Mickey’s monkey is off the Mets backs

2019-10-04 MickeyCallaway

Now the former Mets manager . . .

The least unpredictable fact when the regular season ended was Mickey Callaway’s job status. Never mind the Mets’ little comedy of an organizational meeting without him; the question was when, not whether Callaway had a date with the executioner.

Thursday proved the when. Mickey’s monkey is off the Mets’ backs.

At least Mets chief Jeff Wilpon and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had the decency to fly to Callaway’s Florida home and tell him to his face. They didn’t send a flunky to do the firing for them, the way George Steinbrenner once did with Clyde King when he decided he wouldn’t fire Yogi Berra because the players did.

Even the Mets’ deceptive second-half self-resurrection, pulling them as close as two games from at least a wild card game entry but not quite close enough, wasn’t enough to save Callaway’s job. Or, for that matter, bench coach Jim Riggleman’s.

They brought Riggleman in to help shepherd Callaway through game situations. Riggleman doesn’t exactly have a sterling managerial record himself. And based on a lot of the Mets’ results this season, whether in the first half nightmare or the deceptive second half revival, it didn’t seem as though Riggleman was the best bridge lieutenant.

It’s a shame after a year during which the Mets yielded up the likely no-questions-asked National League Rookie of the Year (Pete Alonso) and possible second-straight National League Cy Young Award winner. (Jacob deGrom.) It’s no surprise, though, after the Mets played thrilling baseball one minute and looked like crisis junkies the next.

But time and again in the diciest moments Callaway’s moves blew up in his face, sometimes because that’s the way of the game and oftentimes because he wasn’t exactly the most in-tune observer of the moment.

One of them almost cost him his job in June. Against the Cubs in Wrigley Field, Callaway let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning’s relief work on a day Lugo didn’t exactly have his A game in his first inning’s work but Callaway had a fresh (and as yet uninjured) Robert Gsellman and his closer Edwin Diaz ready in the pen.

So Lugo went out for the eighth, fed Kyle Schwarber a hanger he was lucky didn’t disappear across the street but went up the middle for a shallow hit, walked Anthony Rizzo a fly out later, and served Javier Baez a meaty slider to serve into the right field bleachers, turning the game into a 5-3 Cub lead that held up through the ninth.

There wasn’t a reporter in the room who wouldn’t ask why Callaway stayed with a faltering Lugo who’d struggled to survive the seventh, or why he didn’t think to bring in Diaz to try for a five-out save after Schwarber’s single. Callaway snapped at Newsday writer Timothy Healey in particular, and so did then-Mets pitcher Jason Vargas, who threatened to “knock you the [fornicate] out.”

Right then and there another team’s general manager would have dumped Callaway and shuttled Vargas right the hell out of town. Right then and there nothing of the sort happened. It wasn’t Callaway’s first head-scratcher from the bridge and it sure as hell wouldn’t be the last:

* He often pulled his starting pitchers when they were more or less cruising and at extreme minimal pitch counts only to be caught by not having allowed his relievers enough warmup time. And this was from a manager who probably knew in his heart of guts that he could trust most of his bullpen the way a cobra would trust a mongoose on a dinner date.

* He never quite clued in to the idea that a lot of his pitchers were more comfortable throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate—with the numbers to back them up—than Wilson Ramos. This is probably on general manager Brodie Van Wagenen as well, but it merely amplified a key Mets dilemna: choosing between a catcher who could hit but didn’t always get the best out of his pitchers, or a catcher who usually got his pitchers’ best but couldn’t hit with the Washington Monument.

* Granted he had a bullpen of 98 percent arsonists, but he sometimes over-used his better bulls and never really defined who’d be doing what, particularly with his high-priced closer Edwin Diaz, who turned into a season-long mess wondering who’d burglarised him and made off with his once-deadly slider.

* In early September, with the Mets down 9-6 in the seventh, Callaway ordered an intentional walk to the Phillies’ number eight hitter to load the bases, even knowing Bryce Harper, who hadn’t started that day, loomed as a pinch hitter for Phillies reliever Mike Morin, merely because Callaway wanted Morin out of the game—which Morin was liable to be, anyway, after the inning ended.

Then Mets reliever Taylor Bashlor walked Harper unintentionally to bring home the tenth Phillies run. Be careful what you wish for.

Well respected as a pitching coach with the Indians, from whence the Mets hired him, Callaway—according to several published reports since his execution—rarely if ever drew on his pitching knowledge to give his pitchers more than cursory counsel. About the only thing he may have done, the reports say, was fume when pitching coach Dave Eiland was canned in favour of octogenarian Phil (The Vulture) Regan, who actually proved a lot more effective with Mets pitchers.

