The swath of Kwan

Steven Kwan

Against easy pickings, Kwan owned the season’s first weekend. The competition to come isn’t liable to be that agreeable.

The baseball team formerly known as the Indians launched their season against the Royals in Kansas City. Though the launch began with a pair of low-scoring losses (3-1, 1-0), it concluded with a 17-3 blowout win and a 10-7 three-run win. Meaning that the Guardians out-scored the Royals 30-9 for their trouble.

Meaning, too, that they, like every American League Central team not named the White Sox, opened 2-2. But the Guardians opening was important for things that didn’t happen almost as much as things that did, including:

The Hope Memorial Bridge, whose Guardians of Traffic sculptures inspired the team’s new name, didn’t collapse. No known tidal wave arose from Lake Erie to flood or drown the city. No crash of thunder, lightning, and rain poured onto the city. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t induct Lawrence Welk, as an early influence or otherwise.

But a Guardians prodigy made nineteen trips to the plate during the four-game season-opening series without striking out even once, without missing the chance to send runners home in three such plate appearances, and with extra base hits in 15.8 of those season-opening plate appearances.

The only mistake center fielder Steven Kwan made during those first four games of his life, and of his team’s life as the Guardians, happened in the bottom of the seventh Monday, when Kwan saw himself throwing Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi out at the plate on a bases-loaded liner by Royals third baseman Hunter Dozier.

Kwan’s foresight forgot to inform him the ball actually needed to be in his glove before he could make the throw he saw in advance. Rookies make such mistakes all the time. The ball hit the heel of the glove instead, allowing Benintendi to score before Kwan’s outfield partner Myles Straw threw Royals first baseman Carlos Santana out on a tight play at second base.

The Guardians escaped further damage by inducing an inning-ending double play, then loaded the bases on the Royals in the top of the eighth on a leadoff double and a pair of walks alternating with two air outs. Like any rookie, Kwan was more than anxious to atone for his seventh-inning slip, particularly because it allowed the Royals back to within a run. Unlike many rookies, Kwan performed the perfect atonement.

He slashed a 1-2 hanging curve ball into the right field corner for a bases-cleaning triple  and put the Guardians up 9-5, a lead they’d pad by a run with a ninth-inning run-scoring ground out. Good thing, too, because Benintendi thanked Kwan for the seventh-inning miscue enabling his run when he batted in the bottom of the ninth and, with touted-enough Royals rook Bobby Witt, Jr. aboard with a leadoff walk, planted one over the right center field fence.

Guardians relief pitcher Emmanuel Clase retired the next three Royals in order to secure the 10-7 win. But who needed him? Kwan finished the game and awoke the next morning as the talk of about 98 percent of baseball and its watchers, many of whom were only too well prepared to name him this season’s American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Silver Slugger awards, and to the Hall of Fame, post haste.

Not so fast.

Yes, Kwan reached base fifteen times during the four-game set. No player ever did that in his first four major league games. Yes, Kwan is also the first major league player since the Great Depression to have a five-hit game in only his third major league game. Yes, too, he faced 82 pitches in his first four games and never once swung on and missed a single one of them.

And, yes, especially, Kwan seems as grounded as the day is long, the product of agreeably down-to-earth parentage, a young man unlikely to let something like smashing precedents go to his head and find room aplenty to bounce around.

But, as Akron Beacon-Journal columnist Ryan Lewis warns, there’s more likelihood that the grounded Kwan returns to earth than there is for him making Ted Williams resemble Ted Cruz. “Kwan is obviously not going to continue to hit .692 forever,” Lewis writes.

But until his fortunes reverse just as severely as what he’s shown so far, he has his place in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. It means that for the time being, the Guardians have Myles Straw locked into center field and Kwan in one of the corner outfield spots. That leaves the other spot to Oscar Mercado, Amed Rosario and Josh Naylor, once he’s able to return from an injury—though Naylor could also time at first base with Bobby Bradley struggling to get going. All of a sudden, at least in the short run, the Guardians’ outfield has some answers.

