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.

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

2020-07-24 YoenisCespedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feud for thought

2019-09-15 NoahSyndergaard

Noah Syndergaard isn’t exactly being a prima donna when he insists throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate is both his preference and better for him.

One of the first baseball legends I can remember reading about as a child is the 1927 feud between Pirates outfielder Kiki Cuyler and manager Donie Bush in 1927. I read about it in a pulp early 1966 paperback called Baseball’s Unforgettables, which had the ink-painted heads of Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax on the front jacket and cartoon baseball images—several of also which illustrated the chapters—surrounding them.

The way I read it in that book, Bush “stubbornly and foolishly” held a grudge against Cuyler for refusing a lineup shift out of his number three slot to bat second. Not to mention that the feud between the two may have cost the pennant-winning Pirates the World Series. And neither is entirely true.*

In his first season as strictly a manager (he’d been a player/manager for the 1923 Washington Senators), Bush wasn’t thrilled about the usually mild-mannered Cuyler’s defiance. But if Baseball’s Unforgettables quoted Cuyler as pleading, “Don’t do it, Skip, it’s a jinx for me,” Cuyler himself had a different take: as The Sporting News quoted him in his 1950 obituary, Cuyler didn’t think his kind of freer swinger really belonged in a lineup slot demanding more precise contact hitting.

According to Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, the argument didn’t do Cuyler any favours with Bush, but it came to a head not over the batting order but over a potential double play. On 6 August 1927, running from first, Cuyler elected not to slide into second on a double play attempt because he thought he had a better chance of obstructing the relay throw to first by arriving standing up.

The Pirates lost the game and fell three behind the Cubs. Bush didn’t buy Cuyler’s reasoning over the running play. Maybe marrying that to the batting order dispute prompted Bush, at last, to bench Cuyler for the rest of the season (save one early September game) and the Series. Then, the Pirates traded Cuyler to the Cubs after the season.

The legend became that benching Cuyler cost them the Series. The legend is bunk. Cuyler wasn’t the Pirates’ best player in 1927; the Hall of Famer wasn’t even their tenth-best player. (The two best the Pirates had in ’27: Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner and pitcher Ray Kremer.) The Pirates went 34-18 after the Cuyler benching to win the pennant. But the only team on the planet who could beat the 1927 Yankees might be the 1998 Yankees, if not this year’s Astros.

The worst thing the feud did was to alienate Donie Bush with the Pirates’ fan base. Cuyler was popular enough that Bush couldn’t recover his public image in Pittsburgh, and he resigned in August 1929. He’d have 65 years in baseball total before his death in 1972 while scouting for the White Sox.

My revisiting the Cuyler-Bush feud was instigated by the current apparent debate between Noah Syndergaard and the Mets. Syndergaard isn’t the first pitcher to think about having a particular catcher working with him or even about having a personal catcher. But the issue amplified Friday night.

That’s when Syndergaard took three shutout innings and a 1-0 Mets lead against Clayton Kershaw into the fourth, with Wilson Ramos behind the plate. After a leadoff groundout, Syndergaard and Dodgers star Cody Bellinger wrestled to a ten-pitch walk. Corey Seager singled Bellinger to third at once; then, A.J. Pollock singled through the right side of the infield to score Bellinger, and Gavin Lux, a rookie September call-up, smashed a three-run homer.

Syndergaard worked the fifth the better to keep Mets manager Mickey Callaway from having to turn to his rickety bullpen too soon. It didn’t keep the Dodgers from piling five more on at that bullpen’s expense. And it re-opened the question of whether Syndergaard should get to throw to his preference, backup catcher Tomas Nido, instead of regular catcher Ramos.

There were those who thought (and probably still think) that Syndergaard wrestling with the Mets over his catchers is going to be one more reason for the Mets to put him on the trading block at last after the season ends. There are those who thought (and probably still think) that forcing Syndergaard to throw to a catcher with whom he’s not comfortable may cost the Mets a by-now-too-slim shot at the postseason.

