Sunday, bloody Sunday

2020-07-27 RickPorcello

Rick Porcell wasn’t the only person in Citi Field smacking his head over Sunday’s carnage.

If the coronavirus doesn’t get the New York Mets, their pitching staff might based on Sunday’s lack of results. With apologies to Clark Griffith, Mets fans like home runs as much as the next fans, and—Jacob deGrom excepted—they seem to have assembled a pitching staff that is certain to please them.

Especially in the middle of the 14-1 massacre.

When Hunter Strickland, a relief pitcher who has surrendered a few significant launches in his past, is the first and only Mets pitcher to work an inning without surrendering anything more than a base hit that wasn’t cashed in one way or another by the Atlanta Braves, something is amiss.

Reviewing the Mets’ maiden season of 1962, Jimmy Breslin (in Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?) ruefully observed, “For a Mets pitcher in 1962 only two things were certain. Either he was going to be hit for some of the longest home runs in baseball history, or he was going to have to stand helpless and watch his teammates make those amazing plays.”

Reviewing Sunday afternoon, any writer old enough to have seen the Original Mets is liable to write likewise. Except that Sunday’s Mets committed only one error through eight innings. They’re definitely not going to cut the mustard in Marvelous Marv Throneberry’s rumpus room at his Elysian Fields residence.

Four Braves hit for distance against the Mess Sunday, and they started that bombardment after the Mets already helped the Braves to a 7-1 score. The Braves started building that score on a pair of first-inning RBI singles and three RBI doubles in the third. The lone rude interruption was Brandon Nimmo doubling home Tomas Nido in the second. Why, the nerve of him.

The cardboard cutout of Jeff McNeil’s Alaskan malamute pup, Willow, was joined by cutouts of five more Mets doggie friends. Maybe manager Luis Rojas should have sent Willow and her friends out there to pitch.

Instead, he started Rick Porcello, the erstwhile Boston Red Sox pitcher and very erstwhile Cy Young Award winner. The good news: Porcello didn’t give up a single home run. The bad news: His afternoon only began with those back-to-back RBI singles, with two out in the first, escaping only when former now-you-see-him/now-you-don’t Met Matt Adams—who hit one of those RBI singles through that delicious open meadow created by an infield overshift—was thrown out trying to take third on the second of those.

Porcello shook off back-to-back one-out singles in the second by tricking Ronald Acuna, Jr. into dialing Area Code 5-4-3. Nimmo returned the favour in the bottom of the inning when he drove Atlanta starter Sean Newcomb’s 1-2 meatball to the back of left field to send home Nido, who’d walked with two outs.

Then, after McNeil mishandled a throw from short on Ozzie Albies’s inning-opening grounder, the third inning is where the fun really began. For the Braves. With one RBI double to left center by Marcell Ozuna and, a walk to Adams later, a two-run double to the same neighbourhood by Dansby Swanson on a meatier meatball.

Rojas finally decided Porcello was punished enough for punishing the Mets and brought in Corey Oswalt to relieve him. Remember, the three-batter minimum for all relief pitchers this season, which can prove dangerous if the reliever in question hasn’t got much to deliver. Oswalt didn’t. Except as far as the Braves were concerned.

Did the Mets have to find a young pitcher who was especially certain to please the home run lovers among their fans? Oswalt was making his twentieth major league appearance. When it ended at last, he could claim to have given fans eighteen major league home runs worth of pleasure.

Met fans would prefer that he’d hit them instead of served them.

He fought Austin Riley to a full count before walking him. He threw Endier Inciarte a canteloupe down the middle and Inciarte ripped it to the rear end of right field, sending Adams and Swanson home on poor Porcello’s dollar. That’s how Porcello’s box score ledger shows seven earned runs allowed and only six outs obtained. Oswalt isn’t likely to appear on Porcello’s Christmas list this coming winter.

