Manny Machado teaches a hard-learned lesson

Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis, Jr.

Machado gestures emphatically while putting Tatis in his place in the fifth Saturday night.

More often than I care to admit, I miss the real fun stuff. That’s when I have to play catch-up as best I can with what I have.

On Saturday night, I watched my Mess (er, Mets) lose to the Phillies, 5-3, because the game was available to me on Fox Sports via Hulu.

But out in St. Louis, there were Padres veteran Manny Machado and boy wonder Fernando Tatis, Jr. having it out as the sides began changing in the middle of the fifth in St. Louis.

There, moreover, was Machado actually behaving like a team leader in the bargain. Go ahead and say it, until now you thought putting Machado and “team leader” in the same sentence was the equivalent of mining a diamond with a dental pick. But hear me out.

In both games, both sides spent enough time chirping over, shall we say, floating strike zones—the Mets and the Phillies about plate umpire C.B. Bucknor’s, the Padres and the Cardinals about their plate umpire Phil Cuzzi’s. That isn’t exactly new business when it comes to that pair of arbiters.

But the worst out of either the Mets or the Phillies  about Bucknor in Citi Field was chirping. In Busch Stadium, Tatis didn’t just take it when Cuzzi rang him up on a called, full-count, third strike from Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright leading off the top of the fifth.

The Padres led 2-0 at the time, in a game they absolutely had to win to stay alive in the National League wild-card race. First, Tatis gave an obviously frustrated sigh. Then, he bent his head over his left shoulder and made a few body-language movements plus some utterances . . . but he did it facing away from Cuzzi.

The bad news is that replays showed Cuzzi actually called the pitch right. It hit just under the strike zone ceiling. The worse news for the moment was Padres manager Jayce Tingler hustling out of the dugout to argue the call, trying to protect his player, but getting himself tossed post haste.

As Tingler got the ho-heave, Tatis returned to the dugout and banged the bench a few times in his frustration. Then, apparently, he continued grumbling about that third strike as the inning went forward, with Jake Cronenworth stranded on second following a one-out double. Machado is known to have befriended Tatis personally, but he’d also had more than enough of whatever bellyaching Tatis continued during the inning.

The next thing anyone knew, Machado could be heard hollering clearly enough at Tatis, Go play baseball! You play baseball. You can’t worry about that sh@t! You go play baseball! [Fornicate] that sh@t! Tatis must have tried to interject something about the disputed strike right there, because Machado then hollered, No, it’s not. It’s not about you! It’s not [fornicating] about you! Go [fornicating] play baseball.

Then the Padres’ veteran third baseman and their youthful superstar shortstop went back to the field to continue [fornicating] playing baseball.

The Padres lead held until the bottom of the eighth, when Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman lofted a one-out sacrifice fly, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt wrung Padres reliever Emilio Pagan for a walk, and left fielder Tyler O’Neill hit a 2-2 cutter into the left field bullpen.

Perhaps ironically, two innings before that blast, O’Neill was no more thrilled with Cuzzi’s strike zone than any Padre on the night. He simply didn’t let mere frustration turn into a fuming that might require a Cardinal veteran or two dressing him down on the spot before the ump might throw him out.

“That was a great job by him not getting too animated there,” said Wainwright, who’d surrendered only a pair of RBI singles to Victor Caratini and Tommy Pham in the top of the fourth. “If we lose him right there, we probably lose the game . . . That was a lot of maturity by him to not get thrown out right there on some tough calls.”

O’Neill’s blast overthrew the lead Padres starter Yu Darvish handed the Padres bullpen after seven shutout innings during which he’d allowed a mere three hits while striking nine Cardinals out. The Padres had no answer in return against Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos in the top of the ninth, with their own veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer striking out swinging on a slightly high fastball to end it.

Machado and Tatis had to be separated by Padres coach Ryan Flaherty before they returned to the field. Post-game, Tingler said only that the dustup wasn’t viewed “negatively” around the team that’s now lost 23 of their last 33 games after entering the season practically crowned the World Series winners-to-be by an awful lot of people now dining on roast crow.

