rest of his life. If F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, Luck seems determined to have one in the first place, and good luck (no pun intended) to him sincerely.

Even if you’re not a football fan, and I’m not, you could read of him, know he was one of his game’s genuine greats, and get that a young man can give up what he loves and does so well because the idea that perhaps the next injury might compromise him having a second life makes him just as sick as any of the injuries that interfered with playing his chosen sport.

If you’re my age you remember a baseball great who was a mere year older than Luck is now who made the same decision, shocked his sport and his country while he was at it, and stuck to his decision because he, too, was determined to make Fitzgerald a liar. And he sat on a far higher plane than Luck ever achieved.

Sandy Koufax didn’t begin the way Luck did. He was discovered a decade before baseball initiated its own college draft; he was a bonus signing forced to be on the major league roster two years under a foolish rule of his time; he was an outsize talent whose fastball speed and curve ball arc was throttled by lack of control.

It took Koufax the first six seasons of his career to discover control. (And, for a particularly observant companion in a Vero Beach pizza joint to discover just what kept him from it, a hitch between his windup and his delivery that obstructed enough of his view of the plate.) He went, as his biographer Jane Leavy phrased it, “from nothing special to never better.”

The second six seasons of Koufax’s career weren’t just off the charts. They obliterated the charts. It only began with smashing Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old National League strikeout record in 1961. It only ended when his final season showed a 1.73 ERA for his fifth consecutive ERA title and his sixth consecutive major league-leading fielding-independent pitching rate. (2.07.)

Koufax so bedazzled the Yankees with his ownership of them as his Dodgers did what no opponent before them had, sweeping them out of the 1963 World Series, that his fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, asked if he wished there were a couple more Jewish holy days on the October calendar, replied, “You mean like Yom Koufax?”

If only Mantle really knew. (“I can understand how he won 25,” another Yankee Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra, said after that Series. “What I can’t understand is how he lost five.”) Two years later, Koufax refused to pitch Game One of a World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Among other transdimensional achievements, Koufax would pitch pennant-clinching games in back-to-back seasons on two days’ rest, a World Series shutout on two days rest after a previous Series shutout, show a 2.25 ERA over a lifetime’s 24 games pitched on two days’ rest, and a batting average against him of (wait for it) .201 when he pitched on such short rest.

In the years when the Cy Young Award was a major league award (the late Dodger righthander Don Newcombe won the first, in 1956), Koufax won it three times, 1963, 1965, and 1966, and his dominance probably kept fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal from winning at least one and possibly two. Was it coincidence that, after Koufax retired, the Cy Young Award became awarded for each league?

His record four no-hit, no-run games would be eclipsed by Nolan Ryan, but Ryan didn’t pitch all of his in consecutive seasons. And Ryan doesn’t have one bragging right Koufax has if he wants it: after pitching no-hitters in 1962 (against the hapless Original Mets), 1963 (against the Giants), and 1964 (against the Phillies), Koufax in 1965 (against the Cubs) proved that practise makes perfect.

If you consider that his mound opponent that day, Bob Hendley, surrendered only one hit that didn’t even figure in the scoring (the Dodgers got the game’s only run in another inning, on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the theft), Koufax’s perfect game is an entrant when you ask and talk about the greatest games ever pitched, period.

An injury on a baserunning play in August 1964 dictated his future—when he, of all people, was the baserunner. (Told that those giving him the 1963 World Series MVP left the Corvette parked on the sidewalk, with a $15 parking ticket attached to the windshield, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford cracked, “Sandy has only two flaws. He can’t park and he can’t hit.”) He scrambled back to second on a pickoff attempt (I know, I know, who on earth would think about trying to pick Sandy Koufax off, but yes, you can look it up) and made a four-point landing, elbows and knees.

The following morning Koufax awoke with his elbow the size of his knee and worse. The verdict: traumatic arthritis. The hope by spring training: he might be a once-a-week pitcher at best. The outcome: His 1965 and 1966 seasons made everything he’d achieved in the previous four seem like the mere overture to the main events. On a medical regimen that could and maybe should have killed him.

“I just told your pitcher to retire,” said Dodgers team physician Robert Kerlan during spring training ’65. Koufax confided in San Diego Union reporter Phil Collier in spring ’66 that this would be his final season no matter what. Collier eventually staggered his colleagues in the press when they learned he kept his promise to Koufax and sat on the story until Koufax’s actual retirement conference that November.

“I don’t know if cortisone is good for you or not,” Koufax said at the conference. (We know now that it isn’t, in ten or more such shots a lifetime.) “But to take a shot every other ball game is more than I wanted to do and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ball game because you’re taking painkillers . . . I don’t want to have to do that . . . I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years, but I might regret the one year that was too many.”

Koufax even helped strike a blow toward beginning the end of the reserve era that kept players bound to their clubs with no say in their own employment and left them largely at the mercy of their owners in terms of their earnings. His joint spring 1966 holdout with fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale landed them baseball’s highest 1966 salaries and showed players what they could do if they really knew each other’s earnings and worked together to redress it.

All the while, he enjoyed a quiet accommodation with his fame. Never rude to reporters after the occasional bad game, Koufax drew a line between the pitcher and the person and navigated each side with a quiet dignity. Bachelor though he was, Koufax didn’t let his off-field life become the kind that earns the randy headlines provoked by the Bo Belinskys and Joe Namaths of sport. “Baseball,” Thomas Boswell eventually wrote, “could fascinate him, but not control him.”