Then Oswalt got three straight outs to escape further use, misuse, and abuse. But the poor young man was sent out to pitch the fourth. Just when it looked as though he’d escape Freddie Freeman’s leadoff double, with two outs and a full count on Swanson, he threw Swanson a sinker that rose instead of sinking. And Swanson sunk it over the right field fence. Unlike his teammate Adam Duvall on Saturday, Swanson’s bomb didn’t hit a single doggie cutout in the seats. Oh, well.

Same old song and dance in the Atlanta fifth. Almost. Again Oswalt had two outs and a man on second. Only this time it was two outs to open the inning and Acuna doubling to left. This time, Oswalt threw the canteloupe to Albies for the RBI double to the back end of right.

The worse news was that Oswalt seemed too anxious to get the worst of it over with in the top of the sixth. Ozuna must have sensed it, too, because he drove a 2-1 service over the left field fence to open the inning. Oswalt then got two swift outs that looked soon enough as though he were just dying to serve up the next cantaloupe, this time to Riley, who sent it likewise over the left field fence.

Rojas finally decided Oswalt had suffered enough for his sins and sent Paul Sewald out to pitch the top of the seventh. We may be using “pitch” facetiously here.

Sewald had William Contreras 1-2 when he served something just enough for Contreras to whack into right for a leadoff hit. He tricked Acuna into forcing Contreras out at second on a grounder to third. To which Albies said, “It’s not nice to trick Junior Nature,” driving a 3-1 fastball over the center field fence.

Sewald escaped with a ground out, a walk, and a swinging strikeout. The scoring ended on the day. The final two and a half innings must have seemed like simply trying to put the Mets out of their misery once and for all. You didn’t even have the heart to tell them they’d faced four Atlanta pitchers, gone 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, and left ten men on base.

Nor did you have the heart to remind them that Newcomb was taken out of the game after three and a third innings, despite an eight-run lead, because he was actually erratic enough to start seven of his first nine batters faced with balls instead of strikes, threw only slightly more than half his 82 pitches for strikes, plunked two, and threw a wild pitch. Because it would have reminded the Mets that they had but one run to show for such generosity.

The Mets didn’t waste any time after the game sending Oswalt to their alternate training site in Brooklyn after he worked those four horrific innings to be saddled with the official loss. Far as Oswalt’s concerned, it just might be the sweetest relief he experienced all Sunday long. Might.

The word emerged when the game was just about over that, presumably for safety’s sake, the Mets planned to travel to Boston for an engagement with the Red Sox aboard six chartered buses. Outfielder Michael Conforto said lots of Mets planned to bring their XBoxes and/or PlayStations for lots of Call of Duty play.

They may miss things like team dinners or dinners among groups of teammates on the road, but better to be safe than sorry and, anyway, they’ll have lots of Call of Duty players to help ease the burden. Except that what they need most in Boston is lots of baseball players. On Sunday afternoon, they didn’t seem to have many.

That’s the way the cookies crumble

2020-07-26 McNeil'sDog

I’ve heard of Bark in the Park but this was ridiculous, sort of: Cardboard cutouts of (left to right) Griffey (belonging to Michael Conforto), Kali (also Conforto’s), and Willow (belonging to Jeff McNeil), watching from the right field seats in Citi Field Saturday . . . moments before Adam Duvall’s home run caught Willow right in the snoot.

So you’re still not thrilled about those new rules this year about the free runner on second to open the extra inning or the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? You’re not alone. Cleveland Indians righthander Mike Clevinger is on your side. (And mine.)

You could say Clevinger has solid reason. In the Indians’ second game of the new truncated season, after his rotation mate Shane Beiber came up one short of the Opening Day strikeout record, Clevinger saw his seven-inning Saturday start (ruined only by a pair of Kansas City Royals homers back to back in the first) laid waste by the cookie on second.

He also got to see the Royals’ new manager Mike Matheny roll serious dice and come up boxcars. The Royals got what proved the game-winning run without a single official at-bat on the ledger. We tried to warn you this kind of mischief was possible.

