The Mets re-heat to burn the Indians

2019-08-21 JDDavisWilsonRamos

J.D. Davis and Wilson Ramos bump the forearms after Davis’s two-run homer in the bottom of the second gives the Mets their first lead in a 9-2 win against the AL wild card-leading Indians Tuesday night.

Five days ago, the Mets were something of a wreck. Looking more like their earlier season selves than their post All-Star break juggernaut.

They lost a pair to the National League East-leading Braves that they could have won, then they beat the Braves despite seeming to do everything in their power to snatch defeat from the jaws of a blowout.

Then they took two out of three in Kansas City from the American League Central’s rebuilding Royals, nothing remotely close to the Royals who beat them in a World Series they could have won but for porous defense.

But there was still that little matter of coming home with the Indians due for a visit. The Mets’ rounds with the big boys weren’t over yet. Opening Tuesday night, the Mets began a set between baseball’s two hottest post All-Star teams. Making it arguably even up in import to the set they blew in Atlanta last week.

The pre-break Mess, risen from the dead. The pre-break Indians, yanking themselves from an injury, inconsistency, and once in awhile indifferent wreck to put a near-end to the juggernaut from Minnesota that’s proving you can’t always just bludgeon your way to the top and keep as much as an eleven-and-a-half-game distance in front.

The Mets suddenly re-resembled a group of crisis junkies whose apparent such addiction didn’t stop them from taking a set against the Nationals but threatened to wreck them against the Braves last week, before re-charging in Kansas City. The Indians finished pulling themselves all the way back to the AL Central’s penthouse. The Tribe even claimed first place for a couple of days and still sit only a couple of games behind the Twins in their division.

And they entered Citi Field Tuesday on an extended New York trip. After taking three out of four from the Twins but losing two out of three to the somewhat rickety Red Sox, the Indians split a set with the Yankees in the south Bronx before opening against the Mets. This may be the first time in the interleague play era that the Indians didn’t have to switch up their hotel reservations after finishing a visit to one team before starting the next one.

And with a little side intrigue involving Mets manager Mickey Callaway—once embattled, now looking somewhat more secure—compelled to try out-thinking and out-maneuvering his former boss, Indians manager Terry Francona, the Mets did something last week’s Atlanta excursion might have left people thinking was two things, difficult and impossible.

They beat the Indians 9-2 Tuesday night. They took the lead twice, and the second time they didn’t let the Tribe even think about trying to re-tie or overtake them by the time Mets reliever Paul Sewald—whose career has been described as up and down when observers have wished to be polite—struck out Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin back-to-back to end it.

It didn’t faze Mets starter Steven Matz when Jason Kipnis sent a hanging changeup over the right center field fence with two out in the top of the second. He still scattered five hits and a pair of walks otherwise while striking out seven in six and a thirds innings and outpitched Shane Bieber, whose striking out of the side before the home audience nailed him the All-Star Game’s MVP over a month ago.

And well it shouldn’t have fazed Matz because J.D. Davis had an answer for Kipnis in the bottom of the second. With Mets catcher Wilson Ramos aboard on a one-out base hit right up the pipe, Davis caught hold of a 1-0 Bieber slider down the pipe and sent it over the center field fence, right past the big housing for the big red apple that rises whenever a Met hits one out at home, a holdover from the ten-years-gone Shea Stadium.

“The scouting report was to attack him early,” Davis said after the game. “He threw strikes early in the count, and in that at-bat, I was aggressive with the 0-0 fastball. Then he went to the off-speed pitch, and we got him. I think that was his first time out of the stretch, and he left one over the plate.”

A throwing error by Mets third baseman Todd Frazier opened the Cleveland fourth with Yasiel Puig on first. He got as far as second when Jose Ramirez followed with a base hit before coming home on Kipnis’s single up the pipe to tie things at two. Then Matz contained the damage by getting a fly out, an infield force, and dropping strike three in on Bieber, whose hitting experience was limited to one walk and one base hit in a mere eight trips to the plate entering Tuesday.

