A little hustle in the muscle

Dominic Smith

Dom Smith diving across first after Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos (65) was late covering on Smith’s smash up the line and well behind the base in the top of the ninth Monday. Gallegos then tried but couldn’t nail trail runner Jeff McNeil at the plate, kicking the Mets’ overthrow win into overdrive.

It looked simple enough. Mets outfielder Mark Canha down to his and the Mets’ final strike Monday night with third baseman Eduardo Escobar aboard on a one-out base hit. Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos 0-2 on Canha and ready to land the last punch(out).

The good news for the Mets is that they ended up landing the final punch with a two-run homer finishing a 5-2 overthrow into which they hustled themselves after they’d been down to their final strike. Aided and abetted unexpectedly by Gallegos a moment late and two bucks short covering first base on what could have been a game-ending dazzler.

Thus did the first showdown between the leaders of the National League East and Central grind, sprint, and launch its way to the finish in the Mets’ favour. You could almost feel the Cardinals bawling themselves out that it didn’t have to go that way the moment Mets reliever Edwin Diaz struck Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader out after a two-out walk.

It came to this because the Mets wasted a delicious pitching duel between Max Scherzer and the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas, trading shutouts for seven innings, after Mets reliever Tyler May couldn’t put Mendoza Line-hitting Tyler O’Neill away and surrendered a two-run single for his trouble with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth.

But now Canha wasnt quite so ready, fighting back to a full count, before he hit a bouncer up the third base line to Nolen Arenado, the Cardinals’ third baseman to whom a play like this, even on the short run, was something he could do upside down if necessary.

Arenado on the not-so-hard run whipped a throw across the infield to first base. The ball soared right past first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Escobar soared home to put the Mets on the board at last, with Canha taking second on the play and Jeff McNeil checking in at the plate.

Canha came out for pinch runner Travis Jankowski. McNeil sent an RBI double deep to right. And Mets manager Buck Showalter sent Dom Smith up to pinch hit for smart catching/modest-hitting Tomas Nido. Smith shot one up the first base line that Goldschmidt stopped one way or the other, diving across the line as he speared it fair.

But when Goldschmidt hustled a throw to the pad he had no target. Gallegos bounced off the mound a moment too late for the out as Smith dove onto the pad and Jankowski and McNeil cross the plate safely, McNeil himself diving home a split second before Cardinals catching insertion Andrew Kinzner could get a tag on him off Gallegos’s throw home.

“The second he hit it, I thought it was a foul ball,” said Gallegos post game. “Then I saw the ball bounce back to first, and that’s when I broke.”

“That’s a mental mistake,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “Can’t excuse it. He knows it; we know it: He’s got to cover first.”

“Dom probably ran the fastest 90 (feet) of his life there,” said McNeil. “I knew it would be close at first base. I ended up scoring. It was a lot of fun.”

Smith wouldn’t exactly disagree. “You try to hustle as hard as you can to beat him,” he said. “I saw the closer didn’t get over right away. I just ran as hard as I could. I knew I had a step on him. I felt slow but I tried to run hard.” Don’t fight the feeling next time, either. It could be worth another pair of runs in another eleventh-hour effort.

It put the Mets up 3-2, brought lefthander T.J. McFarland in to relieve Gallegos for the Cardinals, and brought lefthanded-hitting Brandon Nimmo to the plate for the Mets. McFarland threw Nimmo a sinker that didn’t quite sink below the inner middle of the zone, and Nimmo sunk it on a high line inside the right field foul pole.

“It was worth the wait,” said Mets manager Buck Showalter after they banked the game. “It really was. It was fun to watch.”

“We’re a resilient team,” Smith said, “and I feel like we’re in it till the last pitch every night. Even the games that we don’t come up with a win, I feel like we make it tough on our opponents when they do beat us. I think it showed our DNA and what we’re about.”

And it almost (underline that) erased the pitching duel that kept Busch Stadium in thrall most of the night. Scherzer may have struck ten out in his seven innings but he appreciated his mound opponent just as much. Appropriately.

“Tip your hat off to Miles tonight,” he said of Mikolas, whose own seven-inning effort was five punchouts and four scattered hits. “That’s baseball. It was a great game. Sometimes you run into a buzz saw and he did his job tonight. I’m pitching on pins and needles there. I have to make every pitch. I was thinking even a solo shot might lose it.”

He didn’t have to worry as much as he thought. Monday night left Max the Knife number five on the career survey with his 106th double-digit-strikeout game, not to mention 33 punchouts and a measly eight walks in 25 innings pitched this season thus far.

If only he could pitch in Busch Stadium more often than he does. In his previous five gigs there, he’s gone seven innings or more each without a single run being pried out of him. He also has an ongoing 21-straight shutout inning streak against the Cardinals, and now that he has seven starts of ten strikeouts or more against them he’s behind only Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in that department.

This is the pitcher the Cardinals have never tried to sign when he was on the open market despite his roots being in Missouri. Now they can look forward to this plus two more seasons of potential continuing torture at his right hand. Even if he might still need Met bats in the ninth to keep the bullpen from trashing his best efforts after he departs for the day or night.

“Everybody had a hand in that rally and that’s the cool thing,” he said of the Mets’ ninth-inning grind-out. “When you see your offense go off like that and just find a way to scratch across extra runs.” Catching one of the other guys asleep just enough when there’s first base to cover critically doesn’t exactly hurt, either.

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