It went like this: Since the free cookie on second is the guy who batted last for the team, Kansas City veteran Alex Gordon opened the top of the tenth on second. Until he didn’t; Matheny sent reserve outfielder Brett Phillips to run for him to open. He ordered Erick Mejia to bunt Phillips to third, before Matt Franco sent Phillips home with a sacrifice fly to break the two-all tie.

After Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez walked, he got thrown out stealing with center fielder Bubba Starling at the plate. Then Greg Holland—the prodigal Royals reliever, far enough removed from the days he anchored their once-feared H-D-H bullpen (Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvim Herrera)—shook off plunking Indians center fielder Bradley Zimmer leading off and struck out the side in the bottom of the tenth.

Clevinger thought it was all about as amusing as a boom box aboard a hearse.

“This isn’t travel ball,” he told reporters after the game. “You know how hard it is to get a runner on second base off the back end of any bullpen, how incredibly hard that is? I’m not happy about it. I’m sure when other teams face the situation and this happens to them, you’re going to get similar reactions.”

Calling the New York Mets. They got burned but good Saturday afternoon. It was bad enough that closer Edwin Diaz followed an excellent save on Opening Day with having the Atlanta Braves down to their final strike—after he fell behind 3-0 on Marcell Ozuna—only to have Ozuna send one over the right field fence to send the game to the tenth tied likewise at two.

Then Mets manager Luis Rojas, knowing the three-batter minimum, sent Hunter Strickland (erstwhile Giant and National) out to pitch the tenth. This was something like naming Mrs. O’Leary’s cow the official mascot of the Chicago Fire Department.

The good news was that, unlike on outings past, Strickland didn’t have long balls to serve, a la carte or otherwise. The bad news was that, since the Braves didn’t exactly have bunts on their minds, Rojas didn’t think to order Strickland to put the inning’s leadoff hitter, Dansby Swanson, aboard—with Adam Duvall, the last Brave to bat in the ninth, as the free cookie on second—to set up a prompt double play.

Instead, Rojas let Strickland pitch to Swanson and the Braves’ shorstop lined a Strickland slider just above the middle floor of the strike zone into center field, sending Duvall home promptly with the tiebreaking run. Johan Comargo, the Braves’ lesser-hitting third baseman, bounced one up the middle that Mets late-insertion second baseman Andres Gimenez couldn’t spear to send Swanson to third.

If Rojas ordered Swanson a free pass to open the inning, Gimenez might instead have speared that bouncer for either a step-and-throw double play or a quick flip to shortstop Amed Rosario to dial Area Code 4-6-3. Leaving the Braves no recourse but a base hit to get Duvall home.

And the inning would have gone 3-2 to the bottom of the tenth, and the Mets’ run would have tied the game. Sending it to the eleventh and . . . oops. Free cookies on second and three-batter relief minimums to open each half inning there, too, if each skipper reached for a fresh bullpen bull.

Stuck now with Strickland having to face a third batter at minimum by current law, Rojas could only watch helplessly when Strickland got the Braves’ late-insertion center fielder Endier Inciarte to bounce one right back to the box but bobbled the ball before having to take the sure out at first. Now it was 4-2, Braves, and Rojas had all the legal room on earth to get Strickland out of there before playing with another match.

Oops.

Even with Drew Smith up and ready in the Mets’ bullpen, Rojas stuck with Strickland. And Strickland played with another match. William Contreras, the younger brother of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, smashed a first-pitch slider to the back of right center for an RBI double.

Then Rojas brought in Smith. And Smith promptly got Ronald Acuna, Jr. to look at strike three before Ozzie Albies grounded out to first base for the side but a 5-3 deficit the Mets couldn’t overthrow in the bottom of the tenth. Not even with free cookie Jeff McNeil on second to open and Jake Marisnick (erstwhile Houston Astro) and Pete Alonso singling up the pipe to load the pads for pinch hitter Dominic Smith.