Two three-up, three-down innings for each pitcher later, the Indians learned the hard way what happens when you make even the tiniest mistake against these Mets. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, left fielder Oscar Mercado had a perfect bead drawn on Mets second baseman Joe Panik’s opposite-field fly. That despite shortstop Francisco Lindor looking likewise before Mercado called him off.

Against the railing, the ball descended into and right out of Mercado’s glove in an instant. A fan may or may not have interfered with the play. Francona elected not to challenge it because, as he put it, “It was really iffy.” The fan was ejected from Citi Field post haste.

A center fielder ordinarily, Mercado didn’t try to excuse himself, either. “I just dropped it,” said Mercado after the game. “I thought I had it just like with every other flyball I’ve caught in my life, but it just popped out of my glove.” After Pete Alonso struck out looking at one that barely hit the low outside corner, there was nothing iffy about Michael Conforto popping Bieber’s 1-2 slider almost exactly into the same spot where Kipnis’s second-inning blast landed.

“I feel like that swung the whole momentum of the game,” Bieber said after the game. “If I make a better pitch there, we probably have a different result.”

“We’ve had a feeling over this run that we’ve been on that we might not get them the first time through the order,” said Conforto, mindful of how good Bieber has been overall this year, “but our lineup has been so good, our hitters have been able to figure out ways to get on base, figure out ways to get runs in.

“We just feel that regardless of who is pitching, we’re going to put a lot of runs on the board. Any time the defense gives us an opportunity like that, we have to take advantage of it, so that was huge.”

All the Mets have to do in concert with that is keep from giving the other guys even remotely comparable opportunities. While taking advantage of every gift from every bullpen bull they can handle.

With both starters out of the game by the bottom of the seventh, the Mets got even more playful with the Indians’ bullpen in that inning. They introduced themselves to Adam Cinder with a leadoff single and a followup walk. Then they re-introduced the Indians to an old buddy, Rajai Davis, called up after a term in Syracuse found him re-grouping respectably enough to get a second term as a Met.

Davis tried bunting both runners over. He got Juan Lagares (the walk) to second but the Indians nailed Frazier (the leadoff hit) at third while Davis arrived at first. Then Mets shortstop Amed Rosario, one of their hotter bats of late, drove Lagares home with a base hit up the pipe.

“This game can really bring you to your knees sometimes,” Cimber said after the game. That’s the voice of a righthander against whom righthanded batters hit only .227 against him before he tangled with the Mets’ righthanded foursome. “You’ve just to keep moving forward and fight your way through it. The last couple of weeks I’ve been grinding a little bit. It’s something everybody goes through and it’s my turn now.”

Exit Cinder, enter Hunter Wood. And Panik sent Davis home with an opposite-field single, before Alonso atoned for looking at strike three his previous time up by doubling home both Rosario and Panik, then taking third on a wild pitch before Wood and the Indians escaped.

Davis the Rajai re-joined the Mets’ party a little more forcefully in the bottom of the eighth, when he turned on Indians reliever Phil Maton’s slightly hanging curve ball and hung it down the left field line for an RBI double sending Lagares home with the ninth Mets run.

All that on a day when injured list news was mixed for both teams. The Indians shut Corey Kluber down two more weeks with an abdominal strain he suffered during a rehab outing; the Mets shut down reliever Robert Gsellman, possibly for the season, after his injury turned up a torn lat muscle.

But Carlos Carrasco’s comeback while battling leukemia goes to a second rehab outing after he looked impressive enough in his first, which stands to help the Cleveland bullpen since that’s where they plan to bring him.

And Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (bulging neck disk) advanced to Syracuse on his rehab and had a 2-for-5 day while playing center field for five innings. Nimmo’s return may provide a slightly ticklish outfield situation for the Mets, but these Mets have known far more troublesome knots this year.

Maybe last week in Atlanta really will prove a little hiccup, after all, but these Mets haven’t begun full recovery from crisis addiction just yet. Even if they’re still talking as much in postseason mode as they’ve begun playing again. Taking at least two of the three with the Indians will go big in that recovery. Especially with more big boys awaiting them.

