The Mets bet Max (the Knife)

Max Scherzer

Shown pitching against the Mets in New York in late August, Max the Knife is a Met now . . . and lucratively.

Lose a shot at bringing a solid pitcher back to the Mets? Lose a followup shot at luring a pitcher who resurrected himself in San Francisco? Go forth and sign a three-time Cy Young Award winner to what might well be his final major league deal—at a record average annual value for pitchers, future Hall of Famers or otherwise.

When you say it that way, it sounds so simple that a refugee from the Delta Quadrant could have done it, despite knowing about as much about baseball as a veterinarian knows about astrophysics. But this is baseball, these are the Mets, that’s Mets owner Steve Cohen, and this is Max Scherzer.

Never mind that Cohen first found an immediate way to atone for squandered time after his particular (and not yet detailed at this writing) rift with former Met Steven Matz’s agent dovetailed with Matz signing a nice four-year deal with the Cardinals.

Signing Starling Marte (center field with a big bat), Mark Canha (just about any outfield spot and an on-base machine), and Eduardo Escobar (solid third baseman who can play second, solid batter) turned Cohen almost overnight from a sad gag to a definite big-market player. Even if it means moving Brandon Nimmo to a corner outfield slot and saying goodbye to a Michael Conforto whose walk-year collapse didn’t look great for himself or the Mets.

Never mind, too, that Cohen and/or his designated hitter couldn’t quite close the deal with righthanded pitcher Kevin Gausman, who turned a career year with the Giants into a nice five-year deal with the Blue Jays—who lost Matz to free agency—that’s the second most lucrative in their franchise history. (George Springer’s five/$125 million beats Gausman’s five/$105 million.)

Signing Scherzer qualifies thus far as the largest, loudest splash on this off-season’s open market to date. Maybe even louder than the ten-year/$325 million the Rangers handed now-erstwhile Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager the day before. In two swell foops (as the lady once said on the radio) the Mets swept up both the single best center fielder available and the pitcher whose 5.9 wins above replacement-level player in 2021 led all free-agent pitchers this time around.

It may also be the least expected. Remember: Scherzer’s conditions for being traded from the Nationals to the Dodgers last July included that he go to either a west coast contender or those guys in his native St. Louis who just bagged Matz. New York was thought to be near the bottom of his baseball bucket list. The Yankees weren’t even a topic, really.

Remember when Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said he signed his first free agency deal with the Yankees because George Steinbrenner “hustled me like a broad?” Cohen and his minions must have hustled Scherzer like ten ladies and their ladies-in-waiting.

Landing Scherzer means the Mets bring aboard as respected a clubhouse figure as exists in today’s game, a guy who does his best to keep the dysfunction away and also serves as a kind-of de facto second pitching coach, sitting with younger arms while they review video of their past performances and helping them analyse and prepare.

It also means the Mets just landed the guy who led the entire 2021 Show with the lowest walks-per-nine innings rate (1.8), the lowest walks-and-hits-per-inning pitched (WHIP) rate (0.86), posted a better than splendid 2.97 fielding-independent pitching rate, and mostly looked better than his usual self after becoming a Dodger at the 2021 trade deadline.

Mostly.

Max the Knife isn’t quite a kid anymore. At 37, it’s very possible that he’s just signed the final big contract of his major league career; it could even be his final major league deal, period. He pitched mostly like his classic self until his final two starts of the regular season, when he got pried for five runs by the Rockies in Coors Field (23 September) and then for six runs (five earned) by the Padres at home (29 September).

Scherzer recovered from those to pitch well enough in the postseason until former Dodger Joc Pederson yanked a two-run homer off him in the fourth in Game Two of the National League Championship Series. With his shoulder and arm feeling exhausted, Scherzer would have been that set’s Game Seven starter—if the Braves hadn’t yanked four runs out of Game Six starter Walker Buehler while the Dodgers had no answer past two runs off Braves starter Ian Anderson and reliever Luke Jackson.