USA Today writer, Steve Gardner, is even more cautious, handing Kwan an award . . . a “Tuffy Award,” named facetiously in honour of a 1994 Cub, Tuffy Rhodes, a modest journeyman who opened that season immodestly, becoming the first in Show to smash three home runs in his first three season’s plate appearances, and off a former child prodigy named Dwight Gooden.

From there, Rhodes hit only five more bombs the rest of that season. He finished his Show career with thirteen home runs and 45 extra-base hits total over 675 lifetime Show plate appearances. Then he went to play in the Japan Pacific League—and hit 464 home runs in thirteen seasons (including tying Sahaharu Oh’s single-season JPPL-record 55 in 2001) before retiring after the 2009 season.

“[W]hat’s not to like about someone with an .800/.857/1.000 slash line?” asks Gardner, the slash line combining Kwan’s short-spring training performance to his regular season premiere? Then, Gardner answers:

Playing time certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue for Kwan in the near future. And with that kind of on-base percentage, he should remain near the top of the lineup. The question is how much else he will be able to provide over the long haul.

Kwan hit twelve homers and stole just six bases last year in the minors. And at 5-9, 175 pounds, there’s still doubt about how much power he’ll ever have. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s more likely that he’s a closer comp to Nick Madrigal than Jose Altuve.

Beating up on Royals pitching to start the season is the tide that lifts all boats along the shores of Lake Erie. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Kwan (and the rest of the Guardians), the journey is about to become much more difficult.

The Guardians get to slap Cincinnati pitching silly for their next two games, the Reds having said—after the owners’ lockout and the eventual new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to have started putting a big dent in tanking—“That’s what you think,” dumping key parts of their pitching staff, outfield, and infield alike.

But then the Guardians get to tangle with the defending National League West champion Giants, the defending American League Central champion White Sox, and the tied-for-second-in-the-AL-East-finishing Yankees. One after the other. No team or its most immediate rookie star gets to face the pushovers all the time.

In The Godfather (the novel, not the film), Don Vito Corleone mused how true it was that great misfortune sometimes led to unforeseen reward. There’s always the chance, for Kwan and his Guardians, that great immediate reward leads to too-often-foreseen misfortune, if not disaster. But his opening act was incomparable, invaluable fun.

Appreciating Wade Davis

Wade Davis

As leaping Eric Hosmer (35) flung his first baseman’s mitt skyward, Wade Davis launched the Royals’ party after he froze the Mets’ Wilmer Flores on a 2015 World Series-ending called strikeout.

The H-D-H intials usually register in the public mind with the great Motown songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. For a few years in the middle of the previous decade, H-D-H stood for a very deadly Royals bullpen trio.

Wade Davis was the D. They had their own Holland (Greg) plus also-retired Kelvin Herrera. But Davis wasn’t just the best of the trio, he was one of the absolute deadliest relief pitchers in the solar system for four years, three with the Royals and one with the Cubs.

Perhaps his most indelible moments were getting the last five outs when the Royals clinched the 2015 American League pennant in Game Six of that American League Championship Series; and, freezing the Mets’ Wilmer Flores to secure a 2015 World Series the Mets’ porous defense all but handed the Royals on a platter.

He looked and acted stoic on the mound, the emotionless assassin, but his exuberance after catching Flores completely stiff with that third-strike cutter is as eternal an image of Royals baseball as Hall of Famer George Brett’s “Pine Tar Game” and Game Seven of the 1985 World Series.

Things began fading after Davis signed as a free agent with the Rockies. After year one in Colorado Davis’s shoulder began barking relentlessly enough. When he returned to the Royals for 2021, any nostalgia for those 2014-2015 runs to the World Series in which Davis loomed large dissipated under continuing shoulder plus forearm issues.