We’ll know soon enough whether the former proves true, but the latter? The Mets’ postseason chances went from new and much improved with that magnificent post-All Star break run to strikingly slim after losing one too many key contests despite a .600+ record in each of July, August, and September thus far.

What really ruined their postseason chances was their horrible, drama-dominant April through June. They looked like a Mess, acted like it often enough, and still have a few things from those three months returning to bite them in the butts just a little too often even in the middle of their second-half success.

Callaway remains under a white-hot microscope over his tactical missteps and strategic vision-challenges. Saturday’s next-to-the-eleventh hour shutout win against the Dodgers, 3-0, magnified it, when he was forced to pinch hit for one of his few relief jewels, Seth Lugo, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, where he could have double-switched Ramos out after the backstop ended the seventh and kept Lugo’s lineup slot eight slots away from arriving.

He got lucky with pinch hitter Rajai Davis, who hadn’t had a base hit since late August and took an 0-for-10 string to the plate. Davis yanked Dodger reliever Julio Urias’s 1-2 changeup down the left field line to clear the pads. And he said afterward that he didn’t want to leave the Mets without Ramos’s bat in the lineup.

There’s part of the issue. Ramos has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters since the All-Star break. Nido by comparison can’t hit with a hangar door. But have a look at how Syndergaard—and Cy Young Award defender and 2019 candidate Jacob deGrom—pitch when Ramos or Nido are their catchers:

To Wilson Ramos: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 19 2.68 .209 24 145 5.0 1.3 7.6
Noah Syndergaard 16 5.20 .258 32 97 4.4 1.0 6.1
To Tomas Nido: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 11 1.88 .202 18 91 7.0 1.2 8.3
Noah Syndergaard 10 2.45 .217 20 63 3.3 0.9 6.3

Syndergaard’s -2.75 ERA differential when throwing to Nido instead of Ramos bears out his argument in favour of Nido on purely pitching/defense terms. DeGrom’s differential is -0.80. DeGrom to Ramos still has a Cy Young Award-caliber 2.68 ERA. Syndergaard looks like a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher with Nido behind the plate and like a Sayonara Award-caliber pitcher with Ramos behind the plate.

Syndergaard strikes batters out just a shard more often than he walks them with Ramos than he does with Nido—but he strikes them out a speck less throwing to Nido than to Ramos.

DeGrom is simply a better pitcher almost regardless of who’s behind the dish for him; you could send bullpen coach (and ex-major league pitcher) Ricky Bones behind the dish and deGrom will pitch like a Cy Young Award winner. If he’s striking out 8.3 hitters a start with Nido behind the plate, assuming deGrom’s average seven innings per start continues, he’s still striking out 7.6 per start with Ramos behind the plate.

While I was at it, I looked up the Mets’ other starters. Zack Wheeler’s ERA is 3.03 lower with Ramos behind the plate than with Nido. Marcus Stroman, who pitched his first truly quality start as a Met Saturday, has a -0.20 differential when throwing to Nido. It may not make a great difference if Stroman throws to Ramos.

(Where’s Steven Matz, you ask? Easy: Matz only threw to Nido once this season, in a relief appearance against the Phillies just before the All-Star break. You can leave Matz with Ramos behind the plate safely, especially with Matz’s turnaround second half. Matz in the second half has a 2.52 ERA and an 8.5 K/9 rate, both far above his first-half struggling. Matz-Ramos is one battery you don’t want to break up.)

Maybe we should look at the walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) when each catcher is behind the plate for deGrom and Syndergaard:

To Wilson Ramos G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 19 114.0 87 29 1.02
Noah Syndergaard 16 97.0 96 22 1.22
To Tomas Nido G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 11 72.0 53 13 0.92
Noah Syndergaard 10 66.0 52 19 1.07

It might have made plenty of sense if the Mets had spent more time reviewing the actual performance papers and decided that, yes, it would be smart to start Tomas Nido every time Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard pitch. And, with the need for Ramos’s live bat as profound as it is, switch Ramos into those games after lifting deGrom or Syndergaard.