Nobody would have counted Scherzer out for the seventh game that never came. Just two years earlier, he shook away a terrible neck issue to start Game Seven of the World Series, keep the Astros in check enough despite having nothing left in the tank otherwise, and leave the Nationals room to win the Series with a record fourth road win in the set. He really has been one of those pitchers who can survive on will when the stuff deserts him.

The Mets must be hoping that Scherzer has enough left in the tank to help yank them back into the races to stay. Either that or that he still has that iron will to survive on the mound when the repertoire goes from Kind of Blue to Milli Vanilli.

Assuming both a healthy Scherzer and a healthy returning Jacob deGrom, the Mets in theory would have a 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation equal to none today but comparable to several of the past. Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale. Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling. Heady and three-out-of-four Hall of Famer company to keep.

In theory, too, it could be enough to cause division-rival Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, now navigating a rebuild on the fly without even thinking about tanking, to rub his head with sandpaper (since he has no hair to tear out) and mutter loudly, “If I’d known he’d end up a Met, maybe I wouldn’t have traded Scherzer at all.”

But . . .

“Scherzer could outperform 95 percent of pitchers his age through MLB history and still underperform relative to the contract,” writes Smart Baseball author Keith Law at his usual stand for The Athletic.

Good for him for getting paid, but the idea in free agency is to pay for expected future production, not past production, and the base rate for pitchers his age is not promising. They either lose effectiveness, or they get hurt. Maybe Scherzer is an outlier, just like the race isn’t always to the swift or the battle to the strong. That’s just the way to bet.

The Mets are laying a $43.3 million a year average annual value bet. As Law points out, no pitcher 37 or older has had a 5-WAR season since Bartolo Colon at 39 for the 2013 Athletics; only three since World War II (Hall of Famers Johnson and Phil Niekro, plus Roger Clemens) have delivered 7-WAR seasons at 38+; and, only twelve times have 38-year-old-plus pitchers posted 5+ WAR seasons since the turn of the century.

They’re banking on Jenny Diver, Suki Tawdry, Miss Lotte Lenya, old Lucy Brown, and company forming that big line on the right now that Maxie’s coming to town. For every Met fan and observer wondering if their boy Cohen’s done something else rash, there may be ten counting on Scherzer to become the kind of outlier the Johnsons and Niekros were at his age.

They might even be banking on Scherzer spinning a third no-hitter, this time for them. He has two already, both in 2015, the second of the two against the Mets. When he nailed his 3,000th lifetime major league strikeout last August, bagging San Diego’s Eric Hosmer in the second, Scherzer also took a perfect game into the eighth—when Hosmer exacted revenge by breaking it up with a double to deep right.

Assuming next season won’t be compromised or delayed by any coming lockout, (and it sure feels as though enough of the owners are landing their free-agent signings in a big hurry and rash to secure themselves further before any lockout—a rash which also puts the big lie to any claims of financial ill health), there’s something else to consider.

The Mets are scheduled to open against the Nats. How delicious would it be to see their next manager have to decide whether to open with deGrominator or Max the Knife? Already the National League East would look many things with boring not even close to being one of them.

The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

There’s another nice Mess they’ve gotten themselves into

Jacob deGrom

Losing Jacob deGrom for the season was the key blow, but the Mets lacked the ability to overcome that the Braves and the Phillies—squaring off critically this week—really had.

This is what 2021 became for the Mess (er, Mets). As MLB Network’s Jon Heyman points out rather cruelly, this year’s Mets have done what no Show team ever has done: spent the most days in first place (103) in a year they’ll finish with a losing record.

Look to your non-laurels, every St. Louis Brown ever, every Washington Senator before and after 1924, every Indian since the Berlin Airlift, every 1964 Phillie, every 1980s Brave, every 1987 Blue Jay, and even every 2007 Met.

Feel just a little better about yourselves, fellow 2021 collapsers in San Diego. Maybe you both fell out of contention officially and once and for all on the same day. But that exhausts whatever you actually had in common.

Well, ok. You both spent lavishly last offseason to augment, fortify, and strengthen. “It is a familiar formula,” the New York Post‘s Joel Sherman reminds us. “The teams that spend the most and/or add the most famous players are cheered and crowned in winter, often followed soon after by dismay in summer.”