They reduced him to being a mentor to the Royals’ younger relievers while he came to see his former form was in an increasingly distant past. So at 36 Davis calls it a career. But how good was he, really, during that 2014-2017 run? Have a gander:

2014-2017 FIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP
Wade Davis, RP 2.23 3.60 11.7 3.2 0.3 0.95

His number-one flaw seemed a small propensity for walks. By far his deadliest of the four seasons was 2014, when he struck 109 batters out in 72 innings’ work, and though he surrendered 4.9 hits per nine innings that season nobody hit one out against him. Davis was also impossible to hit one out against in 2016 (zero); he surrendered three in 2015 and six in 2017.

If you were going to beat him, in other words, you had to either wait him out for the walk or wait for him to make a mistake you could plant some place in the outfield.

Davis pitched in nine postseason series over those four seasons. Except for 2017, when he pitched for the Cubs and got slapped around a bit in the division series and the National League Championship Series, Davis is a little different:

2014-2017 FIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP
Wade Davis, Postseason 0.70 7.6 14.1 1.9 0.0 0.57

He was more deadly in those postseason series than in those regular seasons. And this is without discussing the four saves with which he was credited in the 2015 postseason. That’s because I’ve changed my mind about the save statistic. It’s as nebulous and deceptive as such analysts as Anthony Castrovince, Keith Law, and Brian Kenny have argued.

As a matter of fact, Castrovince—writing in his book, A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics—mentioned Davis in his full chapter about the save, “Save Us From the Save.” Castrovince thinks the retired relievers giving Greg Holland the 2014 American Reliever of the Year Award had it dead wrong:

To be sure, Holland had a fantastic season—a 1.44 ERA in 62 1/3 innings across 65 appearances, with 90 strikeouts, 20 walks, and a .170 opponents’ average. And yes, he also had 46 saves.

But Holland wasn’t even the best reliever on his own team. That was Wade Davis, who had an even 1.00 ERA in 72 innings across 71 appearances with 109 strikeouts, 23 walks, and a .151 opponents’ average. As the setup man, Davis had only three saves. But he was the Royals’ most dominant bullpen force and should have won the award.

Think of it this way: How valuable are “saves” when Craig Kimbrel could—and did—pitch 10.2 postseason innings in 2018, allow nineteen baserunners, post a 5.90 ERA . . . and still show a perfect six-for-six in those “save” situations? Kimbrel was like the psychopathic teenage noodnik in Endless Love working his way back to his girlfriend’s family’s good graces by torching their house so he could save their lives heroically.

“The save . . . tells us nothing we couldn’t already glean from the box score,” wrote Law in Smart Baseball, “and gives people the illusion of meaning by its mere existance, which has contributed to overspecialised relief usage and a perverse system where teams often reserve their best relievers for the ninth inning even if those aren’t the toughest outs to get.”

Davis was made into a relief pitcher after starting didn’t suit him or his teams best. For four years he was as lights out as any reliever in the business. And I’m still willing to bet that Joe and Jane Fan think the season after that four-year run—2018, after he signed big with the Rockies—is his “best” season because, made their closer, he was credited with 43 “saves” while rolling a 4.13 ERA and a 3.65 fielding-independent pitchiing rate.

The Royals traded Davis to the Cubs after the 2016 season for Jorge Soler, before that Colorado deal that set a record for average annual value paid to a relief pitcher. All things considered, Davis was traded so Soler could end up being traded to the Braves last July—and end up their World Series MVP this year.

Nice delayed synergy in that, one World Series behemoth being traded for a World Series behemoth to be, six years removed. You could say, then, that Davis contributed to two world champions, one indirectly, but still. That’s as nice a baseball legacy as that four-year run when his name was synonymous with piledriving relief pitching.

Reality check: He’s not the catchers’ bomb king—yet.

Salvador Perez

I don’t want to bust your bubble, Salvy, but you ain’t the single-season home run champ among actual catchers just yet. You still have a shot at it, though . . .

I don’t want to spoil the party, but the American League’s current home run leader hasn’t really broken the single-season record for home runs by a catcher. Yet.

Come to think of it, neither, really, did the Hall of Famer he’s being lauded for surpassing, Johnny Bench.

