Sal de mi césped?

Carlos Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera

Asdrúbal Cabrera (right) telling Carlos Castro (left) that a shot in the head trumps a bat-flipping home run Saturday.

Asdrúbal Cabrera never played for the Braves during fifteen major league seasons. But on Saturday he found a way to behave as though he’d taken lessons in self-appointed Fun Policing from longtime Braves catcher Brian McCann. With a critical piece missing.

Cabrera was playing first base for Caribes de Anzoategui against Tiburones de la Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League. It just so happened to be a game in which Tiburones’s Carlos Castro saw fit to hit three hefty home runs.

The third proved the money shot, for reasons having nothing to do with distance or the score. It proved that a 37-year-old major league veteran can display the mind of a seven-year-old who’s forgotten the meaning of fun when believing, apparently, that he and his team have been dissed.

Against lefthanded Caribes pitcher José Torres, Castro blasted one the other way to right field and clear over the fence. He strided up the first base line, bat still in hand, watching the ball fly out. On his tenth step up the line, Castro flipped his bat to begin his home run trot.

He seemed to glance toward the Caribes dugout as he approached first, but I couldn’t tell whether his face showed anything grave or provocative. The New York Post (Cabrera is a two-season former Met) described the glance as “glaring” into the dugout and Torres as “clearly upset with the antics . . . jawing at Castro as he headed to first, but it got much worse after that.”

As he rounded first, Cabrera approached from his apparent play-to-pull positioning. Castro wasn’t two steps past the pad when Cabrera swung his left arm hard to the right side of Castro’s face.

Being unprepared for such a sucker punch, Castro went down in a heap, onto his el culo, as his batting helmet took a dive toward the line under the influence of Cabrera’s flying forearm. When both benches poured out of their dugouts almost at once, Cabrera himself ended up on the ground sprawling.

Cabrera’s said to have turned an offer in free agency down last winter before sitting the 2022 season out. Considering his 2021 performance papers, he may have been fortunate to get that single offer at all. If he’s looking for one more turn in the Show for 2023, he may yet discover that a clothesline swing won’t get you half the attention a few zinging line drives to left might get.

Unless, of course, there’s a team out there that anxious to find an ancient infielder who can’t hit baseballs as often as he once did, has as much remaining defensive range as a toy dump truck with a flat inner-rear tire, but might hit a bat flipper or two blindside as a fresh new precinct commander for their self-appointed Fun Police Department. Cheap shots a specialty,

Castro rounding first looked as though he saw Cabrera coming his way but didn’t quite see the prospect of a would-be left hook until it met his face flush on. Maybe Cabrera didn’t learn what I thought from McCann, after all.

Back in late September 2013, Milwaukee outfielder Carlos Gomez tripped the Braves’ triggers when he blasted one out against Paul Maholm, a pitcher against whom he had better than respectable performance papers, enough so that Maholm had hit him with a pitch or three in the recent past, enough so to leave Gomez with a sour taste at minimum.

Now, in the top of the first in Turner Field (the Braves hadn’t yet dumped the still-not-so-old yard for Truist Park), Gomez sent Maholm’s one-out, 0-1 service over the left center field fence. He didn’t celebrate the blast so much as he pronounced it payback for a plunk too many, and he let Maholm know it. Uh-oh.

As he rounded first, then-Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman barked at him. As he rounded third, he was slightly surprised to see McCann ambling up the line, out from behind the plate, hell bent on arresting him with a choice, howling lecture accompanying the handcuffs.

Well, not so much handcuffs, but Gomez never got to hit the plate as McCann obstructed him in anger and the benches emptied. “Gomez believes Maholm drilled him intentionally two months ago, and this was his payback,” wrote ESPN’s Tim Keown at the time. “‘You hit me. I hit you,’ were apparently the words that rocked the Braves’ world. Is that a worse offense than intentionally hitting someone?”

At least McCann never went further than stopping someone to bawl him out. Sucker punching wasn’t part of his Fun Police gear.

Who knows what among the Caribes players flipped their switches when Castro looked into their dugout? Who knows what Castro had in mind when he looked? Had there been words between them over his two previous bombs in the game?

“This is not representative of baseball in Latin America,” tweeted my friend (and former Call to the Pen editor) Manuel Gómez. “Latinos are known for bringing sazón to the game. Clearly, there is some animosity between these particular teams and it was expressed in violence on the field. We are better than this!”