Dismay? How about deflation? How about disaster? How about formerly gleeful prognosticators and impatient fan bases who feel again as though they’ve been walked up to the mountaintop, shown the Promised Land, and given a swift kick in the tail with a jackboot to crash on the rocks below?

Joe and Jane Padre Fan should count their blessings. They’re not half as accustomed to great expectations turning to gross vaporisations as are Joe and Jane Met fan. Joe and Jane Padre Fan adjacent to the pleasant, embracing San Diego waterfront expect no miracles but merely hope.

Joe and Jane Met Fan inside the belly of the New York beast, adjacent to the rumbling East River, expect everything—until they don’t. Even when the Mets held fast at the top of the none-too-powerful National League East heap this year, there was always the sense that, somewhere in New York or beyond, there was at least a minyan worth of Met fans thinking to themselves, “OK, when’s it going to happen?”

If you don’t know what “it” is, you haven’t watched the Mets for half as long as I have. And I was there to see them born with Abbott pitching to Costello and Who the Hell’s on first, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s at third, You Don’t Even Want to Think About It’s at shortstop, the Three Stooges in the outfield, the Four Marx Brothers on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, and Laurel and Hardy on the coaching lines. I’m still not sure whether it was Casey Stengel or Ernie Kovacs managing that team.

Even by the standards of this year’s NL East, the division was the Mets’ for the taking—and they let the tellers reach for their own pistols to stick them up at the bank window. Meanwhile, the Braves and the Phillies open a series today in Atlanta. A measly two games separate them at the top of the division.

Too many Met injuries? Well, yes. But let’s look around.

The Braves lost a franchise player (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) trying for a leaping outfield catch dead middle through the season. One day later, they sat at 44-45. Since the All-Star break: 39-27. The Phillies almost lost a franchise player (Bryce Harper) at April’s end, hit in the face and wrist hard with a pitch, watched him struggle to get back into his full form through a wrist injury. At the All-Star break: 44-44. Since the All-Star break: 37-31.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos simply reached out, plucked a few spare outfielders at or around the trade deadline, and found the unforeseen gems in Jorge Soler and (after wearing out his welcome in Los Angeles and Chicago) Joc Pederson.

Phillies general manager Sam Fuld might have shocked more than a few observers (and a lot more than a few Phillies fans) when he went trolling for pitching at the deadline—but he came away with Ian Kennedy for the bullpen and Kyle Gibson to augment the rotation.

As in, the rotation that already included Zack Wheeler pitching his way into this year’s Cy Young Award conversation after spending last year only beginning to make the Mets wish, possibly, that they hadn’t given up his ghost just yet. In case Joe and Jane Met Fan need it rubbed in a little further, Wheeler to date has a 2.63 ERA, a 7.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .216 opposition batting average against his former team.

Entering this week’s just about do-or-die set with each other, the Braves are fifth in the National League for team OPS to the Phillies at sixth. The Braves are sixth in the league with a team 3.95 ERA against the Phillies tenth with 4.41. They both play in home parks hitters love, but the Braves as of Tuesday morning were a .500 team at home while the Phillies as of Tuesday were seven below .500 on the road.

They’re both in better shape than the deflated Mess in New York. Losing deGrom for the season, after he dropped a few more jaws despite earlier injury interruptions, was a blow that couldn’t be cauterised or treated simply. That goes without saying.

But the Mets’ pitching staff not named deGrom got reminded rudely and the hard way that they could even pitch no-hit ball and still discover themselves betrayed. The Mets turned up lost or terribly inconsistent at the plate, almost with or without men in scoring position and showing a distinct knack for bats coming back to life only after it mattered the most.

Marcus Stroman in particular pitched like an ace among the remaining starters; Aaron Loup turned into the Mets’ most dangerous bullpen weapon; Javier Baez shook off his early shakes upon arrival in New York to perform according to his previous notices.