That was last year: Smith returning from the injured list for the Mets’ final regular season game, pinch-hitting with two on in the bottom of the eleventh, and hitting a game-winning three-run homer. This was Saturday afternoon: The best Smith could get this time was a measly sacrifice fly. Not enough. Mets catcher Wilson Ramos grounded to short to force Alonso at second for the game.

It only takes one game to make a manager go from resembling a genius, which Rojas resembled when the Mets beat the Braves on Opening Day, to a nut, which Rojas resembled trusting the top of the tenth—after his closer blew the ninth in the first place—to a once-decent relief pitcher whom the eventual world champion Washington Nationals practically ordered held hostage out of sight after he surrendered three homers in last year’s division series.

But if Braves manager Brian Snitker thinks he’s liking the extra-inning free runner and the three-batter relief minimum now, wait until his Braves get burned likewise by it in a game. He may have something different to say about it then.

I have something to say about it now: if commissioner Rob Manfred is still foolish enough to insist on using the free cookies on second to start the extra innings this season, then he should declare the three-batter-minimum for relief pitchers void for those innings. No questions asked.

At least there was one amusement for both sides before the game ended. Duvall smacked a home run off Mets starter Steven Matz in the top of the second. With Citi Field empty beyond a smattering of cardboard cutouts in the seats, Duvall’s blast sailed into the right field seats . . . where it smacked the cardboard cutout of one of McNeil’s dogs, an Alaskan Malamute puppy named Willow, sitting next to cutouts of outfielder Michael Conforto’s dogs, Griffey and Kali.

Right in the snoot.

If you’ll pardon the expression, the wags said it was the easiest game of fetch Willow played all year so far. The game result, however, had some thinking the poochie took such postgame requests as “Willow Weep for Me.”

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

2020-07-24 YoenisCespedes

Cespedes went into the seats in his return but deGrom added just more evidence for a non-support case Friday.

Pandemic delay or no pandemic delay, the 2020 season finds the New York Mets picking up just about where they left off last year. Not that beating the Atlanta Braves 1-0 on Friday was a terrible thing for them, of course. And not that Yoenis Cespedes, too long among the Mets’ living dead on the injured list, going long his first day back was terrible, either.

But their neglect of theirs and the National League’s best pitcher two seasons running, pending Jack Flaherty’s continuing maturation, continues yet. He’s too much a team player to say it, but surely Jacob deGrom thinks of games like Friday’s and thinks to himself, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Defending back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching like a future Hall of Famer, eight strikeouts in five innings, one walk, and one measly hit. (The innings limit was the Mets taking no chances after deGrom’s back tightness last week.) And nothing to show for it other than an ERA opening at zero.

Last year, deGrom had twelve such quality starts, averaging seven innings per, and came out with nothing to show for those. If his team played the way he pitched, he’d have been a 23-game winner and the Mets might have ended up in the postseason. Him definitely; them, might. As a former Mets manager once said, it was deja vu all over again Friday afternoon in Citi Field.

The Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, got a grand taste himself of how deGrom must feel at times. He pitched six innings and, while he wasn’t deGrom’s kind of strikeout pitcher Friday afternoon, he did punch out three, scatter four hits, and come away with nothing to show for it but handshakes from the boss and whatever equals a pat on the back in the social-distancing season.

His relief, Chris Martin, wasn’t so fortunate. After ridding himself of Michael Conforto to open the bottom of the seventh on a fly out to deep enough center field, Martin got Cespedes to look at a first-strike slider just above the middle of the plate. Then he threw Cespedes a fastball just off it, and Cespedes drove it parabolically into the empty left field seats.

The piped-in crowd noise at Citi Field drowned out the thunk! when the ball landed in no man, woman, or child’s land. It was the game’s only scoring, but the Mets’ bullpen had a surprise of their own in store once deGrom’s afternoon was done.

They left the matches, blow torches, gasoline cans, and incendiary devices behind. They performed no known impression of an arson squad. They cleaned up any mess they might have made swiftly enough.

