Stick this!

Joe Musgrove

Lend Me Your Ear Dept.: Having the umps check Joe Musgrove (second from left) for new old-fashioned medicated goo on his ears and elsewhere looked like desperation from Buck Showalter as Musgrove and the Padres bumped the Mets to an early winter vacation Sunday night.

Few things in this world are as profound as the wrench that happens when an individual resembles a genius one night and a fool the next. Unless it’s when a team resembles a well-lubricated Porsche one night and a two-stroke Trabant the next.

That wrench sent Buck Showalter and his Mets home for the winter after they played a Saturday and Sunday that put their entire season into microcosm. Including the re-exposure of the lacking that turned them from National League East dominators to division sliders finally settling for second best after a self-deflating previous weekend in Atlanta.

It also sent Showalter from being the skipper with the nerve to throw The Book to one side, and his best relief pitcher into the game when its “save situation” presented itself earlier than the ninth inning, to the one who thought a too-little/too-late gamesmanship exercise might knock the Padres off their game slightly more than mid-way through.

That was when the Padres didn’t expose it for them. The Mets’ few lackings this year included offensive depth past the middle of the batting order. The Padres out-lasted them in this wild card series when the lower end of their order suddenly figured out how to hunt, peck, hector, pester, and puncture.

The Padres didn’t lack for issues all year, either, but they rode Joe Musgrove and two relievers to a 6-0 Game Three one-hit shutout, on a night Musgrove simply fed the Mets things they could only hit with moderate contact to Padre defenders on red alert. The nearest Musgrove came to disaster was when Mark Canha sent one deep enough to right center field to send Trent Grisham crashing into the wall after he caught the drive with only inches to spare.

The Mets might have loved nothing more than the crash actually yanking Grisham out of the game. All series long he’d gone from the nothing-special regular season element, whose seventeen home runs didn’t negate puny plate performance papers otherwise, into a 1.917 wild card series OPS. His Real Batting Average on the season: .422. His RBA in the wild card set: 1.167.

The only thing better than moving Grisham to one side for the Mets would have been ridding themselves of Musgrove, who pitched the first no-hitter in Padres history in April and pitched Sunday night as though he’d made the Mets into the classic cartoon volunteers for a cartoon magician’s guaranteed-to-embarrass magic tricks.

Showalter thought he might do what his batters couldn’t entering the bottom of the sixth. He ambled out of the Mets dugout and asked Alfonso Marquez’s umpiring crew to check Musgrove for, shall we say, that new good-old-fashioned medicated goo. Marquez delivered the message to a slightly flustered Musgrove promptly.

“He said, ‘Buck wants to take a look at your glove, your face, your hat, all that stuff’. I said: ‘You take what you want, man’,” Musgrove said postgame. The umpires took looks at all that stuff, including an almost comical-looking inspection of Musgrove’s admittedly shining ears and lobes.

What irked Showalter was information handed him that indicated the spinning rate on Musgrove’s pitches were higher Sunday evening than they were all season long. Baseball government’s obsession with foreign substances (Spider-Tack, et. al.) and lack of apparent concern for consistently made and grippable baseballs was bound to yield oddities but nothing quite like this until that moment.

“When you see something that jumps out at you . . . I get a lot of information in the dugout,” Showalter said postgame. “We certainly weren’t having much luck the way it was going. That’s for sure. But I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets. And however it might make me look or whatever, I’m gonna do that every time.”

“Was that what he did?” asked Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who had a respectable if not spectacular wild card series himself, who happened to be a measly three feet from Musgrove while the pitcher was being frisked, and who knows Showalter from playing for him as an Oriole. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, how many hits did Joe give up? He gave up one hit? That’s pretty smart by them.”

Maybe not as smart as Machado charitably allowed. Showalter’s shortstop Francisco Lindor seemed uncertain himself. “There were some talks in the dugout,” he told reporters. “Buck made the decision to go check him. I respect that. I respect his decision. At the end of the day, hats off to Musgrove. He flat-out beat us.”

Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t find it that amusing. If anything, he found it a character assassination attempt. “The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” he fumed. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”

That’s a reference to the Citi Field crowd chanting “Cheater, cheater!” at Musgrove post-check. Maybe the crowd became as desperate as Showalter’s sticky-stuff gambit made him look. Maybe they remembered Musgrove was a member of the 2017 Astros whose sign-stealing operation leaves that triumph suspect for all time, even though the pitchers had nothing to do with it. Maybe they forgot Musgrove admits to being embarrased to wear his ’17 Series ring because of his then-team’s shenanigans.

They certainly didn’t consider that the guy from El Cajon which is a very brief commute from San Diego, the guy who grew up rooting for the Padres, was a guy who took the mound amped up with thoughts that he really was living the dream, handed the ball in a Padres uniform on the most important night of his life to date.

“I dove into the fact that we got all the fans in San Diego waiting for this moment,” Musgrove said. “The girlfriends and wives here. The fan base that followed us from San Diego, and I tried to put that on my shoulders and carry.” That fan base had a contingency enough in Citi Field Sunday night that you could hear the “Beat L.A.!” chants as the game neared the finish.

The only question for these Padres now is whether they can and will beat the ogres of the National League West awaiting them in a division series come Tuesday night. They survived the loss of Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a shoulder injury and then a suspension over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. It doesn’t mean they’ll survive the Dodgers. But they may not make it that simple, either.

There’s no “only” question for these Mets entering their long winter.

Sunday starter Chris Bassitt embarrassed himself. It only began when Bassitt loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second before another of the Padres’ final third in the order, catcher Austin Nola, swatted a two-run single . . . on 0-2.

“I was just beating myself,” he said honestly of his four-inning performance. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”

It was the last thing Bassitt needed with free agency looming for him. He’s not the only one in that position. Saturday’s pitching heroes, starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Díaz, face free agency, too: deGrom by way of exercising his contract opt-out, Díaz by the expiration of a deal that once looked like a franchise embarrassment before he corrected himself and went from nothing like Seattle to this season’s never-better performance papers.

Brandon Nimmo, one of three Mets to acquit himself series-long at the plate, also faces free agency, as do pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Trevor Williams. General manager Billy Eppler, who looked like a genius last winter in signing or acquiring Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardor Escobar, Bassitt, and Canha, doesn’t look so sharp for not having made a trade deadline fortification move even rummaging an admittedly thin trading floor.

And the Mets don’t look so smart for having built themselves so surely around deGrom and Scherzer they failed to have a consistent rotation behind that pair when their health faltered. Scherzer still looked ailing from his season-long oblique trouble when he was battered in the first wild card set game. DeGrom pitched just enough to his standard to give the Mets room for their Saturday night special.

But the lack of offensive depth behind Marte, Pete Alonso, Nimmo, and NL batting average champ Jeff McNeil burned them, too. When Marte was lost from earliest September through the start of the wild card set with a finger fracture, that lack behind the remaining three bit the Mets where it really hurt. The team on-base percentage for the set was a weak .283.

And with Max the Knifed on Friday, plus Marte playing the wild card set despite the lingering finger issue, the Mets’ health maintenance may need yet another review and remake.

None of which will dissolve the sting of their Sunday embarrassment. The Padres didn’t bomb the Mets into submission Sunday night, they just pecked, poked, prodded, and pushed on a night the Mets had no answer for Musgrove other than one desperation gambit.

The night before, Showalter resembled a prudent man who learned a hard lesson for bringing in Díaz—his and the league’s best closer on the season—in the seventh when the save situation was then and not the ninth. Sunday night, Showalter resembled a flailing  man overboard who’d take an anchor for a life preserver.

“Let me phrase this the right way,” said Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, not doing these games since ESPN carried them but appearing on an SNY postgame show.

Buck Showalter is completely in his rights to ask the umpires to check a pitcher for foreign substances. It’s up to umpires then to decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do. I thought that considering the circumstances, 4-0, sixth inning, season on the line, it smacked of desperation and it was fairly embarrassing I thought for Buck to do that in that spot. It was not necessary. As it turned out, Musgrove was not cheating. If you’re going to pull a stunt like that, you better be right and Buck wasn’t right.