But Francisco Lindor remained a textbook and casebook study at shortstop while struggling to live up to his glandular extension at the plate for the first two-thirds of the season. Michael Conforto in his walk year may or may not have pressed too furiously under the weight of his hopes for either a Met future or a free agency pay day. Pete Alonso re-learned the hard way that his bomb sight meant too little when there wasn’t always someone for him to drive in or someone behind him to drive him in.

That was how the Mets collapsed in August, entered September on a roll showing 10-5 from 28 August-12 September, then went 1-10 from there through Tuesday morning.

It’s one thing to give the boo birds a taste of their own medicine. To this day too many sports fans and too many sports commentators alike equate defeat with moral and character failure. Too many sports fans and too many commentators alike think a loss, or even a losing record (with or without spending 64 percent of the year in first place), equals the end of what’s left of the free world.

But from the top down, these Mets also seemed more interested in blaming the outside than looking inward when trouble arose. It’s something else entirely to say it’s all the fans’ or the press’s fault that a genuinely talented team didn’t know how to overcome the injury bugs the Braves and the Phillies overcame—in a division that looked so modest most of the season that any team ironing up for it could steal it in broad daylight.

Still-new owner Steve Cohen’s growing pains must end after the season does. The end must only begin with finding a new general manager and president of baseball operations. (Preferably, men or women who have verifiable allergies to scandal.) Possibly a new manager, though incumbent Luis Rojas hasn’t been a bad manager so much as he’s been a befuddled one as often as not.

But the most important acquisition the Mets can make to begin their revival should be an unfogged, unclouded mirror. The kind that enables them to see clearly, without alternative, where the issues lay. The kind that might have them unwilling to break the dubious record this year’s model’s collapse enabled them to set.

“It’s been a show for quite awhile”

Bryce Harper

Philadelphia’s king of swing launches one into the second deck Thursday night.

When April was just about over, Bryce Harper resembled dead meat. He’d just been nose-coned by an errant Genesis Cabrera fastball, and it turned out worse for him. No, his schnozz wasn’t smashed, but the pitch ricocheted onto his left wrist.

After an April that finished with him showing a 1.063 OPS Harper’s May was abbreviated to fifteen games and a .634 OPS to show for them. Clearly enough the lefthanded launcher struggled through the injury, making far less than his normal hard contact, and probably should have been tied down to rest and let it heal properly.

Finally, after an 0-for-5 game on 22 May, Harper was indeed put on the injured list. Phillies manager Joe Girardi got caught lying through his teeth about the depth of Harper’s wrist injury. Some believed the Phillies would rather “engage in subterfuge to trick the opposing manager than play with an actual full roster.”

One way or the other, for all the tricks and lack of treats, Harper clawed his way back. All the way back to awakening this morning with the major league leadership in OPS (1.055) and OPS+ (183). All the way back to the rare standing of a .300+/.400+/.600+ slash line. (Harper’s: .314/.428/.627.)

All the way back into the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award conversation. All the way back from that balky wrist to entering a weekend set against the Mets as Philadelphia’s king of swing.

All the way back to helping as big as Harper can help in yanking the Phillies back to three games behind the Braves in the National League East and 2.5 games away from the second National League wild card.

If you wonder how big that can be at the most extreme, you should have watched the Phillies resurrect themselves against the Cubs, 17-8 Thursday night—with Harper doing the critical damage, especially a mammoth home run in the seventh.

So the Cubs battered seven runs out of the Phillies in the top of the third? The Phillies tore seven out of the Cubs in the bottom of the fourth. The Cubs who thought they had it made after the third didn’t know yet that they’d all but had it for the night.

Harper had already walked twice in the game when he squared off against Cub reliever Manuel Rodrigez in the bottom of the sixth with first and second and one out. On 1-2 he hit a long double sending Odubel Herrera home with the tiebreaking run. One out later, Didi Gregorius—who’d been drilled by a Cabrera pitch immediately after Harper took one off his beak in that late April game—singled Juan Segura and Harper home to make it 10-7, Phillies.

