What’s brewing out of Milwaukee?

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Ryan Braun slammed the Brewers toward a postseason berth clinch Wednesday night.

This season’s been strange enough without picking out the unlikeliest feel-good stories of the year. You thought a season-long battle with the injured list making the Yankees actually seem lovable was strange enough? You thought slugging their way to the American League Central title makes the almost-unexpected Twins’ case?

Well, then, what do you think about the real feel-good story of the year? It’s out of Milwaukee, you know. It’s called Lose MVP, Make Postseason Anyway. And as of this morning it could start changing to Lose MVP, Take Division.

The Brewers are doing what lots of fans only wish their teams might have done. Everyone wants to see their teams rise from the dead. The Brewers are bloody well doing it. Just like they did last September. Except that this time around they looked a little worse for wear before the month began. And they won’t have Christian Yelich in service again until spring training.

Be real. A runaway success is well and good. For all intent and purpose, that was this year’s Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and even the Yankees. Jaw dropping as the Yankees’ endurance was despite their season being St. Elsewhere, Yankee Stadium, their organisational depth helped make sure the farthest behind the Yankees ever fell was five and a half games—on 18 April.

The Astros were probably baseball’s second-most injury-challenged team, maybe with the now also-ran Phillies right up there with them. But the Astros are made of a lot stronger stuff and are at least as deep as the Yankees. They’re liable to end up with baseball’s best regular season record, if the Yankees don’t. They were last seen near five games behind even earlier than the Yankees—on 3 April.

And with Mike Trout out of the picture since going down for the season over nerve surgery in his right foot, Alex Bregman—who’s been Trout’s only anywhere-near-viable competition for the prize this year—is liable to end up as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, with Justin Verlander the likely AL Cy Young Award winner. These Astros aren’t exactly sad sacks. They could even win this year’s World Series. Could.

So turn to the Brewers. Whose best player and team carrier got knocked out of the box literally on 10 September when he smashed his kneecap on his own foul off the plate. A knockout that had an awful lot of people, yours truly included, thinking the Brewers might have been knocked out right then and there. Even as they hung in anyway that day to beat the Marlins by a run.

They finished that day five games out in the NL Central and a game behind the Cubs for the same. They finished the same day a game behind the Cubs in the wild card standing. And with Yelich out of  the picture, for all manager Craig Counsell’s absence of fear for what’s outside or nowhere within reach of the box, it was too easy to wonder how soon, not whether the Brewers’ tickets home for the year would be punched.

Lots of teams take a refuse-to-lose posture when disaster strikes. But you can count on a single hand how many act like their posture then. The Brewers are 19-4 in September overall—but 12-2 since Yelich was lost.

And after jumping the Reds for six in the first en route a 9-2 win Wednesday night—Ryan Braun’s grand salami on the game’s 20th pitch was merely the opening blow—they had the pleasure of delivering knockout punches to two teams for the price of one: the Cubs, who’ve spent September imploding; and, the Mets, whose post-All Star pluck and jive turned out to be less pluck than jive, after all.

The Brewers are not going to get cocky and kid either you or themselves that this makes Yelich expendable. They may be insane, but they’re not that crazy. But they weren’t exactly a threshing machine before September, either: they entered the month three games over .500 after an August that proved their season’s worst month.

They opened September 2-2, winning once and losing once each to the Cubs and the Astros. And then . . . and then . . .

* They took three straight from the Cubs.

* They beat the Marlins two straight before and including the night Yelich kneecapped himself, then beat them two straight more.

* They took two out of three from the Cardinals and three out of four from the Padres.

* They swept the Pirates, whose internal dysfunction this season was the year’s saddest feel-bad story, and now sit on the threshold of sweeping Cincinnati.

Go ahead and say it. The Brewers fattened themselves this month the way the Mets did out of the All-Star break, on preponderantly weaker pickings. But just as the Mets had to figure ways to elude both a bullpen made of 95 percent arsonists and a moment-challenged manager, the Brewers had to overcome:

* An entire roster whose individual wins above replacement-level player this year didn’t even show a single other All-Star level player, never mind anyone within a hundred nautical miles of Yelich’s level. And that’s despite five Brewers hitting 20 home runs or more this season (including Yelich’s 44), two (Yelich and Mike Moustakas) hitting 35 or more as of this morning, and the team’s on-base percentage sitting fifth in the league (.329) as of this morning, too.

* A starting rotation with only one member (Brandon Woodruff) showing a fielding-independent pitching rate under 4.00. (Woodruff missed all of August and most of September on the injured list.)

* A bullpen showing only one member (closer Josh Hader) with an FIP and an ERA below 3.00, with the average FIP (among its regular bulls) otherwise being 4.46. (They might have had a second bull close enough to Hader if Corey Knebel didn’t miss the season following Tommy John surgery.)

Now the Brewers are fighting on two fronts. They have a clean shot at sneaking the NL Central title right out from under the Cardinals’ noses. Or, they might have, if the Cardinals got to finish the regular season against anyone other than the Cubs. The Cubs have imploded so severely that winning even one of the final three this weekend might require a clergyman to verify the miracle.

More realistically, the Brewers have home field in the wild card game at stake. If the season ended this instant, the game would be played in Washington. But if the Brewers could end up tying the Nats’ season record, the game would be played in Miller Park, since the Brewers beat the Nats in their season series 4-2.

And the Nats—who had to find ways to survive their own manager’s periodic tactical lapses and their own self-immolating bullpen—won’t have it easy. After they finish with the Phillies today, they get to end the season interleague and against the Indians, still in the postseason hunt despite waking up this morning a game and a half behind the Rays for the second AL wild card.

The Indians won’t make things easy for the Nats. If they could survive a sweep at the Mets’ hands in New York, which proved maybe the true last grand stand of the Mets’ season, and stay in the hunt since, they won’t go down without a battle to the Nats.

But stranger things have been known to happen, including the Brewers being this far in the first place. Maybe the Cubs find enough self pride to give the Cardinals a run for it this weekend. Maybe enough, assuming the Brewers spend the weekend in Coors Field reminding the Rockies (whom they haven’t seen since may) who they’re dealing with, to set up a possible NL Central tiebreaker game.

They’re not strangers to that circumstance. Just last year they forced a division tiebreaker with the Cubs and beat them to force the Cubs to the wild card game they lost to the Rockies. These Brewers don’t seem to fear anything yet. Which gives this year’s almost-as-feel-good Cardinals a little more incentive than just rivalry pride to keep the Cubs in their apparent place on the final weekend.

But don’t bet too heavily against the Brewers, anyway. A team that loses its MVP and carrier and continues the September binge they started with him is not a team who’s going to dry up and blow away upon command.

Wrigley agonistes

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Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.

Could Ross take the Cubs’ bridge?

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Keeping Anthony Rizzo (left) steadied in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series is probably only one reason David Ross (right) may be seen as managerial material—and closer to a shot at it than he thinks.

When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.

A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.

With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.

September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.

That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.

After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.

The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.

Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.

Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.

This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.

Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.

And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”

The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.

Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”

If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.

Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.

The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.

Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”

After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.

A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.

None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.

Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.

Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.

He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.

When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.

“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.

Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.

Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.

Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.

“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.

“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”

The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.

The Mets re-heat to burn the Indians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life comes in threes for these Mets

2019-08-09 MichaelConforto

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

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

The answer came in two parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But did the Mets know they were done for yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

“We are now in crunch time”

2019-08-07 PeteAlonso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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