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.

Five straight for the Thumb Bunch

Jeurys Familia, Pete Alonso

Jeurys Familia and Pete Alonso have a victory handshake after the Mess (er, Mets) won their fifth straight Friday night—with plenty of help from the Thumb Bunch.

Almost a full week ago, the Mets were likely to be number one on a baseball fan’s hate parade. You know, you can’t have those ornery spoiled brats giving thumbs down when doing things right to the fans who spent most of August booing their heads off during what seemed, once and for all, like a classically surreal Met implosion.

You could only imagine the curses and hexes fans wanted to place on their heads for their dissing the people who pay their goddam salaries. Never mind that fans alone, or even predominantly, haven’t really paid baseball players’ salaries in decades.

But the Mets looked so vividly like 2021 baseball’s biggest self-inflicted trainwreck last month that you could still be forgiven for expecting a complete collapse. Maybe even firing squads in the clubhouse and guillotines outside the ballpark.

The hell with Pete Alonso’s happy talk channeling his inner Tug McGraw. Maybe Alonso didn’t use the specific phrase “ya gotta believe,” and McGraw in 1973 deployed it sarcastically after a lame rah-rah clubhouse speech by then-Mets lord M. Donald Grant. But when he said, “If you don’t believe in yourself, then who else is going to believe,” around 10 August, things only got worse instead of better.

Maybe Alonso really was onto something after all. Because look who’s won five straight including the two games last weekend that brought the thumbs-downing to a boil before the weekend ended. Look who’s even figured out a way to blow a lead in the ninth to force extra innings and then won the game in the extras, anyway.

Never mind that the streak’s come at the expense of two other sputtering teams, the Nationals and the Marlins. The way the Mets looked for most of August, they could have lost handily to a lineup of nine arthritic maids, a pitching staff of five one-armed janitors, a bullpen of seven legless movers, and a bench of six quadriplegics.

But ever since the down-thumbing suddenly caught the attention of the rest of the world, the Mets have outscored the opposition 27-13. And on Friday night, they took a precarious 2-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, watched Edwin Diaz surrender a leadoff home run (to Juan Soto) and an RBI double (to Riley Adams) to tie . . . and pried four unanswered runs out of the Nats in the top of the tenth to win, 6-4.

Let’s not kid ourselves just yet. The Mets get to abuse the Nats in Washington for four more games this weekend, then they get to fly to Miami to inflict a little more use, misuse, and abuse of the Marlins. After that? They come home to host three clubs who can be called many things without pushovers being one of them: the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Phillies.

There’s something to be said for gaining momentum even at the expense of the also-rans. And the Mets did claw their way back to .500 and to a mere four games out of first in the National League East.

Sure, they got some help from the Fish flattening the second-place Phillies 10-3 Friday night. Sure, they got some help from the Rockies eking out a 4-3 win over the first-place Braves. But a team that started August leading the division by three, and almost ended the month trailing by eight the night before the current streak began, has a few reasons to be happier.

Happier, but not quite to the delirious level just yet?

But let’s not spoil the fun. OK? Not the day after ancient Rich Hill pitched like a young man over six scoreless innings. Not the day after everyone in the Mets bullpen not named Diaz pitched three innings of one-hit, scoreless baseball.

Not after Diaz shook off those tying runs—and a scary collision between tying runner Andrew Stevenson and Mets catcher Chance Sisco that knocked Sisco out of the game at once—by ironing up and using a strikeout (of Carter Kieboom) and a ground out (by Luis Garcia) to strand the potential winning Nats run.

Not the day after Javier Baez, one of the Thumb Bunch, poked a one-out double down the right field line in the top of the second and came home almost at once when Michael Conforto—who’d gone from extension lock to question mark with a season’s worth of struggling—ricocheted a single off Nats starter Sean Nolin’s shoulder to send him there.

Not the day after Alonso, Mr. Belief, squared Nats starter Sean Nolin up on the first two-out, one-on pitch in the top of the third and yanked it as far down the right field line as he could for the RBI triple.

Not the day after Alonso drove Francisco Lindor—another of the Thumb Bunch, now deployed as the free cookie on second to open the New York tenth—home with a line single into the right center field gap.

Not the day after a third Thumb Buncher, Kevin Pillar, followed a free pass to Conforto by ripping a liner all the way down the left field line, sending Alonso and Conforto home as if they were escaping for their lives, Conforto following Alonso with an Olympic-level dive across the back of the plate.

Not the day after pinch hitter J.D. Davis was handed another free pass and Jonathan Villar cashed in at once by singling Pillar home for the fourth Met run of the tenth.

Not the day after Jeurys Familia returned to a once-familiar role, closing it out with a leadoff punchout and a pair of swift ground outs in the bottom of the tenth.

“As you can imagine,” Alonso the Believer said post-game, “it’s great. It’s awesome to rip off (five) in a row. [But] we just have to win every possible game that we can. Regardless of the standings, we can only control what we can control. There’s ebbs and flows in the season and right now we’re just looking to finish strong.”

“The whole thing is just the creativity as the game is kind of presenting what it is showing you as a pitcher, as a conductor,” Hill said post-game of his own solid outing. “You saw a variation of a lot of different things out of my mechanics tonight. It wasn’t necessarily just a traditional leg lift and a pitch and the timing was all the same. Trying to disrupt the timing is the whole art of pitching.”

