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.

Sore winners

2019-10-10 StLouisCardinals

The Cardinals earned their coming NLCS berth . . . and their skipper earned them an image as unsportsmanlike winners with a postgame rant.

Until he was out-boxed and out-thought by Muhammad Ali in 1964, Sonny Liston was so brutal in the ring he inspired gags about knocking his opponents out before the weighing-in was finished. Forgive the Braves if they think they were stink bombed, pistol whipped, and machine-gunned before “Play ball!” finished escaping the umpire’s mouth.

In avian terms cardinals are seed-eaters by nature, not birds of prey. Don’t tell that to the Braves at any time from now until spring training. Because baseball’s Cardinals turned into glandular enough birds of prey in the top of the first Wednesday afternoon. Leaving no carrion behind.

The 13-1 final score almost didn’t matter. What the Braves incurred from the Cardinals not even Alfred Hitchcock could have conjured. Losing a tenth consecutive postseason set was bad enough. How the Braves were destroyed in Game Five of this National League division series was precedent setting.

No team in the history of division series play ever scored ten runs in a single inning until the Cardinals did it to open Game Five. They did it without one batter in Cardinals feathers hitting one into the seats. It went from small ball to medium ball. Not that the Braves cared, particularly. It hurt just as deep as if they’d been nuked.

Especially after they were four measly outs from going to the National League Championship Series themselves on Monday night. Before Yadier Molina singled home the tying run in the eighth and hit the game-ending sacrifice fly in the tenth in Game Four. Before the trip back to Atlanta. Before the early burial.

Before Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler, once a World Series-winning Cub whose St. Louis tenure hasn’t always been a joyful noise, got thatclose to striking out before wringing a game-opening seven-pitch walk out of Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Before the Cardinals sent ten runs across the plate without one single soul hitting one into the seats.

And before Cardinals manager Mike Shildt—who looks so prototypically like a nerd you’d think he knew no expletive stronger than deleted at first glance—delivered a postgame rant of the kind that usually comes when a team’s been battered, not the other way around.

Tommy Lasorda and Lee Elia, you’ve been upstaged. Meet Shildt, in one fateful moment he’d surely love to walk back now. Meet Shildt, the sorest winner on the planet.

Once upon a time another generation of Cardinals collapsed so thoroughly in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series after being jobbed by a blown call near the end of Game Six that they looked like unsportsmanlike chokers. Shildt made his 2019 Cardinals look like unsportsmanlike winners.

“They [the Braves] started some (excrement). We finished the (excrement),” Shildt growled. “And that’s how we roll. No one (fornicates) with us ever. Now, I don’t give a (feces) who we play. We’re gonna (fornicate) them up. We’re gonna take it right to them the whole (fornicating) way. We’re gonna kick their (fornicating) ass.”

Rookie Cardinals outfielder Randy Arozarena, a ninth-inning pinch hitter who finished Game Five playing right field, filmed Shildt’s rant and posted it to Instagram. That’ll teach him. He couldn’t delete the post or apologise fast enough once it hit the Internet flying. Too late. Way to soil your own achievement, boys.

Fowler may or may not have been lucky to survive long enough to wring that game-opening walk; on 1-2 he foul ticked a pitch by less than a hair. “Did I?” he cracked after the game. “That was so long ago I can’t even remember.”

Foltynewicz hadn’t walked a single soul in his Game Two start. Little did he know. And little did anyone in the joint know Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong would even think about sacrificing Fowler to second, never mind doing it almost immediately. “After a good at-bat by Dex,” he’d say, “I told myself, ‘Just get him scoring position’.”

The Cardinals had one goal going in: take the Braves’ home audience out of the game as soon as possible. During the National Anthem if need be. They got close enough. After that, knowing they were sending Jack Flaherty to the mound, they figured a single run might be enough for the kid who pitched the National League’s ears off in the season’s second half.

“We know what kind of a pitcher Foltynewicz is and what he did to us last time and the way this series has been,” said first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who beat out an infield hit right after Wong’s sacrifice. “We wanted to get on the board early.”

He forgot to mention the “often” part. And after left fielder Marcell Ozuna lofted a pitch that arrived around his toes into right to send Fowler home, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman—as close to Old Reliable as the Braves have had since the retirement of Hall of Famer Chipper Jones—mishandled Yadier Molina’s hard grounder to load the bases.

Having the arguable worst week of his career as it was, en route a .200 NLDS batting average on four hits (including one homer and one double), six strikeouts, and one walk in 21 plate appearances, Freeman didn’t flinch after the massacre. “They got nine more runs,” he said. “That was pretty much the game right there.”

Matt Carpenter, penciled in to start at third base for the Cardinals, walked in a run. Tommy Edman, who’d taken Carpenter’s job during the season but was penciled in to start in the Game Five outfield, tore a two-run double down the right field line and chased Foltynewicz in favour of Max Fried. The Braves ordered a free pass to Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

And Flaherty had the strange distinction of becoming the rarest breed of pitcher: one who gets to hit before he’s even thrown a single pitch. Not to mention facing his high school buddy and teammate Fried. And he walked Carpenter home.

“I’m laughing because Max is up there,” the righthanded boy wonder remembered after the game about approaching the plate. “I’m trying to keep a straight face. I looked up into the stands and saw my mom, which was great. She was smiling and all excited. I didn’t expect Max.” That’s nothing compared to what Fried didn’t expect.

He didn’t expect Fowler and Wong to hit back-to-back RBI doubles. He didn’t expect to throw a wild pitch to Ozuna for strike three enabling Wong to come home after Goldschmidt left Wong room enough to take third on a line out to right. You almost swore Molina grounded out to end the flood at last because he took pity on the Braves for one brief, shining moment.