“I think we all knew,” said J.D. Davis, “that even though it’s August, the playoffs started today. We have to have that playoff mentality, that playoff atmosphere, that every game counts, especially with the hole we dug ourselves into. I think the elephant in the room is that we have a lot of home games but a lot of games against playoff teams.”

That’s not elephant singular. That’s a pack of pachyderm awaiting them still. The Braves and the Cubs come to town after they’re finished with the Indians; between the two, the Cubs could be slightly easier pickings based on recent performances. And, after a road trip to Philadelphia and Washington, the Mets return home for a ten-game homestand against the Phillies, the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers.

Tuesday night? The Mets send Marcus Stroman out to face the Indians’ Adam Plutko, who beat the Yankees to open the Indians’ New York excursion. With the Mets 25-10 since the break and the Indians 24-14 in the same period, this isn’t exactly a plain pit stop for either team.

And if you’re looking for historically rooted omens, half a century ago the Mets were ten games out of first in the NL East—and went all the way to win their first World Series. Four years later, they eleven and a half out and dead last in the division—and won the pennant before pushing the Swingin’ A’s to a seventh World Series game.

Today they’re nine games out of first but two games away from the second NL wild card. With a clean shot at re-proving their post All-Star mettle against the AL’s wild card leaders, who’ve proven they’re not exactly willing to play dead when told to do so, either.

 

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.

Life comes in threes for these Mets

2019-08-09 MichaelConforto

Michael Conforto, seconds from being stripped topless and bathed in Gatorade bucket ice, after his RBI finally beat the Nats Friday night in the ninth.

The question before the Citi Field house, and practically all of baseball Friday night, was whether the resurrected Mets—who’d done it mostly on the backs of the bottom crawlers—could hang with the big boys. Even if Friday night’s big boys out of Washington were picking themselves up by their own bootstraps after an almost-as-nightmarish first half.

The answer came in two parts.

Part one: a comeback from three down against Stephen Strasburg, the Nats’ best starting pitcher with Max Scherzer still in drydock over his bothersome back, in the bottom of the fourth. Part two: Another comeback from three runs down, and a game-winning RBI, off a Nats reliever the Mets turned into their personal pinata all season long.

Sean Doolittle against the rest of baseball in 2019: nine runs surrendered. Sean Doolittle against these Mets before he went to work in the bottom of the ninth: nine runs. The Mets as a team hit .385 against Doolittle in 2019 before Friday night, good for a ghastly 10.13 ERA for Doolittle against them.

The kid corps took care of business in the third. The old men took care of most of it in the ninth, including four straight inning-opening hits including a game re-tying three-run homer. Until Michael Conforto, all of a five-year young veteran, drove home old man Juan Lagares for a 7-6 win that was both the first for the Mets in a game they trailed after eight this and surrealistic even by the standards of this year’s surrealistic Mets.

Conforto barely rounded first when his celebrating teammates stripped him topless in celebration of the absolute first game-ending hit of his career. Then hit him with the Gatorade bucket ice shower. That’s how crazy this one went, right down to the proverbial wire. It didn’t exactly begin with things looking even reasonable for the Mets.

And it almost ended after an unreasonable lapse in the top of the ninth sent them three down for the second time. Apparently, the Mets didn’t get the memo saying they were supposed to tuck their tails between their legs and take it like a manperson from the almost-equally re-upstart Nats. Whoever intercepted the memo should be named the game’s most valuable player.

For the first three innings Strasburg was perfect and Mets starter Marcus Stroman, in his first gig in Citi Field, was out of character. Strasburg threw stuff that found his fielders invariably and picked up a punchout per inning. Stroman, the homecoming import from Toronto, forgot he was the John Coltrane of the ground ball and blew away seven on strikeouts, including five straight from the first to the second.

Alas, in the top of the third it began to look like the resurrected Mets couldn’t really hang with the Washington resurrected. The Nats hung up a three-spot in the top thanks in part to Anthony Rendon’s RBI triple flying just past a pair of oncoming Mets outfielders, one of whose knees (Jeff McNeil) had an unexpected and unwanted rendezvous with another’s (Conforto) face. And, thanks in larger part to Juan Soto sailing one parabolically over the right field fence.