“I’m sure people on the outside think it’s whatever they think, but we’re family,” Tingler told the press. “We’re not going to discuss the details, but we care. There’s passion, there’s frustration. Those are all emotions that are natural and those things happen. But it comes down to a group of men caring.”

The details were captured on more than one video that went slightly viral within moments of the dustup ending, as things turned out. Then the real focus became Machado, who once had a reputation for just the kind of petulance over which he’d now dressed Tatis down so dramatically and, shall we say, colourfully.

Those trying to score the dressing-down as just another example of Machado still being a self-centered pain in the rump roast might be shocked to discover a former Padre, Will Middlebrooks, tweeting very much otherwise in the immediate wake:

I know people will take the angle of “Machado is a bad teammate”…but you couldn’t be more wrong here. This was a leadership move. Let’s not forget FTJ is still 22. A phenomenal player, but still a lot to learn. Tatis can’t get tossed in the 5th inning of a game they need to win.

During an exchange featuring more than a few dissenting tweeters, Middlebrooks added, “History tells me that Machado had the experiences to know better. He’s grown up a lot and learned from his past.

The Padres didn’t make either Machado or Tatis available to the press after the game. But a week earlier, Machado spoke to Athletic writer Britt Ghrioli, during a weekend on which the Padres lost twice to the Dodgers. Machado only began by saying he’d learned some things at last.

There’s a time and place for everything. In Baltimore, I was young. I was just there to play. There were other guys that were leaders—Adam (Jones), J.J. (Hardy), (Matt) Wieters . . . Now, obviously, it’s different. Guys are looking up to me.

I think what’s happening now in this game is we are losing track of the older guys, the respect of the veterans, guys who have been here and done it a long time. You got to earn that respect; you got to earn that role. It’s not just given. A lot of players now are just expected to be the guy [when they reach the majors]. But I’m old-school baseball; I want to teach it how I was taught.

When you are young you make a lot of mistakes. You make mistakes as you grow and hopefully you learn from them, you gain experience. You [fornicate] up again, give your thoughts and learn from it again. That’s what it’s about. I messed up a lot at a young age, like a lot of people, but you take that and you try to learn from it. I’m at the point now where — I’ll be 30 [next year], I want to win. I just want to win.  And I think we can do that here.

“I would say Manny’s done a good job with all his leadership throughout the year,” Tingler said, though he refused again to speak of the deets involving the dugout dustup. “But I would say Manny being able to share his experience and share his past experiences of coming up in the league is a good thing.”

It hasn’t turned Machado into a grump refusing to let the kids play. He still has clear fun playing the game. It’s simply made him one of the adults in the room who knows from bitter experience when the kids can’t afford to get sent to bed without their supper and tries to stop it as best he can with what he has.

While all that happened, I was watching Phillies second baseman Jean Segura hit a pair of solo homers in the first and third off Mets starter Carlos Carrasco. I watched Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo hit a one-out triple off the top of the right field wall and score on an infield ground out in the sixth to cut the deficit in half.

But I also watched Bryce Harper hit a two-run double in the seventh off Mets relief retread Brad Hand to put the game just out of the Mets’ reach. The other guys have now hit .357 off Hand since the Mets lifted him from the waiver wire at the beginning of this month.

And, after Mets reliever Miguel Castro sank into but escaped a bases-loaded jam with no further Phillies scoring in the top of the eighth, I saw Nimmo hit one over the right field fence to lead their half off but no further Met scoring the rest of the way.

It put the Phillies a mere game behind the Braves in the NL East, with the Braves losing to the Giants, 2-0, in San Francisco. It also kept the Mets five and a half out of first in the East but pushed them to seven games back in the wild card race. The Phillies knock on the door of improbability; the Mets—now losers of five straight—are only a step or three from going through the floor.

Catching up to the Padres and their once-unexpected adult in the room in St. Louis proved just as intriguing.