Adam Wainwright, who pitched heroically enough in Game Three only to see it laid to waste late, could barely believe what he saw from his seat in the Cardinal dugout. “Have you seen anything like that?” he asked before answering after the game. “We just kept the pedal to the metal . . . I was just trying to stay in the moment, but after that inning I came in to the guys and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’.”

The rest of the game seemed almost ceremonial even if Flaherty didn’t exactly have an untroubled outing. He shook of first and second and one out in the first, shrugged off Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the fourth, and survived a bases-loaded jam in the fifth when he lost control momentarily and hit Ronald Acuna, Jr. with a pitch.

Considering the testiness between Acuna and the Cardinals most of the series the easiest thought to indulge was Flaherty trying to send the Braves’ youthful center field star a message. Considering everything else by that time, there was no way Flaherty would send a message pitch with what was then a twelve-run cushion that should have felt more like a hot tub, especially since Flaherty faced Acuna in the first and walked him without so much as a thought of inside and tight.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux went out to the mound at once to settle Flaherty. He didn’t want his lad making the same mistake Foltynewicz made in that first-inning flood, crossing the line between pitching with emotion and emotionally pitching. Flaherty got the message and got rid of Freeman on a ground out to second for the side.

After the flood, the Cardinals flipped from opening with offense on the brain to pure defense. They moved Edman to third and Fowler to right and sent Harrison Bader out to center field immediately after they’d finished the ten-run opening act. As if to remind his team he knew good and bloody well he had more than a glove working for him, Edman tore one off the top of the right field wall for a one-out triple in the top of the second.

Paul DeJong didn’t give Fried a moment to breathe before he ripped the next pitch off the wall for an RBI double. And after Flaherty zipped through the Braves in order in the bottom, Luke Jackson relieved Fried. He walked Wong on a full count, struck out Goldschmidt, plunked Ozuna on the first pitch, and got a sharp grounder out of Molina.

A grounder Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson picked and shoveled to second baseman Ozzie Albies, and the ball hit Albies’s bare hand leaving all hands safe. Then Bader lined one up the middle to score Wong and, after Edman struck out, DeJong hit another first pitch right through the left side to score Ozuna.

Thirteen runs in three innings. The rest of the game felt like a plain formality. The Braves bullpen from Josh Tomlin forward kept the Cardinals so quiet the rest of the way you began to feel tempted toward asking Braves manager Brian Snitker whether he’d think about trying a purely bullpen game if he could get a Game Five do-over.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen that many guys hit in the first inning that quick in my entire life,” Snitker said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t how we drew it up, I know that. I don’t know. That thing just kept rolling and we couldn’t stop it.”

“Everyone had sky high confidence going into that game and them scoring ten runs, it’s hard to swallow,” said Freeman after the game. “Everything went wrong from the get-go.”

“You don’t expect something like that to happen,” Donaldson lamented, “especially with how well we played all season.”

Any more than you expected Shildt’s post-mortem potty-mouth.

Tony La Russa’s Cardinals beat the Dodgers in a 2004 division series and, after it ended, led his players across the field for a handshake-and-hug line with the Dodgers after the 3-1 triumph. (Effervescent Jose Lima’s Game Three shutout was the only Dodgers win.) It was a grand and entirely endearing gesture. And baseball’s then-chief of discipline Bob Watson reprimanded the Cardinals for it.

La Russa may have had his flaws, but ranting like a drunken sailor over the freshly vanquished wasn’t one of them. Where’s Joe Torre, fellow Hall of Fame manager who now has Watson’s job among his other duties out of the commissioner’s office, to reprimand Shildt?

Letting the kids play is one thing. Letting them enjoy the living daylights out of the moment when they do big things without being broiled by baseball’s Fun Police for it is another thing. But letting a manager get away with a Shildt-like rant after a win at all, never mind one as lopsided as the Cardinals’ on Wednesday? That’s [fornicating] something else entirely.

This wasn’t Yankee manager Aaron Boone going on his now-famous “savages” rant in support of his players after a couple of nasty arguments with a couple of questionable umpires. This was a manager whose team had just humiliated a worthy opponent but who couldn’t resist grinding his heel on their fallen necks.

Arozarena owned up to making a rookie mistake posting his manager’s postgame potty mouth. Shildt made his team look so juvenile that most other fan bases in baseball will forget how surreal their first inning achievement was and hope the Cardinals go down hard in the National League Championship Series.

And if they do, they’ll probably find Braves fans leading the anti-charge. With no jury in the land prepared to rule them unjustified. It’s the least they can be allowed now.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

2019 NLDS Game 3 - Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright’s Sunday virtuosity ended up going for naught.

Adam Wainwright had every reason on earth to feel nothing but a powerful desire to arrange Carlos Martinez’s necktie party Sunday. So did every citizen of Cardinal Country. So did every last baseball fan who prayed for and got an impeccable pitchers’ duel, with the Braves’ Mike Soroka playing Dickey Betts to Wainwright’s Duane Allman for virtuosity.

The duel that ended with Martinez’s Spike Jones sneaking explosives into the drums and the Braves standing one win from a National League Championship Series engagement. It’s a good thing for Martinez that Wainwright is a forgiving soul. He had no intention after the staggering 3-1 Braves win in Busch Stadium of doing anything but giving Martinez a big hug.

“And Carlos will be ready tomorrow,” the 38-year-old righthander who may be approaching the end of a solid if injury-compromised career. “Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”

Unfortunately, Wainwright and Cardinals manager Mike Schildt may be the only one with that wish. “He’ll be in that spot [Monday],” the skipper said, “and I’ll have full confidence in him.” He says that now, but . . .