Seth Lugo, maybe the Mets’ least incendiary reliever last year, shook off a double to left by newly minted Brave Marcell Ozuna, and his advance to third on a passed ball, to get Matt Adams—signed but let loose by the Mets and scooped up by the Braves—to ground out to third and Austin Riley to look at strike three. Crowning two innings relief in which Lugo also made strikeout work of Alex Jackson and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Justin Wilson, taking over for the eighth and looking like he was finding the right slots last year, shook off Dansby Swanson’s leadoff single to strike Adam Duvall out looking, before luring pinch hitter Johan Comargo into grounding out to second and striking Acuna out for the side.

Then Edwin Diaz, the high-priced closer who vaporised last year, opened by getting Ozzie Albies to ground out, shook off a walk to Freddie Freeman, and struck Ozuna out looking and Adams out swinging for the game.

Already freshly minted Mets manager Luis Rojas looks like a genius, or at least unlike a lost explorer. And Cespedes—about whom it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever play major league baseball again—made sure any complaints about this season’s universal DH were silenced for this game at least.

“The funny thing is I joked with him before the game,” deGrom told reporters postgame. “I said ‘why are you hitting for me?’ He went out and hit a home run for us which was big. I was inside doing some shoulder stuff, my normal after pitching routine and yeah I was really happy for him.”

It didn’t work out quite that well for the Braves, with Adams going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon. Neither side mustered an especially pestiferous or throw-weight offense other than Cespedes’s blast.

But you half expected a low-score, low-hit game out of both deGrom and Soroka considering the disrupted spring training, the oddity of “summer camp,” and perhaps just a little lingering unease over just how to keep playing baseball like living, breathing humans while keeping a solid eye and ear on social distancings and safety protocols.

In a sixty-game season it all counts even more acutely than it would have on a normal Opening Day. The Mets and the Braves were each expected to contend this season before the coronavirus world tour yanked MLB’s plans over-under-sideways-down. They’re not taking their eyes off that just yet.

Before the game began, the Mets and the Braves—like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in D.C., like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants by the Bay Thursday night—lined up on the baselines and held a long, long, long black ribbon. This time, with nobody kneeling before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

Maybe athletes can remind people that it’s dead wrong for rogue police to do murder against black and all people without running into the buzz saws of explicit national anthem protests and fury over the protests, after all.

The Braves have other alarms, though. Freeman, of course, is recently recovered from COVID-19 but two of their three catchers—Tyler Flowers and former Met Travis d’Arnaud—showed COVID-19 symptoms and went to the injured list. The good news: both catchers tested negative for the virus.

But lefthanded pitcher Cole Hamels hit the IL with triceps tendinitis. Not good. Every live arm counts in a short season, especially for legitimate contenders. Just ask the Mets, who’ll be missing Marcus Stroman with a calf muscle tear, even if Stroman historically heals quickly.

You hope both teams recover swiftly enough. You also hope the Mets find a way to make deGrom’s won-lost record look as good as he pitches and fast. Those non-support filing papers don’t take that long to draw up.

 

A virus, a prayer, a return for Freeman

2020-07-19 FreddieFreeman

“I said, ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”—Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, describing the worst night of his COVID-19 battle.

These days it’s fair to suggest first baseman Freddie Freeman is the face of the Atlanta Braves. He’s had a solid career thus far and— assuming baseball and American life re-discover normalcy if and when the coronavirus world tour finally dissipates—it’s safe to assume he’ll continue that way when healthy.

He’s had a few seasons interrupted by injuries and one truncated season-to-be interrupted rudely by COVID-19 itself. It was enough to make him thankful for his recovered health and the small things, considering the shake he incurred while suffering with the illness.

When baseball began its “summer camp” version of delayed spring training, Freeman was one of four Braves to test positive for the coronavirus. Pitcher Touki Toussaint showed no symptoms, though, and returned to the Braves on Friday. The other two—lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith and utility infielder Pete Kozma—haven’t returned yet.