Lucky for Showalter that he doesn’t believe he’s too old to learn. We’ll to learn soon enough what he learned from this weekend that might do him right in managing a team that may yet have a different enough look next year than the one he almost led deeper into this postseason.

Who says the old can’t learn?

Edwin Díaz

Edwin Díaz did exactly what Buck Showalter brought him in to do . . . in a true “save situation—in the seventh, not the ninth Saturday night. For Showalter it was once bitten, twice bitter old lesson learned deeply enough.

The next time you see or hear any baseball elder tell you he or she is too “old” to bother learning something new, just show them Buck Showalter. He’s the Mets manager who learned one of the hardest lessons in baseball history and finally got to prove it when he absolutely had to prove it on Saturday night.

It kept his Mets and their skipper from an early winter and eons of second-guessing while they banked a 7-3 Game Two win. In the bottom of the inning in which Showalter showed at last that he really did learn something from the worst disaster of his managing career.

When they still played a one-or-done wild card game, in 2016, Showalter wouldn’t even think of his Orioles’ (and baseball’s, then) nuclear-hot relief option Zack Britton in the bottom of the eleventh. He stayed with faltering Ubaldo Jiménez because it wasn’t a “save situation” in a two-all tie, after all, despite the Blue Jays having first and third with one out.

Edwin Encarnación’s monstrous three-run homer into the Rogers Centre second deck told Showalter and the world that managing to one of baseball’s most nebulous statistics can be suicidal. It also told reminded a stubborn world that “save situations” aren’t strictly ninth-inning lead protection.

Showalter’s been second, third, fourth, and fifth guessed over that one ever since. When asked directly, he could never bring himself to re-open his mind from that moment. Either he’d say, “You just have to wear some things“; or, as he did immediately in that interview, “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it.”

Except everybody wanted to hear it. Come the top of the seventh inning in Citi Field Saturday night, with a hard-held two-all tie but the Mets’ season in danger of ending in a wild card series sweep, Showalter found himself in a save situation in the truest sense of the phrase.

This time, Showalter planned for just this possibility. Once bitten, twice lesson learned. This time—just like his Saturday night starter Jacob deGrom pitching six innings of stout, eight-strikeout, two-run ball; just like his bombardier Pete Alonso breaking a two-all tie with a leadoff homer—the manager rose to the occasion.

No “closer” was deadlier than Edwin Díaz on the regular season. (1.31 ERA; 0.90 fielding-independent pitching; 118 strikeouts in 62 innings’ work.) And there Díaz was, up and throwing in the sixth, while deGrom retired the side on a strikeout, a fly to deep enough right, and a ground out.

Social media went half berserk just seeing Díaz warming up, never mind thinking Showalter would be insane enough (their words) to “burn” his closer that early. Except that a one-run lead, in a low-scoring game, for these Mets who sputtered their way toward finishing a 101-win season, after owning the National League East most of the season, qualified as the single most important save situation of their year.

“Buck bringing in Edwin Díaz in the 7th,” tweeted The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “but only to underscore the fact that he’s still not bringing in Zack Britton.”

So Showalter went to Díaz Saturday night the way he didn’t even think about Britton in 2016. Díaz got Trent Grisham, who’d helped wreck Max Scherzer and the Mets in Game One with the long ball, to bounce out right back to the box, surrendered a four-pitch walk to Josh Bell, but then got back to back ground outs. And the Mets’ previously slumbering bats accepted that awakening happily.

They’d already chased Padres starter Blake Snell after Brandon Nimmo broke a one-all tie with an RBI single in the fourth. They withstood Jurickson Profar’s re-tying RBI single off deGrom in the top of the fifth before Alonso greeted reliever Nick Martinez as rudely as he knew how, sending the inning’s first pitch into the left field seats.

Now they had Adrían Morejón to handle out of the San Diego pen. Their manhandling of him only began with Francisco Lindor—who started the evening’s scoring with a first inning home run, after a leadoff single was wiped immediately by a double play—hitting a line single to open, and taking second on a wild pitch before Morejón walked Alonso and Mark Canha on tenth-pitch full counts.