After five years as a colour commentator on NBC’s weekly baseball broadcasts, during which his discomfort wasn’t talking about and analysing games but continuous bids to try getting him to talk about himself, Koufax gave it up. He’s as much a Renaissance man as any man can be.

“People ask all the time,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, whose rookie season with the Dodgers was Koufax’s final season, to Leavy, “‘What’s he done with his life?’ He’s enjoyed it.”

When not working spells since as a Dodgers’ or a roving pitching coach (to this day he loves to teach the art, asking pitchers who come to him to understand the why almost more than the how of pitching), he made himself into a master carpenter and home restorer (he did that in Maine once upon a time), a gourmet cook, a wine expert, a marathon runner, a fisherman, a pilot, whatever he thought would challenge as well as interest him.

The one subject above all others that didn’t interest Koufax, Leavy noted, is himself.

He does not disavow who he was or what he accomplished. He is proud of it. He simply refuses to exist in cinders and ashes. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, but he does think of “Sandy Koufax” as someone else, a persona separate from himself. If he was seeking refuge from anything, it was that.

And nobody can separate him from that separation. Asked not long after he married a third time (his first two marriages ended in divorce, and those who knew him noted their ends hurt deeply) what he dreamed about, Koufax gestured toward his wife (Jane Purucker Clarke, a one-time sorority sister of former First Lady Laura Bush) and said, “Her.”

The man who laughs when not shuddering even today when told he’s renowned for his quiet, private style (“I haven’t disappeared, I’m not lost, and I’m not very mysterious,” he once told reporters, after a magazine cover story described him as “The Incomparable and Mysterious Sandy Koufax”) said the following, in a 1965 memoir a copy of which his mother asked for simply to learn things about her son (“You certainly never told me anything,” Mom was once quoted as having told him):

I do not think the ballplayer is of an extraordinary importance in our national life. We do not heal the sick or bring peace and comfort to a troubled world. All we do is to provide a few hours of diversion to the people who want to come to the park, and a sort of conflict to those who identify their fortunes with ours through the season . . . it is a brief, self-liquidating life. It is a temporary life, really, a period between the time of our youth and the beginning of our lifetime career.

It’s not unreasonable to assume Andrew Luck—who retires from football as Koufax did from baseball, because the idea of crippling himself and perhaps denying himself the simplest pleasures and tasks of life—understands the same thing.

“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said when announcing his retirement. “It’s taken the joy out of this game. The only way forward for me is to remove myself from football. This is not an easy decision. It’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.”

Luck may not have transcended his sport quite the way Koufax did his, the truly transcendent being the truly few. But Luck may hope to transcend the shock of those Koufax described, those who identify their fortunes with those of athletes and their teams.

It’s a hope Luck deserves to see actualised as Koufax has long actualised his. It’s more important in too many ways than any postseason to which Luck ever led his team, any World Series in which Koufax triumphed, any game-changing touchdown pass Luck ever threw, any bullet fastball or voluptuous curve ball Koufax ever threw.

“He didn’t need baseball to be Sandy Koufax,” a fan named Al Meyers, who once got close enough to ask Koufax to sign a baseball for his father but couldn’t bring himself to ask, told Leavy.” Luck doesn’t need football to be Andrew Luck, either.

Those who identify their fortunes with those of teams and their players forget too readily. We’re ready to canonise a team that blows away the competition and players who execute in the highest leverage; we’re ready to damn a team that crumples under the whitest competitive heat and players who fail when only a single football or baseball rests between themselves and competitive disaster.

Koufax in 1966 and Luck in 2019 should remind us that they’re men first, capable of great achievement and great shortfall, sometimes at once, and always forgotten in what Jim McKay once said famously, week after week, on the old ABC’s Wide World of Sports: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Win, and you’re a genius; lose, and you’re a criminal against the state.

“I have something more important to do,” the late Hugh Hefner once said, when he bought his sumptuous Los Angeles home and spent more time making and living in its environment than working the magazine he created that nearly un-created him by the end of its second decade. “It’s called living.”

Luck today and Koufax then had something more important than football and baseball to do. It’s called living. If Luck needs a guide for how to do it after you walk away from the craft that made you famous in the most public of public eyes, he has no further to look than the now 83-year-old former lefthander spending five decades plus in league with all who’ve made F. Scott Fitzgerald a liar.

 

 

 

 

Fringe benefits

New York Mets

Noah Syndergaard, giving J.D. Davis a high sign after Davis’s staggering fourth-inning catch Thursday night. Syndergaard had two answers for Tribal trolling . . .

It seems like ancient history to talk about it now. But once upon a time there was no social media for baseball people to troll each other. They had to settle for trolling by way of print or broadcast interviews. But they still learned the hard way that the flip side to “don’t feed the trolls” is “don’t poke the bear.”

David Cone ignored it at his peril during the 1988 National League Championship Series. The Indians ignored it to their peril Thursday.

Writing a (presumably ghosted) running NLCS commentary for the New York Daily News, Cone started tripping the Dodgers’ triggers when he said the Dodgers’ Game One starter, Orel Hershiser, “was lucky for eight innings.” Actually, eight and a third: Hershiser surrendered Darryl Strawberry’s one-out RBI single, pulling the Mets back to within a run.

But then Cone teed off on Dodgers’ closer Jay Howell.”We saw Howell throwing curveball after curveball,” Cone went on to write, “and we were thinking: This is the Dodgers’ idea of a stopper? Our idea is Randy [Myers], a guy who can blow you away with his heat. Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher.”