The next inning, after Willson Contreras got one back for the Cubs with a homer in the top of the frame, Harper got even more frisky. After Herrera doubled a pair home with one out, Harper faced yet another Cub reliever, Rex Brothers, and showed anything but brotherly love with first and third—he hit a three-run homer.

Segura merely added insult to injury with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth. The Cubs, who’ve been dying since their trade deadline fire sale, gave up the ghost several innings earlier.

They must have wondered whether they’d been a little too greedy over apparent Phillies generosity in that seven-run third. Phillies starter Matt Moore walked the bases loaded and then hit Ian Happ with a pitch to start the Cub fun. Contreras then lined Rafael Ortega home, Patrick Wisdom sent a two-run double to the back of left center, and—one strikeout later—Matt Duffy hit one over the left center field fence.

The Phillies must have said to themselves, “Greed shall be its own downfall” in the fourth. Andrew McCutchen started that party with a two-run double down the right field line. A base hit and a hit batsman later, Matt Joyce wrung Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks for a bases-loaded walk. Herrera drove Brad Miller home with a base hit, and Freddy Galvis scored on a ground out, before Harper drew his second walk and J.T. Realmuto singled Joyce and Herrera home.

The full fifth and the top of the sixth passed cleaner than hounds’ teeth before Matt Vierling opened the bottom with a base hit up the pipe. After Herrera reached on an error at first base and Segura forced Vierling at third, Harper hit one the other way down the left field line to break the seven-all tie, before coming home with Segura when Grigorius shot one through the hole at shortstop into left.

Those were just warmups for what proved the main attraction in the seventh, with Herrera on third, Segura on first, and Harper hitting Brothers’s first pitch into the second deck behind right field.

“It feels good,” Harper said post-game, “but we’ve got a while to go. I want to keep playing well and have good at-bats, have good games and just be where we need to be down the stretch.”

“We’re all involved in this, right? And the game is always, to me, about our team,” Girardi said. “But he’s a big reason why we’ve hung around, just because of the season that he’s had and the last two-and-a-half months, whatever he’s done. It’s been incredible to watch. It’s been a show for quite awhile.”

“The challenge,” writes The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb, “has always been squeezing enough from the roster around Harper. It is flawed and will continue to be flawed even if the Phillies sneak into the postseason. It will not dampen the doubts about the organization’s long-term plan. But Harper has given the Phillies everything he promised, and the rest of the franchise has seventeen days to make it count for something.”

Neither Girardi nor the Phillies want the show to end. It might or might not be just a sliver outside possibility’s realm. But in theory, at least, they could even reach the postseason by a nose.

On a sober anniversary

New York Mets, New York Yankees

Honouring the murdered and the fallen who tried to save them during the original 9/11 atrocity at the World Trade Center, the Mets and the Yankees stood shoulder-to-shoulder before Saturday night’s game. Shown left to right here: Pete Alonso, Gleyber Torres, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Jonathan Villar, Giancarlo Stanton, Brandon Nimmo (still on the injured list), and Aaron Judge.

Members of the 2001 Mets, including Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, escorted various groups of first responders onto and around the field Saturday night. The Citi Field audience cheered loud and long, not just for those Mets but for those first responders who survived or whose comrades were lost in the 11 September 2001 atrocity upon the World Trade Center.

Several of today’s Yankees and Mets—wearing assorted New York first-responder hats, this time with the blessing of baseball’s government—lined up intermingled on the baseline and came close enough to tears. The Mets wore the same non-pinstriped home whites the team wore in 2001, complete with “9-11-2001” embroidered on the right sleeve, but this time with a  black-shadowed version of their “New York” traveling letters across the chest.

After a moment of silence in honour of those murdered in the WTC attacks,  and those who died trying to rescue the attacked, the New York City Cops & Kids Choir sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in a striking balance of chorale, section, and soloist. The cheer at the finish amounted as much to a prayer that a country now fragmented in enough ways might yet un-fragment once again in enough ways, as it did the performance that truly honoured the dead.

The Fox Sports telecast cut to a special anniversary video story, recalling the moment New York can never forget, ten days after baseball ended its self-imposed hiatus following the original atrocities—Piazza blasting what proved a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, in old Shea Stadium, off Braves reliever Steve Karsay, off the second tier of a television camera stand behind the center field fence.