Up stepped Jeff McNeil, the National League’s “batting champion.” Through the infield into right went his two-run double and out of the game went Morejón in favour of Pierce Johnson. Johnson had Eduardo Escobar pinned at 0-2, but Escobar un-pinned himself with an RBI single, then had pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach at 2-2 when Vogelbach lofted a sacrifice fly to deep right center.

Just like that the Mets broke the game open enough. Then Johnson struck out a pair following Tomas Nido’s base hit. Now what would Showalter do? Would he dare to leave Díaz in for a second go-round in the eighth and risk his unavailability for Game Three? Especially with about a 45-minute layoff while the Mets rolled up that four-run bottom of the seventh?

He dared. Díaz got Manny Machado to ground out back to the box to open. After walking Bell he struck Jake Cronenworth out on three straight pitches. Then Showalter made sure he wouldn’t lose Díaz for Game Three if needed, lifting him for Adam Ottavino, who caught Brandon Drury looking on 2-2 for the side.

“I was feeling great,” Díaz said postgame. “I thought I could get Drury out, but [Showalter]  told me that he needed me tomorrow and this was enough for today. So, I said let’s win the game tomorrow.”

It was a bloody good thing the Mets seventh made the Showalter/Díaz pay off, because Ottavino in the ninth worked like anyone but the owner of a 2.06 ERA and 0.97 WHIP on the regular season: leadoff walk, a hit batsman, a fly out, a pair of walks including to Machado pushing the third Padres run home.

Showalter went to Seth Lugo, and Lugo lured Bell into grounding out right back to the box for the side and the game. Leave it to the Mets to salute their skipper’s gambit—the absolute right move to have made, with the game and the season that squarely on the line—with a four-run inning and still have to perform another high-wire act to escape with the win, anyway. That’s still so Mets, right?

Maybe this will be the beginning of the final end of the dubious “closer” and “save” things. Maybe this, at last, will lock down once and for all that you don’t save your best relief option purely for the final inning, because a real save situation presents itself any time at all during a game.

That was then: “This is simple: Showalter screwed up,” ESPN’s David Schoenfield harrumphed. “Even the smartest men are capable of ineffable stupidity,” harrumphed Jeff Passan, then with Yahoo! Sports but now with ESPN. Keith Law began an entire chapter arguing against the save statistic in Smart Baseball with that sad 2016 brain freeze.

This is now, apparently: Too much of baseball world talking about Showalter’s “unusual” or “unconventional” move. But a one-run lead against a tenacious Padres team that’s survived a few blows of their own to get here in the first place, too, can blow any time in the final three innings.

The Mets were very much in a real, not an artificially-contrived-by-nebulous-rule, save situation in the seventh Saturday night. This time, the Buck didn’t stop, blink, flinch, or shrivel. Neither did his team.

A 66-year-old skipper made liars out of the old fart contingency that insists they’re “too old” to learn new if should-be obvious lessons. Showalter proved you don’t get old on earth until you get dead on earth. And dead is what the Mets might have ended up without that proof.

A little hustle in the muscle

Dominic Smith

Dom Smith diving across first after Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos (65) was late covering on Smith’s smash up the line and well behind the base in the top of the ninth Monday. Gallegos then tried but couldn’t nail trail runner Jeff McNeil at the plate, kicking the Mets’ overthrow win into overdrive.

It looked simple enough. Mets outfielder Mark Canha down to his and the Mets’ final strike Monday night with third baseman Eduardo Escobar aboard on a one-out base hit. Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos 0-2 on Canha and ready to land the last punch(out).

The good news for the Mets is that they ended up landing the final punch with a two-run homer finishing a 5-2 overthrow into which they hustled themselves after they’d been down to their final strike. Aided and abetted unexpectedly by Gallegos a moment late and two bucks short covering first base on what could have been a game-ending dazzler.

Thus did the first showdown between the leaders of the National League East and Central grind, sprint, and launch its way to the finish in the Mets’ favour. You could almost feel the Cardinals bawling themselves out that it didn’t have to go that way the moment Mets reliever Edwin Diaz struck Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader out after a two-out walk.

It came to this because the Mets wasted a delicious pitching duel between Max Scherzer and the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas, trading shutouts for seven innings, after Mets reliever Tyler May couldn’t put Mendoza Line-hitting Tyler O’Neill away and surrendered a two-run single for his trouble with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth.