Even Braves closer Mark Melancon had Martinez’s back after the game. “You’re not looking to see guys fail,” he told a reporter. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”

After opening with a leadoff double but two straight strikeouts Sunday afternoon, Martinez surrendering back-to-back RBI hits that broke the Cardinals’ backs and Cardinal Country’s hearts for the bottom of the ninth means nobody’s really sure. “There were some pitches that didn’t go where they were supposed to go,” the righthander said afterward. “I didn’t have the best grip on the slider. I tried to get that pitch to do what it was supposed to do and I didn’t get to it.”

The single greatest exhibition of pressure pitching of Wainwright’s life was laid to waste right there.

With an enviable enough postseason pitching record as it is—he has a lifetime 2.79 ERA and 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in October—Wainwright for seven innings couldn’t be stopped with a subpoena, never mind a S.W.A.T. team. Especially throwing the curve ball he calls King Charles, the way Mets legend Dwight Gooden’s curve was once known as Lord Charles.

If Wainwright wasn’t quite as masterly as the Astros’ Gerrit Cole the day before, he was close enough and too much so for the Braves’ discomfort. He nailed eight strikeouts, trusted his defenders just enough, didn’t let plate umpire Sam Holbrook’s microscopic strike zone faze him any more than Soroka did, didn’t let his own club’s lack of cash-in offense bother him, and made a 1-0 lead—acquired on a Marcell Ozuna double, a Yadier Molina ground out pushing Ozuna to third, and a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the second inning—feel almost like a 10-0 lead.

Then, after Brian McCann popped out to the third base side near the plate to open the top of the eighth, Wainwright’s tank ran past E. Dansby Swanson shot one through the hole at short for a single. Soroka’s pinch hitter Adam Duvall lined out to third but Ronald Acuna, Jr. worked himself to a full-count walk, Wainwright’s first of the day. And Ozzie Albies walked on 3-1 to load the pads for Freddie Freeman.

Exit Wainwright, enter Andrew Miller, who hasn’t been the same as he was with the Indians thanks to their overworking him while he was hot and a couple of injuries to follow that have sapped his once-formidable repertoire if not his heart. The Cardinals needed it to be classic Miller Time in the worst way possible now.

And after a swinging strike to open, Miller got Freeman to fly out to Dexter Fowler in center field and strand the ducks on the pond.

The problem was, the Cardinals weren’t any better after pushing Soroka’s relief Max Fried in the bottom of the eighth. Fried walked Carpenter to open, with Schildt sending swift Harrison Bader out to run for the veteran. Bader distracted Fried enough to compel a walk to Tommy Edman before Paul DeJong flied out toward the right field line. Exit Fried, enter Darren O’Day.

Also enter Jose Martinez pinch hitting in Miller’s lineup slot. O’Day faked a throw over and Bader took off, only to get hung up between second and third before O’Day threw him out at third. Then Martinez hit a sinking liner to left that Duvall on his horse could only reach and trap. You could taste the RBI that wasn’t on a plate dipped in A-1 sauce.

Bader’s arrest for attempted grand theft loomed even larger after Sean Newcomb relieved Day and got Fowler to fly out to his center field counterpart Acuna for the side. Then Schildt put Bader into center field, moved Edman from right field to third base, shifted Fowler to right field, and called on Carlos Martinez.

Josh Donaldson might have ripped a double past the diving Edman at third and down the left field line into the corner for a leadoff double, but Martinez bagged Nick Markakis and pinch hitter Adeiny Hechevarria—who’d been 4-for-6 in that role since joining the Braves—back to back on swinging strikeouts.

The bad news was Donaldson’s pinch runner Billy Hamilton, whose road running on the bases is almost his only ability that enables him to play major league baseball, getting too much into Martinez’s head. So much so that when Hechevarria swung strike three Hamilton stole third without so much as a beat cop hollering “Stop, thief!”

“At the time you want to get to third with one out, so that was a bad break,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “But getting to third even with two outs, what if Martinez bounces one in the dirt? I could score. And maybe he has to pitch the next guy differently.”

Then, after Molina and Martinez confabbed at the mound with Molina obviously upset and Schildt joining them to settle them down and get back to business, McCann—the potential go-ahead run—was awarded first on the house and Rafael Ortega assigned to pinch run for the prodigal Braves’ catcher.

Swanson checked in at the plate 0-for-6 lifetime against Martinez. Every star aligned in Martinez’s favour. “The Cardinals start doing game management,” said McCann after the game, “and then Dansby came up clutch.”

Clutch enough to send one off the left field fence and send Hamilton home to tie it at one. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination,” the Braves’ shortstop said after the game. “In those situations, you just try and breathe and relax. It’s easier said than done.”

And Duvall dumped a quail into short center down for a base hit, scoring Ortega readily with Bader throwing home but well off and over the third base line, enabling Swanson to score the third run.

Only after walking Acuna did Martinez escape, getting Albies to line out to right. And after Freeman made a sensational extension to hold a wide throw from shortstop and keep his toe on first base to nail Kolten Wong opening, Paul Goldschmidt banked a double off the right field side wall off Melancon. But Ozuna looked at strike three on the inside corner and Molina flied out to center.

It gave the Braves their first postseason series lead in seventeen years and gave the Cardinals a reminder of what they might have really lost when Jordan Hicks, their originally assigned closer, having a solid season to that point, went down with Tommy John surgery in late June. Might.