Maybe the Nats would escape having to deal with the Mets without Scherzer, after all. Maybe an inning saying “take this, peasants!” would stick a barb into the newly upstart Mets.

But in the bottom of the third Nats first baseman Matt Adams, who’s not exactly the second coming of Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez at first base, as it is, inexplicably let leadoff walker McNeil escape unscathed, failing to throw him out at second despite all the time on earth to do it off Amed Rosario’s ground out. And after Conforto popped out to Rendon next to third base, up stepped Rookie of the Year candidate Pete Alonso.

In four seconds flat, Strasburg’s sinking changeup traveled from the end of Alonso’s bat over the heads of Hernandez and the rest of the Mets’ broadcast team (Gary Cohen and ex-pitcher Ron Darling), stationed behind the fence for a change, and into the left field seats. Making Alonso the first Mets rook to clear the fences in four straight games since Larry Elliott in 1963.

And five pitches later, J.D. Davis caught hold of a Strasburg four-seamer coming just inside the zone and drove it the other way into the upper deck behind right. Tie game. Just like that. “Who you callin’ peasants, peasants?!?”

Stroman seemed so impervious to the Nats trying to make his life difficult the second time around the order that, after he walked Trea Turner and surrendered an almost prompt single to Adam Eaton for first and second and two out in the fifth, he slipped a full-count cutter right beneath Rendon for swinging strike three, the side, and his eighth punchout of the night.

Then the Nats got a little more frisky in the sixth. A leadoff double down the right field line by Soto. A single by Adams that eluded Alonso diving into the hole for first and third. And a sharp grounder to third by Kurt Suzuki that looked like the Mets would concede the lead run to turn the double play.

Mets third baseman Todd Frazier was having none of that. He threw home as if premeditated. Catcher Wilson Ramos blocked the hopper perfectly, held the ball, and Soto was in the rundown. The lone mistake was the Mets making the extra throw to nail Soto, allowing Adams to third and Suzuki to second. With one out. But Brian Dozier hit a laser to shortstop. And Rosario made as though he’d been studying Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. He leaped and speared the laser with a hearty overhead glove snap as if he’d been praying for this one all night long. Then Stroman struck out Strasburg himself for the side.

Bullet dodged? Try howitzer. This was the Met defense that could have been tried by jury for treason not a fortnight ago? And maybe nobody in Citi Field was happier or making more racket than Stroman’s mother, resplendent in a blue Mets alternate jersey, jumping and whooping it up from her seat.

The Nats dodged a howitzer of their own in the bottom of the sixth. With first and third they caught a phenomenal break when plate umpire Mark Carlson called ball four on Davis, on a pitch that missed the inside of the zone and on which Davis checked his swing. But first base umpire Tripp Gibson rang Davis up, erroneously, as an overhead replay showed vividly.

Conforto running on the pitch stole second to set up first and third. But if the Mets went on to lose this game, that blown strike would likely have haunted them the rest of the weekend. Maybe the rest of the season, too, depending.

But the Nats pulled Strasburg’s kishkes away from the long knives when Ramos grounded to third, Rendon threw a little wide to first, and Adams bellyflopped like an appendicitic whale behind the base, somehow keeping his toe on the pad and the ball in his mitt, long enough for the side. It would have been the play of the game if the Nats somehow pried a win out of the Mets after saving that would-have-been tiebreaking run.

And in the top of the seventh it looked as though they’d do just that, when Rendon—after a leadoff walk to Turner pushed Stroman out, bringing in lefty Justin Wilson to strike out Adam Eaton—hit Wilson’s first service into the left field seats. “Go figure,” Hernandez purred on the broadcast. “Wilson has poor numbers against Eaton and strikes him out. He has good numbers against Rendon and Rendon hits one out.”

That’s Andujar’s Law, folks: In baseball, there’s just one word—you never know.

But did the Mets know they were done for yet?

