Few things in this world are as profound as the wrench that happens when an individual resembles a genius one night and a fool the next. Unless it’s when a team resembles a well-lubricated Porsche one night and a two-stroke Trabant the next.
That wrench sent Buck Showalter and his Mets home for the winter after they played a Saturday and Sunday that put their entire season into microcosm. Including the re-exposure of the lacking that turned them from National League East dominators to division sliders finally settling for second best after a self-deflating previous weekend in Atlanta.
It also sent Showalter from being the skipper with the nerve to throw The Book to one side, and his best relief pitcher into the game when its “save situation” presented itself earlier than the ninth inning, to the one who thought a too-little/too-late gamesmanship exercise might knock the Padres off their game slightly more than mid-way through.
That was when the Padres didn’t expose it for them. The Mets’ few lackings this year included offensive depth past the middle of the batting order. The Padres out-lasted them in this wild card series when the lower end of their order suddenly figured out how to hunt, peck, hector, pester, and puncture.
The Padres didn’t lack for issues all year, either, but they rode Joe Musgrove and two relievers to a 6-0 Game Three one-hit shutout, on a night Musgrove simply fed the Mets things they could only hit with moderate contact to Padre defenders on red alert. The nearest Musgrove came to disaster was when Mark Canha sent one deep enough to right center field to send Trent Grisham crashing into the wall after he caught the drive with only inches to spare.
The Mets might have loved nothing more than the crash actually yanking Grisham out of the game. All series long he’d gone from the nothing-special regular season element, whose seventeen home runs didn’t negate puny plate performance papers otherwise, into a 1.917 wild card series OPS. His Real Batting Average on the season: .422. His RBA in the wild card set: 1.167.
The only thing better than moving Grisham to one side for the Mets would have been ridding themselves of Musgrove, who pitched the first no-hitter in Padres history in April and pitched Sunday night as though he’d made the Mets into the classic cartoon volunteers for a cartoon magician’s guaranteed-to-embarrass magic tricks.
Showalter thought he might do what his batters couldn’t entering the bottom of the sixth. He ambled out of the Mets dugout and asked Alfonso Marquez’s umpiring crew to check Musgrove for, shall we say, that new good-old-fashioned medicated goo. Marquez delivered the message to a slightly flustered Musgrove promptly.
“He said, ‘Buck wants to take a look at your glove, your face, your hat, all that stuff’. I said: ‘You take what you want, man’,” Musgrove said postgame. The umpires took looks at all that stuff, including an almost comical-looking inspection of Musgrove’s admittedly shining ears and lobes.
What irked Showalter was information handed him that indicated the spinning rate on Musgrove’s pitches were higher Sunday evening than they were all season long. Baseball government’s obsession with foreign substances (Spider-Tack, et. al.) and lack of apparent concern for consistently made and grippable baseballs was bound to yield oddities but nothing quite like this until that moment.
“When you see something that jumps out at you . . . I get a lot of information in the dugout,” Showalter said postgame. “We certainly weren’t having much luck the way it was going. That’s for sure. But I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets. And however it might make me look or whatever, I’m gonna do that every time.”
“Was that what he did?” asked Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who had a respectable if not spectacular wild card series himself, who happened to be a measly three feet from Musgrove while the pitcher was being frisked, and who knows Showalter from playing for him as an Oriole. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, how many hits did Joe give up? He gave up one hit? That’s pretty smart by them.”
Maybe not as smart as Machado charitably allowed. Showalter’s shortstop Francisco Lindor seemed uncertain himself. “There were some talks in the dugout,” he told reporters. “Buck made the decision to go check him. I respect that. I respect his decision. At the end of the day, hats off to Musgrove. He flat-out beat us.”
Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t find it that amusing. If anything, he found it a character assassination attempt. “The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” he fumed. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”
That’s a reference to the Citi Field crowd chanting “Cheater, cheater!” at Musgrove post-check. Maybe the crowd became as desperate as Showalter’s sticky-stuff gambit made him look. Maybe they remembered Musgrove was a member of the 2017 Astros whose sign-stealing operation leaves that triumph suspect for all time, even though the pitchers had nothing to do with it. Maybe they forgot Musgrove admits to being embarrased to wear his ’17 Series ring because of his then-team’s shenanigans.