Then, the Mets’ and Yankees’ 2001 managers, Bobby Valentine and Hall of Famer Joe Torre, threw ceremonial first pitches to the plate, after Valentine puckishly ran back onto the mound to toe the rubber. That was a very far cry from Valentine having led his 2001 Mets in running rescue-and-recovery efforts outside old Shea Stadium itself—and having fear of further danger, as he’s acknowledged often since—after the WTC attacks.

After a commercial break—including a stunning montage of a young lady named Rowen Emerson Jones playing “God Bless America” on her violin, at various New York spots including the Brooklyn Bridge and a 9/11 memorial—it was time at last to set sober reflection and ceremony to one side, play baseball, and grip the Citi Field crowd until the last out of an 8-7 Yankee win.

On baseball terms, the Mets’ home crowd would have loved to have back the awkward should-have-been double play finisher second baseman Javier Baez—hurrying the throw to first—sent airmail past first baseman Pete Alonso that allowed the eighth Yankee run in the top of the eighth in the first place.

This was an interleague game whose sole significance otherwise rested solely in the now-faint postseason hopes of both the Mets in the National League East and the Yankees in the American League East. Had it not been for 9/11’s twentieth anniversary, the bigger baseball news of the night might have been Brewers pitchers Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader collaborating on a major league record ninth no-hitter of the season in their 3-0 win over the Indians—now the first team to be no-hit three times in a season.

The Yankees and the Mets exchanged single-hit halves of the first inning off their starting pitchers, Corey Kluber for the Yankees and Taijuan Walker for the Mets. The baseball fun really began in the top of the second, when the Yankees battered Walker for a pair of two-run homers (catcher Kyle Higashioka, center fielder Brett Gardner), a solo bomb (Aaron Judge, right after Gardner), and a too-early 5-0 lead.

Aaron Judge

Judge led the Yankee attack with two home runs Saturday night.

The Mets got right back into the game in the bottom of the inning. Second baseman Javier Baez, one of the notorious Thumb Bunch, waited out a leadoff four-pitch walk and stole second while left fielder Jeff McNeil struck out swinging. Then a second Thumb Buncher, Kevin Pillar, drove Baez home with a liner just inside the left field line, before catcher James McCann—who’s seen as one of the Mets’ more dubious free agency signings ordinarily—hit a drive that eluding a leaping Judge at the right field wall into an RBI triple. Walker himself followed with a line single to right sending McCann home effortlessly.

From there, Walker overcame his own wounding flaw, trouble commanding his fastball, and retired each the next thirteen Yankees he faced. Along the way, Baez turned on a Kluber service with two out in the bottom of the third and ripped it on a fast high line into the lower left field seats to pull the Mets back to within a run.

Kluber endured through four innings before Yankee manager Aaron Boone opened his bullpen and brought Lucas Luetge in to work the bottom of the fifth. The good news for the Yankees: Luetge shook off a one-out base hit by Mets right fielder Michael Conforto, shot through unoccupied shortstop territory on the defensive shift, to get rid of Alonso on a fly to the back of right field and Baez on a bullet liner Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela speared in a somewhat spinning crouch for the side.

The bad news for the Yankees was Luetge opening the Mets’ half of the sixth by walking McNeil on four straight pitches. Exit Luetge, enter Chad Green in a double switch sending Tyler Wade to play third base. Unfortunately, enter three baseballs thrown onto the field in right by unknown Citi Field idiots, followed by another couple of jackasses running onto the field but taken down swiftly enough by stadium security.

The unruly delay knocked Pillar out of his batting rhythm and into a swinging strikeout. But it didn’t stop McCann from turning on a 1-1 service and driving it into the left field seats, yanking the Mets into a 6-4 lead and inspiring one fan adjacent to the broadcast booth to holler, “Rock ’em! Sock ’em!” Those who remembered Piazza’s 2001 blast hoped against hope that another Met catcher’s bomb would prove the winner on the actual 9/11 anniversary, instead of in the first Mets home game back after baseball’s self-imposed September 2001 break.