But now Canha wasnt quite so ready, fighting back to a full count, before he hit a bouncer up the third base line to Nolen Arenado, the Cardinals’ third baseman to whom a play like this, even on the short run, was something he could do upside down if necessary.

Arenado on the not-so-hard run whipped a throw across the infield to first base. The ball soared right past first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Escobar soared home to put the Mets on the board at last, with Canha taking second on the play and Jeff McNeil checking in at the plate.

Canha came out for pinch runner Travis Jankowski. McNeil sent an RBI double deep to right. And Mets manager Buck Showalter sent Dom Smith up to pinch hit for smart catching/modest-hitting Tomas Nido. Smith shot one up the first base line that Goldschmidt stopped one way or the other, diving across the line as he speared it fair.

But when Goldschmidt hustled a throw to the pad he had no target. Gallegos bounced off the mound a moment too late for the out as Smith dove onto the pad and Jankowski and McNeil cross the plate safely, McNeil himself diving home a split second before Cardinals catching insertion Andrew Kinzner could get a tag on him off Gallegos’s throw home.

“The second he hit it, I thought it was a foul ball,” said Gallegos post game. “Then I saw the ball bounce back to first, and that’s when I broke.”

“That’s a mental mistake,” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “Can’t excuse it. He knows it; we know it: He’s got to cover first.”

“Dom probably ran the fastest 90 (feet) of his life there,” said McNeil. “I knew it would be close at first base. I ended up scoring. It was a lot of fun.”

Smith wouldn’t exactly disagree. “You try to hustle as hard as you can to beat him,” he said. “I saw the closer didn’t get over right away. I just ran as hard as I could. I knew I had a step on him. I felt slow but I tried to run hard.” Don’t fight the feeling next time, either. It could be worth another pair of runs in another eleventh-hour effort.

It put the Mets up 3-2, brought lefthander T.J. McFarland in to relieve Gallegos for the Cardinals, and brought lefthanded-hitting Brandon Nimmo to the plate for the Mets. McFarland threw Nimmo a sinker that didn’t quite sink below the inner middle of the zone, and Nimmo sunk it on a high line inside the right field foul pole.

“It was worth the wait,” said Mets manager Buck Showalter after they banked the game. “It really was. It was fun to watch.”

“We’re a resilient team,” Smith said, “and I feel like we’re in it till the last pitch every night. Even the games that we don’t come up with a win, I feel like we make it tough on our opponents when they do beat us. I think it showed our DNA and what we’re about.”

And it almost (underline that) erased the pitching duel that kept Busch Stadium in thrall most of the night. Scherzer may have struck ten out in his seven innings but he appreciated his mound opponent just as much. Appropriately.

“Tip your hat off to Miles tonight,” he said of Mikolas, whose own seven-inning effort was five punchouts and four scattered hits. “That’s baseball. It was a great game. Sometimes you run into a buzz saw and he did his job tonight. I’m pitching on pins and needles there. I have to make every pitch. I was thinking even a solo shot might lose it.”

He didn’t have to worry as much as he thought. Monday night left Max the Knife number five on the career survey with his 106th double-digit-strikeout game, not to mention 33 punchouts and a measly eight walks in 25 innings pitched this season thus far.

If only he could pitch in Busch Stadium more often than he does. In his previous five gigs there, he’s gone seven innings or more each without a single run being pried out of him. He also has an ongoing 21-straight shutout inning streak against the Cardinals, and now that he has seven starts of ten strikeouts or more against them he’s behind only Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in that department.

This is the pitcher the Cardinals have never tried to sign when he was on the open market despite his roots being in Missouri. Now they can look forward to this plus two more seasons of potential continuing torture at his right hand. Even if he might still need Met bats in the ninth to keep the bullpen from trashing his best efforts after he departs for the day or night.

“Everybody had a hand in that rally and that’s the cool thing,” he said of the Mets’ ninth-inning grind-out. “When you see your offense go off like that and just find a way to scratch across extra runs.” Catching one of the other guys asleep just enough when there’s first base to cover critically doesn’t exactly hurt, either.