On the other hand . . .

Javier Baez, J.D. Davis

The Good Javy (left, after scoring on J.D. Davis’s [center] two-run bomb in the seventh) returned from the injured list and doubled down against the Dodgers Sunday afternoon.

This time, J.D. Davis didn’t shrink. Either with one man on or with the bases loaded.

This time, too, trade deadline addition Javier Baez came off the injured list, swung like a pro, scored like a pro, and doubled down, literally. He put a small shot of rocket fuel into a team looking like the living dead too often this month.

This time, the Mets may have left eight men on but they also sent seven runs across the plate. They’ve now done that only twice since 21 July. And, this time, too, they didn’t let the Dodgers take a single lead all Sunday long.

The bad news is that Sunday’s 7-2 win to stop the Dodgers’ winning streak at nine probably won’t be enough to salvage the Mets’ 2021. They’d need a finish from here that you can describe politely as miraculous to do that. Losing eleven games in the standings this 6-15 doesn’t leave room for miracles.

But let’s worry about that later. Right now, let’s savour Baez cashing in Brandon Nimmo (leadoff full-count walk, on which he sprinted up the line to first) with one out, sending one ricocheting off the left center field fence in the top of the first, with Nimmo gunning home all the way from first.

Let’s savour Davis shooting one the other way up the right field line to send Baez home, and Jonathan Villar with two outs punching a quail into short center, Davis scoring when Cody Bellinger’s throw in brought Dodger catcher Will Smith well out in front of the plate.

Let’s savour Villar trying to take second on the throw in and Smith throwing wild enough to let Villar have third on the house, before a foul out caught by Dodger starter David Price ended the inning at three for the Mets.

Let’s savour the Dodgers getting only a pair back in the fourth, when Bellinger reached Mets starter Marcus Stroman for a two-out, two-run line single to right, making Stroman pay for walking the bases loaded ahead of Bellinger—whose season has been compromised badly by a couple of nagging leg issues and not having been able to recuperate properly from off-season shoulder surgery.

Let’s savour the Mets catching Bellinger in an inning-ending rundown out, catcher to short, Baez playing his old position in Francisco Lindor’s absence, feinting a throw toward third to keep A.J. Pollock from even thinking about a score before tagging Bellinger as he tried turning back toward second.

Let’s savour Stroman managing to keep the Dodgers at bay long enough for Baez to hustle a single into a double after two swift outs in the top of the seventh and Davis, right behind him, hitting the first pitch he saw from Dodger reliever Phil Bickford on a line over the left field fence.

Let’s savour the Mets loading the pads with one out in the top of the ninth off Dodger reclamation project Shane Greene—Nimmo’s base hit to right, Pete Alonso taking another plunk for the team, then Baez taking another plunk for the team.

And let’s savour Davis yet again, a day after he’d swung through a Max Scherzer meatball with the bases loaded for a strikeout. This time, Davis recovered promptly from falling into an immediate 0-2 hole. He wrung his way from there to a walk on four straight balls, resisting the temptation to pull the trigger on a sinker that sunk just a little too far below the strike zone floor for ball four and Nimmo trotting home.

But let’s not fool ourselves. These Mets may have a few energy reserves left, but there’s just a little too much still missing to give them much more than prayers. On paper, they’re only seven games out of first in the National League East. On the field and at the plate, Sunday’s showing is what they’ll need only every day from now on, practically, to have the prayer of even a prayer.

It may require what they may not have the rest of the way.

So just spend today thinking about Baez maybe playing his way into an extension that would keep him around the keystone with Lindor, when Lindor returns days from now.

Think about the Good Javy re-joining Lindor to turn the second base region into the swamp where base hits get sunk into ground outs. Lindor may have struggled at the plate this year but he remained a shortstop Electrolux. (Thirteen defensive runs above the league average shortstop before he was injured.)

Think about the Good Javy who turns the plate into his personal game-changing playpen, providing an energy jolt through this team that not even Con Edison could deliver, just the way he did Sunday afternoon.