Maybe a healthy Hicks keeps the Braves pinned in the ninth Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t. Two days after Martinez barely survived to keep a Cardinal win a win, he didn’t survive. And the Cardinals get to host the Braves for Game Four on the fiftieth anniversary of making the trade that helped change baseball.

It was 7 October 1969 when they traded center field mainstay Curt Flood to the Phillies. The trade Flood rejected for the reserve clause challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court before losing—yet pushing open the door through which Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and then Andy Messersmith would escort free agency’s advent.

Fifty years ago, too, the Miracle Mets shocked the world with their division, pennant, and World Series triumphs. Their golden anniversary team couldn’t stay the distance even toward a wild card game spot. The Cardinals have bigger stakes to play for on the Flood trade’s golden anniversary.

And a lot to make up for to Adam Wainwright, who’d love nothing more than one more postseason start at minimum. He won’t say he’ll retire after the Cardinals’ season ends; he won’t say he won’t, either.

“(I)n my mind, I’ve got two more series to pitch through, you know?” Wainwright said Sunday evening. “We got the NLCS (and) the World Series pitch through. But first we got to win (Monday). That’s where my head’s at right now. But no, I never once felt like today was it. Either we’ve got more games to win, or I’ve got more games to pitch.”

If his injuries over the years keep him from thinking about the Hall of Fame, Wainwright at least thinks the way a Hall of Famer does. Against a group of Braves who don’t know the meaning of the word surrender just yet, that attitude needs to rub off a lot more on the Cardinals now.

 

NLDS Game One: Fun cops vs. fun cops

2019-10-04 YadierMolinaCarlosMartinez

Was Yadier Molina (left) reminding Carlos Martinez about throwing stones in glass houses Thursday afternoon?

Oh, brother. You knew going in that things between the Braves and the Cardinals in a division series would be interesting, to say the very least. Especially knowing the set pits one precinct of fun police against another. Then you got reminded soon enough about being very careful what you wish for.

The Cardinals and the Braves put on a few shows for the price of one, before the Cardinals hung in to finish a 7-6 win Thursday afternoon. The Comedy of Errors, starring one of this season’s most vaunted defenses. The Late Show, starring both sides’ bombardiers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. And Get Off My Lawn, starring Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez out of the ninth inning bullpen.

When the Show’s number three team for defense in terms of runs saved (95), the number five team for turning batted balls into outs (.705), and the number thirty team for allowing errors (a mere 66) allows three Game One runs on extremely playable grounders, you try to remind yourself the Elysian Field demigods do have a sense of humour, if you’re a Cardinals fan.

When your franchise youth settles for a long single in the seventh, after taking a leisurely stroll out of the batter’s box, and barely arrives at first when he might have pulled into second when the right fielder turned to throw in after playing the ball off the height of the fence, you try to see it from the youth’s perspective, if you’re a Braves fan.

When Cardinal fan’s relief ace—who’s renowned for making like Tarzan when he nails strikeouts or induces critical outs—calls out the same youth for having a ball when he does hit one that’s no questions asked out in the bottom of the ninth and has a blast running it out, demanding the boy wonder respect him, Cardinal fan has to remind himself or herself that Mama said there’d be moments and brain farts like that.

When Braves fan has to listen to venerable veteran Freddie Freeman call out Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s earlier stroll, he or she needs every ounce of restraint to keep from reminding Freeman—and any other Brave sharing Freeman’s thinking—that, all things considered, being at second where he belonged in the seventh might not have gotten them more in the end.

With all the foregoing and more it almost felt as though the Cardinals hanging tough, coming back, yanking far ahead with a four-run top of the ninth, and still beating the Braves, was a tough loss. And weren’t things weird enough without Braves reliever Chris Martin going down for the rest of the series after straining his oblique . . . while coming in from the pen assigned to work the eighth? Without throwing a single pitch?

“Every out, every pitch is important,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who didn’t start but who pinch hit in the eighth and dumped the quail off Braves reliever Mark Melancon in the eighth to tie things up at three. “There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”

“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games. You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow,” said Freeman, who shot one over the center field wall one out after Acuna yanked a two-run homer into the same real estate in the ninth, then watched Josh Donaldson ground out and Nick Markakis look at strike three to end the Braves’ afternoon a day late and a dollar short.

Those two homers were joined by Golschmidt in the top of the eighth. Off Luke Jackson, who had to go in after Martin’s in-from-the-pen oblique tweak and watch Goldschmidt send his second pitch over the left field wall. They were the only bombs on a day both teams seemed hell bent on proving small ball hadn’t yet gone the way of the Yugo. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn some things were supposed to have been outlawed in recent times.

Things like Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader not just beating out an infield single in the fifth and moving to second on—the horror!—a sacrifice bunt by Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, but stealing third for the first such theft in a measly two tries off Braves starter Dallas Keuchel all year long. Not to mention Bader tying the game at one when he scored on Dexter Fowler’s ground out to second.

Things like Donaldson pushing the first run of the game home on what should have been dialing Area Code 4-6-3 in the bottom of the first but for usually easy-handed Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong blowing his backhand toss to first leaving all hands safe and enabling his Braves counterpart Ozzie Albies—who reached on a walk in the first place—to score.

Things like the Braves taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth with only one hit—with Donaldson plunked with one out, Markakis doubling him to third, pinch hitter Adam Duvall handed first on the house, and, a pitching change and a strikeout later, Dansby Swanson motoring to beat an infield RBI single that turned into an extra run home when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong’s throw to second bounced off Wong’s glove.

Except that most of the conversation turned around Acuna’s eighth-inning trot. Some of it came from Freeman, who knew how frustrating it was to lose a potential run in a one-run loss with a mistake that wasn’t the first such.

