Funeral to frat party and back in a Wrigley blink

2019-09-19 MattCarpenter

Matt Carpenter runs out the bomb that proved the difference maker in the tenth Thursday.

You knew it was just round one of total weekend war when a throw to first to catch Kolten Wong in the act was challenged, the safe call upheld, and the Wrigley Field boos rained louder than a heavy mental concert Thursday night. In the top of the first.

And, as Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras ended the half inning with a strike-’em-out (Paul Goldschmidt)/throw-’em-out (Wong) double play,  the cheering from the Confines would have drowned the earlier booing out if both could have happened at once.

Then, for the following seven innings, Wrigley Field resembled a funeral home with Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty the chief undertaker. Until the Cubs tied things at four in the bottom of the ninth, turned the funeral home into a frat party and sent it to extra innings.

With Craig Kimbrel—returning from elbow inflammation, not having pitched since the beginning of the month—taking the mound for the top of the tenth. Cardiac Craig, about whom it was written snidely that every time he nailed a postseason save for last season’s Red Sox his high-wire act still made it feel like losing.

He struck out former Cub Dexter Fowler on a full count. Then Matt Carpenter—who’d lost his third base job to rookie Tommy Edman, who came into the game late when it looked like the Cardinals had it in the bank, and who hadn’t gone long since late August—hit Kimbrel’s first pitch over the center field wall. That’s what a quick trip back to the minors to fix your swing can do for you.

It also knocked Wrigley back into funeral mode for the moment, until Kimbrel settled enough to get rid of Goldschmidt and Steve Cishek came in to get rid of Marcell Ozuna and get the Cubs one more chance. Which Giovanny Gallegos—the guy the Cardinals surrendered Luke Voit to the Yankees to obtain—had no intention of giving them in his first-ever Cardinals save situation.

Late game Cub insertions Ian Happ (fly out to center) and David Bote (swinging strikeout) were dispatched almost in a blink. And Nicholas Castellanos, the Cubs’ midseason acquisition from the Tigers, who’d been nothing but solid and beyond for the Cubs since, flied out to center to end it.

The 5-4 win pushed the Cubs four behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and one behind the Brewers for the league’s second wild card, the Brewers having flattened the Padres earlier in the day. The Cubs have to win a mere three straight against the Cardinals this weekend to keep pace with them and maybe re-claim their second card grip.

Flaherty’s evening ended after a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, 118 pitches, eight strikeouts, a lone walk, three hits overall, and one rudely-interrupting home run, keeping the Cubs otherwise unbalanced with a blend of breakers, changeups, and fastballs a barista would have envied for its smooth richness.

He walked off the mound for the final time of the game so collected he could have been forgiven for saying, quietly, “Well, I guess I’d better be shoveling off.” Even if he knows about as much about the old friendly radio undertaker Digger O’Dell, whose catch phrase it was, as this year’s American League East-and-100 game-winning Yankees know about avoiding the injured list.

And he got a nice respectful hand from even enough Cub fans and he’d earned every finger of it. Even that was just respectful, low-keyed applause and cheering. The real noise came after the Cardinals brought in former starter Carlos Martinez to open the bottom of the ninth, and Martinez opened with a walk to Nicholas Castellanos before Kris Bryant, who’d been kept quiet by Flaherty all night, smacked a single up the pipe.

With Kyle Schwarber and his 37 home runs so far checking in at the plate with the potential tying run. With Martinez falling behind to him 3-0 before striking him out, but with Ben Zobrist doubling home Castellanos, putting the tying runs into perfect position, and with Javier Baez—whose thumb is still balky but who can still run swiftly—pinch running for Zobrist.

It took eight and a half for Wrigley to come back to life. And when Contreras flicked a squirty grounder up the short third base line with Bryant tearing home as if it was supposed to be an unintentionally intentional suicide squeeze, only with all hands safe and first and third, the Confines became as unconfined as you imagine when the Cubs re-awaken from the dead.

Then Cardinals manager Mike Schildt brought in Andrew Miller, whose formidability as an Indian the Cubs remembered only too well from 2016, but who’s been worn down since by health issues stemming from his former bullpen overwork, to face the lefthanded Jason Heyward. Heyward smashed a grounder to second that pushed home Baez to tie things at four.

You got the idea early that even with the Flaherty factor hitting was going to be a challenge thanks to the notorious Wrigley winds, when Nicholas Castellanos skied one that might have flown out elsewhere but hung up for a right field catch in the first, and Jason Heyward hit a cannon shot liner that died a shuttlecock into Wong’s glove playing second ending the second.