Don’t think about the Bad Javy who chases pitches that deserve to escape, the one who tries a little too often to hit eight-run homers on pitches that provide the power just by the bat giving them a kiss. Not until or unless he shows up again, that is.

Think about the Good Javy outweighing the Bad Javy enough to convince Mets owner Steve Cohen it’ll be worth it to keep him around and use him as the perfect out to purge Robinson Cano, who’s due back for 2022.

Don’t say the Mets “will eat” Cano’s money for the final two years of his deal. That meal already went through the digestive tract and out the other end. They accepted him as part of the deal when they wanted relief pitcher Edwin Diaz that badly from the Mariners. Once his current suspension ends, Cano’s going to get paid whether or not he suits up for the Mets again.

Cano isn’t the defensive second baseman he used to be. He hasn’t been the hitter he once was since 2016, either. That’s something to ponder especially if wisdom finally prevails otherwise and the designated hitter finally becomes universal to stay.

The Mets may not be that inclined to have back a 38-year-old millstone drydocked an entire season over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, his second such suspension in four years. The Good Javy showed up in time Sunday to start helping make that decision so simple for the Mets that even Joe Biden could make it without screwing the proverbial pooch into a blood bath.

Bases full of Mets? You’re off the hook.

J.D. Davis

J.D. Davis would love to have back that Max Scherzer meatball with the bases loaded in the fifth.

You hate to add to whatever inner misery comes into play for him. But J.D. Davis has spent this weekend making himself a prayer for the opposition. Bases full of Mets? Pray that Davis is the next man up. You can breathe again.

Missing about two months from May through past the All-Star break with a wrist injury has hurt like hell. It’s done Davis no favours, and it’s hurting the Mets in places where they need help, not hurt.

Friday night: Dodgers ace Walker Buehler left first and third for his relief Alex Vesia, after Pete Alonso caught a huge break when a ball he hit off his foot was ruled no foul and enabled him to beat out a run-scoring grounder. Vesia promptly walked Michael Conforto to load the pillows.

Up came Davis with the Mets down now by a single run. Ahead in the count, 2-1. Fastball rising—swing a shade too soon, swish. Fastball falling—Davis kept the bat on his shoulder and the ball barely hit the strike zone floor. Side retired, 3-2 Dodger win held up.

Saturday afternoon: The Mets down 3-0 to open the top of the fifth against Max Scherzer. Make that 3-1, after Brandon Nimmo hit one out. Jeff McNeil doubles to right. Alonso himself gets hit on the arm by a pitch. Conforto goes from 1-2 to three straight balls.

Pads padded. The Mets have Max the Knife going rope-a-dope. Up steps Davis. Another 2-1 count. Looks at a pitch just off the middle—called strike. Gets an unlikely meatball down the pipe—fouls it off. Gets damn near the same pitch next—swings right through it for strikeout, side, and the Dodgers clinging with their lives to that 3-1 lead.

That lead became 4-1 after Mets reliever Miguel Castro, relieving starter Rich Hill to open the Los Angeles sixth, surrendered a leadoff base hit to Dodger pinch hitter Matt Beaty, then walked the bases loaded and a run home. Leaving Jeurys Familia to enter the burning building and get the Mets out alive with a pop out behind second base, a fly out to somewhat deep right, and a force out at second.

Leaving Nimmo himself wondering perhaps what he might have to do, short of bribery, to arrange men on base when he’s at the plate later in the game. He ended his day a triple short of the cycle, the Dodgers unable to get rid of him until reliever Blake Treinen caught him looking at a third strike barely on the floor of the zone in the seventh. His first-inning double opened the game; his third inning single came with one out and nobody on in the third.

And, of course, no Met managed to reach base in the fifth until after Nimmo fouled off a fastball to open with two out in the first before pulling an inside Scherzer service into the right field bleachers.

There’s no point in singling one long-haul culprit out. These Mets overall have been a mess since Jacob deGrom went down for the count yet again, and maybe for good this season, in early July.