Perez teed off on Indians starter Triston McKenzie in the top of the fifth Monday, with Nicky Lopez aboard, and sent his 46th homer of the season into the Progressive Field bleachers to send home the sixth and seventh Royals runs. (The Royals won, 7-2, and went on to sweep the doubleheader.) And, yes, Perez was the catcher at the time he hit the blast.

ESPN made a note that Perez topped Bench’s 45 in 1970 “for the most by a player who played at least 75% of his team’s games at catcher.” Well, there are two Hall of Famers who did hit 40 home runs in a season as catchers. One of them did it twice. Both of them played ninety percent or better as their teams’ catchers in those seasons. So did the non-Hall of Famer who hit 41 as a backstop one fine season.

But nobody thought about mentioning Roy Campanella or Mike Piazza while Perez approached Bench’s 1970 season total. They didn’t say a single word about Piazza hitting 40 each in 1997 and 1999, hitting every one of them strictly when he was his team’s catcher in both seasons.

Perez this season has actually hit 31 homers when he was the Royals’ catcher and fifteen when he was the Royals’ designated hitter, on those days the Royals elected to keep his fat bat in the lineup while giving his 31-year-old, well-enough-worn knees a break.

When Bench hit his 45 in 1970, he hit 38 of them as the Reds’ catcher. He also hit one each when he played first base and right field, and five when he played left field. Bench hit an even forty homers total in 1972, and he hit 34 of those as the Reds’ catcher. He hit two playing third base and four playing right field while he was at it.

The previous catcher with the most big bops was Campanella, hitting 41 in 1953. But what do you know: Campy hit forty of those as the Dodgers’ catcher. (He hit the other as a pinch hitter.) Piazza’s pair of 40-homer seasons as a catcher really tied Campanella, then. He’s still the only catcher in Show history to do that twice.

Never mind “the most by a player who played at least 75 percent of his team’s games at catcher.” How about recognising Piazza playing 91 percent of his 1997 games at catcher when he hit forty homers as the Dodgers’ catcher? How about recognising Piazza playing 96 percent of his 1999 games behind the plate when he hit forty homers as the Mets’ catcher? How about recognising Campanella playing 93 percent of his 1953 games behind the plate when he hit forty as the Dodgers’ catcher?

How about that non-Hall of Famer who hit 41 as a catcher in 1996—hitting every one of those as a catcher while playing 94 percent of his games behind the plate? Todd Hundley, anyone? There’s your real single-season homers-by-catcher record holder. My guess is that Hundley not being a Hall of Famer slips him through the proverbial cracks; I’d forgotten him myself until a friend of good standing reminded me.

Various breeds of fans and analysts love to nit-pick and cherry-pick when a player seems to knock a predecessor out of the record book. I didn’t hear a lot of nit-picking and cherry-picking about Perez approaching Bench.

But if you’re going to continue crowning Bench the now-dethroned single-season home run king among catchers, you really ought to see what he actually hit when he actually strapped the tools of ignorance on. He came up two short of Campanella as a catcher in 1970 and six short of Campy behind the dish in 1972. Not to mention three short of Hundley.

Piazza actually matched Campanella for power while actually catching, dead-even, in 1997 and 1999, though he still fell one short of Hundley. But you didn’t hear that in the middle of the hoopla preparing to anoint Perez the new single-season home run champion among catchers, either.

Yet when Bench broke Hall of Famer Yogi Berra’s record for career homers by a catcher (you may remember hearing that Berra sent Bench a congratulatory telegram saying, “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken”), they mentioned the 327 Bench hit specifically as a catcher (overall, he sent 389 over the fences) and the 293 Yogi hit while actually behind the plate.

And when Piazza broke the total of the man who broke Bench’s lifetime homers-by-catcher total, fellow Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, they mentioned the 396 Piazza launched specifically as a catcher, too.

But they didn’t talk that way when Perez approached Bench’s overall 1970 season total. I couldn’t possibly predict how many more home runs Perez has in his bat with eleven games left on the Royals’ season schedule. I’m not sure anyone else can, even with the Royals closing out against the Indians, the Tigers, the Indians again, and the Twins.