“But I think you have that conversation once,” the well-respected first baseman continued. “It’s kind of beating a dead horse after that if you keep having the same conversation over and over again. You have to know that was a mistake.”

“It could have been a double, but things happen,” was Acuna’s way of explaining it. “I didn’t speak with the manager about it. I just went out to enjoy the game. I always try to give my best, but these are things that sometimes get away from me. They are not things I want to do. As players, we always try to give our best effort, but we make mistakes, we are human.”

He’s right about players being human and making mistakes, of course; in this instance, he’d been there before this year and been benched briefly for it. So is Braves manager Brian Snitker right when he says, “He should have been on second. And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”

But it’s open to debate whether Alibes is right saying, “He probably scores in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.” Albies is probably right in his second and third sentences there. About scoring from second, not quite.

Because Albies followed Acuna immediately with a grounder that pushed Acuna to third, but Freeman got hit by a pitch immediately to follow and Donaldson’s immediate bullet liner—with Acuna likely to run on contact—would have been the double play it became regardless.

Then Martinez had to make all that look like the mere warmup for the main attraction, when Acuna had what Martinez believed a little too much of a ball around the bases after depositing a meatball practically down the pipe over the center field wall. “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martinez fumed afterward. “Just play the game.”

Martinez even had ideas about chirping a lecture or three toward the Braves dugout before his veteran catcher Yadier Molina interceded and nudged him gently but firmly back to the mound. This was almost too rich for words in a game featuring a pair of teams only too notorious around the sport for being fun police units.

You almost can’t wait for the Braves to fume the next time Martinez goes into his Tarzan act if he ends a dicey inning with a nasty strikeout: “We want him to respect us as the National League East champions and not just a bunch of plug-ins who needed all 162 games to get here.”

If that’s the way the Cardinals and the Braves are going to be—as if playing a delicious Game One division series thriller and spiller just wasn’t quite enough—then let them suit up for Game Two in business suits, for crying out loud. Huffing “just play the game” after demanding “respect” tells me (and should tell you) that someone forgot about the “game” part. And, about throwing meatballs to power hitters.

A real Saturday night special

2019-09-08 AaronBarrett

Eyes red after weeping for joy, Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett tips his cap from the dugout Saturday night.

Even down the stretch of the stretch, some things transcend ratings and standings. Aaron Barrett became one of them Saturday night.

When the Nationals righthander was sent out to pitch the bottom of the fifth, it may have been enough that he could be up for the assignment at all, never mind working a scoreless inning in a game that eventually became a ninth-straight Braves win.

And it wasn’t low leverage, either, despite the end of the Braves’s batting order looming. This wasn’t a mop-up assignment on either end of a ferocious blowout or to hold fort in a lost cause. Barrett relieved Nats starter Austin Voth with the Nats down a mere 2-1 and Ronald Acuna, Jr. looming as the third man scheduled to hit.

Maybe Barrett’s kind of comeback was the kind that moves a manager to trust his heart equal to trusting his stuff. It isn’t every major league pitcher who survives Tommy John surgery and a followup broken humerus bone to throw even one pitch, never mind a scoreless inning.

Barrett didn’t exactly start the gig the right way, walking Adeiny Hechevarria on four straight to open the inning. But he made sure Hechevarria was the only Braves runner of the frame. He got Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran to foul out to first on 1-2. And then came Acuna, who was perfectly capable of spreading the Braves’ lead and the Nats’ concurrent miseries with a single swing.

The husky righthander with the doll-like face under his beard went right back to work. He caught Acuna looking at a strike one two-seam fastball on the upper inside corner. He got Acuna to swing right over a second two-seam fastball that hit the floor of the strike zone. He caught Acuna looking at a sweetly diving slider that landed smack dab on the low outside corner.

It was Barrett’s first major league punchout in 1,499 days, but the way he did it would leave a neurosurgeon envious of that kind of precision.

And when he got Ozzie Albies—who homered in the first—to loft a changeup to moderately short center field for the side, Barrett wiped tears from his eyes with the front of his Nats jersey as he stepped down from the mound toward the dugout. Where manager Dave Martinez and his grinning teammates high-fived and embraced him. Then Barrett took a seat, clutching the towel Martinez handed him, and wept unashamedly into that towel.

A three-run Atlanta sixth, including back-to-back homers by Brian McCann and Matt Joyce, still lurked ahead. So did a Nationals run scoring on a seventh-inning double play, and so did Juan Soto sending a two-run double to the back of center field in the eighth.

So, unfortunately, did the Nats falling ten games behind the Braves in the National League East with the 5-4 loss, while keeping a two-game grip on the league’s first wild card, while the Braves added to a 20-4 string since 11 August and a thirteenth straight home win, the Show’s most since the Indians did it in their pennant-winning 2016.

None of which really overthrew Barrett’s first major league inning in four years. “After the outing was over,” he managed to say after the game, “I’m just walking off and all the emotions just hit me. Just, ‘You did it, man. You did it’.”

He’d been one solid element of the 2014 Nats bullpen with a 2.66 ERA, a 2.59 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and 49 punchouts in 40 2/3 innings. But he had a rough seventh-inning appearance in Game Four of that year’s division series sweep at the Giants’ hands, walking the bases loaded, then wild-pitching tying run Joe Panik home with Pablo Sandoval at the plate.

He pitched in terrible luck in 2015: a 2.21 FIP against a 4.60 ERA in forty appearances before going down to Tommy John surgery. Then, in his first return, his humerus bone snapped hard enough that those who were there could hear it resemble a gunshot, according to MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Jamal Collier. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post described it as “look[ing] like his elbow had ‘exploded’.”

