Down and out—but still looking up

Juan Soto and the Nationals hope to kick up their heels from 2020 deflation to 2021 redemption and beyond. Is it false hope?

Don’t look now, but baseball is about to wrap its twentieth season without a repeat World Series champion. What’s sadder about it is that last year’s world champions were so damn much fun but spent this year proving that no good deed goes unpunished.

Lots of teams get battered during any season, never mind truncated ones, but the Washington Nationals passed that practically before this one settled in through its early shakes, rattles, and COVID-19 rolls.

Until Daniel Hudson struck Michael Brantley out swinging on a full count, Washington hadn’t had a major league World Series champion since the Coolidge Administration or any kind of world champion since the final Negro Leagues World Series—during the Berlin Airlift.

Now the Nats have gone from baseball’s best between 23 May 2019 and the last men standing in the World Series toward the second-worst winning percentage ever for a defending Series winner. That was last year: They opened 19-31 and closed with the keys to the Promised Land. This was this year: They opened 19-31 and head for a closing with the keys to the tunnels beneath the sewers under the basement.

The worst, in case you wondered, were the 1998 Florida Marlins. (.333.) The team the Nats are about to push to one side in second place? The 2014 Boston Red Sox. (.438.) This is a very dubious elite club for which to aim at the top of the dubious the heap. NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reminds us that only 14.9 percent out of all 114 World Series winners had losing records. If you remove this year’s Nats from the picture, the dishonour roll looks thus:

1998 Marlins—.333.
2014 Red Sox—.438.
1991 Cincinnati Reds—.457.
1918 Chicago White Sox—.460.
1932 St. Louis Cardinals—.468.
Tie: 1986 Kansas City Royals; 2013 San Francisco Giants—.469.
1967 Baltimore Orioles—.472.
2003 Anaheim Angels—.475.
1994 Toronto Blue Jays—.478.
2007 St. Louis Cardinals—.481.

The Nats woke up this morning at .411. The good news, if you want to call it that: They get to finish this Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please: The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone of a season with four games against the New York Mess. (Er, Mets.) Who were supposed to be in the thick of this season’s races with or without the pandemic but had one thing in common with their comic 1962 ancestors: they never had a winning streak bigger than two games.

Assume for argument and humour’s sake that the Mets iron up and sweep the Nats to put paid to a season the Nats and the Mets would each love nothing more than to forget. Such a sweep would leave the Nats with a .383 winning percentage. Not quite enough to knock the Marlins off the highest of those low perches, but only the second defending World Champion to have a sub-.400 winning percentage trying to defend the title.

It’s not that the Nats lack for any remaining pride. Taking three out of four this week from even this year’s Philadelphia Phillies and especially their arsonic bullpen, including a doubleheader sweep Tuesday, shows they’ve got plenty enough of that left.

Maybe they don’t let themselves stay demoralised by the 12-3 smothering the Phillies dropped on them Wednesday night. Including and especially by old friend Bryce Harper—who’s been silly enough to play through back issues this year, and didn’t the Nats used to reach for the whiskey bottles over Harper trying to play through injuries when he wore their silks, too?— hitting a pair out on a night the Phillies sent five into the barren seats.

It’s what they didn’t have that picked these Nats up by the back of their necks and threw them downstairs this year. Last season, and especially last October, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Tanner Rainey, and especially Stephen Strasburg owned numerous postseason conversations. This season they’ve owned too-choice seats on the injured list.

Last year, they had Anthony Rendon. Last winter, they decided (maybe foolishly, maybe not) that they couldn’t afford to keep both Rendon and Strasburg, and let Rendon walk into the Los Angeles Angels’ free agency arms—where, as of this morning, he leads the American League in on-base percentage.

The Nats thought signing Starlin Castro would ease that pain. Castro and his right wrist hit the IL in mid-August after he broke it on a diving play at second base. The Nats also didn’t expect that only three players would play up to even minimum expectations while the rest of the roster got injured, played at barely replacement-level, or just plain collapsed.

The three are Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Luis Garcia. The third of that group is a rookie. The first is the young man who shook off what he still believes a false-positive COVID test to sport a 1.190 OPS as of Thursday morning and a real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .830.

It’s even more of a shame that this truncated season’s Nats deflated so profoundly. A performance like Soto’s over a full season might have “Most Valuable Player” stamped on the papers without that deflation.

Perspective: Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, the presumptive MVP this season, has an RBA 101 points lower than Soto’s. (.729.) The Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu, who leads the American League “batting race” as Soto does the National League’s, has a .635 RBA. Tim Anderson, second in the AL “batting race”: .596 RBA. Turner, who’s third in the NL “batting race”: .624 RBA.