Callaway may also have helped cook himself by contravening earlier promises to open wider communication lines with his players. He’s said instead to have isolated himself in his office far more often and delegated far too many more responsibilities to his coaches.

And Mets players weren’t the only ones tempted to believe Callaway was really a front office plant who didn’t always call the shots. Nobody seemed to know whether his marching orders and in-game maneuvers came from Callaway himself, or from Van Wagenen, or even from chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

The only thing anyone knew was that, whether the Mets looked falling apart or looked like they’d really sneak into even the wild card picture, Callaway resembled a ship’s captain who couldn’t really believe torpedoes were striking for the hull and wouldn’t give the appropriate orders to cut them off.

So the question becomes whom the Mets will bring aboard to succeed Callaway. The answer may not be simple. And some of the options a lot of fans seem to favour may end up being worse.

One rumour has it that the Mets have eyes on former Cardinal manager Mike Matheny. Because he has postseason experience. Never mind that Matheny blew a couple of postseasons with his own head scratchers and refusal to contravene The Book, and blew up his own clubhouse in early 2018 (hence the advent of Mike Schildt) when he turned out to have a taste for engaging veteran snitches to play fun police with his young team.

Another suggests former Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Postseason experience. World Series ring. Itching to get back on the bridge. Except that Girardi is better suited, really, to a mostly veteran club, not a largely youthful club such as the Mets are now, something he may have proven when he had the vaunted Yankee youth in their first true season together but may have lacked for real communication with them.

A third suggests former Yankee, Diamondback, and Oriole manager Buck Showalter. Nice idea until he gets you to the postseason, refuses just like Matheny to throw The Book to one side despite the game situation demanding it, leaves his best relief pitcher in the bullpen because it’s just not a proper “save” situation, and watches a three-run homer fly into the left field seats with the other guys’ pennant attached.

A fourth suggests freshly deposed Cub manager Joe Maddon. Wonderful with youth and vets alike. Actual or alleged cursebuster. World Series winner. Postseason entrant. And probably more likely to have his eyes on southern California, where the Angels for whom he worked eons need to replace freshly executed Brad Ausmus and the Padres need to replace last-minute in-season execution Andy Green.

But a fifth pair presents a little intrigue. One involves Edgardo Alfonso, once a fine third baseman for the Mets and lately a winning manager for their Brooklyn Cyclones farm. The other involves Luis Rojas, currently the Mets’ quality control coach, who also managed a lot of the younger Mets in the minors and who’s said to have enormous respect from most Mets players.

Rojas comes by his baseball knowledge more than honestly: he’s also the son of longtime player and respected former manager Felipe Alou. (No, there was no extramarital hanky panky: The family name is Rojas, actually, and reads properly as Rojas-Alou, in the Spanish custom of the paternal family name coming first. The Giants scout who first signed Felipe Alou mistook the matronymous “Alou” for the proper family surname.)

Other candidates? Depending on where you look, they include current Astros bench coach Joe Espada (whose boss A.J. Hinch is a Van Wagenen friend), current Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (once a Met player), former Mets bench coach Bob Geren (now Dave Roberts’s consigliere with the Dodgers), current Pirates third base coach Joey Cora (brother of Red Sox manager Alex and former Mets minor league manager), and former Mets infielder Joe McEwing. (Now White Sox manager Rick Renteria’s consigliere, but was a finalist for the job Callaway got with the Mets.)

But if Callaway really was just an errand boy for Van Wagenen as often as not, maybe the Mets need to re-think Van Wagenen, too. It seems strange to say about a team that finished third in the National League East and ten games over .500, but the Mets are probably due for the overhaul few seem to think they’re ready to deliver. Third and .531 look a lot better on paper than the Mets really looked this year.

The Mets simplify the hard way

2019-08-10 LuisGuillorme

Luis Guillorme defied his unimpressive rookie slash line to help stun the Nats Saturday night . . .

In ancient times Casey Stengel would see ancient Satchel Paige warming up in the enemy bullpen and exhort his Yankees, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming.” This weekend, the Nationals’ mantra could be, “Get your runs A.S.A.P. Father Time’s predictable compared to these Mets.”

But the Nats don’t really want to know from Father Time, who may be coming sooner than they’d care to know.

Not when they followed a last-minute 7-6 loss Friday night with a 4-3 loss in the next-to-last minute Saturday night. It wasn’t quite the cardiac arrest Friday night was, but it was still enough to tempt them to think of keeping crash carts on call.

Perhaps deploying one out of their bullpen. And another to their manager’s office.

Dave Martinez just didn’t have the heart, or whatever else needed, to send Hunter Strickland—his new bullpen toy, but not even a topic Friday night—out for the eighth inning after Strickland manhandled the Mets in the seventh. But Strickland is two weeks removed from returning from a lat strain that kept him down four months, and Martinez didn’t want to overtax him. Even though he looked smooth enough Saturday night.

