The Buffalonto beatdown

Wearing his NYPD hat to commemorate the 9/11 atrocity, deGrom pinned the Blue Jays while his mates bludgeoned them Friday night.

Until two starts ago, Jacob deGrom must have felt like the single most neglected spouse in town. He was said to be keeping non-support court filings signed and sealed in his locker just in case things went from bad to worse to lost cause entirely.

Then, last Sunday, his New York Mess (er, Mets) gave him seven runs to work with before his day ended and dropped seven more on the Philadelphia Phillies after he came out of the game. You couldn’t blame deGrom if he’d awakened the next morning asking himself whether he’d been dreaming.

So what to make of Friday night against the Buffalonto Blue Jays in the Jays’ temporary, pandemic-season home?

With the Mets allowed to wear first-responder hats at last to commemorate victims and their attempted rescuers in the 9/11 atrocity nineteen years earlier?

With deGrom pitching like the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner he is . . . and the Mets giving him fourteen runs to work with before his outing ended after six innings? Including and especially a ten-run fourth featuring Dominic Smith slicing salami?

This was no band of pushovers deGrom and the Mets massacred Friday night. The Jays were in second place in the American League East with a 24-19 record when the game began. They’re not exactly driven back to the basement after the Mets’ carnage. But they might have been tempted to crawl into the nearest Buffalo basement to hide at least until Saturday’s game.

Maybe the Jays just faced the wrong New York team. Earlier this week they dropped a ten-spot on the Yankees in the sixth. On Friday night, the Mets—who came into the game leading the National League with a .275 team batting average and a .351 team on-base percentage—looked more like Murderer’s Row than a Mess.

“The guys did a good job of going out there and putting up runs for me,” said deGrom to reporters after the 18-1 bludgeoning, in what was probably the understatement of the night. “It was a little cold out there, so I was trying to stay loose in between, but I’m thankful for the runs and they did a good job all night of that.”

The Mets already had a 4-1 lead when Wilson Ramos opened the fourth working a walk out of Toronto reliever Anthony Kay. You may remember Kay’s the one the Mets traded to the Jays last year to get Marcus Stroman, who opted out of this season after it began and goes to free agency after this season.

Well, now. Brandon Nimmo chunked a base hit into shallow left to follow Ramos. After Kay walked Michael Conforto to load the pillows following that, the fun really began. J.D. Davis grounded sharply to Jays shortstop Santiago Espinal. Espinal had a clean shot throwing Ramos out at the plate. The throw hit Jays catcher Danny Jansen right on target. And it bounced right out of Jansen’s mitt and off to his right just before Ramos crossed the plate unmolested.

Up stepped Smith with the pillows still full. He swung on 2-0 and drove it clean over the right field fence. 9-1 Mets, five runs home in the fourth thus far, and the Jays hadn’t seen anything yet.

Robinson Cano followed Smith with a line single. Pete Alonso, who had a night he’d rather forget at the plate, struck out on a full count, but Kay came out of the game in favour of Jacob Waguespack and Jeff McNeil greeted the new man on the mound with a line single up the pipe, before Waguespack hit Mets rookie Andres Gimenez with a pitch that ricocheted off to the left side.

Here came Ramos again, and into the right center field gap went his three-run double. Nimmo pushed Ramos to third with a ground out to Espinal playing him up the middle, then Conforto—who’d hit a three-run homer in the four-run Mets third—sent a liner to left that bounced past a sliding Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. hoping for a shot at the circus catch. And Davis cued one just past third base and up the line for the double sending Conforto home.

Smith looking at strike three hitting the absolute edge of the low outside corner must have felt to the Blue Jays as though he’d decided to have mercy upon them. DeGrom in the Mets dugout must have watched the carnage and wondered, even for a split second, what new and unheard-of ways his mates would find to blow a thirteen-run lead.

The long layoff in the fourth and the Buffalo chill all night may have affected him a little. He had to wrestle a bit for his outs and to keep the Jays from getting any friskier than second and third in the bottom of the fifth, but he still finished his evening’s combination of work and leisure with nine strikeouts, two walks, one measly earned run (Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. singling home Randal Grichuk in the bottom of the first), an ERA shrunk to 1.67, and a second-best 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched rate.

This time, the only thing the Mets blew was what remained of the Blue Jays’ fight for the night.

Erasmo Ramirez came out of the bullpen for the final three innings’ scoreless relief and a save under the three-inning side of the rule, while the Mets added two in the seventh (a bases-loaded walk to Cano; Davis scoring on Conforto’s ground out to shortstop), one in the eighth (Ramos hitting one over the center field fence), and one in the ninth. (Gimenez doubling home Alonso, who’d reached when he got plunked.)

If this is dreaming, deGrom must have thought when the game went into the books at last, I’ll kill the guy who wakes me up. To death.

“First and foremost,” said Conforto, “we got the win, and we got a win for Jake too. We’re always feeling good when Jake’s on the mound no matter how many runs we put up, but it felt good to do that for him.”

DeGrom wore a New York Police Department hat for the game. Other Mets wore that or hats for the New York Fire Department, the Port Authority Police Department, the Department of Sanitation, and the Office of Emergency Management commemorating the 9/11 atrocity.

Last year, after baseball’s government again told the Mets not to even think about wearing the hats during a game on that anniversary, Alonso decided to let the world know what he thought about that. He paid for 9/11 commemorative cleats for himself and his mates to wear when they played the Arizona Diamondbacks on the anniversary—and beat them with nine runs and eleven hits.