The Nats also didn’t anticipate Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin being only human this year, pandemic or no pandemic, disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp or no disrupted spring training and bizarro summer camp. Hands up to everyone who expected the pair would combine for a 4.20 ERA and 3.59 fielding-independent pitching. Neither did they. Neither did I.

Nobody thought their up-and-comers would shrink when handed their opportunities to come forth and be counted in. Nobody thought so many veterans would look more ancient than merely veteran. And nobody thought the Lerner ownership would wait as long as they did to hand general manager Mike Rizzo his very hard-earned due of a contract extension.

But they still don’t have manager Dave Martinez’s situation resolved. Rizzo’s promised to sign Martinez to a long-term deal to keep him on the Nats’ bridge.The Lerners should at least think about atoning for keeping Rizzo in too-long-limbo and ordering Rizzo to get Martinez’s deal done the sooner the better.

Reality check: The Nats’ morale probably wasn’t helped by Rizzo’s long-enough lame duck status before he finally got his extension, and it probably isn’t helped by Martinez’s lack of new or at least extended deal. It’s no fun when two men you respect and admire and forgive their occasional hiccups and mishaps have to lead you through a season phantasmagoric going in with question marks instead of security on their heads.

They know Rizzo worked his tail off a very long time to make them winners and finally world champions, and they withstood Rizzo’s occasional stumbles on behalf of the bigger picture. They know Martinez didn’t let that 19-31 opening last year put premature paid to that season and bought into his “It’s a beautiful day, let’s win one” philosophy without waiting for it to go on sale.

They know this year’s an aberration. They hope.

“What I do like is our potential for 2021,” Martinez told reporters Wednesday. “I’ll say it again: Our starting pitching, the horses are coming back. The back end of our bullpen is shaped up and those guys will be fresh and ready to go. We have some really young talent; we’ve got some other young talent that hopefully we’ll see in spring training.”

All they have to do is a very mild re-tooling. (Six Nats either face free agency or option rejection, they’re not really keys to the future, and letting them go or just keeping one leaves room to sign, oh, a solid fourth starter, a decent bat, maybe even a bullpen fortifier.) Also, avoid the injury list and pray that 2021 will be a normal spring training and season.

Not to mention reminding themselves that World Series winners since 1995 also tend to get back to the postseason two years after slipping the rings onto their fingers. Those 2019 memories are eternal. But the Nats don’t have to think they’ll end up becoming outliers, either.

Discouraged even when the Mets win?

2019-09-04 AmedRosarioJoePanik

Amed Rosario and Joe Panik (2) celebrate the Mets’ Wednesday win over the Nats. So why does it still feel discouraging?

Four months ago, Dave Martinez couldn’t live five minutes without yet another pundit or sports talking head measuring him for the electric chair. Four minutes after the Mets blew one to the Nats in the bottom of the ninth that they led by six in the top, on Tuesday night, Martinez can live like a skipper who has about a 99 percent chance of seeing the postseason even by way of the National League’s first wild card.

Even if he and his Nats lose the afternoon after.

And a few moments before the Nationals started their off-the-charts Tuesday overthrow, Martinez had only one message for his players: “If you let this game go like this, it’s not going to be good,” as he put it in his post-game press conference. Kurt Suzuki in the bottom of the ninth finished making damn sure the game didn’t go like that. He also made sure that what was left of the Nationals Park crowd went from chaos to bedlam while he was at it.

After Suzuki’s three-run homer landed halfway up the left field seats Tuesday night, the Mets looked like they wouldn’t live another five minutes without someone, anyone, preparing to stage an intervention on behalf of the Crisis Addiction Anonymous organisation for which this year’s Mets ought to be the founding fathers.

“It kind of just seemed like a bad dream,” said Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who accounted for two of the Mets’ ten Tuesday runs with a fourth-inning sacrifice fly and a ninth-inning homer.  “I don’t know. That’s hard to do even in a Little League game I feel like, come back from [six] runs down in the bottom of the ninth against guys throwing 99 mph. I don’t really have words for it.”

Mets fans thought it was bad enough watching the Mets blow a seven-run lead in what looked like a blowout in the making against the Braves in Atlanta while almost letting the Braves win it at the eleventh hour? That was just a hard day’s night of a 10-8 win. Tuesday night’s 11-10 loss after the Mets had the damn game locked in the vault was they should have known better. And didn’t.

“We had a six-run lead,” lamented Mets manager Mickey Callaway, whose own neck looked as though it were being measured for a guillotine in May. “Major league pitchers got to be able to hold that.”

How could Martinez and his Dancing Nats, the guys who’ve been baseball’s best since 23 May and think nothing of turning the dugout and the clubhouse into Soul Train after epic home runs or hard-earned wins, know that their still-testy, still-implosive bullpen was going to be taken off the Tuesday night hook by a Mets bullpen that would have fought the Chicago Fire with incendiaries instead of water and other retardants?