Tiburones went on to finish what they started, a 6-4 win. But no matter who said what to whom, Cabrera came away resembling a bit of a hypocrite. We take you back to 22 September 2016, in Citi Field, the Mets down two, when Cabrera walked it off against the Phillies with a three-run blast into the bullpen behind the right field fence.

He flipped his bat toward the Mets dugout and looked there as he started running it out. OK, he looked into his own dugout and not the opposition’s. But still. Apparently, Cabrera was fine with a flip if it came off a game-winner. But in his older baseball age he’s none too fine with a flip if it’s flipped off a blast hit before the game actually ends.

Cabrera’s not too likely to find a Show suitor for 2023. The last thing needed by a Show still coming to terms with letting the kids play is an old fart whose uniform might have sal de mi césped! as a p.s. beneath his name.

Stick this!

Joe Musgrove

Lend Me Your Ear Dept.: Having the umps check Joe Musgrove (second from left) for new old-fashioned medicated goo on his ears and elsewhere looked like desperation from Buck Showalter as Musgrove and the Padres bumped the Mets to an early winter vacation Sunday night.

Few things in this world are as profound as the wrench that happens when an individual resembles a genius one night and a fool the next. Unless it’s when a team resembles a well-lubricated Porsche one night and a two-stroke Trabant the next.

That wrench sent Buck Showalter and his Mets home for the winter after they played a Saturday and Sunday that put their entire season into microcosm. Including the re-exposure of the lacking that turned them from National League East dominators to division sliders finally settling for second best after a self-deflating previous weekend in Atlanta.

It also sent Showalter from being the skipper with the nerve to throw The Book to one side, and his best relief pitcher into the game when its “save situation” presented itself earlier than the ninth inning, to the one who thought a too-little/too-late gamesmanship exercise might knock the Padres off their game slightly more than mid-way through.

That was when the Padres didn’t expose it for them. The Mets’ few lackings this year included offensive depth past the middle of the batting order. The Padres out-lasted them in this wild card series when the lower end of their order suddenly figured out how to hunt, peck, hector, pester, and puncture.

The Padres didn’t lack for issues all year, either, but they rode Joe Musgrove and two relievers to a 6-0 Game Three one-hit shutout, on a night Musgrove simply fed the Mets things they could only hit with moderate contact to Padre defenders on red alert. The nearest Musgrove came to disaster was when Mark Canha sent one deep enough to right center field to send Trent Grisham crashing into the wall after he caught the drive with only inches to spare.

The Mets might have loved nothing more than the crash actually yanking Grisham out of the game. All series long he’d gone from the nothing-special regular season element, whose seventeen home runs didn’t negate puny plate performance papers otherwise, into a 1.917 wild card series OPS. His Real Batting Average on the season: .422. His RBA in the wild card set: 1.167.

The only thing better than moving Grisham to one side for the Mets would have been ridding themselves of Musgrove, who pitched the first no-hitter in Padres history in April and pitched Sunday night as though he’d made the Mets into the classic cartoon volunteers for a cartoon magician’s guaranteed-to-embarrass magic tricks.

Showalter thought he might do what his batters couldn’t entering the bottom of the sixth. He ambled out of the Mets dugout and asked Alfonso Marquez’s umpiring crew to check Musgrove for, shall we say, that new good-old-fashioned medicated goo. Marquez delivered the message to a slightly flustered Musgrove promptly.

“He said, ‘Buck wants to take a look at your glove, your face, your hat, all that stuff’. I said: ‘You take what you want, man’,” Musgrove said postgame. The umpires took looks at all that stuff, including an almost comical-looking inspection of Musgrove’s admittedly shining ears and lobes.

What irked Showalter was information handed him that indicated the spinning rate on Musgrove’s pitches were higher Sunday evening than they were all season long. Baseball government’s obsession with foreign substances (Spider-Tack, et. al.) and lack of apparent concern for consistently made and grippable baseballs was bound to yield oddities but nothing quite like this until that moment.

“When you see something that jumps out at you . . . I get a lot of information in the dugout,” Showalter said postgame. “We certainly weren’t having much luck the way it was going. That’s for sure. But I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets. And however it might make me look or whatever, I’m gonna do that every time.”

