A little hustle in the muscle

Dominic Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it wasn’t Baldelli’s fault

Luis Arraez

This off-balanced throw from third by Luis Arraez finished what Travis Blankenhorn’s bobble at second started for the Twins Wednesday. Neither was the manager’s fault.

Sometimes you can believe to your soul that second-guessing is in a dead heat with cheating as baseball’s oldest profession. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli may be re-learning the hard way since Wednesday’s 13-12 loss against the Athletics.

All Baldelli did was make one smart move in the top of a tenth inning the Twins shouldn’t have had to play in the first place . . . and watch in horror with every Twin fan in creation when it blew up in his face in the bottom of the tenth. Through absolutely no fault of his own.

Baldelli inserted a speedy young pinch runner, Travis Blankenhorn, for his slower free half inning-opening cookie Josh Donaldson. He found himself with a swift and fresh two-run lead after Byron Buxton, who may yet prove the Twins’ answer to Mike Trout, hit a two-run homer to return the Twins a two-run lead.

With Donaldson out of the game Baldelli shifted his second base incumbent Luis Arraez to third and inserted Blankenhorn at second. Bottom of the tenth: the pillows stuffed with A’s after Twins reliever Alex Colome walked veteran Elvis Andrus to load them up after he opened the inning with two outs and nobody on.

Then A’s left fielder Mark Canha whacked a none-too-sharp grounder right to Blankenhorn. And Blankenhorn—with double play obviously on his mind—lost his grip on the ball as he made a right-arm motion to throw without the ball secure in hand, the ball hitting the ground and A’s inning-opening free cookie Matt Chapman coming home.

And then Arraez double-clutched before throwing Ramon Laureano’s grounder with his right leg slightly unbalanced. The throw sailed wide enough behind first base to pass a train through the space, but this time the only things passing through were Andrus and pinch-runner Tony Kemp scoring the tying and winning runs.

The A’s ought to send Colome roses for really enabling the sweep that shouldn’t have been. Twin Territory ought to knock it off with hanging the goat horns on Baldelli’s none-too-bald head.

This game had no business getting to the extra innings in the first place. Not until Colome opened the bottom of the ninth by hitting Laureano with a pitch, continued by surrendering a one-out base hit to Matt Olson roomy enough for Laureano to take third, and finished by surrendering a game-tying sacrifice fly to Chapman. Picking Olson off for the side with Stephen Piscotty at the plate didn’t quite atone for Colome’s original sin.

“It’s just baseball and it’s hard to understand,” said Laureano, taking the simpler view. “We were still loose and having fun, so we knew we would win.”

“The way the first two games went and then neither team could hold either down,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin after putting his gift an an eleven-game A’s winning streak safely in the bank, “it was almost like it was going to go down to the last at-bat regardless. And then you know what? You put a ball in play. At that point in time it’s not about walks and strikeouts and all that. Put it in play and something good can happen.”

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Put a ball in play and something terrible can happen, too. If you’re an A’s fan, something wonderful happened. If you’re a Twins fan, you might want to think back to why the game shouldn’t have gotten to the extras in the first place.

For Baldelli to want some extra speed on the bases to open the top of the tenth wasn’t even close to the dumbest baseball move you’ll see. Blankenhorn had an .844 stolen base percentage in the minors. He was also a rangy enough second baseman who projected as a potential plus defender particularly adept at turning double plays.

You want to blame Baldelli for a rookie mistake, feel free. But a rookie mistake is just what Blankenhorn committed on the Canha grounder. A guy who turned 120 double plays in the minors should have remembered not to count his double plays before he turns them.

Arraez hasn’t played half the Show games at third that he’s played at second, and he isn’t the rangiest man on the planet at either position. But what he reaches or comes right to him, he handles under normal circumstances. Over three Show seasons Arraez entered Wednesday’s game with a measly four errors.

“In extra innings, if you don’t find a way to put a run on the board, you’re going to end up losing a lot of those games,” Baldelli told reporters after the game. “Doing everything possible to put that first run on the board is, I think, instrumental to finding ways to win those games.”

He did just what he thought possible opening the tenth and got immediate return when Buxton turned on Lou Trivino’s meatball up and drove it about seven rows into the high left center field seats.

And that was after Buxton spent the earlier portion of his evening going 2-for-5 with a double and taking an Olympics-like dive to spear Olson’s long sinking liner for the side, in the bottom of the sixth, preserving what was then a 10-9 Twins lead. Not to mention Nelson Cruz’s two-bomb night.

The Twins’ Wednesday starting pitcher, Kenta Maeda, the former Dodger, blamed himself for the disaster, after surrendering seven runs (three in the second, four in the third) to tie his career worst. “I could not set the tone,” he mourned. “If I had done that, we would have gotten that W.”

Yet the Twins hung up three-spots in the third, fifth, and sixth, after Donaldson himself hit A’s starter Frankie Montas’s first pitch over the left field corner fence in the top of the first.  That’d teach him.

“It’s been a hell of a trip, and not in a good way,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ now-concluded road trip, which involved postponements against the Angels due to COVID concerns followed by a loss to those Angels and now three straight losses to the A’s.

“Today was a game where we’re finding ways to not win games, even games that we should be winning,” he told the postgame questioners. “What we saw today is something we haven’t seen a ton from our group, and I stand in the front of it and take responsibility for all of it. It was a very difficult day.”

It wouldn’t have been that difficult if his man on the mound held fort in the ninth and his tenth-inning smarts weren’t rendered dumb by an anxious rook and an off-balance leg at third. Those mistakes can make Casey Stengel resemble Clyde Crashcup.