Dreaming, you say? This season, Ramos is hitting .314 when the games are late and close—and he’s hitting a whopping .379 with a 1.003 OPS in high leverage. And, yes, that’s mostly thanks to his bristling second half at the plate. Now, try to imagine the outcome of more than a few games if Nido was sent out to start with deGrom and Syndergaard regularly, and Ramos got switched into those games after those two pitchers were lifted.

Curiously, deGrom pitched a gem Saturday with Ramos behind the plate and outpitched Dodgers Cy Young candidate Hyun-Jin Ryu while he was at it: three hits and eight strikeouts in seven innings; nineteen called strikes and eleven swinging strikes; and, a 2-to-1 ground ball to fly ball rate.

But remember that even with Ramos catching him deGrom pitches like the ace he is. Syndergaard, who’s almost as talented, needs every break he can get. You can say Syndergaard is responsible for executing pitches, and you’d be right, of course. But ponder this, as New York Post writer Joel Sherman does:

Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation and when he was Syndergaard’s age, he insisted on throwing to A.J. Ellis, a light-hitting backup. A main task of a manager is putting players in position to succeed—and that is not happening currently with Syndergaard.

Syndergaard’s not exactly being a prima donna by insisting he’s better off with Nido than with Ramos behind the plate. Kershaw, a Hall of Famer in waiting, really, wasn’t the first to think about personal catchers and he won’t be the last. And a lot of pitchers have credited their success to one or another particular catcher.

Hall of Famer Whitey Ford once said throwing to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra made him the pitcher he became. And those pesky statistics also bear out that every Yankee pitcher not named Ford when Berra was the regular Yankee catcher pitched better throwing to Berra than at any other time in their entire careers.

(You want to argue success? With Yogi as their regular catcher, the Yankees won nine pennants and seven World Series including five straight despite pitching staffs composed mostly of pitchers who shone as Yankees but were comparative non-topics elsewhere.)

That’s not quite the same as the personal catcher concept, of course, but it’s not something to dismiss too readily.

Tim McCarver had a fine playing career but a lot of it included being Steve Carlton’s preference behind the plate. Charlie O’Brien and then Eddie Perez were a lot more valuable to the Braves because Greg Maddux preferred pitching to one and then the other when the one left as a free agent. Those catchers weren’t exactly in Berra’s league but a pair of Hall of Famers must have known and seen something, right?

You can’t really say that obstinance over who catches whom will sign the Mets’ 2019 death warrant if they don’t make even the wild card play-in game. Of course, if by some alchemy the Mets do sneak into the second wild card and play the likely first card-winning Nationals in the play-in game, they should be broiled and basted if they send anyone not named Nido out to catch either deGrom or Syndergaard in that game.

No Syndergaard-vs.-Mets feud will cost the Mets. Any more than a Kiki Cuyler-Donie Bush feud really cost the 1927 Pirates. Those Pirates won the pennant without Cuyler down the stretch, but they were done in in the World Series by an immovable threshing machine. These Mets will have done themselves in with a first half that, for all their second-half perseverance, still seems like the insurmountable burden.


* Baseball’s Unforgettables also managed to get the spelling of Donie Bush’s name wrong—the book spelled it “Donnie.”

Born Owen Joseph Bush, his original nickname as a Tigers shortstop was Ownie, which teammate Ed Killian got changed to Donie based on Killian describing a pitch on which Bush struck out as a “donie” pitch, “donie” happening to rhyme with Bush’s original nickname. Teammates picked up on it—and began calling him Donie Bush.

Limits to crisis addiction

2019-08-11 SeanDoolittle

This time, Sean Doolittle wasn’t at the mercy of his 2019 nemeses, the Mets.

Seek the clinical definition of “crisis junkie,” and you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the definition includes, “New York Mets.” As white hot as they’ve been since the All-Star break, the Mets have not been in complete recovery from crisis addiction.

Every crisis junkie believes it’ll take just one turn of luck, the cards, or both to escape his or her latest crisis. On Sunday afternoon, down three going to the bottom of the ninth, the Mets had more than enough reason to believe theirs was coming in from the Nats bullpen. Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle—whom they’d battered for four runs to win at the last minute Friday night and bullied otherwise all season long. With the top of the order due up for the Mets and the Citi Field crowd giving Doolittle a standing ovation as he arrived on the mound.