And you also got the idea early and often that both sides weren’t exactly going to be in a big hurry to blow plate umpire Bill Welke to a steak dinner any time soon. Welke called so many pitches strikes that didn’t even graze the floor or the outside edges of the zone it’s a wonder neither Cardinal nor Cub decided to serenade him whistling the ancient television theme from The Outer Limits.

But you also knew the delight Cub Country took in Anthony Rizzo deciding to test his recently-sprained ankle by playing first base would be matched only by a sense that it would do a bigger favour to the Cardinals. And in the top of the third, it was.

Flaherty batted with first and second with Rizzo ambling down the line, a la Keith Hernandez, slowly but surely, and practically in front of the mound, aiming as has become a Cubs mainstay to choke off the bunt even if it went near the third base line. Flaherty dropped the bunt, all right. Right up the short third base line. And on his still-balky wheel Rizzo couldn’t get the ball in time to keep the bases from loading.

The pillows stayed stuffed long enough for Dexter Fowler to dial Area Code 4-6-3 with Edman (a leadoff walk) scoring on the play. And Rizzo atoned for his ankle’s betrayal in the bottom of the inning, sending Flaherty’s first pitch to him the other way into the left center field bleachers to tie things at one. Smartly, Rizzo he didn’t run it out any faster than he absolutely had to or could.

The tie held up long enough for Edman to open the top of the fifth with a triple into the right field corner and for Harrison Bader, who’s been as much a struggler at the plate as reliable in the outfield this season, to smack a single up the pipe to break the tie.

The Cardinals got a scare when Wong had to leave the game after ending the top of the fifth with a ground out to first. He fumed over leaving the game and the Cardinals may have fumed quietly with him, since he’s their best player this season by wins above replacement-level.

Then they sent Carpenter out to play third and moved Edman to second. And Flaherty went back to work as though nothing short of an undetected tornado could interrupt his quiet pleasure in his work. You might feel that kind of quiet surety, too, if you took the fifth-best post All-Star break earned run average (1.07) of all time out to the mound to start your evening’s work of play.

Flaherty was so composed and efficient that the Cardinals didn’t even think about getting a reliever up until Martinez got up to throw in the bottom of the eighth, after Flaherty reached 108 pitches on the night. Don’t even think about it: Flaherty doesn’t look like a pure hard, grunting, thrusting thrower; he relies on mechanical soundness to provide the fastball’s power and the command of the breakers.

He nailed the Cubs’ impressive rookie call-up Kyle Hoerner (eleven runs batted in in his first ten games worth of impressive) on a called third strike that looked under and not on the floor, and while Hoerner objected mildly to the call Flaherty simply walked around the mound and went back to work.

Then he struck out his counterpart Hendricks swinging, and Hendricks to that point was working with equivalent composure, not letting the quirky Wrigley elements get as far into his head as a two-run deficit ordinarily might, though he engaged a long yet civilised-appearing discussion with Welke after that swishout before returning to the mound.

He was probably a little more miffed when Goldsmidt opened the St. Louis sixth with a sharp double down the left field line. The Cardinals must have wondered about his ump conversation when Ozuna was rung up on a pitch that didn’t even graze the outer strike zone before Hendricks nicked Paul DeJong on a runaway inside pitch.

But Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ wise old man behind the plate, lined a single to left that Schwarber played on the carom off the heel of his glove before throwing home. Goldschmidt waved home from second should have been a Deadbird, except that he eluded Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, abetted by Contreras inside the baseline seemingly unable to get the handle on the tag.

Which ended Hendricks’s evening and gave the Cubs more reason to be miffed, when Bader stroked a liner to left center off Hendricks’s relief Rowan Wick, right after Wick turned Edman aside on a swinging strikeout. Then Schwarber opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the pipe. And Flaherty in a momentary lapse of soundness wild pitched Schwarber to second while working to Ben Zobrist, before Zobrist grounded to second to push Schwarber to third.

And the Cubs’ basepath issues reared up and bit them flush on the fanny, when Contreras bounced one right back to Flaherty and Flaherty bagged the Schwarbinator in a 1-2-5-6 rundown out before Heyward grounded out for the side.

The Cardinals didn’t really look all that much better going 4-14 with men in scoring position in the first seven innings, but what matters is how you make it count when you do it and how you hang in there when the other guys decide it’s party time at the ninth hour. And Carpenter spoiled the party in the top of the tenth.

Leaving the Cubs to resist the temptation toward counting the days and accept the temptation to counting the ways they might keep both feet from their seasonal graves. They’d rather not be shoveling off just yet.

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.