This time, his assigned closer Sean Doolittle wasn’t even a topic. Not after the Mets bastinadoed him for four runs in the ninth to win from three runs down Friday night. This Saturday night topic was now Fernando Rodney, the elder, whose previous comparative success against the Mets was two seasons behind and barely visible in the rear view mirror.

But there was Rodney and his trademark, CC Sabathia-like lopsided hat to start the New York eighth. And leading off was a Met rookie, Luis Guillorme, who brought all of a .156/.182/.188 slash line to the plate batting for center fielder Juan Lagares. It should have been meat for Rodney. Instead, he was dead meat.

On a full count, during the making of which Guillorme didn’t even wave his bat, and Rodney didn’t even hint toward throwing the changeup that was once his money pitch and was still reasonably effective, Rodney served Guillorme a meatball. And Guillorme provided the sauce. He sent his first major league home run clean over the right field fence to tie things at three.

Then late-game Mets second base insertion Joe Panik grounded one to short. Sure-handed, sure-footed Nats shortstop Trea Turner had it just as surely. But first baseman Matt Adams mishandled his uncharacteristic low throw, leaving Panik safe to move to second on a followup single lined up the pipe by Jeff McNeil for his first hit of the weekend.

Out came Rodney. In came Daniel Hudson, who’d worked a near-effortless eighth on Friday night. And, after Amed Rosario’s hard grounder pushed the runners to second and third, Pete Alonso checked in at the plate.

The Nats optimist said, we’ll have none of that nonsense this time around. That nonsense, of course, being Alonso drilling Stephen Strasburg for a two-run blast in the fourth Friday night.

The Nats realist said, pick your poison, Davey. Because putting Alonso on to load the pads meant facing J.D. Davis—who’d followed Alonso’s Friday night flog with his own game-tying solo jack in that same fourth. And, who hit one of two consecutive solo bombs in the Saturday night fourth, birthday boy (and former Nat) Wilson Ramos hitting the second of them to tie this game at two.

So Martinez picked Davis. The good news: this time, Davis didn’t reach the seats. The bad news: His fly to right was long and deep enough to send Panik home with what proved the winning run.

And if Martinez couldn’t bear to send Strickland out for a second inning’s work in the bottom of the eighth, Mets manager Mickey Callaway wasn’t as nervous as you might think about sending Seth Lugo out for a second inning’s work in the top of the ninth.

Lugo may have had command issues in the top of the eighth, magnified when Juan Soto hit his second homer of the night, a mammoth drive into the second deck in right, to put the Nats back ahead 3-2. But Callaway gambled that that was just Lugo getting really warmed up. He also wasn’t entirely sure about trusting Edwin Diaz, who’d warmed up during the eighth.

So Lugo, named the National League’s relief pitcher of the month for July, went out for the ninth. Noisy Citi Field and edgy Nats Nation, wherever they were, said their prayers accordingly.

But former Met Asdrubal Cabrera lined out to right.

And Victor Robles looked at strike three on the outer edge, on a night plate umpire Tripp Gibson gave Nats and Mets pitchers alike a very generous outer strike zone.

Then Gerardo Parra—maybe the Nats’ best pinch hitter and bench representative, entering the game with a .319 career batting average against the Mets—batted for Nats catcher Yan Gomes.

And, after Parra fouled off a 3-1 service, Lugo caught him looking at strike three.

All of a sudden, Soto’s two-run homer off Mets starter Noah Syndergaard in the top of the first seemed a small memory to plague Mets fans. Just the way Davis and Ramos’s fourth-inning destruction (setting a new Mets team record for consecutive multiple homer games) seemed to Nats Nation after Soto teed off in the top of the eighth.

Once again, the Mets found a way, any way,  past or around the Nats’ effective starting pitchers, in Saturday night’s case Patrick Corbin. Once again, the Mets got into a bullpen whose 10.10 ERA against them entering Saturday night meant giving them at least one definite victim against who they could fire whatever bullets happened to be handy.

And once again, the Nats couldn’t find a way to make anything stick, even on a night Syndergaard had to shake off an early explosion and some early inconsistency to keep them off the scoreboard further for the rest of his seven innings’ work. Not even on a night when Corbin was mostly his calmly effective self through six.

The Nats compelled the Mets to do things the hard way, late but their bullpen, retooling and all, showed it still had major kinks to un-kink. But the Mets didn’t exactly seem to object to doing things the hard way. It’s coming easier for them that way.

Now, it may not be a question of whether these still-somewhat-flawed Mets can hang with the big boys yet. But it may be a question as to whether these Nats will hang. With the big boys, or at the end of their own noose.

“We are now in crunch time”

2019-08-07 PeteAlonso

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 crank up the MixMatzer

2019-07-27 StevenMatz

Steven Matz put on a a splendid off-speed clinic Saturday night.