Doolittle—who got Jeff McNeil to line out hard to right, struck out Amed Rosario swinging, and got Michael Conforto to ground out into a right-side shift. Crowning a scoreless two-and-a-thirds relief job by Doolittle plus Daniel Hudson and Wander Suero before him.

If it was a monkey off Doolittle’s back after his season-long futility against the Mets, the Nats could still be forgiven if they felt that even this 7-4 win, snapping the Mets’ eight-game winning streak, didn’t necessarily feel like a win.

Even if the Mets spotted the Nats three unearned runs in the top of the first, on a throwing error to first and a dropped ball at the plate that would have kept Juan Soto from scoring that third run: Mets catcher Wilson Ramos had him cold by several feet before the ball fell from his mitt.

Because the Mets broke their weekend habit of fourth-inning ties by tying it at three in the bottom of the second—on a pair of one-out singles, a two-out RBI single, a sneak-attack, bases-loading, two-out bunt by Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, and a two-run double. By then the Nats must asked, if they hadn’t the previous two nights, “What the hell do we have to do to put these pests away?”

They may not be the only team in the league tempted to keep cases of Raid in the dugout or pest control crews on call when they face the Mets.

For their part, the Mets may not quite be ready to send themselves to a twelve-step program for crisis addiction. Because if that’s what’s keeping them white hot and helping them prove they can hang with the big boys—even those addled otherwise by the injured list and by self-immolating bullpens, just as the Mets were earlier in the season—they’ll work with it.

The twelve steps could wait until the season was over or the Mets fell out back out of the races. Whichever came first. Couldn’t they?

“It’s magic!” crows a Met fan of my acquaintance. He’s probably echoed by a few million Met fans who prefer seeking extraterrestrial causes for both the heights of success and the depths of failure. You’d think they couldn’t bear to admit that playing heads-up baseball when the Mets needed to play it the most had anything to do with their post-All Star break success.

Let the Nats pull back ahead 5-3 in the seventh on a two-out, two-run double by Asdrubal Cabrera that followed a little shakiness out of the Mets’ bullpen? The Mets weren’t going to let that stand without an answer if they could help it. Conforto’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly off Nats reliever Hunter Strickland said as much.

But for a brief moment it looked as though the Nats were going to pay the price for their manager’s unconscionable brain freeze right after that. How could Dave Martinez not have challenged Pete Alonso being ruled hit by a pitch when the pitch hit the batter, not the ball, with every television replay available showing as much?

A called strikeout later, ex-Nat Wilson Ramos drilled a frozen rope right into Gerardo Parra’s glove in left to strand two Met runners and make Martinez look like a genius for a few moments. Better not to let Alonso have another swing with two aboard. Except J.D. Davis loomed and could crunch one. Strickland nailed Davis with a called strikeout before the Ramos line out. That’s called dodging the atomic bomb.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the net result is also called wasting yet another stellar deGrom start. He shook off the three unearned in the first to all but have his way with the Nats, but that first inning drained him enough that he wasn’t likely to pitch more than five innings. All odds favoured even the Mets’ shaky bullpen against the Nats’ shakier pen.

Until Jeurys Familia—once the Mets’ closer, this year a prodigal son having a horror of a season—found his old self at just the right hour to strike out the side in the top of the eighth. And Wander Suero sandwiched a grounder back to the box between two strikeouts in the bottom of the eighth.

Then Doolittle was up and throwing in the Nats bullpen and the Mets could just taste the gift coming. In a way, that was part of their problem Sunday. They looked as though they were trying to hit six-run homers in about half their plate appearances. They looked as if they wanted to get to the win without navigating the traffic on the way all day long.

Didn’t quite work out that way. Now, before they got another crack at Doolittle they had to get past the Nats in the top of the ninth. And they trusted Edwin Diaz, command struggles and all and with almost a full week’s rest in the bargain, to perform that assignment. With the dangerous top of the Nats order to greet him.