He’s hit eight this month so far. But he needs to hit seven more while catching if he wants to tie Bench’s actual 1970 bombs as a catcher; and, he needs nine more to tie, ten more to pass Piazza and Campanella, and eleven more to pass Hundley, the real record holder.

Then, again, with the way he’s hit this season, and assuming the Royals let him continue catching with their season lost long enough, it’s not necessarily out of bounds to think Perez still has a real shot.

The wheeling, dealing, maybe stealing Padres

Mike Clevinger, from Cleveland outcast to the star of the San Diego Shuffle.

Entering the pandemic-truncated regular season, some thought the Show was going to be somewhere between dull and duller, not just by way of the rules experiments alone. They didn’t reckon with the San Diego Padres, of all people.

When not producing a youthful shortstop (Fernando Tatis, Jr.) who takes “let the kids play” to heart (and runs the boring old farts’ temperatures up the scale in the bargain), or hitting grand slams as if they’re going out of style, the Padres took what some presumed would be a sleepy trade deadline period and turned it into a bit of a thriller approaching Monday’s 1 p.m. Pacific time cutoff.

Landing Cleveland Indians pitcher/protocol violator Mike Clevinger and outfielder Greg Allen for a package including pitcher Cal Quantrill, infielder Gabriel Arias, outfielder Josh Naylor, and catcher Austin Hedges on Monday merely seems like what Duke Ellington once called “the cherries-and-cream topping to our sundae morning.”

Especially after the Friars already made four trades in a 24-hour period prior. The fourth of those trades looked like something of a nothingburger: on Sunday, the Padres sent a fringe relief pitcher from their 60-man roster (28 in Show; 32 at alternate camp), Gerardo Reyes, to the Los Angeles Angels for veteran catcher Jason Castro, who’s set to hit free agency after this season. And, who’s not much of a hitter but is respected for his abilities at pitch framing and new-rules plate blocking.

Now, look at what that deal followed doing the Slam Diego Shuffle:

* On Saturday, the Padres cast for and reeled in resurgent relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal, sending the Kansas City Royals an outfield prospect (Edward Oliveres) and the proverbial player to be named later.

* On Sunday morning, the Padres more or less confirmed that the beleaguered Boston Red Sox were about to push the plunger on their season if not much of their roster, landing designated hitter/first baseman Mitch Moreland, a 2018 World Series hero, for a pair of prospects. (Hudson Potts, Jession Rosario.)

* And, a little later on Sunday, the Friars dealt big to the Seattle Mariners, sending two of their highest-rated prospects (pitcher Andres Munoz, outfielder Taylor Trammell) plus a pair of young sprouts with Show experience (catcher Luis Torrens, infielder Ty France) to land the Mariners’ best catcher, Austin Nola, plus relief pitchers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla.

The Mariners were thin enough in the backstop ranks that nothing could have pried Nola out of their hands unless it was enough to think they might finally, maybe, possibly begin building a real future, as a good number of published reports suggest. When the Padres landed Clevinger Monday morning, what started as jaw-dropping hope turned into jaw-dropping actuality: They’re going all-in to win now as well as later.

How surreal is this season already? The Indians put Clevinger on ice when it turned out he’d made a team flight after violating coronavirus safety protocols with fellow pitcher Zach Plesac but said nothing about it—even after Plesac got bagged—until after that team flight. The Tribe sent both to their Eastlake, Ohio alternate site.

And all of a sudden Clevinger—who had a sterling 2019 season but had a struggle or two in four starts this season before his night out of dinner and cards with Plesac and other friends—became the most coveted starting pitcher on a weird trade market that figured to feature such arms as Lance Lynn (Texas Rangers), Trevor Bauer (Cincinnati Reds), and maybe Josh Hader (Milwaukee Brewers relief act) moving to fresh territory.

This must be heady stuff for Clevinger, who’s just gone from a Cleveland outcast to the star of the Slam Diego Shuffle.