For the Mets, the Buck starts here

Buck Showalter

Can the smart, well-prepared, clubhouse-cohesive Showalter proved he’s learned from his most egregious mistake?

All fairness: I want to give both the Mets and Buck Showalter the benefit fo the doubt. The Mets, because they did go through a deep enough hunt before making him the 24th manager in their history. Showalter, because you don’t get to manage two decades’ worth of major league baseball without doing more than just something right.

Even if you did something so egregiously wrong once upon a time that it would stain an otherwise solid reputation for smarts, preparation, cohesion, and long-haul steadiness. Four things the Mets need abundantly and Showalter has proven he provides well enough that one terrible mistake really shouldn’t mark your entire career.

But oh, what a mistake it was. And heaven help the Mets and their new skipper if he and they should find themselves facing a comparable scenario when they arrive at the postseason and he makes the same mistake. Will George Satayana prove a baseball prophet, too?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Satayana wrote immortally in The Life of Reason. Baseball sometimes tries but always fails to forget the past. That can be good and bad, of course. And you’ll have little trouble finding people who’d like to forget the 2016 American League wild card game.

Let’s first put the Big One into proper perspective. It didn’t cost Showalter’s Orioles a World Series. But it cost them a chance to get into a division series from which they might, maybe, have begun a postseason journey there.

Leaving both his and baseball’s best relief pitcher in the pen while a lesser arm surrendered an eleventh-inning, wild card-losing three-run homer has left Showalter second-guessed at least as often as Gene Mauch was over the 1964 Phillies’ pennant race collapse.

That relief pitcher, Zack Britton, holds no grudge. Now with the Yankees, but facing a 2022 season away from the game while he rehabs from elbow reconstruction surgery, Britton doesn’t flinch. Ask him if he’d play for Showalter again given the chance, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, and his answer is an emphatic yes. One hundred percent, Britton began.

Showalter knew he’d blown it. And when he reconvened his Orioles during spring training 2017, he let them know it, Britton says.

We always had this spring training thing, which I thought was cool — off-site, get together in a movie theater, kind of show you the highlights of the previous season, just a bonding moment for the team. During that meeting, he got up there and said, ‘Before we start, I just want to address the elephant in the room.’ He apologized to me, which I didn’t think he needed to do. I think there were some guys on the team that were frustrated by the move. He just said: ‘That’s my bad. I messed up.’ And it was done with.

But was it, really?

Britton told Rosenthal Showalter “had his reasons. I’m not 100 percent sure why, but it didn’t matter. I always knew Buck was thinking through it. He always had a plan. Maybe it didn’t go according to his plan, and then it kind of backfired. But he was willing to take that risk, sticking with the plan.”

That’s the thing, though. Often enough, things happen enough that The Plan needs to be set to one side in the moment. “I don’t know his exact reasoning,” Britton admits. “But I truly think he was trying to do right by me and not hurt me. I’m going to be honest: I don’t think he thought we were going to score. And he didn’t want me to have to go out there for two or three innings.”

That game was tied at two in the bottom of the eleventh when Edwin Encarnacion checked in against Ubaldo Jimenez, a starter pressed into relief after Brian Duensing opened the inning by striking Ezequiel Carrera out. Jimenez surrendered a 1-1 base hit to Devon Travis and a first-pitch single to Josh Donaldson.

Jimenez may have been lucky that Donaldson—proud possessor of 37 regular-season home runs that year—hadn’t ended the game with something longer than a single to set up first and second. And Showalter in the moment didn’t think an 89 game-winning team that hit .256 on the regular season could put even one more run across the plate?

Both teams drained their bullpens by the time Jimenez and Encarnacion squared off. Except that Showalter still had Britton to call upon. The Jays already burned their closer Roberto Osuna, and Francisco Liriano wasn’t likely to stay in the game should the Orioles get it to the top of the twelfth. Everything favoured the Orioles.

Or would have, if Showalter brought Britton in. Now, of course this is baseball, where anything can happen—and usually does. There was always the outside chance that Britton could get tagged, too. But what’s another old saying? Oh, yes: If you’re going to go down, at least go down while you gave yourself the absolute best possible chance to survive and then triumph.