And, there came one point where Freeman feared he’d go from incumbent Brave to dead duck. That was the day his fever spiked to 104.5, usually the level at which you’d also suffer pneumonia. (Fair disclosure: your servant has fought and beaten pneumonia twice in his adult life.) It also spiked him into prayer.

“I said a little prayer that night,” he told a Saturday conference call. “I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot . . . I said ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”

Freeman’s coronavirus adventure began when—after he “tested negative on the intake” and felt “great” on 30 June—he awoke two days later in the wee small hours feeling a swarm of body aches. “I didn’t know,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind that it was coronavirus when I woke up that morning.”

It’d cross his mind soon enough, alas.

“I went to bed late and didn’t get enough sleep,” Freeman continued. “So I took some Tylenol, some ZzzQuil and finally got back to bed. Then I woke up around 11:30 and I immediately grabbed my phone and texted my wife and said, ‘Something is wrong. I need you to bring a thermometer.’ They gunned my forehead and it said 102 fever. I looked at it and said, ‘I think I need to call George (Poulis, the Braves’ trainer). I think something is different’.”

It was. The Braves got him a medical appointment, on 3 July, and the test came back positive.

“The crazy thing is, [that] Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of sweat, gunned my forehead and it said 98.2, so I had no fever that morning,” Freeman said. “That was 7:30 in the morning. So I went to the field because I was waiting for the test, I hit, I threw, I worked out and I ran at my house and felt completely fine. By 2 p.m., it hit me like a ton of bricks. I came back and I was like ‘Wow. I’m not feeling very good.’ It just snowballed after that.”

He spiked that shivery 104.5 that night. “Thankfully, George wasn’t awake when I texted him because I probably would’ve gone to the hospital,” he said. “Ten minutes after that, I gunned my forehead again and I was 103.8, then 103.2, then 103.6. So I was like, ‘If I go above 104 again, I’ll probably have to start ringing the phone and try to figure this out.”

That’s about when Freeman began to pray. Awakening the following morning with a mere 101.5 temperature, he figured that much he could take and feel relief. That Friday night, he said, was the worst of it, if you didn’t count that it interfered with fatherhood over the week that followed.

“I’d stand up, get dizzy and I’d have to sit back down. Trying to tell my 3-year-old not to come around me was difficult,” he said. “I wore masks, gloves, I was playing cars with them. Ten minutes after playing cars with them I’d have to sit down. I was a little fatigued and tired. Then, every three hours it felt like I had to take a nap.”

A week after those first symptoms, Freeman still didn’t feel great until he had yet another nap. When he awoke, though, he felt great enough to hail his wife, Chelsea, and ask for copious carbohydrates. She obliged with some Italian food. Come Saturday morning he’d gone nine days with no further symptoms, and a lot of gratitude.

So far, no more body aches, contradictory chills, and short losses of his senses of smell and taste. While his wife and an aunt continue recovering after they, too, tested positive, Freeman returned to Truist Park after a second consecutive negative test. He said his family did everything right to avoid the virus but “it still somehow got to me.”

The Braves would love to get to him as many plate appearances as possible before the truncated regular season begins, but Freeman isn’t entirely sure just how ready he’ll be. His manager, Brian Snitker, isn’t exactly worried. “I don’t think I have to look for anything,” Snitker told reporters. “If he’s out there he’s going to be ready.”

Despite sore legs the day after a Friday workout, Freeman bopped a run-scoring triple over the head of the Braves’ face-in-training, Ronald Acuna, Jr., in Saturday’s intrasquad game. He also made an over-the-shoulder running catch of a foul pop. You’d have been hard pressed to find any Brave happier to have their first base anchorman back than Freeman himself.

“I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store again,” he told that conference. “You forget sometimes how much you love this game. I did truly miss it. I was so excited when I got to the yard.”