Myers did bring heat and lots of it, never mind that he retired the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth on a line out, a ground out, and a pop fly out, to save the 3-2 win. It was nothing compared to the Dodgers chasing Cone early in Game Two with five runs in two innings, en route a seven-game Dodgers triumph.

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit in the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with the team that’s trying to pin your ears back in either a pennant race or in a League Championship Series. It’s to shudder what would have happened if Cone had teed off on Hershiser and Howell while that NLCS was played in the Internet social media era.

Cone learned the hard way in 1988. (It’s a shame Gene Garber wasn’t there to remind him of the uses of breaking ball-heavy relief pitchers, considering Garber’s breaking repertoire put an end to Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak a decade earlier.) So did the Indians Thursday night.

For a team that once had Hershiser on its own pitching staff (1995-1997) and went to a pair of World Series with him, the Indians didn’t exactly have a sense of trolling history when their social media people went off on the Mets Thursday afternoon. And it’s not brilliant to think about trolling a team that just took the first two of a three-game set from you, in their playpen or otherwise.

It’s a long season. We didn’t erase an 11.5-game deficit to roll over,” came the tweet from the Indians Thursday midday. “We split a series with one of the best teams in MLB at their home ballpark. We lost the last 2 to a fringe postseason team. We understand your frustration. Get it out here, but let’s renew the perspective.”

Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ scheduled Thursday night starter, didn’t just feed the Tribal trolls, he cleaned, stuffed, and mounted them.

First, he he pinned the Indians’ ears back with six and a third perfect innings en route a rain-delayed, rain-short-ended Mets win, 2-0. Then, he replied with his own tweet: “We got some FRINGE for you right here, we call it a SWEEP in NYC. #LFGM.”

Leaning away from his customary pure power game and throwing as much of an array of off-speed breakers and changers as heat, Syndergaard was on such a roll, even after he turned aside first and second on a pair of singles in the sixth, that the only thing that could have stopped him was the two-hour plus rain delay that struck in the bottom of the sixth.

Married to whipping winds around the park, the rain which began about an inning earlier finally prompted the umpires to pull the teams off the field, as Mets catcher Wilson Ramos was at the plate with two outs and Michael Conforto aboard with a base hit. The winds were fierce enough that the Citi Field grounds crew needed to pin the tarp to the infield themselves until the weights could be brought out to hold it.

The Indians were pretty brassy to think about trolling a team who’d beaten them on their own fielding lapse Tuesday night and bludgeoned their bullpen to win the night before. But their rookie righthanded starter Aaron Civale was actually close to Syndergaard’s effectiveness—his only blemish hitting Pete Alonso with a pitch in the first—until he ran into trouble in the bottom of the fourth.

That’s when Joe Panik, a late Mets acquisition after his release by the Giants and very effective as a Met since, opened with a line single to right. One out later Conforto high-hopped a ground rule double over the high side fence down near the end of the left field line, before Ramos extended his hitting streak to sixteen games with a clean two-run double down the right field line.

The Indians even got sloppy in the field again Wednesday night, with the lone saving grace being that this time it didn’t cost them a ball game.

After play resumed and Mets reliever Jeurys Familia worked a scoreless seventh, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier grounded weakly up the first base line. Indians reliever Tyler Clippard, himself a former Met, fielded but threw the ball straight over first baseman Carlos Santana’s head.

The ball sailed into foul territory near the seats as Frazier rounded first and neared second, as right fielder Yasiel Puig scampered in to retrieve the ball. As Frazier rounded second Puig—whose arm is powerful but not always calibrated properly—threw across to third and right past the pad as Frazier arrived safely.

Clippard’s mistake might have been snaring the ball with his glove before getting a less than firm grip with his throwing hand. A barehanded grab might have put the ball into a better grip and he might not have sailed it above Santana’s attic.

The Tribe was lucky they had Tyler Naquin—who ended Syndergaard’s brief perfect game bid with a one-out single in the sixth—catching Ramos’s arcing line drive in perfect position to throw Frazier out at the plate by three feet. Consider it a small payback for what Mets left fielder J.D. Davis did to them in the fourth.

With one out, Indians center fielder Greg Allen sent one that looked like it was going for extra bases until Davis, on his thoroughbred running back on an angle to his left, extended his glove and made a Willie Mays-like one-handed, over-the-shoulder, slightly over his head basket catch. The Citi Field ovation was so thunderous Davis had to tip his cap under it.

“Just a crazy catch,” Davis told reporters after the game. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

The Indians thought they knew how to describe the Mets before the game. Except that the Mets are now 12-5 lifetime against the Indians in interleague play. And while the Indians did yank themselves back from the dead, once as far as eleven and a half back of the Twins in the American League Central, the Mets didn’t exactly yank themselves back from a little slump, either.

The lowest point for the Indians this season? Eleven and a half behind the Twins on 2 June. The lowest for the Mets? Fourteen and a half out of first in the National League East on 14 July. Low enough and tattered enough, it seemed, that the trade deadline run-up was almost dominated by speculation as to whether Syndergaard himself, or Zack Wheeler, would change addresses on or before the deadline.

Since the All-Star break? The Indians: 24-16. The Mets: 27-10. And even if interleague play continues making hash of pennant races, the Mets play in a far more tough division. Now the fringe contender is also only a game and a half out for the second National League wild card and nine out in the East.

And they also have a far tougher schedule the rest of the season. Except for another pair of sets with the Twins and one each with the Phillies and (ending the regular season, strangely enough) the Nationals, the Indians get a lot more bottom-dwelling competition the rest of the way than the Mets.