“Was that what he did?” asked Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who had a respectable if not spectacular wild card series himself, who happened to be a measly three feet from Musgrove while the pitcher was being frisked, and who knows Showalter from playing for him as an Oriole. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, how many hits did Joe give up? He gave up one hit? That’s pretty smart by them.”

Maybe not as smart as Machado charitably allowed. Showalter’s shortstop Francisco Lindor seemed uncertain himself. “There were some talks in the dugout,” he told reporters. “Buck made the decision to go check him. I respect that. I respect his decision. At the end of the day, hats off to Musgrove. He flat-out beat us.”

Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t find it that amusing. If anything, he found it a character assassination attempt. “The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” he fumed. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”

That’s a reference to the Citi Field crowd chanting “Cheater, cheater!” at Musgrove post-check. Maybe the crowd became as desperate as Showalter’s sticky-stuff gambit made him look. Maybe they remembered Musgrove was a member of the 2017 Astros whose sign-stealing operation leaves that triumph suspect for all time, even though the pitchers had nothing to do with it. Maybe they forgot Musgrove admits to being embarrased to wear his ’17 Series ring because of his then-team’s shenanigans.

They certainly didn’t consider that the guy from El Cajon which is a very brief commute from San Diego, the guy who grew up rooting for the Padres, was a guy who took the mound amped up with thoughts that he really was living the dream, handed the ball in a Padres uniform on the most important night of his life to date.

“I dove into the fact that we got all the fans in San Diego waiting for this moment,” Musgrove said. “The girlfriends and wives here. The fan base that followed us from San Diego, and I tried to put that on my shoulders and carry.” That fan base had a contingency enough in Citi Field Sunday night that you could hear the “Beat L.A.!” chants as the game neared the finish.

The only question for these Padres now is whether they can and will beat the ogres of the National League West awaiting them in a division series come Tuesday night. They survived the loss of Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a shoulder injury and then a suspension over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. It doesn’t mean they’ll survive the Dodgers. But they may not make it that simple, either.

There’s no “only” question for these Mets entering their long winter.

Sunday starter Chris Bassitt embarrassed himself. It only began when Bassitt loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second before another of the Padres’ final third in the order, catcher Austin Nola, swatted a two-run single . . . on 0-2.

“I was just beating myself,” he said honestly of his four-inning performance. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”

It was the last thing Bassitt needed with free agency looming for him. He’s not the only one in that position. Saturday’s pitching heroes, starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Díaz, face free agency, too: deGrom by way of exercising his contract opt-out, Díaz by the expiration of a deal that once looked like a franchise embarrassment before he corrected himself and went from nothing like Seattle to this season’s never-better performance papers.

Brandon Nimmo, one of three Mets to acquit himself series-long at the plate, also faces free agency, as do pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Trevor Williams. General manager Billy Eppler, who looked like a genius last winter in signing or acquiring Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardor Escobar, Bassitt, and Canha, doesn’t look so sharp for not having made a trade deadline fortification move even rummaging an admittedly thin trading floor.

And the Mets don’t look so smart for having built themselves so surely around deGrom and Scherzer they failed to have a consistent rotation behind that pair when their health faltered. Scherzer still looked ailing from his season-long oblique trouble when he was battered in the first wild card set game. DeGrom pitched just enough to his standard to give the Mets room for their Saturday night special.

But the lack of offensive depth behind Marte, Pete Alonso, Nimmo, and NL batting average champ Jeff McNeil burned them, too. When Marte was lost from earliest September through the start of the wild card set with a finger fracture, that lack behind the remaining three bit the Mets where it really hurt. The team on-base percentage for the set was a weak .283.

And with Max the Knifed on Friday, plus Marte playing the wild card set despite the lingering finger issue, the Mets’ health maintenance may need yet another review and remake.

None of which will dissolve the sting of their Sunday embarrassment. The Padres didn’t bomb the Mets into submission Sunday night, they just pecked, poked, prodded, and pushed on a night the Mets had no answer for Musgrove other than one desperation gambit.

The night before, Showalter resembled a prudent man who learned a hard lesson for bringing in Díaz—his and the league’s best closer on the season—in the seventh when the save situation was then and not the ninth. Sunday night, Showalter resembled a flailing  man overboard who’d take an anchor for a life preserver.

“Let me phrase this the right way,” said Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, not doing these games since ESPN carried them but appearing on an SNY postgame show.