Beneath Steven Matz’s magnificent throttling of the Pirates Saturday evening lay a stone cold sobering fact. Mets manager Mickey Callaway, that embattled former pitching coach whose pitching management is under as much fire as almost everything else around the Mets, rolled serious dice to make room for it.

“To do it in 99 pitches is something else,” Callaway said of Matz’s masterpiece of a five-hit shutout. “That doesn’t happen too often. That was tremendous. That was unbelievable. We really needed him to do that.”

All he left out was “stupendous” and “colossal” and wearing a ringmaster’s striped pants, tailcoat, and top hat while rapping his cane on the Citi Field entrances, in describing maybe the single best Mets pitching performance of the season. By a guy who’d been exiled to the Mets’ bullpen for a spell before the All-Star break.

Callaway didn’t dare suggest what might have happened if Matz hadn’t found himself a way to work with efficiency and with a well-balanced blend between his slider, his changeup, and his sinkerball, not to mention if the Mets’ defense hadn’t been just as efficient behind him when he needed them to be the most.

Because sending Matz back to the mound late in games or the third or more time around the enemy batting order was previously a balance between a tightrope ride and a flying trapeze act that includes buttering the bar.

Matz came into Saturday’s game with the opposing order posting a lifetime .278/.323/.431 slash line against him when he’s still in for a third time around it. He’s least vulnerable historically the second time around the order and most vulnerable the first time, for all his talent. But it was still a considerable risk to let Matz even think about shooting for the complete shutout.

It would have been about twenty times the risk for Callaway to even think about going to his bullpen. Especially when Matz entered the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead that everyone in Queens knows is rarely if ever safe once the bullpen gate opens and out comes another bull. Clearly the skipper had to think fast. With about minus two seconds worth of time to think.

But closer Edwin Diaz, who’s suffered enough misuse and abuse so far, was deemed available somewhat officially, except that when he’s nursing a sore big toe on his landing foot you’re liable to be nursing a ninth-inning beating if you send him out and his delivery is hijacked.

Late-inning option Luis Avilan worked in three straight games before Saturday. Seth Lugo, who saved Friday night’s 6-3 Mets win, worked in two straight. Callaway might not have wanted to trust mightily struggling Jeurys Familia, even though Familia hadn’t pitched in a game in two days but was lit for two earned in two thirds of an inning against the Padres two days before the Pirates sailed into town.

And, perhaps re-learning a lesson about prudent bullpen usage, Callaway probably didn’t want to burn Justin Wilson—arguably the least arsonic Mets reliever the past week plus (five gigs, four innings, one earned run, four punchouts)—a second straight night.

So with Matz getting all those ground outs Callaway stood by him. And how could he not, when Matz put on a clinic in finding and using something other than pure raw power to get outs, something other than a howitzer to pull himself back from behind.

“The changeup got me back in some counts,” said Matz, who got first pitch strikes on only half his 31 batters. “So I just think, really mixed everything . . . It was just a recipe.”

Be gone, food processors. Welcome home, old-fashioned Mixmaster. Control the blending more directly. Between speeds when need be. Take that, all you guys trying to throw the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves. No wonder the game took a measly two hours and ten minutes and Matz missed a 100-pitch tally by one.

All of a sudden it didn’t seem all that tough to let Matz begin the seventh with a mere 1-0 lead. Oh, yes, he even shook off first and second and one out in the sixth by getting Melky Cabrera to dial an Area Code 5-4-3 that went around the horn smooth as whipped cream.

Then Michael Conforto made only the second Met hit of the game off Pirates starter Trevor Williams count with a drive into the right field seats in the bottom of that sixth. “Unfortunately for us,” Williams said after the game, “I was the one that blinked first.”

Matz and the Mets were so efficient that they almost blinked through the top of the seventh despite a two-out single. But in the bottom, after Todd Frazier reached on a one-out pop that Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang inexplicably let fall to the ground, J.D. Davis hit the first Williams service of the plate appearance, a four-seam fastball right down the chute, right over the center field fence.

Then Matz zipped through the top of the eighth with three straight ground outs and shoved Kevin Newman’s leadoff single aside in the top of the ninth to put the Pirates away on a fly out, a strikeout, and a ground out.

The Pirates played most of the game without manager Clint Hurdle, who was ejected in the first trying to keep Starling Marte from ejection after Marte huffed over a called third strike that ended the inning. Hurdle wasn’t thrilled about plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt’s slightly generous strike zone, and it did look as though Wendelstedt pulled a slightly too-swift trigger on the skipper.