The fringe contenders just swept the Indians in three, helping to put or keep them three and a half behind the still AL Central-leading Twins, and leaving the Indians with a 2-5 record for their now-finished New York trip. The best thing about the trip was the Indians not having to change hotel reservations to meet the Yankees and the Mets.

Let us renew the perspective indeed.

 

 

Fate moves its huge Hand

2019-08-22 AmedRosario

Mets shortstop Amed Rosario scores on the staggering Indians double play that wasn’t Wednesday night.

Someone in Cleveland will play any handy version of Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine when the moment moves them. And some  wisenheimer’s liable to answer, “It wasn’t Brad Hand in the bottom of the tenth.”

That’s how staggering was the Hand of fate that let the Mets re-tie before winning a 4-3 game the Indians could have put in the safe deposit box Wednesday night.

When at first the relief pitcher looked to have ideas about heading for the plate to back up a possible play, but was caught flatfoot nowhere near first to take a double play-finishing relay throw, a throw that would have meant side retired, game over, the Indians winning, 3-2.

Instead, the tying run scored, and an infield hit later the winning run was driven home. And nobody would have blamed Hand if he wanted to book the first available flight out of New York and maybe out of the country. Maybe all the way to Antarctica.

Roll over Fred Merkle and tell Freddie Lindstrom the news.

No. On second thought, you didn’t see that. And I didn’t say it. Merkle’s Children have suffered enough from the chattering class (or lack thereof). And, from the fans who won’t admit they’d sacrifice their first born in the proverbial New York minute to be for even one nanosecond where Hand was Wednesday night.

Admit it. You know in your heart of hearts that you’d have been where you were supposed to be when Michael Conforto shot that sharp grounder to first. With apologies to Groucho Marx, the play’s so simple a child of five could have done it, right?

So how come you’re out looking for a child of five? Because you know damn well that even highly paid professionals make human mistakes, in baseball games and elsewhere.

They don’t all bring down the wrath of the gods, or at least the ghosts of Mickey Owen and Bill Buckner. But when they do, you know damn well, Joe and Jane Fan, that you’re thanking God it wasn’t you making a seven-million-dollar fool of yourself. Because in your real heart of hearts, you don’t know that you wouldn’t have made the same in-the-moment misjudgment.

So don’t even think about Hand’s mishap costing the Indians their postseason shot. Any more than left fielder Oscar Mercado’s error in Tuesday night’s loss. For one thing, the Twins also lost Wednesday night, meaning the Indians didn’t lose precious American League Central ground, either, and remained half a game in possession of the AL’s first wild card.

Just like with Merkle’s Giants in 1908, there were plenty of other games the Indians could have won to make the difference. And, unlike with Buckner’s Red Sox, it wasn’t the point where Tribal Nation could forget there’s still a World Series Game Seven to play.

For another thing, the Indians were playing with blasting caps already when—with one out and Mets shortstop Amed Rosario on third, after his leadoff double prompted second baseman Joe Panik to sacrifice him deftly—the Tribe decided to put Pete Alonso, the Mets’ Rookie of the Year candidate bombardier and the potential winning run, aboard on the house.

Every relevant paragraph in the traditional Book says you don’t put the potential winning run aboard on the house. Especially when your pitcher is a strikeout machine of a sort with 76 punchouts in 51 innings and Alonso remains prone to the strikeout. But to the Indians it makes perfect sense, because Alonso can still win the game with one swing. He’s done it before, he could do it again, and Hand’s money pitch, his slider, hasn’t been working quite right for a short while.

So you pitch to Conforto, the Mets right fielder, a lefthanded hitter who’s hitting only .224 lifetime against lefthanded pitching. Even with 22 home runs against the portsiders while he’s at it, the odds now stack in Hand’s and the Indians’ favour.

And Hand on 0-1 served Conforto a near-perfect pitch to whack onto the ground, the ball bounding up to Indians first baseman Carlos Santana, whose two-out solo homer off Mets reliever Luis Avilan in the top of the tenth broke the two-all tie that ultimately compelled the extra inning in the first place.

The grounder did pull Santana away from the pad at first, but almost no one but Santana knew he had no thought about throwing home and every thought about trying for the game-ending double play. Hand knew going in that the last thing the Indians wanted was Rosario coming home to tie the score again.

“I wasn’t looking at the runner,” he told reporters after the game. “I didn’t see if he was breaking right away. Obviously, a one-run game, you can’t let that run score right there. I thought maybe he could’ve gone home.”

Hand probably wasn’t alone thinking Santana might throw home with Rosario running on contact. Hence his initial two steps or so down from the mound toward the plate, away from the first base side just so, knowing he’d have to be there as a helpmate on any play at the plate.

But then he saw what didn’t happen.

“I kind of stopped, expecting him to throw it home,” the lefthander said. “But once he wasn’t throwing it home, I didn’t have a chance to get over [to first base].”

Even Indians manager Terry Francona, whose employees once included Mickey Callaway, his former pitching coach now the Mets’ manager, thought Santana should have gone home. “With a lefty on the mound,” Francona said after the game, “you’re not going to be able to get over there. So once he can’t get back, there’s nobody else there to take the throw.”

Santana threw perfectly to second, where Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor took the ball as Alonso dropped into what looked like an exercise-in-futility slide and pivoted slightly to make the relay throw. Except that Lindor saw what everyone else in Citi Field saw.

Who’s on first?!?