Buck Showalter is completely in his rights to ask the umpires to check a pitcher for foreign substances. It’s up to umpires then to decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do. I thought that considering the circumstances, 4-0, sixth inning, season on the line, it smacked of desperation and it was fairly embarrassing I thought for Buck to do that in that spot. It was not necessary. As it turned out, Musgrove was not cheating. If you’re going to pull a stunt like that, you better be right and Buck wasn’t right.

Lucky for Showalter that he doesn’t believe he’s too old to learn. We’ll to learn soon enough what he learned from this weekend that might do him right in managing a team that may yet have a different enough look next year than the one he almost led deeper into this postseason.

Who says the old can’t learn?

Edwin Díaz

Edwin Díaz did exactly what Buck Showalter brought him in to do . . . in a true “save situation—in the seventh, not the ninth Saturday night. For Showalter it was once bitten, twice bitter old lesson learned deeply enough.

The next time you see or hear any baseball elder tell you he or she is too “old” to bother learning something new, just show them Buck Showalter. He’s the Mets manager who learned one of the hardest lessons in baseball history and finally got to prove it when he absolutely had to prove it on Saturday night.

It kept his Mets and their skipper from an early winter and eons of second-guessing while they banked a 7-3 Game Two win. In the bottom of the inning in which Showalter showed at last that he really did learn something from the worst disaster of his managing career.

When they still played a one-or-done wild card game, in 2016, Showalter wouldn’t even think of his Orioles’ (and baseball’s, then) nuclear-hot relief option Zack Britton in the bottom of the eleventh. He stayed with faltering Ubaldo Jiménez because it wasn’t a “save situation” in a two-all tie, after all, despite the Blue Jays having first and third with one out.

Edwin Encarnación’s monstrous three-run homer into the Rogers Centre second deck told Showalter and the world that managing to one of baseball’s most nebulous statistics can be suicidal. It also told reminded a stubborn world that “save situations” aren’t strictly ninth-inning lead protection.

Showalter’s been second, third, fourth, and fifth guessed over that one ever since. When asked directly, he could never bring himself to re-open his mind from that moment. Either he’d say, “You just have to wear some things“; or, as he did immediately in that interview, “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it.”

Except everybody wanted to hear it. Come the top of the seventh inning in Citi Field Saturday night, with a hard-held two-all tie but the Mets’ season in danger of ending in a wild card series sweep, Showalter found himself in a save situation in the truest sense of the phrase.

This time, Showalter planned for just this possibility. Once bitten, twice lesson learned. This time—just like his Saturday night starter Jacob deGrom pitching six innings of stout, eight-strikeout, two-run ball; just like his bombardier Pete Alonso breaking a two-all tie with a leadoff homer—the manager rose to the occasion.

No “closer” was deadlier than Edwin Díaz on the regular season. (1.31 ERA; 0.90 fielding-independent pitching; 118 strikeouts in 62 innings’ work.) And there Díaz was, up and throwing in the sixth, while deGrom retired the side on a strikeout, a fly to deep enough right, and a ground out.

Social media went half berserk just seeing Díaz warming up, never mind thinking Showalter would be insane enough (their words) to “burn” his closer that early. Except that a one-run lead, in a low-scoring game, for these Mets who sputtered their way toward finishing a 101-win season, after owning the National League East most of the season, qualified as the single most important save situation of their year.

“Buck bringing in Edwin Díaz in the 7th,” tweeted The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “but only to underscore the fact that he’s still not bringing in Zack Britton.”

So Showalter went to Díaz Saturday night the way he didn’t even think about Britton in 2016. Díaz got Trent Grisham, who’d helped wreck Max Scherzer and the Mets in Game One with the long ball, to bounce out right back to the box, surrendered a four-pitch walk to Josh Bell, but then got back to back ground outs. And the Mets’ previously slumbering bats accepted that awakening happily.

They’d already chased Padres starter Blake Snell after Brandon Nimmo broke a one-all tie with an RBI single in the fourth. They withstood Jurickson Profar’s re-tying RBI single off deGrom in the top of the fifth before Alonso greeted reliever Nick Martinez as rudely as he knew how, sending the inning’s first pitch into the left field seats.