So Hill isn’t as succinct as Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. (Hitting is timing, pitching is destroying timing.) But he sure pitched and sounded just as smart. Especially facing the heart of the Nats order three times, bringing them up empty, and surrendering only three hits overall during his six splendid.

Maybe the Nats helped the Mets’ cause by some rather uncharacteristic basepath mistakes. But if pitching is disrupting or destroying timing, then winning in large enough part is making the other guys pay for their mistakes. Usually, this year, the Mets have paid through the nose (and any other orifice) for theirs.

Enjoy it while it lasts. However long it lasts. Seeing the August Mess come back to life for even five games was still a pleasure. They might (underline that) even have a few more surprises in store when they come home from their current trip to the division swamps.

“Every game is really huge at this point of the year,” Alonso said. Stick to that attitude, Mets.

Good luck trying to “replace” Acuna

Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Three Braves trainers help Ronald Acuna, Jr. onto a medical cart, after Acuna landed awkwardly and tore his ACL trying to catch Jazz Chisholm’s high liner Saturday.

It can happen any time, any place. There’s no particular rule about when a simple running down of a drive to the back of right field will turn into a completely-torn anterior cruciate ligament that takes you out for the rest of a major league season.

It happened to Ronald Acuna, Jr. in Miami’s Ioan Depot Park Saturday. All he did in the bottom of the fifth was draw a bead on and run down Marlins second baseman Jazz Chisholm’s one-out, high liner toward the back of right field, take a leap trying to catch it before it hit the track near the wall, and land on his right knee hard and awkwardly enough to tear that ACL.

Acuna hit the track and the wall after the ball that eluded him by inches ricocheted back to the outfield grass as Chisholm finished running out an inside-the-park home run. Chisholm was anything but thrilled about getting it that way.

“For it to come at that expense, it kind of sucks for me and him, because the way that I got my home run is because he got hurt,” Chisholm told reporters following the 5-4 Braves win—and that was before he knew just how badly Acuna was injured on the play. “The baseball world is going to miss him if he’s out for long.”

The baseball world in general, and the Braves in particular. So sit down and shut up, you social media miscreants who think the same as one poster who said, ignorantly, “Sorry don’t feel sorry for any injury everyone gets them, next man, up.

If you think it’s that simple, let’s see you try to replace an effervescent clubhouse presence, and a guy who actually has as much fun playing the game as the Braves are going to sweat trying to replace a .900 OPS at the plate and twelve defensive runs saved above the National League average for right fielders this year so far.

Three Braves trainers tended Acuna on the track. He tried to get up and walk but could barely limp before the pain became too much. The trainers plus first base coach Eric Young, Sr. helped Acuna aboard the medical cart that drove out to him. Teammates talked to him like a fallen brother.

“It was more just trying to let him know that we love him and that we care about him, and we’re obviously with him throughout it all,” said shortstop Dansby Swanson post-game. “He didn’t really have anything else to say other than thank you for those words.”

This wasn’t a case of a player getting himself badly hurt doing what he wasn’t supposed to be doing. This wasn’t a baseball player attacking the game with a football mentality or playing the outfield as though the fences either didn’t exist or were there purely to surrender when he came barreling through.

This was a right fielder, maybe the best in the game this season, running down and leaping for a high liner he thought he had a chance to catch, landing with unexpected awkwardness followed at once by disaster.

This is also the game’s most dynamic leadoff hitter now gone for the year. Not to mention one of the classic current examples of reminding the Old Fart Contingent how foolish they look demanding players play the game like a business but remember it’s only a game when it comes down to its business.

“In his case,” writes The Athletic‘s David O’Brien, “there is even more substance than style, which is saying a lot considering he has style and swagger coming from his pores every moment he’s on the field . . . Though Freddie Freeman has been the undisputed captain of the Braves and the face of the franchise since Chipper Jones’ retirement, Acuna rivals him not just in terms of popularity among Braves fans but also in all-around performance and standing in the baseball world.”

Before Saturday night the only issue for Acuna seemed to be the Marlins having a particular penchant for hitting him with pitches. Acuna may like to take a couple of liberties with his batter’s box positioning, but the Marlins who’ve hit him with pitches twice this year and six lifetime—the most by any opponent in his career—have looked like headhunters when facing him.

It couldn’t possibly be that Acuna has more total bases against the Marlins (147) than any other team he’s played against in 50+ games, could it? It couldn’t possibly be that Acuna has a lifetime .736 real batting average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) against the Marlins versus his .617 career mark to date, could it?

“This is actually the fourth time Acuna has had to make an early exit from a game this season due to an injury,” writes MLB Trade Rumors‘s Mark Polishuk, “but while those previous instances resulted in just a couple of missed games, [Saturday’s] injury appears to be much more serious in scope.”

That was just before how much more serious in scope came to pass. With a recovery time up to ten months, the Braves may well begin the 2022 season without Acuna for a spell, too.

“The only thing I can say,” Acuna himself said on a Sunday Zoom call, “is that I’m obviously going to put maximum effort to come back stronger than ever. If was giving 500 percent before, I’m about to start giving 1,000 percent.” The spirit is certainly willing. Unfortunately, the body may have other things to say about that. May.

“Acuna will be missed throughout baseball and especially by the Braves and their fans,” O’Brien writes. “Those fans scooped up Acuna jerseys and stood in line for Acuna bobbleheads and celebrated his every home run and bat flip, every stolen base and blazing dash from first to third—or home—and every cannon-armed throw to cut down a runner trying to take an extra base.”

Good luck trying to “replace” all that.

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.