He completed his motion with the ball still in his throwing hand. He probably needed smelling salts right on the spot. Santana bent over to avoid being skulled by the relay throw that wasn’t, while Hand’s realisation that the play wasn’t going to the plate meant him arriving several steps short of Santana, never mind first base, where Conforto hit the pad cleanly as Rosario scored.

None of the Indians’ infielders believed what just happened. Third baseman Jose Ramirez—whose sixth-inning RBI triple tied the game at two—sank into a crouch of disbelief. Lindor and second baseman Jason Kipnis looked as though they didn’t know what to think. Santana looked for the moment as though he was afraid to think.

Kipnis, who was too far toward second base to think about trying to cover first, said after the game he thought Hand believed Santana would go home, too. “I haven’t looked at it. My job is to kind of hover and clean up the mess,” he said. “I’m over a little bit, but I’ve never covered first for a double play in nine years. Granted, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”

The Mets couldn’t believe what just happened. They thought one and all that Conforto’s sharp grounder meant they were dead ducks for the night. “Off the bat, I was like, yeeeek!” Davis admitted. “You hold your breath.”

All night before the tenth inning the Indians and Mets played a kind of cat-and-mouse against each other. Magnified when it became a bullpen game too early after Mets starter Marcus Stroman left after four because of an unexpected hamstring issue. Amplified when Indians starter Adam Plutko opened with three perfect innings before dodging first and second in the fourth, before running into back-to-back one-out RBI doubles (Mets center fielder Juan Lagares and pinch-hitter Luis Guillorme) in the fifth.

After Hand’s misread on the double play that wasn’t, Mets catcher Wilson Ramos beat out a squibbler up the third base line that Hand pounced upon like a cat who’d let the mouse escape once but wasn’t going to let that happen again. Except that even he couldn’t stop even the speedless Ramos from making first safely.

Then it was Davis, whom Hand opened 0-2 on a called strike and a foul off. By his own admission Davis lives for such counts. He relishes the battle back from up against the wall. That much could be said for these Mets, who put themselves up against the wall in most of the season’s first half but put themselves there more than once (Hi! We’re the Mets! And we’re crisis junkies!) while rolling to baseball’s best post All-Star break record.

Davis then took balls one through three, all on the inside, climbing the ladder and missing further in each time, before fouling off three straight. Then he nailed Hand’s hanging slider and drove it on a fat hop off the left field wall. Earning himself a jersey shredding near second base similar to Conforto’s after he’d walked one off against the Nationals a week and a half earlier.

“You hit a walkoff,” chirped Alonso, who initiated the ritual with Conforto, “your shirt’s coming off.” Unlike Conforto, though, Davis was well prepared: he had a blue undershirt beneath his jersey in the event he finally nailed his first career game-ending, game-winning hit. “Let the kids play, right?” Callaway chuckled after the game.

Hand came into the game with two blown saves in his four previous chances, one against the Twins to whom the Indians are still keeping American League Central pace, and one against the shaky enough Red Sox. He’s been a solid reliever otherwise, his career-low 2.59 fielding independent pitching rate this season holding hands with his strikeouts as evidence enough overall.

But Hand also has a 1.91 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in his last fifteen games. And questions now arise about whether Hand’s first-half work load hasn’t had a hand in his recent struggles. Francona himself suggests that just might be the case, which doesn’t bode well considering the veteran lefthander is the best talent in a somewhat surprising  Indians pen.

“From my side of it, I have to be more consistent in when he’s used,” the skipper said. “The last month he’s been used a ton and then he’ll go six days without pitching. That’s a hard thing to do, but I think that’s where maybe how I can help.” Before Wednesday night, Hand had had five days off between gigs against the Red Sox and the Yankees and two days off between his Yankee gig and Wednesday night.

But Wednesday night had nothing to do with errant breaking balls or mechanical issues or workload issues. Wednesday night turned on an honest mistake in judgment. Even World Series winners make those and survive to win their leases to the Promised Land.

It wasn’t as if Hand just stood pat when Conforto rapped that grounder. He acted on an immediate and viable thought, then stopped on the proverbial dime when the thought proved false, and couldn’t acquit himself in the right direction in time to make the difference Santana hoped to make starting the double play that wasn’t.

Are the Mets the never-say-quit bunch Davis proclaims them to be? They are now. “I’ve been saying it for a while now that this is a special team,” Davis told the New York Post. “We knew it from the beginning of spring training, it was just a matter of time until we hit on all cylinders where our pitching, bullpen, hitting, timely hitting all came together. We’re doing it.”

A matter of time? To Mets fans and just about everyone else it seemed as though it would take forever and a day. This team nearly imploded in May and June. Since the All-Star break they’re baseball’s most unfathomable self-repair, mostly. Some dare think they’re channeling their 1969 forebears.

But they’re still a game and a half away from the second National League wild card even after Wednesday night’s surrealism. And they still have the arguable toughest schedule yet to come of any contender the rest of the way, even if most of it will be played for the home audience. They’re not just going to walk into the postseason if they get there. And they know it.

These Indians, heirs to a legacy at least as star-crossed as the pre-2004 Red Sox, the pre-2016 Cubs, and the pre-2017 Astros, are made of slightly stronger stuff than one human mistake exposes, too. Don’t bite the Hand you fear betrayed you, Tribal Nation. Because we humans all make mistakes. And this one may not cost these Indians as much as you fear.