Now they had Adrían Morejón to handle out of the San Diego pen. Their manhandling of him only began with Francisco Lindor—who started the evening’s scoring with a first inning home run, after a leadoff single was wiped immediately by a double play—hitting a line single to open, and taking second on a wild pitch before Morejón walked Alonso and Mark Canha on tenth-pitch full counts.

Up stepped Jeff McNeil, the National League’s “batting champion.” Through the infield into right went his two-run double and out of the game went Morejón in favour of Pierce Johnson. Johnson had Eduardo Escobar pinned at 0-2, but Escobar un-pinned himself with an RBI single, then had pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach at 2-2 when Vogelbach lofted a sacrifice fly to deep right center.

Just like that the Mets broke the game open enough. Then Johnson struck out a pair following Tomas Nido’s base hit. Now what would Showalter do? Would he dare to leave Díaz in for a second go-round in the eighth and risk his unavailability for Game Three? Especially with about a 45-minute layoff while the Mets rolled up that four-run bottom of the seventh?

He dared. Díaz got Manny Machado to ground out back to the box to open. After walking Bell he struck Jake Cronenworth out on three straight pitches. Then Showalter made sure he wouldn’t lose Díaz for Game Three if needed, lifting him for Adam Ottavino, who caught Brandon Drury looking on 2-2 for the side.

“I was feeling great,” Díaz said postgame. “I thought I could get Drury out, but [Showalter]  told me that he needed me tomorrow and this was enough for today. So, I said let’s win the game tomorrow.”

It was a bloody good thing the Mets seventh made the Showalter/Díaz pay off, because Ottavino in the ninth worked like anyone but the owner of a 2.06 ERA and 0.97 WHIP on the regular season: leadoff walk, a hit batsman, a fly out, a pair of walks including to Machado pushing the third Padres run home.

Showalter went to Seth Lugo, and Lugo lured Bell into grounding out right back to the box for the side and the game. Leave it to the Mets to salute their skipper’s gambit—the absolute right move to have made, with the game and the season that squarely on the line—with a four-run inning and still have to perform another high-wire act to escape with the win, anyway. That’s still so Mets, right?

Maybe this will be the beginning of the final end of the dubious “closer” and “save” things. Maybe this, at last, will lock down once and for all that you don’t save your best relief option purely for the final inning, because a real save situation presents itself any time at all during a game.

That was then: “This is simple: Showalter screwed up,” ESPN’s David Schoenfield harrumphed. “Even the smartest men are capable of ineffable stupidity,” harrumphed Jeff Passan, then with Yahoo! Sports but now with ESPN. Keith Law began an entire chapter arguing against the save statistic in Smart Baseball with that sad 2016 brain freeze.

This is now, apparently: Too much of baseball world talking about Showalter’s “unusual” or “unconventional” move. But a one-run lead against a tenacious Padres team that’s survived a few blows of their own to get here in the first place, too, can blow any time in the final three innings.

The Mets were very much in a real, not an artificially-contrived-by-nebulous-rule, save situation in the seventh Saturday night. This time, the Buck didn’t stop, blink, flinch, or shrivel. Neither did his team.

A 66-year-old skipper made liars out of the old fart contingency that insists they’re “too old” to learn new if should-be obvious lessons. Showalter proved you don’t get old on earth until you get dead on earth. And dead is what the Mets might have ended up without that proof.

“What have you gotten yourself into?”

Keith Hernandez

An on-base machine at the plate, Keith Hernandez’s real baseball genius was revolutionising first base as a command infield position.

Almost four decades ago, the Mets’ general manager Frank Cashen thought he’d laid the foundation for the Taj Mahal. The Cardinals’ transcendent but troubled first baseman, Keith Hernandez, thought the roof fell in on him.

A mainstay of a defending world champion, who’d driven Cashen to drink almost every time he played against the Mets, was about to become a Met.

From the moment a previous Met regime traded Hall of Famer Tom Seaver because he seemed a little too uppity about how the team should spend their money (a few parts upon himself as baseball’s best pitcher; a lot more parts on the free agency market and replenishing the farm), the Mets reverted to their original losing ways. And they weren’t half as funny about it.

It was one thing for the best first baseman in baseball to run afoul of his manager Whitey Herzog because a small morass of off-field issues sent him into the cocaine netherworld and, in 1983, into a few lazy baseball habits. It was something else to be sent to what was then, still, the National League’s version of the seventh circle of hell.