But in fairness Wendelstedt blew a pocketful of strikes against both sides. One minute, Williams and Matz got strikes that were obvious balls, the next both pitchers got balls that were obvious strikes, just a little too often. It didn’t stop Williams from no-hitting the Mets through four and two thirds and pitching his own splendid seven innings ruined only by the pair of Met bombs. Any more than it stopped Matz from running the speed dial full spread against the Pirates.

The game left the Mets 9-5 since the All-Star break and the Pirates losers of seven straight and 2-15 since the break. Nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Pirates officially doomed, nobody’s quite ready to pronounce the Mets officially back from the living dead, either, but it sure felt like the Mets got real old-fashioned pennant-race pitching.

. . . but the little gulls understand

2019-07-19 AT&TParkSeagulls

A flock of seagulls over AT&T Park’s outfield, not unlike the one Pete Alonso of the Mets scattered in the sixteenth Thursday night.

A pair of National League also-rans meeting to start a four-game set in San Francisco. One managed by a three-time World Series-winning skipper, the other managed by a former pitching coach who’s caught too often unawares but still might break a record for in-season votes of confidence that make his team’s fan base anything but confident.

A pair of starting pitchers whose names appear as often in trade-deadline speculation as Harold Stassen used to run for the presidency. Backed by one bullpen that has three bulls whose names are sometimes whispered in trade talks and another backed by a group that plays with matches a little too often for its own good.

And, a marathon in which both sides’ pitching traded off otherwise lockdown work around twenty hits, ten for each side, with 32 strikeouts between them for fifteen innings, and a flock of seagulls flying above the left side of the AT&T Park outfield in circular patterns that looked taunting one minute and challenging the next.

Thus the Mets and the Giants Thursday night entering the sixteenth inning tied at one. Until Pete Alonso opened the top of the inning almost doing to a seagull with his bat what Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson once actually did to a dove from the mound to break the tie at long enough last.

The Mets entered the bottom of the sixteenth with a 2-1 lead and exited with a 3-2 loss to the Giants in which Mets reliever Chris Mazza, who’d worked a spotless fifteenth, couldn’t get an out if he’d pre-ordered them on Amazon Prime Days just before the Mets hit the Bay Area.

Both teams all but emptied their bullpens, following seven strong innings from Mets starter Noah Syndergaard and nine from the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, with the Mets’ pen of all people having a little bit of the better of things until the sixteenth. And that was after both Syndergaard and Bumgarner could swap a few jibes about how the single runs each surrendered might look almost like happy accidents in the box score.

Mets rookie Jeff McNeil scored in the top of the first—while Alonso himself dialed Area Code 6-4-3 with nobody out. Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar scored Pablo Sandoval with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth. And no matter what the Mets and the Giants threw at each other or swung against each other, nobody else came home until the sixteenth.

Bumgarner still felt his oats after the ninth, doing everything he could short of bringing Perry Mason in to plead his case to manager Bruce Bochy to go out for the tenth. “He lobbied, trust me, he did,” Bochy said after it finally ended. “In fact, I came in after the game, he’s still mad at me for not letting him go out there in the 10th.”

“I didn’t try to make it much of a conversation but he wasn’t having it,” the normally ornery Bumgarner said with a few chuckles punctuating his remarks. “Usually if I really want to I can get my way with him, but he wasn’t having it today. How many times do you get to go out for the tenth?”

He struck out six in nine to Syndergaard’s eight in seven. Then came the running of the bulls. The Mets’ pen—in order, Seth Lugo, Luis Avilan, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman (working two innings), and Justin Wilson—scattered three hits and three walks with a combined ten strikeouts (including Gsellman’s three) before manager Mickey Callaway sent Chris Mazza out for the fifteenth.

The Giants’ pen—in order, Will Smith (another trade deadline subject), Reyes Moronta, Tony Watson, Derek Holland, and Trevor Gott—was equally stingy until the sixteenth, scattering four hits and a walk while striking out a collective eight. (Including three each by Smith and Gott.)

Both the Mets and the Giants, riding concurrent hot or semi-hot streaks into Thursday night, might yet be pondering the reset buttons. But several players on both sides made themselves look a little more attractive to prospective contending suitors a fortnight before the new single trade deadline.

The men don’t know, but the little gulls understand.

Then Williams Jerez, who’d shaken off first and second in the top of the fifteenth, went to work in the top of the sixteenth. He had Alonso 0-2 with a foul. Then he hung a changeup, and Alonso hung it into the left field seats, missing one of the circling gulls by inches. Imagine the gulls as they scattered: Incoming! Hit the deck! There is no deck!

Jerez nailed a pair of back-to-back strikeouts before walking Amed Rosario, but he escaped when he picked Rosario off and got him thrown out for attempted grand theft. Then it was Mazza’s turn to work a second inning.