Diaz shook off a one-out walk to Adam Eaton and didn’t let Eaton stealing second stop him from catching Anthony Rendon, having a four-hit day to that point, looking at strike three. But up stepped Victor Robles, a late-game insertion to center field, after Parra was moved to left following Juan Soto’s ankle turn on a seventh-inning baserunning out, after ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera doubled home a pair to break the three-all tie in the first place.

On 2-1 Diaz hung a slider to Robles. And Robles hung it over the left field fence. And after Matt Adams grounded out to second for the side, Diaz walked into the dugout looking as though he’d been told his favourite pet was kidnapped and left for dead. Pitching coach Phil Regan spoke gently to him and hugged him, like a father comforting a heartbroken son.

And this time Doolittle stood up well enough to his season-long bullies.

Yet considering their Friday and Saturday night surrealistics, Sunday afternoon’s loss probably didn’t feel like a loss to the whole of the Mets, either.

With apologies to Vin Scully, in a second half that has been so improbable, the impossible happened. Friday night the Nats put a boot on the Mets’ throat in the top of the ninth, and the Mets yanked it away in the bottom of the ninth. Also known as the last minute. On Saturday night, the Mets had to settle for the Nats putting the edge of a shoe against their neck and bumping it to one side in the eighth. Also known as the next-to-last minute.

Friday night the Mets overthrew two three-run deficits and Strasburg becoming the Nats’ all-time franchise strikeout leader to win. Saturday night they overthrew a two-run deficit in the fourth and a one-run deficit in the eighth to win. They’d tied against Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alike. When it came time for the running of the bullpens, the Mets ended up looking a little less like bull.

And on both nights Citi Field rocked and rolled as if this was a postseason series. It didn’t escape the Nats’ eyes and ears, either. Strasburg’s in particular.

“They pull for their team,” the righthander said, calmly but firmly, after Friday night’s shock. “And I don’t know if they come play us again, but I hope all the fans are watching the game cause it gets into crunch time and those things really carry teams and get us to the next level.”

Actually, the Mets are scheduled for one more trip to Washington, down the stretch, a 2-4 September set to end the season series between the two teams. If this weekend doesn’t make or break either the Mets’ or the Nats’ seasons, by the time that Monday-Wednesday meeting comes to pass either team could be looking closer at a wild card slot or an early winter vacation.

Theoretically, both teams could also be nipping at the heels of the National League East-leading Braves by then, too. If not sooner. The Braves are a .500 team for August so far, and after winning four straight after the All-Star break they’re 12-13 since. They’re no longer a necessarily impossible target.

But the Mets since the All-Star break restored reasons for the throngs to rock their ballpark. The Nats had a 5-6 homestand before their current road trip, but if Strasburg was calling out Nats Nation to give the team a little more in the way of the Mets’ current kind of crowd incentive, since they’re not quite dead and in the coffin just yet, Nats Nation would be wise to heed.

Even taking two of three from the Nats stands the Mets well with a trip to Atlanta looming. A Mets win Sunday would probably have made them feel invincible no matter where they traveled afterward. Ending the day at 21-7 since the All-Star break still leaves them baseball’s hottest team since that break.

A Nats loss Sunday—compounded by Max Scherzer’s continuing absence, the continuing rehabs of both Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, and the likelihood that pending free agent Rendon may be playing his last weeks in Nats fatigues—might have made them feel as though the string to be played out was closer to resembling the clothesline from which they’d hang to dry.

The Nats have a slightly more balanced schedule the rest of the season. Starting with a weekday set against the Reds at home, they get to mix sets against the flotsam and jetsam with sets against the big boys. The Mets should be so lucky. Theirs isn’t that well balanced a schedule the rest of the season. They might have felt charmed Friday and Saturday, but Sunday should have re-grounded them enough.

Enough to remind them that crisis addiction isn’t always the way to stay in a wild card race after you’ve returned from the living dead to get back into one. Especially with bigger enough fish than the Nats swimming into the waters in which they’re about to bathe the rest of the season.

Walk through the door of your friendly neighbourhood Crisis Anonymous. Say it loud and humble. “Hi, we’re the Mets. And we’re crisis junkies.” Step one. Take it ASAP.