One minute, Clevinger and Plesac were still recovering in Eastlake over the denunciations of their selfishness for sneaking out after dark no matter what Mom and Dad ordered. The next, he, at least, has moved from one pennant contender on the banks of Lake Erie to another down by that glistening San Diego waterfront. Where he gets to reap the pleasures and benefits of having one of the left coast’s two true marquee talents having his back at shortstop and lightening his loads at the plate.

It was enough for the Padres to swing and fling their way into the postseason picture, sitting five games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the West but tied with the Chicago Cubs at three and a half games up in the wild card picture. They’re not just making noise, they’re making memories of the kind San Diego hasn’t seen in a very long time.

These are fun days to be a Padre. And, a Padre fan. So much so that a Twitter wag couldn’t resist wondering if their trade deadline wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing didn’t set at least one weird record: most players sharing the name Austin (including Moreland: it’s his middle name) moving to one team or another in a series of trades made by one team in the same deadline period.

Well, what’s baseball, too, if not the still-singular repository for silly records? Now the Padres hope their wheeling, dealing, and possible stealing produce the kind of record that’s not so silly, if you don’t count the semi-Mad Hatter style postseason to come. The kind of record that gets them to the postseason in the first place.

All they have to do is make sure Clevinger can’t be too seduced by that delicious waterfront to break the safety protocols again.

That’s the way the cookies crumble

2020-07-26 McNeil'sDog

I’ve heard of Bark in the Park but this was ridiculous, sort of: Cardboard cutouts of (left to right) Griffey (belonging to Michael Conforto), Kali (also Conforto’s), and Willow (belonging to Jeff McNeil), watching from the right field seats in Citi Field Saturday . . . moments before Adam Duvall’s home run caught Willow right in the snoot.

So you’re still not thrilled about those new rules this year about the free runner on second to open the extra inning or the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? You’re not alone. Cleveland Indians righthander Mike Clevinger is on your side. (And mine.)

You could say Clevinger has solid reason. In the Indians’ second game of the new truncated season, after his rotation mate Shane Beiber came up one short of the Opening Day strikeout record, Clevinger saw his seven-inning Saturday start (ruined only by a pair of Kansas City Royals homers back to back in the first) laid waste by the cookie on second.

He also got to see the Royals’ new manager Mike Matheny roll serious dice and come up boxcars. The Royals got what proved the game-winning run without a single official at-bat on the ledger. We tried to warn you this kind of mischief was possible.

It went like this: Since the free cookie on second is the guy who batted last for the team, Kansas City veteran Alex Gordon opened the top of the tenth on second. Until he didn’t; Matheny sent reserve outfielder Brett Phillips to run for him to open. He ordered Erick Mejia to bunt Phillips to third, before Matt Franco sent Phillips home with a sacrifice fly to break the two-all tie.

After Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez walked, he got thrown out stealing with center fielder Bubba Starling at the plate. Then Greg Holland—the prodigal Royals reliever, far enough removed from the days he anchored their once-feared H-D-H bullpen (Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvim Herrera)—shook off plunking Indians center fielder Bradley Zimmer leading off and struck out the side in the bottom of the tenth.

Clevinger thought it was all about as amusing as a boom box aboard a hearse.

“This isn’t travel ball,” he told reporters after the game. “You know how hard it is to get a runner on second base off the back end of any bullpen, how incredibly hard that is? I’m not happy about it. I’m sure when other teams face the situation and this happens to them, you’re going to get similar reactions.”

Calling the New York Mets. They got burned but good Saturday afternoon. It was bad enough that closer Edwin Diaz followed an excellent save on Opening Day with having the Atlanta Braves down to their final strike—after he fell behind 3-0 on Marcell Ozuna—only to have Ozuna send one over the right field fence to send the game to the tenth tied likewise at two.

Then Mets manager Luis Rojas, knowing the three-batter minimum, sent Hunter Strickland (erstwhile Giant and National) out to pitch the tenth. This was something like naming Mrs. O’Leary’s cow the official mascot of the Chicago Fire Department.