The Mets re-heat to burn the Indians

2019-08-21 JDDavisWilsonRamos

J.D. Davis and Wilson Ramos bump the forearms after Davis’s two-run homer in the bottom of the second gives the Mets their first lead in a 9-2 win against the AL wild card-leading Indians Tuesday night.

Five days ago, the Mets were something of a wreck. Looking more like their earlier season selves than their post All-Star break juggernaut.

They lost a pair to the National League East-leading Braves that they could have won, then they beat the Braves despite seeming to do everything in their power to snatch defeat from the jaws of a blowout.

Then they took two out of three in Kansas City from the American League Central’s rebuilding Royals, nothing remotely close to the Royals who beat them in a World Series they could have won but for porous defense.

But there was still that little matter of coming home with the Indians due for a visit. The Mets’ rounds with the big boys weren’t over yet. Opening Tuesday night, the Mets began a set between baseball’s two hottest post All-Star teams. Making it arguably even up in import to the set they blew in Atlanta last week.

The pre-break Mess, risen from the dead. The pre-break Indians, yanking themselves from an injury, inconsistency, and once in awhile indifferent wreck to put a near-end to the juggernaut from Minnesota that’s proving you can’t always just bludgeon your way to the top and keep as much as an eleven-and-a-half-game distance in front.

The Mets suddenly re-resembled a group of crisis junkies whose apparent such addiction didn’t stop them from taking a set against the Nationals but threatened to wreck them against the Braves last week, before re-charging in Kansas City. The Indians finished pulling themselves all the way back to the AL Central’s penthouse. The Tribe even claimed first place for a couple of days and still sit only a couple of games behind the Twins in their division.

And they entered Citi Field Tuesday on an extended New York trip. After taking three out of four from the Twins but losing two out of three to the somewhat rickety Red Sox, the Indians split a set with the Yankees in the south Bronx before opening against the Mets. This may be the first time in the interleague play era that the Indians didn’t have to switch up their hotel reservations after finishing a visit to one team before starting the next one.

And with a little side intrigue involving Mets manager Mickey Callaway—once embattled, now looking somewhat more secure—compelled to try out-thinking and out-maneuvering his former boss, Indians manager Terry Francona, the Mets did something last week’s Atlanta excursion might have left people thinking was two things, difficult and impossible.

They beat the Indians 9-2 Tuesday night. They took the lead twice, and the second time they didn’t let the Tribe even think about trying to re-tie or overtake them by the time Mets reliever Paul Sewald—whose career has been described as up and down when observers have wished to be polite—struck out Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin back-to-back to end it.

It didn’t faze Mets starter Steven Matz when Jason Kipnis sent a hanging changeup over the right center field fence with two out in the top of the second. He still scattered five hits and a pair of walks otherwise while striking out seven in six and a thirds innings and outpitched Shane Bieber, whose striking out of the side before the home audience nailed him the All-Star Game’s MVP over a month ago.

And well it shouldn’t have fazed Matz because J.D. Davis had an answer for Kipnis in the bottom of the second. With Mets catcher Wilson Ramos aboard on a one-out base hit right up the pipe, Davis caught hold of a 1-0 Bieber slider down the pipe and sent it over the center field fence, right past the big housing for the big red apple that rises whenever a Met hits one out at home, a holdover from the ten-years-gone Shea Stadium.

“The scouting report was to attack him early,” Davis said after the game. “He threw strikes early in the count, and in that at-bat, I was aggressive with the 0-0 fastball. Then he went to the off-speed pitch, and we got him. I think that was his first time out of the stretch, and he left one over the plate.”

A throwing error by Mets third baseman Todd Frazier opened the Cleveland fourth with Yasiel Puig on first. He got as far as second when Jose Ramirez followed with a base hit before coming home on Kipnis’s single up the pipe to tie things at two. Then Matz contained the damage by getting a fly out, an infield force, and dropping strike three in on Bieber, whose hitting experience was limited to one walk and one base hit in a mere eight trips to the plate entering Tuesday.

Two three-up, three-down innings for each pitcher later, the Indians learned the hard way what happens when you make even the tiniest mistake against these Mets. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, left fielder Oscar Mercado had a perfect bead drawn on Mets second baseman Joe Panik’s opposite-field fly. That despite shortstop Francisco Lindor looking likewise before Mercado called him off.

Against the railing, the ball descended into and right out of Mercado’s glove in an instant. A fan may or may not have interfered with the play. Francona elected not to challenge it because, as he put it, “It was really iffy.” The fan was ejected from Citi Field post haste.

A center fielder ordinarily, Mercado didn’t try to excuse himself, either. “I just dropped it,” said Mercado after the game. “I thought I had it just like with every other flyball I’ve caught in my life, but it just popped out of my glove.” After Pete Alonso struck out looking at one that barely hit the low outside corner, there was nothing iffy about Michael Conforto popping Bieber’s 1-2 slider almost exactly into the same spot where Kipnis’s second-inning blast landed.

“I feel like that swung the whole momentum of the game,” Bieber said after the game. “If I make a better pitch there, we probably have a different result.”

“We’ve had a feeling over this run that we’ve been on that we might not get them the first time through the order,” said Conforto, mindful of how good Bieber has been overall this year, “but our lineup has been so good, our hitters have been able to figure out ways to get on base, figure out ways to get runs in.

“We just feel that regardless of who is pitching, we’re going to put a lot of runs on the board. Any time the defense gives us an opportunity like that, we have to take advantage of it, so that was huge.”

All the Mets have to do in concert with that is keep from giving the other guys even remotely comparable opportunities. While taking advantage of every gift from every bullpen bull they can handle.