Don’t blame or curse the writers, bros

2019-06-23 SethLugo

Seth Lugo, who shouldn’t have been left in to start the eighth Sunday, after surrendering Javier Baez’s difference-making three-run homer.

Maybe the most frequent refrain around last year’s Mets was Jacob deGrom pitching like a virtuoso but his team losing for him regardless. It didn’t stop him from winning a deserved Cy Young Award then. But it stopped him and the Mets from banking a badly-needed win in Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon.

And it threatened to turn into a rumble in the clubhouse jungle after the game, after manager Mickey Callaway heard one too many questions around the likely theme, “What on earth were you thinking or not thinking when you let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning when he didn’t exactly have even his C+ game to work with?”

Not to mention Mets pitcher Jason Vargas challenging Newsday writer Timothy Healey to a fight as the postgame interviews ended. “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro,” Vargas snapped, when Healey first stood his ground after Callaway demanded team public relations people escort him away.

A man who surrenders four earned runs in four and two thirds innings, as Vargas did Friday in a game the Mets hung in to win 5-4, should spend more time thinking about knocking hitters out at the plate than knocking reporters out for doing nothing more than, you know, their jobs.

Because there was deGrom Sunday afternoon, with a nine-strikeout, two-run, six-hit start, shaving another point or two off his ERA, his breaking balls coming out to play very nicely with others starting in the second, playing a little too nice for the Cubs’ comfort, mostly, and coming out after six innings with a 3-2 Mets lead.

And there was Lugo—arguably the Mets’ most reliable bullpen bull this year so far, after shaking away some early-season struggling—unexpectedly laboring through the seventh, though the box score by itself won’t show it. He needed ten pitches to surrender a leadoff single to Victor Caratini and six to coax pinch hitter Daniel Descalso into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 before getting Albert Almora, Jr. to ground out for the side.

Listen up. It wasn’t the writers who decided it was better to send a less-than-fully-armed Lugo out to pitch the eighth instead of opening with a fresher Robert Gsellman, who’d been loosening up during the seventh.

It wasn’t Healey who fed Kyle Schwarber a sixth-pitch hanger on which Lugo was lucky The Schwarbinator didn’t hit across the street but rather up the middle for a none-too-deep base hit. Or, who walked Anthony Rizzo on 3-1 after Kris Bryant flied out to center. Or, who had Javier Baez in the hole 0-2 before serving him a slider that slid insufficiently enough to be sent into the right field bleachers.

Goodbye, 3-2 Mets lead. Hello, 5-3 Cubs lead to stay, after Pedro Strop took care of Robinson Cano and Carlos Gomez on back-to-back swinging strikeouts before pinch hitter Dom Smith lined out to right for game and series split.

And, goodbye for the time being to the good feelings of Rookie of the Year candidate Peter Alonso busting the National League’s record for home runs before the All-Star break Saturday and becoming the Mets’ all-time rookie home run leader Sunday when he sent Cole Hamels’s changeup seven or eight rows into the left field bleachers in the top of the fourth, leading off and tying the game at one.

Not to mention Tomas Nido—the backup catcher who isn’t much at the plate but is valued because he works so well with deGrom in spite of Callaway’s insistence that not even a Cy Young Award winner should have a personal catcher—surprising one and all in the top of the fourth with a 1-0 rip into the center field bleachers to give the Mets the lead they’d expand when deGrom himself snuck an RBI single through the middle later in the inning.

What did Callaway, Vargas, and any other earthly or otherwise being in Mets silks think the writers were going to ask about after a loss like that? Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance leading the Wrigley faithful in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch?

Actually, the first subject was Edwin Diaz, the Mets’ closer. Why wasn’t Diaz considered for a five-out save at the earliest sign of eight-inning trouble? “Just because you think so?” Callaway retored to Yahoo! reporter Matt Ehalt, who asked the question. “Absolutely not. We have a very good plan, we know what we are doing and we’re going to stick to it.”

If that’s the case, why not send Gsellman out to work the eighth from the outset, since it wasn’t exactly hidden from plain sight that Lugo laboured through the seventh?