Herzog and Hernandez weren’t exactly Damon and Pythias. The White Rat was earthily thoughtful; Mex was cerebral. Where Herzog preferred the George Brett prototype right down to the pinch of Skoal in that Hall of Famer’s cheek, Hernandez smoked cigarettes and engaged Civil War period fiction and the New York Times crossword puzzle, for openers.

The thinking person’s sport had an actual thinking person in its ranks, who just so happened to be an on-base machine and a first base revolutionary. Herzog forgot the thinking side of himself and also listened to the whispers about Hernandez’s cocaine dalliance. (At the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, Hernandez would call cocaine “the devil on earth.”)

Herzog asked Cashen if he’d be willing to deal talented reliever Neil Allen. “[Allen’s] well-known drinking problem,” Jeff Pearlman noted in The Bad Guys Won, “didn’t seem to bother Herzog.” When Cashen said he hadn’t thought about it, Herzog replied, “If you think about Neil Allen and another pitcher, we’ll give you Keith Hernandez.”

To St. Louis, which roasted the Cardinals for years to follow over the trade, it was rather like Capitol Records sending Frank Sinatra to Dot Records in exchange for two spare session musicians and a tape operator. (“He came right into our kitchen and rattled our pans for about four years,” Herzog has written, “burned the Cardinals with a lot of big hits.)

Only Hernandez was probably less amused than the Chairman of the Board would have been. The first call he made when told he was about to become a Met was to his agent, Jack Childers. Hernandez wanted to know if he could afford to retire and live off his deferred income. Childers counseled his client not to even think about it. Hernandez resigned himself. Oops.

His Met tenure began with a classic, almost Metsian screwup. According to Pearlman, he caught a flight to Montreal, where the Mets were playing the Expos. The Mets’ media relations man, Jay Horwitz, sent a limousine to meet Hernandez. The limo went to the wrong gate, compelling Hernandez to catch a cab.

“When he first got there, I remember looking across the clubhouse at him,” says Ed Lynch, a pitcher on the 1983 Mets. “He was unpacking his bags, I think we’re in Montreal, and I’m thinking, ‘Boy, you poor son of a bitch. What have you gotten yourself into?’”

It took a little romancing and a lot of tour guidance from popular veteran Mets pinch hitter Rusty Staub to convince Hernandez he hadn’t exactly been sentenced to Sing-Sing. Staub showed Hernandez enough of the city’s best—the theater, the museums, the eateries, the libraries, the clubs, the lovely ladies on every street corner, seemingly—to convince the first baseman, “I’ll make a brand-new start of it, New York, New York.”

Hernandez became about 3,200 degrees more. After playing out the 1983 string, Hernandez was convinced enough to sign a five-year deal with the Mets. In his six full seaons as a Met—five solid, the sixth showing the toll the injuries and age took at last—the Mets won more games than any team in the entire Show.

As a Met, he posted a 131 OPS+ upon a slash line of .301/.388/.437, an OPS of .825, and a Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .530. Lifetime, his RBA is .528.

Among postwar, post-integration, night ball-era Hall of Fame first basemen it would put Hernandez two points above Tony Perez and in seventh place. But being an on-base machine was only part of his presence. He remains the single most run-preventive first baseman in baseball history. (+120 total zone runs above league average.) It isn’t close. (Should-be Hall of Famer Todd Helton is a distance +107 in second place.)

He wasn’t the lumbering, big-bopping first base cliche. He played the position as though a third or second baseman, not just going for the tough plays and not just his expertise at neutralising bunts, but making himself the on-field infield commander.

“Not only he would tell you what you need to do,” says Lynch, “but he’s going to tell you how the pitchers going to try to prevent you from doing it. So he gave you not only the result, but he gave you the plan to get to that result.”

“The knowledge of the league, which he’d been in for a while, the knowledge of the other hitters, the willingness to know about the other manager’s strategy, the nuances of the game, the minutiae of who’s hitting, who’s running, their tendencies—it all added up to a wealth of knowledge over there that you could draw on,” says Bob Ojeda, the best lefthanded pitcher on the World Series-winning 1986 Mets. “And I did draw on it at times, no question.”

Keith Hernandez

Now a respected, popular longtime Mets game broadcaster, Keith Hernandez points up to where his 17 hangs as a newly-retired Met uniform number.