The Mets had one more run in them in the bottom of the seventh, when with two outs and Clay Holmes on the mound for the Yankees, Baez chopped one off the plate up toward third, with Wade having a tough throw to make and Baez beating it by a hair as a few television replays plus the umpires’ review showed. McNeil singled him to third, Pillar singled him home with a liner to left, and it looked as though the Mets had an insurance run.

Seth Lugo had relieved Walker and thrown a spotless top of the sixth, and now Trevor May took over for the seventh. Oops. Gardner opened with a base hit through the hole at second, and Judge hit a parabolic punt sailing above the top of the stadium roof but landing halfway up the left field seats to tie the game at six. Yankee left fielder Giancarlo Stanton chased May with a long single, and Aaron Loup took the mound for the Mets.

It looked like Loup would have a simple gig when he got rid of Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo in a hurry on a fly out that nudged Conforto back almost to the track in right. Shortstop Gleyber Torres smashed one hard enough on the ground to short that his Mets counterpart Francisco Lindor couldn’t handle properly and got ruled a base hit.

Luke Voit pinch hit for Holmes. He grounded one to short on a very weird hop, but this time Lindor snapped it up at once and threw to second to get Torres. Baez in his rush to end the inning threw flatfoot off his right leg, mid-pivot, and the ball sailed over and past Alonso, enabling Stanton’s pinch runner Andrew Velasquez to score the eighth Yankee run.

The blameless Loup promptly struck Higashioka swinging on four pitches, but the Mets couldn’t cash in the two-out baserunner they got when Lindor wrung Yankee reliever Albert Abreu for a full-count walk. After another delay from another idiot running on the field—Hall of Fame pitcher/Fox Sports analyst John Smoltz wondered aloud, and appropriately, why people pick even evenings of sober commemoration for their “look at me!” moments—Conforto wrung Abreu for another walk.

Up to the plate came Alonso, the Met everyone in the ballpark wanted in this situation. He gave it his best shot, too. On 1-1 he hit one high and deep to center field, but he’d connected just on the underside of the ball, enough to give the Yankees a momentary jolt but not enough to keep Gardner from catching it on the edge of the track.

Veteran Mets relief pickup Brad Hand rid himself of Wade (ground out to second), Yankee second baseman D.J. LeMahieu (identical ground out to second), and Gardner (foul tip swinging strikeout) in the top of the ninth. But Mets pinch-hitter J.D. Davis’s one-out ground-rule double wasn’t enough in the bottom. He took third when strike three escaped Higashioka but the Yankee catcher recovered the ball soon enough to keep Pillar from taking first by just a step.

Then McCann gave one a ride out to right. It wasn’t enough of a ride. Judge snapped the ball into his glove to end the game, snapping a low for the Yankees in which they’d entered Saturday night having lost seven straight and—how cruel the irony—nine of eleven.

In baseball terms, the win put the Yankees into a tie with the Blue Jays for the second AL wild card, the Blue Jays having taken a doubleheader from the hapless Orioles. The loss kept the Mets five behind the Braves in the NL East and four behind the Reds and the Padres—both defeated earlier Saturday—for the second NL wild card.

In spiritual terms, the full Citi Field house, the pre-game ceremonies, and the shoulder-to-shoulder interweaving of Mets and Yankees on the baseline during those ceremonies reminded people of the better sides of New York City. The sides that show recovery and perseverance with little more than just basic effort of the heart. Even commemorating the anniversary of an atrocity that—who could have predicted—killed fewer people than were reported to have died Friday alone from COVID-19-related illness.

Maybe sports don’t really heal, but maybe something like a baseball game relieves the sting of certain atrocities, pestilences, and sorrows for just a little while.

But to the idiots throwing balls on the field, running onto the field, and even booing the 7 Line Army—that particular group of orange-shirted, die-hard Met fans—for refusing to partake of the still-idiotic Wave in the seventh inning (if the 1980s call demanding it back, let them have it back, unapologetically), three words: Go to hell.