Then came the questions about Lugo starting the eighth, including from Healey, apparently, and then came the testiness from Callaway and, in time, Vargas, who needed Gomez and Noah Syndergaard to restrain him before Healey finally departed.

A manager who’s been considered on the hot seat over dubious in-game strategies and his bullpen management since just about the second week of the season is in no position to bark “Get this [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse” at anyone, never mind a reporter seeking clarification on the non-move that turned the game away from the Mets in the first place.

Callaway said he thought Healey was being sarcastic when saying “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” after the questionings ended. First the skipper told Healey not to be a smartass. Then came the expletives undeleted.

Healey tried to assure Callaway he wasn’t being sarcastic but Callaway wouldn’t quit. He said much later Sunday the testiness began with “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” a harmless pleasantry rendered unpleasant when Callaway snapped back with Vargas in earshot and, apparently staring at Healey for a considerable period. “(I) recalled asking him if everything was OK,” Healey said.

Apparently not. That was when Vargas threatened to knock Healey the [fornicate] out, bro. “[T]hen Vargas took a couple of steps toward me,” Healey said. “Some people said charged—charged is super-strong.”

Whether Healey was right or wrong, so long as he and the other writers in the postgame interviews weren’t insulting Callaway and Vargas and merely asking tough but reasonable questions about the critical moment in the Mets’ loss, Callaway and Vargas stepped over a line. Office holders holler “fake news” as much over reporting they simply don’t like as over false reporting. But even they’re not known customarily to throw obscenities in reporters’ faces under or after tough questioning. (We think.)

“No matter what the reporter did,” veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said, “this can’t happen . . . The problem is Mickey Callaway probably should’ve been fired a month ago . . . ever since, this has been lingering over this team . . . everybody is simply waiting.”

“While Callaway has never had an outburst like this before with a reporter, the second-year manager has pushed back when asked critical questions,” Ehalt himself wrote later Sunday. “Vargas had not had an incident like this with a Mets reporter since he joined the team last year.”

Diaz himself also urged someone, anyone, to get Healey out of the area, but apparently Diaz and other Mets feared the altercation getting even more serious. They had to be unnerved already by their manager and one of their pitchers jumping all over Healey as it was. Especially if it was as much out of character for Vargas as seems to be the case.

After Healey finally disappeared, some reporters lingered to talk to Diaz. Without incident, apparently. But these Mets are a tense outfit right now and may have been long before Sunday afternoon’s follies.

The bullpen new general manager Brodie Van Vagenen built for this season is mostly mis-built. Some of his acquisitions have misfired. Former closer Jeurys Familia, re-acquired for this season, has proven an arsonist as as a setup man. And veteran second baseman Robinson Cano looks too vividly like an aging imitation of the one-time star who parlayed his Yankee success into glandular dollars in Seattle from whom the Mets took him in the deal that made Diaz himself a Met.

Under criticism this year for periodic loafing, Cano looked even more so Sunday, on a second-inning grounder that turned into a too-easy step-and-throw double play. And he showed his age in the fourth, unable to throw on to first while in mid-leap over a slide at second, to finish a likely double play.

And, there are still the Wilpons in the executive command post still unable or (Met fans and some writers accuse) unwilling to overhaul the organisation and allow a sound balance between analytics and game sense to take hold.

The Mets are good at jumping to apologise for their manager’s and pitcher’s out-of-line behaviour toward the reporters doing nothing worse than being reporters. If Callaway, Vargas, and any other Mets really thought no one would ask about why Lugo was left in to work the eighth after he was—by his own admission—less than at full power in the seventh, the question becomes whom among these Mets still have their heads in the game.

The team didn’t need to apologise. It should have been the manager and the pitcher doing it. No matter how beleaguered they are in fact or in supposition, no matter how out of character it might have been, they behaved out of bounds.

Callaway looked at first like he’d survive the vote of confidence he got publicly after the Mets suffered a weekend bushwhacking by the Marlins last month. Now the Mets may yet end up having to apologise for having engaged a manager as far in over his head as Callaway seems increasingly to be.