He got that turn because Callaway had no choice: he had nobody left in the pen, it wasn’t their fault the Mets were as futile in getting runs home until Alonso’s blast, and he didn’t want to burn a starting pitcher if he could help it. Callaway admitted after the game that if it went somehow to a seventh inning he would have sent left fielder J.D. Davis to the mound and pitcher Jacob deGrom out to play left field.

Thank God it didn’t quite come to that, except that the Giants made sure it wouldn’t get to that point off Mazza in the bottom of the sixteenth. It’s a luxury the Mets couldn’t have afforded unless they’d gotten more in their half than just Alonso’s almost-seagull shoot.

A leadoff double (Alex Dickerson), RBI double to re-tie (Brandon Crawford), a hit batsman (Austin Slater, who took over for Mike Yastrzemski in right field in the ninth), a bases-loading single (Pillar), and the Mets’ infield in to choke off the run that wouldn’t be choked off when Donovan Solano (who’d replaced Joe Panik at second in the tenth) sort of snuck a base hit into shallow right field.

“Syndergaard did a great job of pitching out of some jams early and their guys did too,” said Callaway after the game. “There were a lot of baserunners at third with less than two outs and nobody got in. It was a tough night to score runs.”

It was for fifteen innings, until the bases-loaded jam the Mets couldn’t escape the way they did in the fourth, when Pillar’s sacrifice fly began life as a potential bases-clearing hit until J.D. Davis ran it to the rear end of left field and made a leaping snatch.

But the Giants finally banked a win to be proud of and the Mets banked a loss they couldn’t really be ashamed of. Even the gulls looked as though they tried congratulating both sides when it finally ended.

They call it stormy Monday . . .

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If only this was Steven Matz getting back one of the three home runs he surrendered during Monday night’s massacre . . .

It must be nice to work for a team in which a vile, vulgar outburst on behalf of avoiding accountability doesn’t get you canned on the spot or within twenty-four hours. By that measure, Mets manager Mickey Callaway and enough of his team live charmed lives. At least until they squared off against the Phillies Monday evening.

For their profanities at reporters who sought nothing more than accountability for a bullpen decision that cost them a series-ending game against the Cubs Sunday afternoon, the Mets didn’t fire Callaway or trade or release pitcher Jason Vargas. They didn’t suspend either man. They merely fined the pair of them.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen issued Callaway yet another vote of confidence. Cynics think Callaway was thus rewarded for being Van Wagenen’s human shield because no major league manager could be anything close to Callaway’s kind unless he was little more than a general manager’s satrap.

Come Monday Callaway and Vargas issued apologetic non-apologies unless they were non-apologetic apologies. Or vice versa. Then Callaway backtracked just so and, seemingly on his own, he apologised to the writers traveling with the Mets and specifically to Newsday‘s Tim Healey, who’d been Callaway’s and Vargas’s specific Sunday post-game target.

At least Vargas didn’t try in his too-short apologetic non-apology to justify himself by invoking Billy Martin’s ancient decking of a reporter, which actually happened not after a baseball game but in a bar during halftime of a Western Basketball Association game. As Deadspin‘s Samer Kalaf observed wryly, “invoking a successful Yankees manager, who was also a kook, isn’t the best play here.”

It’s also not the best play there to invoke a manager who was infamous for handling pitching staffs as though this year was next year. “Managers, like anyone else, tend to be shaped by their experiences,” Bill James wrote in 1981. “Billy Martin probably manages as if there were no future because he has never had a future with any organisation, only a string of todays here and there.”

Callaway’s experience before becoming the Mets’ manager was as a pitcher and a pitching coach who could be presumed reasonably to operate with the organic knowledge that this year isn’t next year and that pitching arms must be kept oriented six parts this year and half a dozen parts next if they’re to deliver the most of their ability with the least imposition and injury.

Presumably, Callaway could have been assumed to know better than to send a clearly less-than-at-his-best relief pitcher out to work a second inning, instead of a) opening that second inning with a fresh arm; or, if he insisted on staying with his man to open, b) bringing in his well-enough-experienced closer for a prospective five-out save.

But in just the latest in a two-season series of pitching maneuvers described most politely as dubious, Callaway sent his less-than-at-his-best man Seth Lugo out for the eighth after Lugo worked a scoreless but too-difficult seventh Sunday afternoon. Instead of opening the frame with freshly-prepared Robert Gsellman, or asking closer Edwin Diaz for a five-out save of a 3-2 Met lead, he left Lugo in.

Javier Baez promptly smashed a three-run homer, overthrowing the Met lead for keeps, and only a soul afflicted with sleeping sickness couldn’t have told you the number one question on every writer’s postgame mind was going to be why on earth Callaway stayed with Lugo—who’d pitched two innings last Friday—when Lugo’s arm was clearly enough spent after one inning of work.