Whole book chapters have been written about the save rule wreaking more havoc then health. Showalter holding Britton because he wouldn’t be coming into a “save situation” can be found there. Possibly Exhibit A; at least, among the top three. Because that game needed to be “saved” right then and there for the Orioles to get one more chance at minimum to win.

So Jimenez stayed in the game. This time, neither he nor the Orioles escaped. Encarnacion hit the first pitch about ten tons into the second deck in left and sent the Jays to the division series.

Now, I’m going to give Showalter all credit on earth for manning up and apologising to his team during that spring movie house confab. Just the way Mauch deserves all credit for holding his team back on the plane, landing home following the end of that ’64 Phillie Phlop, a crowd awaiting them, and telling the players he’d step off the plane first: “You didn’t blow the pennant. I did.”

Just the way Tommy Lasorda—who only thought it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers an out away from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game—apologised to his players in the clubhouse after Clark’s three-run homer carried what proved a Cardinal pennant to the rear of the left field bleachers.

The New York Post‘s Steve Serby gave Showalter a chance to explain the whole thing in a 2020 interview. “You just have to wear some things,” Showalter replied, “and I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it. I’m at peace with that.”

Well, now. I’ve written before but it bears repeating. The Britton non-decision being one of baseball’s most often second-guessed, I suspect people would love to hear about the ten things that stopped Showalter from reaching to baseball’s best 2016 reliever in his bullpen other than it not having been a by-the-book “save situation.”

Rosenthal himself, a colleague of Showalter’s at MLB Network, says Showalter “has never explained the full reasoning behind his decision. But he viewed his apology the following spring as an important step in holding the team together.”

Showalter’s strengths have always including holding teams together despite periodic moments that could have driven wedges enough into them. He’s been known to handle the aftermath of bench-clearing brawls by reminding his players—without singling any one out by name—that if you’re going to fight, do it for the right reason, not just because your ego got bruised a few moments.

“[T]here’s nothing worse than supporting something you know is wrong,” Showalter said of one such Oriole incident. “That tears a club up. It’s: ‘Your actions reflect on everyone. Let’s make sure we’re fighting for a just cause’.”

Let’s assume the Mets asked Showalter about the Britton non-decision while they interviewed him for his new job. Let’s assume Showalter went back, broke it all down, reassembled it, all to the Mets’ satisfaction, and that was that.

Put the positives together and the Mets now have a manager who knows how to keep clubhouses from dissembling, who plans well, who isn’t a martinet but whose insistence on accountability doesn’t stop with his players or even with himself. His former Orioles outfielder Adam Jones has spoken of Showalter insisting on acountability from above as well as from under his command.

This is the guy who preferred to walk away from the Yankees rather than let George Steinbrenner fire his hitting coach Rick Down after the Yankees lost a tough division series to the Mariners. A man who won’t suffer The Boss’s impulses without a fight should have no trouble with Steve Cohen, the Mets’ owner whose fan friendliness often betrays tendencies that remind too many of some of Steinbrenner’s, shall we say, crazier ones.

Let Cohen rip his players in public aboard social media? Showalter might have something to say about that. He won’t quite wire himself into Cohen’s electric chair by doing so, but he won’t handle player mistakes or shortfalls quietly only to let the owner make it public and above and beyond reality, either.

He’ll have a team full of sharp veterans and maturing youth on his hands. Assuming Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer can stay healthy, he’ll have a top two in his starting rotation to die for even if Max the Knife begins showing his age at last. He isn’t likely to let his players get themselves trapped into surrealistic nonsense or unrealistic distractions.

Just be very wary if and when Showalter brings his Mets back to the postseason, if and when their postseason advancement depends on whether he reaches for his absolute best pitching option regardless of The Plan or The Role because the immediate moment demands it.

Pray that, this time, Showalter seizes the moment to give the Mets their absolute best chance to survive and/or triumph, Plan be damned. Sending him a copy of The Life of Reason might not hurt, either.

What the Mets should ask if they want Showalter managing

Buck Showalter

Showalter still has some splainin’ to do over Zack Britton’s absence when the 2016 AL wild card game was squarely on the line . . .