They may have had a suspicion when Strasburg, sent back for the bottom of the seventh, took care of Frazier, newly minted Met second baseman Joe Panik (signed after the veteran Giant was designated for assignment, following their acquisition of Scooter Gennett from the Reds), and pinch hitter Luis Gillorme.

Then they thought, not quite yet, after Robert Gsellman worked a reasonably effortless three-and-three top of the eighth. And one of the Nats’ new bullpen toys, former Blue Jay and Dodger Daniel Hudson, opened the bottom by fooling McNeil completely with a changeup hitting the low inner corner. But Rosario gunned a slightly hanging breaking ball to the back corner of the left field grass for a one-out double.

Conforto pushed him to third with a jam-shot ground out up the first base line. After Hudson fed Alonso a diet of high fastballs that Alonso kept fouling off like they were castor oil, alas, Hudson threw him something good enough only to be whacked on the ground to short for the side.

Gsellman went back to open the ninth. The shaggy righthander wrestled Turner to a full count, something into which Turner is very good at wrestling himself when he begins down in the count, then watched Turner foul off a trio before lining a base hit to right. And then Eaton, who’d had nothing to show for four previous plate gigs against Gsellman, pushed a tiny bunt off to the left of the plate from which nobody could throw him out. Even with a shotgun for an arm.

First and second, nobody out, and Rendon at the plate with a .500+ lifetime batting average against Gsellman. But Rendon almost promptly flied out to right, allowing Turner to take third on the play. Prompting Mets manager Mickey Callaway—once beleaguered, now riding the unlikely post All-Star break Mets success—to reach for lefty Luis Avilan to work to the lefthanded Soto, who was one triple short of the cycle.

Not tonight. Avilan struck Soto out on a lazy looking changeup. Up stepped the lumbering Adams, 2-for-4 on the night to that point. Eaton stole second on 1-0, but Avilan pushed Adams to 1-2 before a changeup missed for 2-2.

But then Avilan threw Adams a changeup that hit the dirt and bounced off the veteran Ramos, himself an ex-Nat. Ramos and Avilan each looked as though they’d fallen asleep on their feet as Ramos barely moved back toward the plate and Avilan inexplicably failed to get there in time to cover, as Turner hustled home with the sixth Nats run.

Then Avilan struck out Adams for the side. Leaving the Mets with Doolittle as their last, best hope to save their own kishkes. To lose this one stood a good chance of cutting their momentum and morale completely in half. And Doolittle and his Nats knew it.

But the Mets knew they had the lefthander by the short and curlies almost before he went to work in the bottom of the ninth. The whole season’s record against him was evidence enough.

Sure enough, Davis opened rudely enough by whacking a double to left. And Ramos promptly sent him to third with a line single up the pipe. And Frazier tied the game with a mammoth rip down the left field line and just fair past the foul pole. The way Citi Field went berserk you’d have thought they were watching the resurrection of the 1969 Mets from half a century ago.

Panik, the newest Met, promptly singled to center, only to be forced at second when Lagares’s bunt floated in the air, leaving Panik stuck to determine whether it would hit the ground before running, allowing Rendon hustling in from third to throw as Doolittle in front of him bent over to give him room, getting Panik by several steps. And McNeil flied out to right almost at once.

Two out, extra innings against these relentless Nats looming. Right?

Wrong.

Rosario shot a tracer to left center for a hit setting up first and second. Then Conforto caught hold of a 2-2 inside fastball and sent it on a high line to right, far enough to elude the onrushing Eaton and bound off the fence with Lagares atoning for the busted bunt by scampering home with the winning run.

These Mets can hang with the bigger boys when they need to. They’ve got arguable the toughest schedule remaining among National League contenders and re-contenders. Until Friday night, a Met journey of a thousand miles was more liable to begin with two flats and a busted transmission than a smooth-running vehicle.

They repaired the flats and un-busted the transmission in reasonably record time. Pulling themselves to within a game and a half of the Nats in the National League’s wild card standings at long enough last.

Don’t ask if anything could possibly be wilder than this one’s finish. Both teams know you probably ain’t seen nothing yet. And you might see everything before this set’s finished.