With both starters out of the game by the bottom of the seventh, the Mets got even more playful with the Indians’ bullpen in that inning. They introduced themselves to Adam Cinder with a leadoff single and a followup walk. Then they re-introduced the Indians to an old buddy, Rajai Davis, called up after a term in Syracuse found him re-grouping respectably enough to get a second term as a Met.

Davis tried bunting both runners over. He got Juan Lagares (the walk) to second but the Indians nailed Frazier (the leadoff hit) at third while Davis arrived at first. Then Mets shortstop Amed Rosario, one of their hotter bats of late, drove Lagares home with a base hit up the pipe.

“This game can really bring you to your knees sometimes,” Cimber said after the game. That’s the voice of a righthander against whom righthanded batters hit only .227 against him before he tangled with the Mets’ righthanded foursome. “You’ve just to keep moving forward and fight your way through it. The last couple of weeks I’ve been grinding a little bit. It’s something everybody goes through and it’s my turn now.”

Exit Cinder, enter Hunter Wood. And Panik sent Davis home with an opposite-field single, before Alonso atoned for looking at strike three his previous time up by doubling home both Rosario and Panik, then taking third on a wild pitch before Wood and the Indians escaped.

Davis the Rajai re-joined the Mets’ party a little more forcefully in the bottom of the eighth, when he turned on Indians reliever Phil Maton’s slightly hanging curve ball and hung it down the left field line for an RBI double sending Lagares home with the ninth Mets run.

All that on a day when injured list news was mixed for both teams. The Indians shut Corey Kluber down two more weeks with an abdominal strain he suffered during a rehab outing; the Mets shut down reliever Robert Gsellman, possibly for the season, after his injury turned up a torn lat muscle.

But Carlos Carrasco’s comeback while battling leukemia goes to a second rehab outing after he looked impressive enough in his first, which stands to help the Cleveland bullpen since that’s where they plan to bring him.

And Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (bulging neck disk) advanced to Syracuse on his rehab and had a 2-for-5 day while playing center field for five innings. Nimmo’s return may provide a slightly ticklish outfield situation for the Mets, but these Mets have known far more troublesome knots this year.

Maybe last week in Atlanta really will prove a little hiccup, after all, but these Mets haven’t begun full recovery from crisis addiction just yet. Even if they’re still talking as much in postseason mode as they’ve begun playing again. Taking at least two of the three with the Indians will go big in that recovery. Especially with more big boys awaiting them.

“I think we all knew,” said J.D. Davis, “that even though it’s August, the playoffs started today. We have to have that playoff mentality, that playoff atmosphere, that every game counts, especially with the hole we dug ourselves into. I think the elephant in the room is that we have a lot of home games but a lot of games against playoff teams.”

That’s not elephant singular. That’s a pack of pachyderm awaiting them still. The Braves and the Cubs come to town after they’re finished with the Indians; between the two, the Cubs could be slightly easier pickings based on recent performances. And, after a road trip to Philadelphia and Washington, the Mets return home for a ten-game homestand against the Phillies, the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers.

Tuesday night? The Mets send Marcus Stroman out to face the Indians’ Adam Plutko, who beat the Yankees to open the Indians’ New York excursion. With the Mets 25-10 since the break and the Indians 24-14 in the same period, this isn’t exactly a plain pit stop for either team.

And if you’re looking for historically rooted omens, half a century ago the Mets were ten games out of first in the NL East—and went all the way to win their first World Series. Four years later, they eleven and a half out and dead last in the division—and won the pennant before pushing the Swingin’ A’s to a seventh World Series game.

Today they’re nine games out of first but two games away from the second NL wild card. With a clean shot at re-proving their post All-Star mettle against the AL’s wild card leaders, who’ve proven they’re not exactly willing to play dead when told to do so, either.

 

Wait till last and next year?

2019-08-20 ChrisSale

Chris Sale’s and the Red Sox’s 2019 was hard enough before his elbow inflammation shut him down for the season. The Red Sox seem all but cooked for the year, too.

“Wait ’till next year. That quartet of words is either the most or least comforting in a baseball fan’s language.

For generations in Brooklyn it was a watchword of faith almost equal to a Jew’s Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. But after 1956 didn’t mean a second straight World Series title for the Boys of Summer, wags suggested, “Ahhhh, wait ’till last year!”

For many teams’ fans, alas, they’re the saddest of possible words. And, for generations of pre-2004 Red Sox, pre-2016 Cub, and pre-2017 Astro fans, not to mention almost every Washington Senators fan and every St. Louis Browns fan on the planet past, and every Indians fan since 1954, the saddest of possible words may have been, “This year is next year.”

At this writing, of course, the Red Sox are four-time World Series champions in this century (take that, Empire Emeritus!) including the current defending Series champs. And that, alas, is as far as it’s going to go. The end of Chris Sale’s season, which wasn’t going all that well in the first place, might as well be the end of the Red Sox’s title defense.

Unless there’s a miracle on the horizon equal if not superior to such as the 1914 Braves, the 1961 Reds, the 1967 Red Sox, the 1969 Mets, or the 1990 Reds, you can stick a fork in the 2019 Red Sox. They may be done.

They’ve learned or re-learned the hard way that all the hitting on earth, and the Red Sox bats make life miserable enough for opposing pitchers, isn’t going to out-hit, out-slug, or out-run a pitching staff whose starting rotation fell apart so profoundly this year that their number five starter (Eduardo Rodriguez) leads the rotation with . . . a 4.10 ERA.