It was hardly Hernandez’s fault that the Mets climbed the National League East ladder, reached the Promised Land, and finished his tenure with only one World Series ring and two pennants to show for a run of first or second place division finishes.

It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea to fool with Dwight Gooden’s repertoire in spring 1986, a foolery that would turn him in due course from beyond this earth to journeyman pitcher while he battled with his own drug addiction. It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Darryl Strawberry should spend most of the rest of his Mets life at war with himself, with substance abuse, and with his own team time and again.

It wasn’t Hernandez’s idea that Cashen should break the team apart little by little, or that he and Hall of Famer Gary Carter (Winning brings opposites together, Hernandez once said of Carter, an intelligent catcher but not in Hernandez’s cerebral league) should hit decline phases accelerated to somewhat warp speed by injuries atop their years of hard labour on the field.

Hernandez might have begun giving the Mets “a swashbuckling, devil-may-care, damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead image,” as Lynch phrases it, an image New York loved but the rest of the league didn’t, but it didn’t exactly mean he wanted swashbuckling confused with recklessness as happened with too many of those 1986 Mets.

It took the Mets a very long time to come to terms with both the best and the most controversial team in their long, surrealistic history. The beginnings of those terms included bringing Hernandez into the broadcast booth, first as a part-time colour commentator, then a full-time partner to longtime mainstay Gary Cohen plus Hernandez’s 1980s Mets teammate, equally cerebral pitcher Ron Darling.

“You do the pitching, I do the hitting,” Hernandez told Darling when completing the trio.

The most vivid continuation of that coming to terms was the Mets retiring Hernandez’s uniform number 17 Saturday, before the Mets beat the Marlins in ten innings, 5-4, in a fashion that must have reminded Hernandez of his own good old days, almost: a two-out double sending the inning-opening zombie runner home; and, a throwing error on a dying ball on the front infield grass allowing the winning run to score.

“He asked for No. 37; that was his number with the Cardinals,” Lynch remembers of Hernandez’s original arrival. “And they told him no. He looked at them funny. And they said, ‘That’s Casey Stengel’s number.’ So now he comes over, he takes 17, and that’s getting retired also.”

“I never dreamed I’d be here this long, in the organization,” the Young Perfesser told a packed Citi Field Saturday. “I am absolutely humbled and proud that my number will be up in the rafters for eternity.” With the Ol’ Perfesser and The Franchise, among others.

Perhaps another humbling day will come Hernandez’s way, in due course, if the newly-aligned Contemporary Baseball Era Committee sees fit to give his career the thorough review it merits and gives first base’s greatest defender ever and one of its steadiest on-base machines a berth in the Hall of Fame.

“I got traded to a last-place team and no one at the ballpark,” Hernandez says. “And it turned out to be such a life-changing event for me in such a positive way.” For him and, for a few glorious if not always controversy-free seasons, New York itself.

Legit enough not to quit

Luis Gonzalez

Luis Gonzalez—the first Giants position player to pitch in back-to-back games since 1906 wasn’t exactly just thrown to the Mets wolves in the ninth  Monday night. The Mets didn’t exactly abuse a patsy, either.

They’ve been without uber ace Jacob deGrom all season thus far. They’ve lost Max Scherzer for six to eight weeks thanks to an oblique strain forcing him to pull out of a start against the Cardinals last Wednesday. Hands up to everyone who thought the Mets would fold the way they did often enough when the injury bugs swarmed in the recent past.

Guess again. Without deGrom the Mets sit 29-15 and a very healthy eight games in front of the second place Phillies in the National League East. Since Scherzer went down, they’re 5-1, including the game from which Max the Knife removed himself after feeling it a little too hard on the left side.

And, especially after they demolished the stumbling, likewise injury-plagued Giants 13-3 in San Francisco Monday night, a fifth straight loss for the Giants leaving them third in the NL West and with a 3-7 record in their last ten games.

The Mets rode a solid start from David Peterson, freshly recalled from the farm, to a five-run third, a four-run eight, a three-run ninth, and a single run in the sixth. They laid fifteen hits on legitimate Giants pitching and three more against Luis Gonzalez, a right fielder by trade asked to pinch hit in the eighth before taking one for the team in the ninth.