The good news was that, unlike on outings past, Strickland didn’t have long balls to serve, a la carte or otherwise. The bad news was that, since the Braves didn’t exactly have bunts on their minds, Rojas didn’t think to order Strickland to put the inning’s leadoff hitter, Dansby Swanson, aboard—with Adam Duvall, the last Brave to bat in the ninth, as the free cookie on second—to set up a prompt double play.

Instead, Rojas let Strickland pitch to Swanson and the Braves’ shorstop lined a Strickland slider just above the middle floor of the strike zone into center field, sending Duvall home promptly with the tiebreaking run. Johan Comargo, the Braves’ lesser-hitting third baseman, bounced one up the middle that Mets late-insertion second baseman Andres Gimenez couldn’t spear to send Swanson to third.

If Rojas ordered Swanson a free pass to open the inning, Gimenez might instead have speared that bouncer for either a step-and-throw double play or a quick flip to shortstop Amed Rosario to dial Area Code 4-6-3. Leaving the Braves no recourse but a base hit to get Duvall home.

And the inning would have gone 3-2 to the bottom of the tenth, and the Mets’ run would have tied the game. Sending it to the eleventh and . . . oops. Free cookies on second and three-batter relief minimums to open each half inning there, too, if each skipper reached for a fresh bullpen bull.

Stuck now with Strickland having to face a third batter at minimum by current law, Rojas could only watch helplessly when Strickland got the Braves’ late-insertion center fielder Endier Inciarte to bounce one right back to the box but bobbled the ball before having to take the sure out at first. Now it was 4-2, Braves, and Rojas had all the legal room on earth to get Strickland out of there before playing with another match.


Even with Drew Smith up and ready in the Mets’ bullpen, Rojas stuck with Strickland. And Strickland played with another match. William Contreras, the younger brother of Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, smashed a first-pitch slider to the back of right center for an RBI double.

Then Rojas brought in Smith. And Smith promptly got Ronald Acuna, Jr. to look at strike three before Ozzie Albies grounded out to first base for the side but a 5-3 deficit the Mets couldn’t overthrow in the bottom of the tenth. Not even with free cookie Jeff McNeil on second to open and Jake Marisnick (erstwhile Houston Astro) and Pete Alonso singling up the pipe to load the pads for pinch hitter Dominic Smith.

That was last year: Smith returning from the injured list for the Mets’ final regular season game, pinch-hitting with two on in the bottom of the eleventh, and hitting a game-winning three-run homer. This was Saturday afternoon: The best Smith could get this time was a measly sacrifice fly. Not enough. Mets catcher Wilson Ramos grounded to short to force Alonso at second for the game.

It only takes one game to make a manager go from resembling a genius, which Rojas resembled when the Mets beat the Braves on Opening Day, to a nut, which Rojas resembled trusting the top of the tenth—after his closer blew the ninth in the first place—to a once-decent relief pitcher whom the eventual world champion Washington Nationals practically ordered held hostage out of sight after he surrendered three homers in last year’s division series.

But if Braves manager Brian Snitker thinks he’s liking the extra-inning free runner and the three-batter relief minimum now, wait until his Braves get burned likewise by it in a game. He may have something different to say about it then.

I have something to say about it now: if commissioner Rob Manfred is still foolish enough to insist on using the free cookies on second to start the extra innings this season, then he should declare the three-batter-minimum for relief pitchers void for those innings. No questions asked.

At least there was one amusement for both sides before the game ended. Duvall smacked a home run off Mets starter Steven Matz in the top of the second. With Citi Field empty beyond a smattering of cardboard cutouts in the seats, Duvall’s blast sailed into the right field seats . . . where it smacked the cardboard cutout of one of McNeil’s dogs, an Alaskan Malamute puppy named Willow, sitting next to cutouts of outfielder Michael Conforto’s dogs, Griffey and Kali.

Right in the snoot.

If you’ll pardon the expression, the wags said it was the easiest game of fetch Willow played all year so far. The game result, however, had some thinking the poochie took such postgame requests as “Willow Weep for Me.”