Callaway’s and Vargas’s behaviours would likely have led to their prompt unemployment with the Mets, if not necessarily in baseball elsewhere, if the Mets weren’t so befuddled looking a club that the very idea of sending any message stronger than a wrist slap on behalf of demanding accountability seems to be one that sends them praying to the porcelain god regardless of the best play here. Or there. Or anywhere.

Vargas finally dismissed Sunday’s clubhouse rumble as “an unfortunate distraction.” From what? The Mets’ inconsistent play? Their second-year manager’s strategic mischief, mistakes, and malpractise? Callaway from all appearances is a genuinely decent and likeable man otherwise, but he’s in so far over his head he needs a periscope just to see twenty feet below the surface.

Their rookie general manager’s clumsy team construction that’s left them with a bullpen of compromised stock and fielders playing mal-positioned and into the sort of miscues you’d expect from the Mets’ 1962 ancestors but without the mirth and merriment? Their metastasising inability to stand accountable? Their unexpected faith that it’s all the media’s fault?

The same rookie general manager supposedly managing at least some of the Mets’ games from New York, regardless of whether he knows anything beyond the numbers when it comes to managing his players, their fuel tanks, and the immediate game situations that require a manager’s insight and foresight? Which means the hapless Callaway has an unwanted partner in crime leaving him to take the worst plays’ fall?

These are the Mets who opened against the teetering Phillies Monday night. The Phillies entered the set in a spell of plate somnambulism. By the time the game was in the bank, the Mets and the Phillies swapped bombs, defensive slickness, defensive inconsistencies, pitching mismanagement, timely hitting, and wasted contact.

And that was just in the first five innings.

The Phillies’ bullpen is an injured mess. The Mets’ is a misassembled and mismanaged  mess. Presumably those are what forced Callaway and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler to leave their starting pitchers, Steven Matz and Zach Eflin, in to take seven- and six-run beatings, respectively, before either pitcher got past a fifth inning’s work.

Callaway relieved Matz with Brooks Pounders as the Phillies took a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs. Jean Segura doubled home the eighth Phillies run before the side retired. Callaway left Pounders in for the sixth. A one-out triple, an RBI single, a steal, a two-out infield RBI single, and a two-run homer. Pounders was probably lucky to escape without the Phillies pounding additional bullets into his evening’s corpse.

Kapler relieved Eflin with Juan Nicasio, JD Hammer, and Fernando Salas. Only a single Met was allowed to get to within binoculars distance of second base under their command. Until Dom Smith sent an excuse-me homer the other way over the left field wall in the top of the ninth. The Mets otherwise allowed the teetering Phillies to resemble the 1927 Yankees while ending a seven-game losing streak during which the Phillies scored only two more runs than they scored all Monday night.

Nineteen hits versus the Mets’ fifteen in a 13-7 Phillies win does that for you. For the Mets, that wasn’t even close to the best play here, either.

He can’t rant with the masters, either

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As postgame ranters go, Mickey Callaway won’t make anyone forget Tommy Lasorda or Lee Elia.

If the Mets do what seemingly three quarters of the Internet thinks has to be done and fire embattled manager Mickey Callaway after Sunday’s postgame profanities, so be it. But they may want to know that Callaway’s isn’t even close to the absolute worst outburst major league baseball people have been known to release after harsh losses.

After the Mets lost to the Cubs 5-3, Callaway—himself a former pitcher and pitching coach presumed to understand such things—should have expected the number one postgame question would be why he left not-so-strong reliever Seth Lugo in for a second inning after over-labouring a first one, long enough for the Cubs’ Javier Baez to drill a three-run homer that overthrew a Met lead and held up for a Cub win.

Just about everyone watching the game, including Mets broadcasters Gary Cohen and Ron Darling (himself a Mets pitcher on their 1986 World Series winner), knew Lugo barely got through his scoreless first inning’s work. Callaway warmed up Robert Gsellman but didn’t bring him in until after Baez’s blast.

And closer Edwin Diaz, who might have been asked for a five-out or even a two-inning save, since he’d only pitched a single inning Friday night (for a save) after five days without a game appearance, wasn’t even a topic. Until Callaway was asked about it postgame and insisted, a little snappishly, that five-out save opportunities weren’t a topic, either.

No matter how much pressure Callaway’s been under, reporters shouldn’t have had to expect him to throw down a couple of [maternal fornicators], or order his people to get another [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse. Or, when Mets pitcher Jason Vargas was asked in all innocence by reporter Tim Healey if he had something to say, as Healey swore Vargas appeared, Healey shouldn’t have had to have Vargas threaten to knock him the [fornicate] out, bro.

With Mets first-season general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said to be en route Philadelphia, where the Mets open a set with the teetering Phillies Monday, it might not be a shock if he greets Callaway by putting the manager’s head on a plate. As of this writing, nothing from inside the Mets yet appears to indicate its likelihood.