They certainly didn’t consider that the guy from El Cajon which is a very brief commute from San Diego, the guy who grew up rooting for the Padres, was a guy who took the mound amped up with thoughts that he really was living the dream, handed the ball in a Padres uniform on the most important night of his life to date.
“I dove into the fact that we got all the fans in San Diego waiting for this moment,” Musgrove said. “The girlfriends and wives here. The fan base that followed us from San Diego, and I tried to put that on my shoulders and carry.” That fan base had a contingency enough in Citi Field Sunday night that you could hear the “Beat L.A.!” chants as the game neared the finish.
The only question for these Padres now is whether they can and will beat the ogres of the National League West awaiting them in a division series come Tuesday night. They survived the loss of Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a shoulder injury and then a suspension over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. It doesn’t mean they’ll survive the Dodgers. But they may not make it that simple, either.
There’s no “only” question for these Mets entering their long winter.
Sunday starter Chris Bassitt embarrassed himself. It only began when Bassitt loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second before another of the Padres’ final third in the order, catcher Austin Nola, swatted a two-run single . . . on 0-2.
“I was just beating myself,” he said honestly of his four-inning performance. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”
It was the last thing Bassitt needed with free agency looming for him. He’s not the only one in that position. Saturday’s pitching heroes, starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Díaz, face free agency, too: deGrom by way of exercising his contract opt-out, Díaz by the expiration of a deal that once looked like a franchise embarrassment before he corrected himself and went from nothing like Seattle to this season’s never-better performance papers.
Brandon Nimmo, one of three Mets to acquit himself series-long at the plate, also faces free agency, as do pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Trevor Williams. General manager Billy Eppler, who looked like a genius last winter in signing or acquiring Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardor Escobar, Bassitt, and Canha, doesn’t look so sharp for not having made a trade deadline fortification move even rummaging an admittedly thin trading floor.
And the Mets don’t look so smart for having built themselves so surely around deGrom and Scherzer they failed to have a consistent rotation behind that pair when their health faltered. Scherzer still looked ailing from his season-long oblique trouble when he was battered in the first wild card set game. DeGrom pitched just enough to his standard to give the Mets room for their Saturday night special.
But the lack of offensive depth behind Marte, Pete Alonso, Nimmo, and NL batting average champ Jeff McNeil burned them, too. When Marte was lost from earliest September through the start of the wild card set with a finger fracture, that lack behind the remaining three bit the Mets where it really hurt. The team on-base percentage for the set was a weak .283.
And with Max the Knifed on Friday, plus Marte playing the wild card set despite the lingering finger issue, the Mets’ health maintenance may need yet another review and remake.
None of which will dissolve the sting of their Sunday embarrassment. The Padres didn’t bomb the Mets into submission Sunday night, they just pecked, poked, prodded, and pushed on a night the Mets had no answer for Musgrove other than one desperation gambit.
The night before, Showalter resembled a prudent man who learned a hard lesson for bringing in Díaz—his and the league’s best closer on the season—in the seventh when the save situation was then and not the ninth. Sunday night, Showalter resembled a flailing man overboard who’d take an anchor for a life preserver.
“Let me phrase this the right way,” said Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, not doing these games since ESPN carried them but appearing on an SNY postgame show.
Buck Showalter is completely in his rights to ask the umpires to check a pitcher for foreign substances. It’s up to umpires then to decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do. I thought that considering the circumstances, 4-0, sixth inning, season on the line, it smacked of desperation and it was fairly embarrassing I thought for Buck to do that in that spot. It was not necessary. As it turned out, Musgrove was not cheating. If you’re going to pull a stunt like that, you better be right and Buck wasn’t right.
Lucky for Showalter that he doesn’t believe he’s too old to learn. We’ll to learn soon enough what he learned from this weekend that might do him right in managing a team that may yet have a different enough look next year than the one he almost led deeper into this postseason.