There’s no point to having Rafael Devers emerge as one of the league’s premier third basemen, Xander Bogaerts jumping into the conversation about the league’s best shortstops and team leaders, Mookie Betts recovering from an up-and-down first half to look like his defending MVP self the second half so far, or the entire Red Sox offense making for the American League’s second-most runs behind the Yankees, if they can’t find even a used pitching machine that can get you through games without disaster every couple of innings.

Bad enough that Sale looked as often as not as though he were pressing to live up to that yummy contract extension he signed during last offseason. Worse is that his shoulder was already a concern when he signed it, and that now his pitching elbow is inflamed enough to shut him down for the season with a question of Tommy John surgery lurking.

If Sale needed the procedure, he’d have missed 2020 recovering. And the Red Sox would have to be the most creative they’ve had to be in several years to work around it. Because right now they don’t have the pitching depth to cover losing Sale, any more than they proved to have it when they didn’t have Nathan Eovaldi for the first three months of the season after arthroscopic elbow surgery.

They’re not likely to re-sign Rick Porcello, and they probably shouldn’t considering Porcello’s Cy Young Award-winning 2016 is small enough in the rear view mirror and was thought to be a fluke even when he won the award. (Porcello won it because he was credited with 22 wins to lead the league, but Justin Verlander actually pitched better that season.) A 5.49 ERA and 4.87 fielding-independent pitching rate just don’t equal even a number three rotation man, never mind an ace.

And David Price, who rediscovered his changeup to deadly effect last postseason, seems to have lost it again this year. He’ll have to rediscover it one more time if at all if he’s going to contribute positively again.

They could sign either Gerrit Cole or Madison Bumgarner this winter, considering the money coming off their books, including the last of the ill-fated Pablo Sandoval contract, gives them some significant flexibility. But the Red Sox have little if any pitching to look toward on the farm, even less considering general manager Dave Dombrowski mortgaged a significant chunk of it to get Sale, Price, and long-departed bullpen bulls Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly in the first place.

The rotation issues turned the Red Sox bullpen into an overworked mess even before Eovaldi returned and the Red Sox couldn’t decide whether he should start or relieve. Their only significant trade deadline period acquisition, Andrew Cashner, went bust as a starter and his move to the bullpen was clearly a demotion.

But Cashner could prove a relief godsend and he’d still be only one man. Unlike the Nationals and the Mets, whose effective starting pitchers were undermined by mal-constructed bullpens much of the season, the Red Sox bullpen looked decent going into the season. The original closer-by-committee plan didn’t work. The rotation—hurt in part by being underworked in spring training—ended up vaporising the pen too profoundly for a single saviour.

What hath Dombrowski wrought? In Detroit he was on a mission to get the Tigers back to the World Series and got close enough often enough—but he crashed and burned the Tigers’ farm to do it. Now the Tigers are forced into a frame-up reconstruction while being saddled with four more years and $124 million still due injury prone, 36-year-old  Miguel Cabrera. Thanks for the memories, Dave.

In Boston, Dombrowski was given the mission he’d had in Detroit: spend, deal, and build us another World Series winner. Unlike in Detroit, where his Tigers got close, closer, closest, but never quite back to the Promised Land, with the Red Sox he did it. Last year’s Red Sox just might have been the single best Red Sox team in the franchise’s history.

The question is how badly Dombrowski crashed and burned the Red Sox farm to do it, too. He builds winners but the prices longer-term prove more insurmountable in the end. Red Sox Nation now has the potential to become very empathetic with Tiger fans who can’t really be sure how long or how painful the Tigers’ restoration will be.

And, considering the $237 million committed to just three pitchers (Sale, Price, Eovaldi) over the next three years, all eyes will be cast upon the Olde Towne Team when Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. (who still isn’t a consistent hitter but who’s still valuable with his glove in the outfield) hit free agency after next year.

The good news is that reports broke early Tuesday saying Sale wouldn’t need Tommy John surgery after all. The elbow inflammation hasn’t telegraphed the tear that would make the operation mandatory. He’ll have time aplenty to rehorse himself for next year. Which would solve only one Red Sox pitching problem. The parched pitching picture on the farm is deadly serious.

Now it seems like generations ago when the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in three out of four in a late July home set that only began with a 19-3 massacre. After that series, during which the Red Sox out-bludgeoned the Yankees 44-22, the Red Sox:

* Lost three straight to the Rays followed immediately by the Yankees doing to them in New York what they’d just done to the Yankees in Fenway.

* Split with the Royals and the Angels, both of whom have their own issues to solve and answers to find.

Which put them sixteen games out of first in the AL East. They’ve gone from there to take two of three from the AL Central-resurgent Indians followed by a sweep of the Orioles which can be argued was doing it the easy way. But they’re still a .500 club since the All-Star break, they’re still sixteen out of first in the East, and they’re six behind in the wild card hunt.

Dombrowski has one year left on his own current contract. The Red Sox may consider it a prudent investment to just eat the money and let him go. Which might solve one headache now, but whether it solves a longer-term pain depends upon whom they bring in to succeed him and how well they can reconstitute their pitching corps.

Dombrowski’s off-season just may dictate whether the Red Sox put the rest of his contract on their dinner menu. A little creativity and a bold signing or two just might yank the Red Sox back for a run in 2020. Hello, Gerrit Cole? Welcome to Boston, MadBum?

Re-deepening the parched farm requires a lot more creativity. That’s where the Red Sox face a longer-term burden. Wait till next year and last year at once?