It didn’t come without a few painful disruptions. When outfield mainstay Nick Markakis decided to opt out of playing in 2020, Freeman in the thick of COVID-19 was a huge factor after speaking to the first baseman by telephone. “Unfortunately,” Freeman said, “that was my worst day He just wasn’t into it, and I totally, totally get it.” The followup call between the two a couple of days later totally, totally affirmed Markakis’s decision. Freeman still gets it.

Surely he also gets that his return to the Braves was a badly-needed adrenaline shot. With Markakis out of this year’s picture, the Braves took a flyer on free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig—until Puig himself tested coronavirus positive. There went that idea. And, likely, there went Puig’s 2020, until he clears the medical protocols with two consecutive negative tests.

“I am sad that this has happened,” Puig tweeted, “but I believe that everything is in God’s timing and that my return to MLB will happen in His perfect timing.” He’ll need that kind of faith now, especially, unless God has a direct advance line on which teams might turn up needing experienced outfield help after Puig recovers and stays negative.

The cliche about waking up to smell the coffee has a certain resonance with Freeman now. “It didn’t dawn on me that I lost my taste and smell until my aunt went and got me a coffee and I couldn’t taste the coffee,” he said. “So we went and grabbed barbeque sauce and I put it up to my nose and couldn’t smell anything. I tried to taste it, couldn’t taste anything. So that lasted four days. Other than that, it was just bad the first three days for me.”

Freeman will be happier when his family is back to normal and he can be ready to go come Opening Day, when the Braves open against the New York Mets in Citi Field.

“We’re going to try. That’s the whole goal, for me to be ready Opening Day,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s not like a normal spring training. We can control the games. So the whole plan, talking to (Snitker), I’m going to be getting five or six at-bats for the next five days . . . I’m trying to get potentially thirty at-bats over the next five days. I did a full workout yesterday. We’re going to take it day by day.”

Day by day. MLB’s season watchword. With no guarantee for the time being that it will proceed without further nasty surprises. At least, whether just awakening or in the mood for a cup later in the day, Freeman can smell the coffee now. In more than one way.

 

From Piazza to Mets pitching coach?

2019-11-18 SteveKarsay

As a Brave, Steve Karsay served a home run pitch New York and the country will never forget. Now he may become the Mets’ pitching coach.

Steve Karsay has a unique place in Mets history thanks to a 21 September 2001 game in New York. Now he may become their next pitching coach, depending on whether 2019 interim Phil (The Vulture) Regan really doesn’t factor into the plan going forward.

Native to New York, growing up a Yankee fan in the College Point section of Queens, Karsay took over for Mike Remlinger to work the bottom of the eighth in the late Shea Stadium, right after the Braves broke a one-all tie in the top of the inning on an RBI double. It was only the second time Karsay saw action in Shea in his career at that point.

Future World Series-winning Nationals manager Dave Martinez, a pinch hitter in that inning, stayed in the game to play first base for the Braves. He didn’t know then that it would be the final month of his major league playing life: he’d miss all 2002 with a knee injury and retire after that season.

Karsay surrendered a one-out walk to Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and Mets manager Bobby Valentine sent Desi Relaford out to pinch run. Checking in at the plate: Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who couldn’t keep the tears back when bagpipers walked across the pre-game field intoning “Amazing Grace,” among other small ceremonies for New York’s first sports event after the 9/11 atrocity.

“I think the baseball part was secondary until we started getting deeper into the game,” remembered then-Mets general manager Steve Phillips. And when Piazza stepped up to the plate the Shea Stadium audience rose to their feet waving small American flags and cheering as much for the will to endure after such an atrocity as for the Mets.

Karsay started Piazza with a fastball down and away hitting the corner for a strike. “I get back into strike mode as a pitcher,” the righthander would remember to The Atlantic a decade later. “I wanted to throw another fastball down and away, which I did.”

This time Piazza didn’t miss. He electrified the ballpark, the city, and maybe the country that needed all the electricity it could find when he hit it so far over the left center field fence it banged off the second level of a television camera scaffold posted behind that fence. The fact that Piazza’s bomb gave the Mets a 3-2 lead that held up for a win was almost secondary.