“We are now in crunch time”

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Pete Alonso a second from starting the Mets’ barrage against the Marlins Wednesday. He says it’s crunch time. Do the Mets continue to crunch, or will they be crunched?

Somebody post guards at the Citi Field clubhouse entrance. Have them ask for I.D. Check it against all known club records. Because whoever these guys are, are we really sure these are the Mets?

Are these the Mets who looked so caught between bewitched, bothered, and bewildered that their hapless, in-over-his-head manager was getting more votes of confidence in three months than a beleaguered (and often two jumps short of overthrow or assassination) head of foreign state gets in a year?

Are these the Mets whose starting pitchers finished their assignments having to try their level best not to sneak into the clubhouse to call the arson squad after the bullpen gates opened and forward came yet another arsonist?

Are these the Mets whose rookie general manager challenged the rest of the league, “Come and get us,” then looked shell shocked (and lost his temper when he threw a chair at manager Mickey Callaway in a closed-door meeting) after the rest of the league, mostly, did just that?

Are these the Mets who could hit anytime but when it really mattered the most, who had defenders either out of position or losing their grip even if left in proper position, until they couldn’t stop enemy grounders or run down enemy flies with walls, bridges, and butterfly nets?

Except for two deals on or close to the new single mid-season trade deadline, and maybe a couple of DFAs along the way, these are those Mets.

Before the All-Star break, they were ten games under .500 and nobody could still decide whether Callaway still needed to be sent to a new line of employment known as unemployment alone or whether the rookie GM needed to join him there, as part one of a complete top-to-bottom de-lousing.

Since the All-Star break: the Mets are 19-6. They’re 13-1 since taking a second of three from the Padres on 23 July. They’ve not only yanked themselves back, improbably, into the National League wild card hunt, they’ve yanked themselves back into the National League East conversation.

And it’s right on the threshold of a six-game test that will determine once and for all whether these Mets have merely shaken away first-half growing pains and proven smart to stand 99 percent pat at the trade deadline, or whether they’ve revived themselves into a big, fat, air-out-of-the-tires letdown.

It’s not that beating up on such clubs as the Pirates, the White Sox, and the Marlins is doing it entirely the easy way; each of thoseis capable of making things just a little challenging for any contender assuming they’re pushovers on the way to glory.

But while the Mets just finished a sweep of the Fish in New York with a 7-2 Wednesday scaling that featured four home runs—including a pair of two-run jobs from Michael Conforto and Rookie of the Year candidate Pete Alonso hitting his third bomb in three consecutive games following a somewhat surprising launch drought—trouble comes to town Friday.

Trouble named the Nationals. Trouble more specifically named Stephen Strasburg, against whom the newest Met, Marcus Stroman, gets to square off in his first Citi Field start. Trouble named the Nats having rehorsed almost the same as the Mets after they, too, spent too much of the first half looking lost and bullpen-burned.

So far this season the Mets have the upper hand on the Nats at 8-5 in the season series. But that was then: the Mets slapped around a Nats group who looked almost as addled as they did, especially during a late May sweep in Washington. This is now: Nobody’s been as good as the Mets since the All-Star break, but the Nats being 13-11 since the break doesn’t exactly qualify them as pushovers, either

On the other hand, the Nats are 8-7 to the Mets’ 13-1 on the threshold of the weekend set. They’re hoping Strasburg pitches like the guy who’s 8-1 with a 2.18 ERA lifetime in Citi Field and a 2.48 ERA overall against the Mets in his career Friday night.

The Mets, for their part, hope their tuning up against the mostly bottom-crawlers since the break has them primed to pry a few runs out of Strasburg before getting into a bullpen that’s improved enough in the past month and a half but might still have its vulnerabilities enough to count.

On deadline day the Nats gave the bullpen a repair job, not a complete overhaul. They imported three serviceable relief arms—Roenis Elias, Daniel Hudson, and Hunter Strickland—but they lost a game they needed to win badly enough the same night, 5-4 to the Braves in ten innings.