A Wednesday matinee between the two, their final meeting of the regular season, promised to be an anticlimax if the Nats won. Or, if the Mets’ self-immolating bullpen incinerated themselves and the Mets yet again. Well, some promises are made to be broken, after all. Some.

Come Wednesday, Luis Avilan struck out Juan Soto swinging after Jeurys Familia surrendered an RBI single (to ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera) and a two-run double (to Anthony Rendon); Seth Lugo—who wasn’t allowed to work a second inning Tuesday night, with results that will still live in Mets infamy—got his usual two-inning gig and shook off a pair of hits with no runs; and, Justin Wilson pitched a spotless bottom of the ninth.

And the Mets held on to win 8-4. Which cynics, meaning practically any Met fan on the planet, might suggest means it just isn’t safe anymore to trust these Mets with any lead more than four runs. They even had another six-run lead in the middle of the sixth—and let the Nats get a little frisky in the bottom of the inning.

They tied the Nats at a run in the top of the third when spaghetti-bat outfielder Juan Lagares, of all people, led off and hit Nats starter Anibal Sanchez’s hanging cutter over the center field fence. They doubled their pleasure in the top of the fourth when aging second baseman Robinson Cano, returning fresh from the injured list, blasted a first-pitch splitter the other way, into the Mets’ bullpen in left center, with right fielder Michael Conforto (leadoff double) aboard.

And they kicked the train into overdrive when Pete Alonso sent his National League-leading 45th bomb inside the left field foul pole with one out in the top of the fifth.

But with Mets starter Zack Wheeler labouring through five innings and 101 pitches despite surrendering nothing more than Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the second, Callaway decided he had no choice but to open the bullpen, and Familia came forth to open the Washington sixth.

Once the Mets’ effective closer, Familia hasn’t been the same since the Mets’ defense blew three World Series saves for him in 2015, or since Conor Gillaspie homered off him to help the Mets lose the 2016 wild card game, not to mention a domestic violence suspension and a blood clot putting paid to his 2017 before the Mets traded him away during 2018.

This season Familia’s been somewhere between lost and implosive, though he had a recent stretch of serviceability before he turned a two-all tie into an eventual 5-2 loss to the Phillies with a little help from a walk to Rhys Hoskins and, in due course, a three-run double by Scott Kingery on Sunday.

Now he took the mound in Nationals Park, walked Gerardo Parra and pinch hitter Andrew Stevenson back-to-back, and struck Turner out swinging. But he threw Cabrera—still bent on making the Mets pay for failing to re-sign him last winter—a creamy pitch that got turned into an RBI single. And he threw Rendon more fodder for the Nats third baseman to solidify a Most Valuable Player case in a walk year, Rendon driving one to the back of right center for a two-run double.

After Avilan dispatched Soto for the side, it took until the top of the eighth for the Mets to thicken the cushion, when Jeff McNeil squirted an RBI single through the right side for the seventh Mets run. The Mets made a push against returning Nats reliever Sean Doolittle in the top of the ninth but Doolittle managed to strand first and third with no scoring damage.

Then Wilson got a ground out, a line out, and shook off a walk to Suzuki—after spinning him around and into the dirt on the first pitch, perhaps just a little reminder against getting too comfy following Tuesday night’s discomfort—to end the game by getting Victor Robles to force Suzuki at second.

You’re encouraged to see a team recover that swiftly from a disaster like Tuesday night. Whether or not it means said team has one more run of derring-do in them before the regular season’s over. But maybe the Mets picked up a piece of Tuesday night news out of Pennsylvania that helped remind them it could always be worse.

Because as bad as it was for the Mets Tuesday night, it was absolutely worse for their Syracuse Mets AAA affiliate. The Mets blew a six-run lead in the ninth? The S-Mets blew a seven-run lead in the eighth, with the International League’s North Division title at stake in a tiebreaking game. But the S-Mets bullpen let the Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders overthrow them, 14-13.

The Mets have been playing for a mere second National League wild card that looks more and more distant the deeper the stretch drive runs. Playing with dynamite, or matches at least, isn’t the way to reach it.

By and large the big boys have reminded the Mets how invincible they aren’t when they look like champions in the making but do it mostly at the expense of the bottom crawlers. Taking two of three from the first NL wild card-leading Nats, just like sweeping the American League second wild card-tied Indians last month, may yet prove aberrational.

Hi! We’re the Mets! And we’re crisis junkies. So who’s going to be the first Met to stand up, make the confession, and begin the recovery process?

The Mets have now won twelve of their last sixteen series, and have won the season series against the Nats, 12-7, but they don’t make you feel too encouraged anymore when they win. And the Nats don’t make you feel discouraged even when they lose two of three. (Even when you think they might think about joining CAA themselves.) Not until they open against the Braves Friday night, anyway.

“We are now in crunch time”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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