Barrett subsequently began the long trek back up from the lowest minor leagues until his 2.75 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings at Harrisburg (AA) this year earned him the callup to the Nats. His wife, parents, in-laws, brothers, and physical therapist were at SunTrust Park Saturday. (Barrett lives just outside Atlanta itself.)

They plus thousands of Nats fans hope this is a comeback that sticks, that Barrett even at 31 continues his pitching career at all, never mind in the Show. They surely know others haven’t been that fortunate. Including one whose pitching arm humerus bone betrayed him likewise in 1988.

Dave Dravecky survived cancer in that bone to make a gutsy return to the Giants the following season, beating the Reds with an eight-inning performance. His very next start, against the Expos: the humerus broke while he delivered a pitch to Hall of Famer Tim Raines, sending Dravecky down in a tumbling heap. Season over.

During the subsequent on-field celebration when the Giants beat the Cubs in the 1989 National League Championship Series: arm broken again. X-rays showed the cancer came back as profoundly as Dravecky himself. Career over. Two years later: arm and shoulder amputated. He found a second career as a Christian motivational speaker and writer, often collaborating with his wife, Jan.

Things like that remind you to live in the moment and make it count for as long as you have the moment. Aaron Barrett plans to do just that. Even if he might have a Comeback Player of the Year award in his 2020 to come. With his spirit, don’t rule it out. “You dream about the moment,” Barrett told Collier. “You picture the moment, you try to visualize what it’s going to be like, and you know whatever moment or whatever happens, it’s unlike anything you envisioned.”

He may or may not have envisioned catching Ronald Acuna, Jr. with his pants down for strike three. But doing it only sweetened the rare soils from which Barrett hopes to continue emerging to stay.

“#L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets]?”

2019-08-14 SunTrustPark

Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park Wednesday night, shortly after scheduled game time–but not a Mets disaster— was delayed.

Rain and the look of a storm of doom over Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park delayed game time between the Mets and the Braves by about an hour and a half Wednesday night. By the time the game ended, traveling Mets fans in the ballpark must have wondered if that storm-of-doom look was really an omen of doom.

For the Mets.

If the Mets’ post All-Star break surge and swath turns into disaster the rest of the way, their faithful are liable to look back to the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night. And ask themselves how often even the most heads-up rookies make the kind of rookie mistakes that prove to deflate the re-aspiring.

The kind that turn a two-all tie early in the bottom of the seventh into the open door through which the Braves finally finished a five-run inning that may have had even them wondering whether they were really there even if they were the beneficiaries.

The kind Pete Alonso, to this point a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, including normally steady and heads-up play at first base, instigated when he ran so wide of first to try for a grounder that had “second baseman” clearly in its destination window that it turned into an RBI single. When nobody was left to cover first on the play on which Alonso should likely have stayed in his proper position.

The kind that serve as a prelude to the Braves gifting the Mets the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth, after the Mets scratched their way back to a two-run deficit, and the Mets looking the proverbial gift horse not just in the mouth but all the way down the creature’s throat.

The kind that clear a path to a 6-4 loss that stands an excellent chance of entering Mets lore on the wrong side of the ledger, because it’s the kind of loss that can and often enough does turn what had been baseball’s hottest team until arriving in Atlanta into a collapsing bubble.

Alonso made a plain rookie mistake. It invited more than just a single inning five spot against the Mets. It invited serious thinking as to whether these Mets, as plucky and as willful and as tenacious as they’d been before they arrived in Atlanta this week, played too far over their own heads since the All-Star break to think of any kind of serious contention until next year.

And it was the last thing the Mets needed after learning their top-of-the-order ignition switch, Jeff McNeil, hit the ten day injured list with a left hamstring strain.

With the tying run already home against Mets reliever Seth Lugo and the bases still loaded, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers grounded one toward second. Alonso may have taken a couple of cheat steps to his right at the moment of contact, but the ball headed just too clearly toward Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada.

Alonso still scrambled to his right furiously. And the ball scrambled right past his downstretched glove. And Lugo at the mound may have been caught completely flatfoot by Alonso scrambling for a ball he really had no business trying to play. Tejada would have such a simpler grab that, in proper position, Alonso could have taken the throw for the out at first and thrown home to get Braves left fielder Adam Duvall.

And with Lugo not even close to covering first on a play where he shouldn’t have had to think about it, Tejada did grab the ball after Alonso’s staggering miss. With no place to throw. With Duvall scoring safely and the Atlanta ducks still on the pond.

Then pinch hitter Matt Joyce lined one that Mets right fielder Michael Conforto almost reached before it hit the grass, Conforto having to settle for a sliding short-hop pick and a throw in to get Flowers at second while Johan Camargo scored. And Ronald Acuna, Jr. singled to right center to send Ender Inciarte home and Lugo out of the game in favour of Luis Avilan.

Ozzie Albies greeted him with sixth single of the inning before Avilan got Freddie Freeman to hit into a step-and-throw inning-ending double play.

Too little, too late.

Or was it? After wasting Steven Matz’s solid start against a surprisingly stingy Dallas Keuchel, the Mets found themselves pushing reliever Mark Melancon and the Braves up against the wall in the top of the ninth.

Lagares rapped a one-out single and Joe Panik pinch hitting doubled to shallow left. Amed Rosario singled Lagares home and pinch hitter Luis Guillorme singled Panik home. And up stepped Alonso in desperate need of redeeming himself and his terrible miscue.