If you want to keep your minds off the lockout for awhile, you can find plenty of issues with which to do that. One coming to mind almost at once is New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro waxing, as his column’s headline said Friday, on why the Mets should hire Buck Showalter as their next manager.

“The truth is,” Vaccaro wrote, “the team [new general manager Billy] Eppler and [owner Steve] Cohen have already cobbled together — and the one that seems destined to emerge from the lockout — is a team custom-designed for Showalter’s particular talents.”

There will be plenty of veterans, and Showalter likes having vets he can trust in his clubhouse. There will be plenty of intriguing players of younger vintage—think Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo—whose experiences as major leaguers have largely been shaped by the stone hands of [former manager] Mickey Callaway and the inexperienced ones of [former manager Luis] Rojas . . .

But Showalter’s teams, in addition to almost always being of a superior collective baseball IQ, also take care of their business properly . . . The Mets, under Showalter, would be a Showalter team. That may mean they’re a couple of degrees less flamboyant, maybe a few layers less fun-loving . . .

So far, so good. And Showalter’s supporters include his former Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who acknowledged Showalter still has to go through “the process,” meaning proper vetting. “[F]olks don’t have any idea of the real impact he can make on a ball club,” Jones tweeted Friday. “And I’m not just talking players. The Franchise. He made everyone better and accountable!”

How about Showalter making Showalter himself accountable? Say, for not making the move he should have made in the bottom of the eleventh of the 2016 wild card game? Vaccaro’s Post colleague Steve Serby tried in a September 2020 interview. And Showalter failed.

“Your Orioles controversy in [that game] when you didn’t call on Zack Britton and lost in the bottom of the eleventh in Toronto,” Serby presented. “You just have to wear some things, and I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it. I’m at peace with that,” Showalter replied.

The obvious followup—In fact, Buck, people would love to hear about the ten things that stopped you from bringing in your best relief pitcher, who also happened to be the best reliever in baseball that season, despite there not being a quote save situation, unquote, despite the Blue Jays with first and third and one out in a tie ballgame—didn’t come from Serby’s mouth.

Showalter stayed with Ubaldo Jimenez, normally a starter, but working in relief of Brian Dueseng, after Dueseng opened the inning with a strikeout . . . and despite Jimenez’s prompt surrender of a pair of base hits on four pitches. And Edwin Encarnacion hit Jimenez’s first pitch to him for a three-run homer.

It wasn’t as though Showalter didn’t have a very recent precedent by which to go. Just two years earlier, then-Cardinals manager Mike Matheny made the same mistake—with his Cardinals one game from elimination, Matheny left his best relief option, Trevor Rosenthal, in the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game . . . because that, too, wasn’t a quote save situation unquote.

The Giants then had first and second and also one out. Matheny left in Michael Wacha, still rusty from late-season injury idling. And Travis Ishikawa hit Wacha’s second pitch to him for a three-run homer. Showalter was luckier—Encarnacion’s blast into the second deck merely sent the Jays to a division series; Ishikawa’s launch to the top of Levi’s Landing had a National League pennant attached to it.

Matheny reminded everyone what Showalter would forget a mere two years later: the time to bring your absolute best relief pitcher into a game is when it’s squarely on the line, previously designated “role” be damned. Especially when postseason advancement or a trip to the World Series depends on it. That’s not purely a thought from the school of analytics. It’s what they taught in Common Sense Elementary School.

If the Mets take Vaccaro’s suggestion seriously, they should be mindful of Jones’s reminder to put Showalter through the full vetting process. That vetting must include Showalter telling them, at least, what he wouldn’t deign to tell Serby over a year ago.

The Mets should damn well want to know why else—beyond no “save situation”—Showalter left his best relief option to rot when that option just might have sent the game to a twelfth inning giving his team one more chance to win at minumum. Accountability neither begins nor ends with the players.

If Showalter says only and again that nobody wants to hear those ten things you may not know about that situation, the one that sent his team home for a winter too soon, the Mets’ proper reply should be, “Way wrong answer! Thanks for coming, Buck, and don’t let the door knob goose you on your way out.”