But if so, Sunday’s postgame behaviour was only the wick that ignited the powder keg. All season long it’s been a question of when, not whether Callaway would meet the guillotine. And wags could suggest plausibly that one reason to execute Callaway could be that, when it comes to postgame tirades, he can’t cut the mustard in Lee Elia’s or Tommy Lasorda’s parlours.

About the only thing Callaway has in common with those two is that their still-legendary, still-heard expletives-undeleted rants had something to do with the Cubs, too.

Elia was the Cubs’ manager on 29 April 1983, when the Cubs lost a one-run game to the Dodgers in Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith threw an eighth-inning wild pitch to Pedro Guerrero with Ken Landreaux on third, allowing Landreaux to score what proved the winning run.

Aside from the season’s early losing—the game dropped the Cubs to 5-14 and dead last in the National League East—the sparse Wrigley audience, and a fan dropping a beer on Cubs outfielder Keith Moreland, left Elia in no mood to play nice, never mind accommodating, after the game. And never mind most of the press corps going to the Dodgers’ clubhouse because first baseman Mike Marshall played in Wrigley for the first time and homered in the fifth.

The unwitting provocateur was radio reporter Les Grobstein, who asked Elia about the Cubs’ fan support. Elia delivered a tirade in which he tried defending his players but ripped the boo birds, unloading 41 profanities before unloading the money quote: They oughta go out and get a [fornicating] job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a [fornicating] living. Eighty-five percent of the [fornicating] world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here. (The Cubs still played strictly day games then.)

Elia by all accounts was lucky his [fornicating derriere] wasn’t fired almost on the spot; he happened to return to his Wrigley Field office to retrieve a set of keys when then-general manager Dallas Green, who’d just heard the recording of Elia’s rant, called the skipper’s office.

The mortified Elia apologised to the GM. He probably survived because, near the end of his bellowing, he did urge people to rip him and not his players if they were unhappy with the Cubs’ play. Unfortunately, Elia would be fired later in the season as the Cubs fell fifteen games under .500.

In due course he’d sell for a cancer charity autographed baseballs displayed in specially-made cases that included specially-made players that delivered a cleaned-up version of the infamous schpritz. He’d also manage the Phillies for a short period and eventually work in the Braves’ front office.

Five years earlier, the Cubs inadvertently seeded a postgame jewel by Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, after a fifteen-inning win in Dodger Stadium on 14 May 1978. The inadvertent provocateurs were Cubs slugger Dave Kingman—whose home runs were typically conversation pieces that approached earth orbit no matter the venue in which he swung at the plate—and Los Angeles radio station KLAC reporter Paul Olden.

Kingman was 1-for-2 when he batted in the sixth against Doug Rau and smashed a two-run homer to pull the Cubs back to within a run. An inning later, Kingman grounded into a run-scoring force out, but in the ninth he hit Dodger reliever Mike Garman for another two-run homer to tie the game at seven. In the fifteenth, though, Kingman squared off against Rick Rhoden and hit a three-run homer that proved the game winner.

Like just about everyone else in the stadium and among the press corps following that 10-7 Dodger loss, the number one subject on Olden’s mind when he met Lasorda was Kingman’s particular destruction that day. Olden might have had a simpler time asking Emperor Hirohito what he thought of the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima.

Some thought Lasorda still seethed over Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson’s three-bomb demolition of the Dodgers in Game Six of the previous fall’s World Series. Whether that was true or false only Lasorda knows for certain. Lasorda knew only that the last thing he wanted to talk about was Kingman’s mayhem:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

It’s entirely possible that Lasorda survived that rant because he’d just taken his Dodgers to a World Series and had his team in the thick of the National League West hunt they’d win in due course en route a second consecutive Series. (And, a second straight Series loss to the Bronx Zoo edition of the Yankees.)

Lasorda cooled down little by little, especially after Olden admitted he hadn’t necessarily asked a brilliant question. But the outburst was on tape, and in short order a copy fell into the hands of a rival radio station whose owner just so happened to be Angels owner Gene Autry.

Lasorda shook off his mood enough to attend a charity dinner for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Either at the dinner or before it, Lasorda apologised to Olden. And in due course Lasorda was asked once to look back upon what was known as the Kingman Rant:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

Both the Elia and the Lasorda explosions have survived to get major play around the Internet. And Paul Olden ended up having a surrealistic last laugh: since 2009, Olden has been the once-removed successor to the legendary Bob Sheppard as Yankee Stadium’s public address announcer.

Jackson tagged Sheppard as “The Voice of God.” Lasorda can say the day he went Dodger blue on Olden sent Olden on his way to God’s perch. I’m pretty certain Callaway won’t be able to make the same claim. Whether he’s fired Monday or in time enough.