He rapped a bouncer toward second, where Albies threw it inside-out to Camargo coming over from shortstop. Camargo caught the ball as Guillorme arrived sliding but—as replays and review showed, strangely enough—Camargo began transferring the ball out of his glove a split moment before his foot touched the base, and he couldn’t hold the ball in his throwing hand, the ball bumping and grinding away from him.

The review overturned the original out call at second. The Mets were just handed the bases loaded and only one out. A base hit was liable to tie the game; an extra-base hit liable to give the Mets a one-run lead at minimum.

But Wilson Ramos struck out swinging on a Melancon curve ball that dove like a fighter plane shot down. And Braves manager Brian Snitker brought in a lefthanded former Met, Jerry Blevins, to work to lefthanded incumbent Met Michael Conforto.

First Conforto missed hammering Blevins’s opening fastball for a grand slam by a couple of feet wide of the right field foul pole. Then, Conforto fouled off a curve ball. Then, he swung on and missed a curve ball.

Even Mets manager Mickey Callaway’s decision to lift Matz when the Mets wrested a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh—after Matz himself hit a two-out single and scored the first of two tiebreaking runs on J.D. Davis’s single up the pipe—won’t be second guessed as heavily as Alonso might be for hustling himself into such a mishap instead of standing his ground and waiting for the putout that might have changed the inning tone. Might.

It’s hard enough when you run yourself into a fateful fielding mistake while in proper position. It’s worse when it happens as you’re scrambling and rambling too far out of position. And don’t ask about when you subsequently scratch, claw, burrow, and shovel your way back to within a pair of runs and ducks on the pond with one out in the ninth, and come up with the ducks quacking fowl over abandonment.

It’s worse to think that Alonso, the rookie who’s been so magnificent for these Mets all year long, through the worst of times and the better of times alike, may yet be remembered the way Met fans remember David Cone leaving the Dodgers bulletin board fodder in the 1988 National League Championship Series.

Or, Kenny Rogers walking home the pennant-losing run in the 1999 National League Championship Series.

Or, Carlos Beltran frozen by strike three to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

Or, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine battered on the final day to secure their fall out of the 2007 postseason.

Or, Lucas Duda, with the easiest chance on earth, throwing home offline in the top of the ninth of Game Five, 2015 World Series.

Men who had done well enough or better as Mets only to come up, despite careers ranging from modest to good to great to the Hall of Fame, like enough 20th Century (and one or two 21st Century) Cubs and Red Sox to start writing their own snakebite history.

This year’s Mets continue learning the hard way that they can’t win everything at the last minute, or even the next-to-last minute. Alonso’s own rally hashtag, #LFGM, may have begun turning from “L[et’s]F[ornicating]G[o]M[ets!]!” to “L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets!]”

It may take a radical intervention to get the Mets into crisis addiction recovery, after all. And by that time it may yet be too little, too late, to save a season they looked as though they were turning into surrealistic redemption.

 

 

 

 

Impatience is no virtue

2019-08-14 RonaldAcunaJr

Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning bomb was almost half as important as bagging Todd Frazier trying to score in the sixth Tuesday night.

Zack Wheeler took the blame himself. The Mets pulled into heat-hammered Atlanta Tuesday and came up short against the National League East-leading Braves. Wheeler simply said he didn’t have it. But he had lots of help along the way to the 5-3 loss.

“It stinks,” Wheeler lamented after the game. “We’re on this run and I really didn’t give us a chance. This one’s on me.” Not entirely. A lot of the help Wheeler got came through the kindness of Braves left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s heart.

And if there’s justice in baseball world, Acuna should extend that kindness to Mets third base coach Gary DiSarcina and credit him with a major assist.

Because no sooner did Todd Frazier atone for a rally-compromising double play in the top of the sixth, whacking a double to the back of center field off Braves starter Max Fried, than Mets center fielder Juan Lagares lined a single right to Acuna playing in a none-too-deep left field positioning.

Frazier isn’t as swift afoot as he was earlier in his career, but even Hall of Fame road runner Rickey Henderson would have resembled Wile E. Coyote on a hit that shallow against a left fielder with an arm like Acuna’s.

You get why Frazier had eyes on the plate with the Mets down four runs at the moment. But DiSarcina should have thrown up a stop sign post haste. With the pitcher’s spot due to follow Lagares, and Wheeler’s evening over with recent acquisition Brad Brach up and throwing in the pen, the Mets were certain to send up a pinch hitter with Jeff McNeil, their leadoff man, due to follow if the pinch swinger could swing.

The light never even changed to yellow. Frazier rounded third at just about the moment Acuna let fly. Frazier was such a dead pigeon sliding toward the plate you got the impression Braves catcher Brian McCann tagged him out as a mere formality. And a grand chance to close the distance escaped the Mets.

“His arm,” said Acuna’s manager Brian Snitker, “is a weapon.” Disrespecting that weapon equals disaster.

Coming off taking two of three from the Nationals last weekend, winning the two in almost anti-textbook examples of doing things the hard way, the Mets let Fried and the Braves compel them to try doing it the hard way again. I said it before, I’ll say it again: crisis addiction only wins you so many games.

All night long, whenever they swung the bat the Mets swung as if they thought they could hit the ball right out of Fried’s hand. With Fried pitching exactly the way you’d expect a guy with a 1.38 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, patience would have been the Mets’ virtue. Tuesday night they approached Fried as though patience were what you saw in the doctor’s waiting room.

And the Mets better hope they duck another kind of crisis, after McNeil tweaked his left hamstring trying to hustle out a leadoff ground out in the top of the ninth. He flung his helmet to the ground in obvious discomfort, let a trainer escort him back to the dugout, and said after the game he didn’t feel anything pop.