Karsay remembered the ball almost hitting the camera operator aboard that scaffold. Other than that, he didn’t give a full glance on the mound to the ball in flight. The crowd noise told him everything he needed to know. “It’s one of those shots that doesn’t leave my mind,” he said a decade after the game. “Not that it bothers me, because I feel like I threw a good pitch and he hit a good pitch.”

None of the Braves begrudged Piazza’s moment. “If there was any game in my career that I had to lose or take the loss, that’s the one I would have wanted it to happen,” Karsay said. “I don’t think you could portray it any better than how that situation occurred.”

“It wasn’t a competition against our most hated rivals,” remembered Valentine in due course. “It was so much bigger than anything I had ever been part of before. It was just inevitable that something really special was happening.”

“I think we all, as Braves, knew that night we were in trouble,” Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (who went 2-for-4 with a run scored that night) remembered. “Because we’re not only playing a very good baseball team, but you just had the feeling that God and every other baseball god was on New York’s side that night. The matinee idol Mike Piazza ends up hitting the storybook homer that sent everybody home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We’d done our jobs as baseball players to entertain people, but we’d gone I feel above and beyond just the normal day’s work.”

“When Piazza hit the home run, it was kind of like, ‘OK, that was supposed to be. These people needed this a whole lot more than we needed to win a game’, ” Hall of Famer Tom Glavine—who’d pitch for the Mets late in his career—remembered three months ago, on 9/11’s anniversary. “It was the only game that we played at that level where I felt that way.”

“[F]or the fans, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air,” said Martinez on the 9/11 anniversary this year, too. “This country’s been through a lot, and we stuck together. So to be a part of that, and to be a part of this country, I’m just really happy to be an American.

“And those people that lost lives, my heart goes out to them, always . . . ,” he continued. “I just kind of stood back and just watched [Piazza] jog by me like, ‘Wow’. I just listened. And I could hear the fans. Look in the stands, and there were people crying. There were so many people from the fire department, the police department there, at the game. It was something.”

The one part Karsay might want to walk back was after he got the inning’s third out. He fumed at plate umpire Wally Bell over a borderline pitch he thought was a strike to Alfonzo that helped lead to the walk, and Bell ejected him from the game on the spot.

He was having his best major league season to date in an injury riddled career. He’d been an Athletic (after being traded out of the Blue Jays organisation so they could get  Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson) and an Indian (a trade for fellow relief pitcher Mike Fetters), before becoming a Brave three months before 9/11—in the trade that rid the Braves of misanthropic reliever John Rocker.

After the 2001 season Karsay signed as a free agent for four years and $22.5 million with the Yankees he grew up rooting for. The injuries continued (he missed all of 2003 following shoulder surgery) and, after a year in the Rangers’ system (where he combined on a perfect game in the minors), an aborted reunion with the Indians, and the A’s buying him back from there to no avail, Karsay retired in 2005.

He spent several years as a pitching coach in the Indians’s system before becoming the Brewers’ bullpen coach and, among other things, helping Drew Pomeranz finally find his groove as a reliever—Pomeranz posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching rate as a Brewer following his deadline trade from the Giants this year.

That could be a key reason why Karsay’s now in the Mets’ sights if they’re uncertain about Regan continuing at 82. God only knew the 2019 Mets bullpen was described in charitable terms as a mess. Their solid rotation—two-time Cy Young Award-winning Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler (who may yet depart as a free agent), Marcus Stroman, and Steven Matz—was compromised too often by the arson squad.

Between the collapse of prize acquisition Edwin Diaz and the inconsistencies elsewhere, until Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson proved the steadiest bulls down the stretch, the most feared words in the English language around Met fans were “pitching change.”

But if Regan moves elsewhere within the Mets structure and Karsay becomes the new pitching coach, he might yet turn an arsonist or two into an executioner or two. The rotation and enduring Piazza’s post-9/11 surrealism are nothing compared to that.