Including that loss they’re exactly 3-3 on the threshold of Friday night, including back-to-back wins against the likewise unexpectedly resurgent Giants. But with the Mets showing baseball’s best record since the All-Star break, the Nats likewise face a slightly bigger test. They went 3-4 against the NL East-leading Braves in July. Not a good sign.

Especially with the Braves looking quite a bit less since the break than they looked before it. The runaway NL East train has gone from express to local: like the Nats, the Braves gave their bullpen a bit of a remake at the trade deadline, importing Shane Greene and Mark Melancon. Like the Nats, the Braves since the All-Star break are 13-11 and 3-3 in their last six games, including a split with the AL Central-leading Twins.

On second thought, it may not be as difficult as Met fans might fear for the Mets to get past the Nats and the Braves for the next six games. But if they don’t beat Strasburg Friday night, it won’t necessarily be simple business for the Mets even if Max Scherzer’s errant back means they won’t have to think about him again until early September.

Another piece of good news for the Mets going in: they have what Alonso calls “a ton more home games in August and September.” ‘Tis true. They’ve played 63 games on the road so far this year and only 51 at home. They have twelve more home games this month and seventeen in September.

But look at most of their coming opponents after the coming six with the Nats and the Braves: After three with another bottom-feeding rebuilder (the Royals), the Mets get the Indians, the Braves again (this time at home), the Cubs (home), the Phillies (road, though the Phillies may still be teetering away by that time), the Nats again (road), the Phillies again (home), the Diamondbacks (home), the threshing-machine Dodgers (home), and—after road sets with the Rockies and the Reds—they finish at home against the Marlins and, to end the regular season, the Braves.

The Braves need to do better than their 14-10 July to keep the pace theirs. Turning their 3-3 August beginning into something resembling their staggering 20-7 June would be huge. With Dansby Swanson not expected back from the injured list until later this month, and veteran godsend Nick Markakis not expected back until some time near mid September, that might be easier said than done.

No wonder Alonso could and did tweet, “We are in crunch time . . .Hard work has really been paying off this second half. The rest of the season is going to be a really fun, wild, memorable ride.” He may have made the understatement of the year for the Mets, as understated as his home runs have been conversation pieces.

Half a century ago to the season, another band of Mets rode a second-half surge to a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. Alonso tweets like a young man who believes in miracles. The Mets since the break have played like a team that believes likewise.

It’s better than burying them alive as just about all of us were ready to do when May and June ended, of course, but “crunch time” now means the Mets will either crunch or be crunched.

The Mets leave the Twins a mess for now

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Pete Alonso hits . . . not just a two-run homer but a conversation piece Wednesday in the eighth.

Until the All-Star break the Twins, of all people, looked like the shock of the season with reasonable ownership of the American League Central. And the Mets looked like the National League’s clown show without the benefit of drawing laughs other than those mixing disgust and dejection.

Twins fans have taken the ride savouring every day so far. Mets fans have laughed like Figaro—that they might not weep.

Except when Pete Alonso catches hold of one, with or without men on, in the eighth inning or otherwise. Then, Mets fans weep for sheer joy. Unless their jaws hit the floor as on Wednesday afternoon, when Alonso didn’t just hit a two-run homer, he hit something liable to be picked up on satellite-orbiting radar.

This was one day after the Mets kind of snuck a 3-2 win past the Twins. A former Minnesotan of my acquaintance habitually believes anything good from the Twins is an illusion and anything bad a matter of established fact, phrasing it as politely as longtime Twins fans are reputed for being. Then came Wednesday’s top of the eighth and it was too much for even the most cynical Twins fan.

Who did the Twins think they were all of a sudden—the Mets?

It began with a walk. It climaxed with a monstrous home run. In between came the sort of thing for which the Mets are only too well disregarded and the Twins aren’t exactly among baseball’s most notorious practitioners.

Twins reliever Matt Magill opened by walking Robinson Cano, the designated hitter on the day, who’s come to that point in his career where he’ll take his base any way he can get there, unfortunately for the Mets. Then, Magill struck out Todd Frazier and Michael Conforto swinging in succession. Followed by Amed Rosario shooting a base hit up the pipe for first and second. And then it happened.