“Just a little snag,” said McNeil, who undergoes an MRI Wednesday. “Nothing crazy.” He and the Mets better hope it’s nothing “crazy.” Things have been crazy enough for them this year.

The Braves are deep enough that they could withstand life without shortstop Dansby Swanson and rookie slugger Austin Riley for a spell, even if they have been only 17-13 since the All-Star break. And they’re deep enough that even that post-break record doesn’t hurt them after spending the first half eluding everyone else in their division at 54-37.

The Mets aren’t that deep no matter how they’ve looked since the break. They can’t afford to lose McNeil for any appreciable time. And they know it.

“It’s tough. He’s a huge part of this team. He brings fire every day to the field,” said Wheeler. “He’s a ballplayer and you need those type of guys on your team and you need them in the lineup. It’s unfortunate that happened, hopefully it’s not too serious and he can get back decently quick. We need his bat, that’s for sure.” His bat, and his passion.

Recently minted Joe Panik’s going to play a lot more second base now, and he can still whip his leather with authority as well as postseason experience. Bringing back prodigal veteran Ruben Tejada—whom the Mets re-signed in March, but who hasn’t played a major league game since he was a 2017 Oriole while hitting .337 at Syracuse this year—is a band-aid.

There wasn’t much Wheeler could do on a night he admits was an off night from keeping the Braves off the bases and the scoreboard. Acuna himself opened the proceedings with a base hit in the bottom of the first and, after Freddie Freeman sent him to third with a one-out single, Josh Donaldson singled him home. A fly out later, Matt Joyce singled to deep enough right to score Freeman.

The Mets were in a 2-0 hole before they got a second crack at Fried. They’d squandered the first one brilliantly. Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis wrung back-to-back walks out of the Braves lefthander, but Ramos with a near-perfect inner zone pitch to handle and pull whacked it instead to Charlie Culberson, the former Dodger now pressed into shortstop service until Swanson returns from the injured list. Culberson tossed to second for the inning-ending force.

They looked like they’d get to Fried in the top of the second when, after two quick enough outs, Lagares singled up the pipe and, of all people, Wheeler himself got plunked to set up first and second. Never one to look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, McNeil drilled a single deep enough to left to send Lagares home and cut the deficit in half. But Mets shortstop Amed Rosario let Fried fool him with a slider that broke right under his bat for the side-retiring strikeout.

Freeman put things a tick further out of reach in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single. After the Mets wasted two-out baserunners in the third and the fourth, Acuna made it a little more tough to catch up in the bottom of the fourth. With one out and nobody aboard, Acuna wrestled his way back from 0-2, caught Wheeler’s two-seamer traveling right down Main Street, and sent it traveling over the left field wall.

Ender Inciarte turned a three-run Atlanta edge into a four-run distance in the bottom of the fifth, after Wheeler wild-pitched McCann (leadoff single) to second, hitting a double into the right field corner to send McCann home with the fifth and final Braves run.

But come the top of the seventh, it was Sun Trust Park’s scattered audience now in need of oxygen above and beyond the oppressive heat: the Braves went to the bullpen. And in came Luke Jackson, whose recent misadventures may not have spelled final disaster but were misadventures enough to make Braves fans wonder if he hadn’t been taking lessons in pressure pitching from last postseason’s version of Craig Kimbrel.

Now the Mets went to pinch hitter Luis Guillorme in the pitcher’s hole to lead off the seventh. And Jackson gave the home audience a better reason to put the nitro pills under their tongues. He got Guillorme to pop out to Culberson out from shortstop, then caught McNeil and Rosario overanxious enough to strike them out swinging back to back.

But then Snitker went to Shane Greene, the new toy from Detroit who was supposed to step into the lockdown job out of the Braves’ pen but whose ERA since joining the Braves is a ghastly 14.54. If even one fan in the stands pondered thoughts of Snitker taking pity on the Mets with this move, you couldn’t blame him or her.

Right off the bat, Alonso and Davis singled back to back to open the top of the eighth. And after Ramos forced Davis at second, Snitker took no more chances, bringing in former Met Jerry Blevins. Michael Conforto grounded one to first that got rid of Ramos at second but sent Alonso home with the well overdue second Mets run.

Out came Blevins and in came another former Met, Anthony Swarzak. Frazier singled Conforto to second promptly, and Lagares beat out a grounder to the back of first base to score Conforto almost as promptly, pushing Frazier to second, and suddenly the Mets were back to a mere two-run deficit. But pinch-hitter Panik, swinging a little over anxiously himself, grounded out to short for the side.

Drew Gagnon, recalled from Syracuse (AAA) for his third spell with the Mets this year, got rid of pinch hitter Rafael Ortega, Acuna, and Ozzie Albies almost in a blink in the top of the ninth. But after McNeil’s ham snagged, another trade deadline-minted Brave reliever, Mark Melancon, shaking off his Miami disaster admirably, struck out Rosario and Alonso swinging to end it.

There are teams up and down the standings against whom you can go into crisis and come out with your heads intact and triumphant. The Mets were reminded Monday night that the Braves aren’t one of them.

Neither is Acuna’s throwing arm. Give it even a fraction of an inch, and he’ll take as much distance as you let him get away with. Not to mention his trying and having an excellent chance of becoming only the third player 22 or under to hit forty or more into the seats in a season—behind Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews, the latter a Braves legend in his own right.

If the Mets want to remain baseball’s hottest post-All Star break team and stay in the postseason hunt, they’d better not dismiss that reminder lightly. Especially against these Braves, who almost never show mercy to those asleep at the switch.