More on that soon enough. Peterson’s shakiest inning was the second, when Brandon Crawford tore a two-run homer out of him on 2-0, but then he got stronger for the next four innings before handing off to the Mets’ pen. Of course, the Mets’ bats made Peterson’s life almost comfortable enough that he could have pitched to the Giants from a lounger and kept them quiet.

That was Francisco Lindor with two out and the bases loaded on Giants starter Alex Cobb in the top of the third, bouncing a ground-rule double into the left field stands, before Pete Alonso sent a first pitch the other way over the left center field fence for a three-run shot.

The game stayed manageable enough for the Giants over the next several innings, before J.D. Davis—whose recent plate struggles had Met fans’ side of the Twitterverse demanding his replacement, if not his execution—sent Jeff McNeil home with a flare double on two outs into left in the top of the sixth.

That ended Cobb’s evening and turned the Mets fast and loose into the Giants’ bullpen, and in the top of the eight they got faster and looser. Alonso opened beating out an infield hit, McNeil hit a two-run homer to the top of Levi’s Landing, and Mark Canha followed almost immediately with a launch over the left center field fence, all on Giants reliever Mauricio Llovera’s dollar. One out and a Davis double later, Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika doubled Davis home with a shot all the way down the right field line.

Giants manager Gabe Kapler elected to waste no further pitching from there. He sent Gonzalez out to the mound for the top of the ninth. Prowl the social media world and you’ll find plenty harrumphing against the Mets’ lack of “sportsmanship” for the way they treated Gonzalez. It might be a fine thing to ask in reply whether it’s sportsmanlike to ask the other team to tank because you don’t want them to waste legitimate pitching.

Closing seven-run deficits or larger in the ninth inning isn’t unheard of, either. The Tigers looked doomed trailing by nine at 13-4 in the ninth on 25 April 1901 . . . and beat the ancient Milwaukee Brewers (about to become the American League edition of the St. Louis Browns) 14-13.

The same year, Cleveland trailed Washington by eight coming to the bottom of the ninth of a May game—and won, also 14-13. The 1934 Indians trailed the Philadelphia Athletics by eight in the top of the ninth in an August game and scored nine before holding on to win, 12-11. And the 1990 Phillies trailed the Dodgers by nine coming into the top of the ninth of another August contest—and won, too, also 12-11.

You get Kapler not wanting to burn a relief pitcher, but you also remember baseball doesn’t have a mercy rule yet. Suppose the Mets had cut Gonzalez and the Giants a break and played dead in the ninth. What was really to stop a) the Giants from mounting a seven-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth; or, b) anyone else from accusing the Mets of—dare we say it?—tanking for a game?

On the other hand, quit your yammering, social media meatheads. Gonzalez wasn’t just thrown to the Met wolves, either, and the Mets didn’t just pile on against a puny position player. He had a pitching record for the season entering Monday night and it wasn’t exactly a record to be ashamed of, either.

He’d had two previous relief outings before Monday night with a zero ERA to show for it. And, a very respectable 3.11 fielding-independent pitching rate to match it. He surrendered no runs and a hit to the Cardinals for an inning while the Giants got blown out 15-6 in St. Louis on 15 May. He surrendered no runs and a hit in two and a third while the Giants got blown out by the Padres 10-1 at home the night before the Mets came to town.

Come Monday night, Kapler and the Giants just might have had a reasonable hope that Gonzalez—whose only known pitch seems to be an eephus that goes up to the plate in a floating parabola—really could keep the Mets from any further damage in the top of the ninth.

The Mets must have scouted him on the mound somehow. Gonzalez may have gotten two quick ground outs to open, but he walked McNeil on 3-1, surrendered a clean base hit to Canha on 1-1, a two-run double to Eduardo Escobar on 1-0, and a first-pitch RBI single to Davis. He threw ten strikes out of nineteen pitches but four built three more Met runs.

Alas, Monday ruined Gonzalez’s chance to inspire waxings about the bullpen’s answer to Shohei Ohtani. He’s got a nifty .372 on-base percentage, an .825 OPS, a respectable 137 OPS+, and a 2022 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) of .523 so far.

But he only has two home runs on the season thus far, too. (Ohtani has nine, not to mention a 2.82 ERA/.2.14 FIP on the mound.) The Giants may continue using him to mop up on the mound when they’re getting blown out, but that’s probably all. They’re probably hoping Monday night was his exception, rather than his rule to come.