This year, baseball government wised up and let the Mets and the Yankees have their heads about the commemorative hats, just in time for the Mets to hand the Blue Jays their heads and for the Yankees to sweep the Yankees in a doubleheader Friday. Doing the right thing with or without official permission invites its own kind of good karma.

Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.

So why did the Mariners trade Walker?

If the Mariners traded Walker over his speaking out pro-protest postponement, they got some splainin’ to do.

Me and my big mouth. Well, keyboard.

Earlier today, writing about baseball game postponements in protest over the Jacob Blake police shooting, I referenced a 1968 trade involving pitcher Milt Pappas, who supported no games played during Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral. Pappas fumed when his Cincinnati Reds management may have strong-armed players into playing. In sort of a blink, he was then an Atlanta Brave.

That’ll teach me.

On Wednesday, when the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres elected not to play, Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker tweeted, “Glad to be apart of this organization and group of people!” Thank you for standing with us always!!” Come today, Thursday, Walker became a Buffalonto Blue Jay, traded for the proverbial player to be named later. He inprocesses with his new team Friday, when baseball is supposed to commemorate Jackie Robinson.

Pappas would never really know whether the Reds’ then general manager Bob Howsam told the truth when he insisted that 1968 trade was in the works before the Kennedy funeral issue. Walker at this writing may or may not really know soon, or even ever, if Marines general manager Jerry Dipoto had a deal in the works before the protest postponements, either.

In 1968, then-commissioner William D. (Spike) Eckert ordered no baseball to be played during Kennedy’s funeral. Washington’s notorious traffic issues delayed the procession, bumping the funeral to coincide with the start of the Reds’ scheduled game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Pappas supported not playing; the team voted 13-12 to play, possibly after pressure from Howsam and manager Dave Bristol. Three days later—Pappas was gone.

Major League Baseball’s official statement on the protest postponements said, “Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice.” Walker tweeted his approval of his team’s protest postponement decision the same night they made it. One day later—gone.

If timing is everything, this timing looks more than a little out of time. It may not even pass the proverbial smell test.

Pappas, who died in 2016, was a white man born in Detroit of Greek parents. (His name at birth: Miltiades Stergios Papastergios.) Walker is a black man born in Shreveport, Louisiana; his father was black, his mother a Mexican-American woman who raised him alone. One dead pitcher and one living one can now hold hands as they say, plausibly enough, that baseball still has growing pains over intolerance not solely regarding a racial issue.

The game has never been entirely comfortable with players known to be outspoken on all sorts of matters. Once upon a time, the Chicago White Sox tried to compel the late pitcher/author Jim Brosnan to sign a contract enjoining him from writing for publication without prior team approval. The author of from-the-inside baseball classics The Long Season and Pennant Race elected to retire rather than allow the White Sox to decide what he could or couldn’t write.

When the then-Florida Marlins traded first baseman Carlos Delgado to the New York Mets after the 2005 season, Delgado—who’d sat in the dugout as a Blue Jay and a Marlin during seventh-inning-stretch playings of “God Bless America,” in protest the Iraq War and using his native Puerto Rico’s island of Vieques as a bombing practise spot—changed his protest tune, possibly under compulsion from the Mets’ front office.

“The Mets have a policy that everybody should stand for ‘God Bless America’,” Delgado said at the time, “and I will be there. I will not cause any distractions to the ballclub . . . Just call me Employee Number 21.” Said Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon at the same time, “He’s going to have his own personal views, which he’s going to keep to himself.”

Delgado didn’t act during playings of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but on Wednesday Mets outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter Dominic Smith did. A young black man who’s a product of south central Los Angeles, Smith took a knee during the song’s pre-game playing to protest the Blake shooting.That contravened his stance in the George Floyd aftermath, when he said a knee wasn’t enough compared to teaching and learning.

There went that idea. Though his teammates had his back, too, refusing to criticise and some supporting him publicly (outfielder Michael Conforto in particular), Smith spoke for himself at a press conference. In tears. Asked by a reporter to describe the most difficult part of the past two months, Smith paused, then sighed, then said through a few sobs, “I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care . . . it just shows the hate in people’s hearts and, I mean, that just sucks.”

The Mets’ administration hasn’t said or done anything regarding Smith as I write. That can be considered good if we’re talking about dealing him out of town, post haste or otherwise, as the Mariners may or may not have dealt Walker over his comments. But that can be bad if we’re talking about whether Smith’s team above and beyond his clubhouse teammates will stand for his elementary right to speak his mind and heart.

I’ve said it before in these pages, but I’ll say it again: I have skin in the game of police lawlessness. I’m the paternal grandson of a New York police officer whom you could call both a true man’s man and yet one of the gentlest and most playful of men you’d ever meet in your life, especially with any and all of his eight grandchildren.

Grandpa Walter would have been as appalled at police officers behaving like the thugs they’re charged with apprehending as he would have been about people using police criminality as an excuse to break entire cities. If he’d been presented with the case for doing away with the “qualified immunity” that shields police officers from consequences for their crimes, I believe Grandpa would support its end, as I do.

But I think baseball fans and those who play and administer the game should want to know, for dead last certain, whether the Mariners traded Taijuan Walker—a serviceable, about-average major league pitcher—because it was an already-in-the-works trade on baseball grounds alone.

If they really did, they’re guilty perhaps of bad timing alone. If they didn’t, well, Lucy, they got some splainin’ to do. Did they deal Walker out of Dodge because the very thought that he spoke out proudly and unapologetically on behalf of his teammates postponing a game in protest of racism and police lawlessness offended them?