One big reason is their inability to hit with the bases loaded: holding a .208 average in that situation, the fifth lowest in the Show, isn’t the way to win games. Especially when the other guys are hitting .292 against them with the bases loaded.

Castro walking the bases loaded and then walking Beaty home ended up being the difference Saturday—Alonso’s two-out, seventh-inning blast into the left field bleachers with McNeil aboard gave them their second and third runs. The Mets put a man aboard in each of the eighth and the ninth and stranded both.

Things weren’t exactly helped when Hill opened by surrendering a leadoff bomb off the top of the left field fence to Trea Turner opening the bottom of the first and, one fly out to deep center later, a first-pitch yank over the center field fence to ancient Albert Pujols, to put the Mets into an almost-immediate 2-0 hole.

At 41 years old each, Hill vs. Pujols weren’t quite the oldest pitcher-batter matchup to end in a home run in Show history. That belongs to Julio Franco and Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Thanks to my sabermetric friend Jessica Brand, I learned The Big Unit was a young turk at 43 when Franco, then a measly 49 and a Met, no less, turned on an 0-2 service in the top of the second and drove it over the left field fence. It was the 173rd and final home run of Franco’s career.

With 92 years of age between that pair, there’s something to be said for respecting your elders.

Davis himself is 0-for-6 with six strikeouts when he hits with the bases loaded this season. If you take Mets manager Luis Rojas at his word, Davis is pressing it too hard when he checks in at the plate with chances to do major damage. “Sometimes, guys tend to get anxious,” the skipper told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo after Saturday’s loss.

I use J.D. as an example with the bases loaded in that situation; he was trying to do too much. He was trying to gather a little bit too much. It caused him to be late on a fastball. That’s probably from a mental standpoint what happens, you just get a little anxious because you have the bases loaded. It’s a key situation. There’s an adrenaline rush, and sometimes you drift away from your approach of being aggressive in the zone, which is what we preach here.

Davis wasn’t even trying to murder the ball. As peculiar as this might sound to those dismissing this year’s game as just a bomb-or-bust offensive game, neither the Mets nor the Dodgers tried hitting six-run homers in every plate appearance. Even with six of the game’s seven runs scoring on home runs, there was about as much hard ground contact as air lifting between the sides Saturday afternoon.

It’s not that the National League East is a division full of invincibles. But the Mets held the division’s ownership papers despite their glandular injury issues until very recently. They’ve now lost seventeen of twenty-three; they’ve fallen two games below .500; they’re seven back of the now division-leading Braves almost a month after they led the division by four.

It got bad enough for the Mets at the plate that new owner Steve Cohen—who’d shown the patience of Job up to that point—zapped them for their inconsistent hitting aboard Twitter during the week just finished. In cold print, it looked like a mini-tirade. In actuality, we’re not exactly talking about a certain late Yankee owner.

Cohen didn’t throw out the first manager of the year. He didn’t even really single any particular Met out for embarrassment. He didn’t demand an apology to the city of New York or build a guillotine outside Citi Field. He didn’t compare any pitcher to a horse who spit the bit; he didn’t dismiss his best power hitter as Mr. May.

He didn’t do anything, really, except get Rojas and injured shortstop Francisco Lindor—the off-season splash signing whose bat’s been inconsistent but whose defense has been off the chart (he was worth thirteen defensive runs before his injury)—to say he was right about the bats.

The fact that the Mets didn’t exactly hog the headlines at the trade deadline lingered in the back of some minds, too.

The Mets’ immediate response to Cohen’s comparatively benign bop was to beat the Giants in twelve with a three-run homer (Kevin Pillar) and an RBI double (freshly called-up Chance Sisco, pinch hitting). From there, it’s three straight lost to the Dodgers with one more to play Sunday before a cross country trip home to host the Giants.

It may also be one of the only periods in which you might hear Met fans saying to themselves, “We have the bases loaded? We’re doomed.”