The next time you see or hear any baseball elder tell you he or she is too “old” to bother learning something new, just show them Buck Showalter. He’s the Mets manager who learned one of the hardest lessons in baseball history and finally got to prove it when he absolutely had to prove it on Saturday night.
It kept his Mets and their skipper from an early winter and eons of second-guessing while they banked a 7-3 Game Two win. In the bottom of the inning in which Showalter showed at last that he really did learn something from the worst disaster of his managing career.
When they still played a one-or-done wild card game, in 2016, Showalter wouldn’t even think of his Orioles’ (and baseball’s, then) nuclear-hot relief option Zack Britton in the bottom of the eleventh. He stayed with faltering Ubaldo Jiménez because it wasn’t a “save situation” in a two-all tie, after all, despite the Blue Jays having first and third with one out.
Edwin Encarnación’s monstrous three-run homer into the Rogers Centre second deck told Showalter and the world that managing to one of baseball’s most nebulous statistics can be suicidal. It also told reminded a stubborn world that “save situations” aren’t strictly ninth-inning lead protection.
Showalter’s been second, third, fourth, and fifth guessed over that one ever since. When asked directly, he could never bring himself to re-open his mind from that moment. Either he’d say, “You just have to wear some things“; or, as he did immediately in that interview, “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it.”
Except everybody wanted to hear it. Come the top of the seventh inning in Citi Field Saturday night, with a hard-held two-all tie but the Mets’ season in danger of ending in a wild card series sweep, Showalter found himself in a save situation in the truest sense of the phrase.
This time, Showalter planned for just this possibility. Once bitten, twice lesson learned. This time—just like his Saturday night starter Jacob deGrom pitching six innings of stout, eight-strikeout, two-run ball; just like his bombardier Pete Alonso breaking a two-all tie with a leadoff homer—the manager rose to the occasion.
No “closer” was deadlier than Edwin Díaz on the regular season. (1.31 ERA; 0.90 fielding-independent pitching; 118 strikeouts in 62 innings’ work.) And there Díaz was, up and throwing in the sixth, while deGrom retired the side on a strikeout, a fly to deep enough right, and a ground out.
Social media went half berserk just seeing Díaz warming up, never mind thinking Showalter would be insane enough (their words) to “burn” his closer that early. Except that a one-run lead, in a low-scoring game, for these Mets who sputtered their way toward finishing a 101-win season, after owning the National League East most of the season, qualified as the single most important save situation of their year.
“Buck bringing in Edwin Díaz in the 7th,” tweeted The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “but only to underscore the fact that he’s still not bringing in Zack Britton.”
So Showalter went to Díaz Saturday night the way he didn’t even think about Britton in 2016. Díaz got Trent Grisham, who’d helped wreck Max Scherzer and the Mets in Game One with the long ball, to bounce out right back to the box, surrendered a four-pitch walk to Josh Bell, but then got back to back ground outs. And the Mets’ previously slumbering bats accepted that awakening happily.
They’d already chased Padres starter Blake Snell after Brandon Nimmo broke a one-all tie with an RBI single in the fourth. They withstood Jurickson Profar’s re-tying RBI single off deGrom in the top of the fifth before Alonso greeted reliever Nick Martinez as rudely as he knew how, sending the inning’s first pitch into the left field seats.
Now they had Adrían Morejón to handle out of the San Diego pen. Their manhandling of him only began with Francisco Lindor—who started the evening’s scoring with a first inning home run, after a leadoff single was wiped immediately by a double play—hitting a line single to open, and taking second on a wild pitch before Morejón walked Alonso and Mark Canha on tenth-pitch full counts.
Up stepped Jeff McNeil, the National League’s “batting champion.” Through the infield into right went his two-run double and out of the game went Morejón in favour of Pierce Johnson. Johnson had Eduardo Escobar pinned at 0-2, but Escobar un-pinned himself with an RBI single, then had pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach at 2-2 when Vogelbach lofted a sacrifice fly to deep right center.
Just like that the Mets broke the game open enough. Then Johnson struck out a pair following Tomas Nido’s base hit. Now what would Showalter do? Would he dare to leave Díaz in for a second go-round in the eighth and risk his unavailability for Game Three? Especially with about a 45-minute layoff while the Mets rolled up that four-run bottom of the seventh?
He dared. Díaz got Manny Machado to ground out back to the box to open. After walking Bell he struck Jake Cronenworth out on three straight pitches. Then Showalter made sure he wouldn’t lose Díaz for Game Three if needed, lifting him for Adam Ottavino, who caught Brandon Drury looking on 2-2 for the side.
“I was feeling great,” Díaz said postgame. “I thought I could get Drury out, but [Showalter] told me that he needed me tomorrow and this was enough for today. So, I said let’s win the game tomorrow.”
It was a bloody good thing the Mets seventh made the Showalter/Díaz pay off, because Ottavino in the ninth worked like anyone but the owner of a 2.06 ERA and 0.97 WHIP on the regular season: leadoff walk, a hit batsman, a fly out, a pair of walks including to Machado pushing the third Padres run home.
Showalter went to Seth Lugo, and Lugo lured Bell into grounding out right back to the box for the side and the game. Leave it to the Mets to salute their skipper’s gambit—the absolute right move to have made, with the game and the season that squarely on the line—with a four-run inning and still have to perform another high-wire act to escape with the win, anyway. That’s still so Mets, right?
Maybe this will be the beginning of the final end of the dubious “closer” and “save” things. Maybe this, at last, will lock down once and for all that you don’t save your best relief option purely for the final inning, because a real save situation presents itself any time at all during a game.
That was then: “This is simple: Showalter screwed up,” ESPN’s David Schoenfield harrumphed. “Even the smartest men are capable of ineffable stupidity,” harrumphed Jeff Passan, then with Yahoo! Sports but now with ESPN. Keith Law began an entire chapter arguing against the save statistic in Smart Baseball with that sad 2016 brain freeze.
This is now, apparently: Too much of baseball world talking about Showalter’s “unusual” or “unconventional” move. But a one-run lead against a tenacious Padres team that’s survived a few blows of their own to get here in the first place, too, can blow any time in the final three innings.
The Mets were very much in a real, not an artificially-contrived-by-nebulous-rule, save situation in the seventh Saturday night. This time, the Buck didn’t stop, blink, flinch, or shrivel. Neither did his team.
A 66-year-old skipper made liars out of the old fart contingency that insists they’re “too old” to learn new if should-be obvious lessons. Showalter proved you don’t get old on earth until you get dead on earth. And dead is what the Mets might have ended up without that proof.