Mets second baseman Adeiny Hechevarria sent a fly toward the left field track. Eddie Rosario, sunglasses wrapped snugly around his eyes, drifted back with a perfect bead on the ball until, so it looked, even the sunglasses couldn’t keep his eyes focused as the sun hit the lenses with a nova-like blast. The ball descended to his glove, then rebounded right out of it.

Cano and Rosario hit the jets and scored handily. Then Jeff McNeil doubled off the right field wall to send Hechevarria home. Dominic Smith—who’d smashed a pinch-hit three-run homer to give the Mets a 5-3 lead in the first place an inning earlier—sent McNeil home with a single.

Up stepped Alonso. He looked at two sliders sailing up to the plate under the strike zone floor. He looked at another slider hitting the inside wall of the zone, barely. Then he saw a slider hanging up in roughly the same spot, maybe an inch further on the inside of the plate. And he sent it halfway up the third deck past the left field fence, bouncing off an empty seat and past a female fan who’d bent over futilely trying to grab the ball.

It was only Alonso’s first bomb since he won the Home Run Derby in Cleveland over a week earlier. But the 474-foot flog couldn’t have been any deadlier if he’d hit it with a sledgehammer and not a bat.

Magill got Mets catcher Wilson Ramos to ground out to end the carnage—temporarily. The Twins kindly sent reserve shortstop Ehire Adrianza out to take one for the team in the top of the ninth. The poor guy ended up taking three for the team thanks to a two-run triple (Amed Rosario) and an RBI double (Hechavarria).

Alonso himself looked as though he took pity on the Twins when he ended that inning with a hard ground out to third. Then Mets reliever Chris Mazza shook off a run-scoring ground out in the bottom of the eighth to work two solid relief innings and finish the 14-4 flogging.

These Twins opened the day with a cozy five-and-a-half-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central. But the Indians spent Monday and Tuesday dropping sixteen runs on the toothless Tigers for 8-6 and 8-0 final scores. And the Tribe didn’t seem likely to just roll over and play dead for the Detroit pussycats Wednesday night.

All of a sudden, the Twins thumping and bumping their way into being one of baseball’s 2019 feel-great stories looked very vulnerable after the Mets got through with them in a two-game set.

It didn’t start that way for the Mets. Already in certain disarray because of assorted issues and controversies on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the front office, they were forced to change plans when Zack Wheeler—scheduled to start Tuesday, in a certain trade-deadline-period showcase—hit the injured list with shoulder fatigue instead.

Forcing the Mets to turn to a bullpen game by using Steven Matz, a starter recently moved to the bullpen to fix himself, as an opener. Maybe it was an omen, because a lot of the kind of peculiar fortune that went against the Mets so far on the season went their way for a change.

Like in the top of the first, when McNeil and Conforto moved to third and second on a passed ball, Cano sent McNeil home with a sacrifice fly, and an error by Jonathan Schoop at second allowed Conforto home. Like when Rosario got to score while Conforto beat out a grounder to shortstop in the top of the fifth. And when six Mets relievers kept the Twins scoreless—despite loading the bases on closer Edwin Diaz—after the fourth.

A little more of that and a lot less of the kind of thing that turned them into a hybrid between nursery school and a slapstick academy and the Mets might not have made the wrong kind of truth out of rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s preseason challenge, “Come get us.”

Don’t look now, but the Mets are 5-1 including now a four-game winning streak since the All-Star break. And they’ve just taken a pair from the reputed threshing machine of the AL Central, including Wednesday’s human rights violations. It may or may not mean a turn of their sad seasonal tide, but this was one time the Mets didn’t need to ponder calling their therapists after a game.

Nor does being sliced, diced, pureed, and nuked Wednesday afternoon mean the Twins face a turn of their otherwise joyous seasonal tide in the wrong direction, either, just yet. But you might forgive them if they pondered calling Dial-A-Shrink for a few minutes.