A principled Peter

2019-11-12 PeteAlonso

Pete Alonso hit one for the record book on 28 September, but the NL Rookie of the Year struck a bigger blow for respect on the 9/11 anniversary.

It’s not that Pete Alonso didn’t have the kind of season that deserved the honour. But sometimes baseball award voters are human enough to pick a winner based on something equal to and maybe a little better than his performance—even performance that would blast in neon, as Alonso’s did this year.

Voting Alonso the National League’s Rookie of the Year, they may have thought both.

Alonso’s season performance by itself would have been enough to nail him the award, even if you can make the case that Braves pitcher Mike Soroka—who got the one first place vote Alonso didn’t get—had at least an equivalent season on the mound.

Breaking the rookie season home run record (with a major league-leading 53), creating 126 runs and using only three outs a run to do it, and producing 220 (100 scored, 120 driven in) runs on the season, gets you attention in a big enough hurry. So do three out of a possible six National League Rookie of the Month awards, which Alonso won in April, June, and September.

So does helping put the game back into the game with your enthusiasm, on a team that needed it in the worst way possible this side of the world champion Nationals. The Mets lacked for sharks, baby and otherwise, but thanks to Alonso they became abundant in jersey stripping on game-ending, game-winning hits during their surprising post-All Star break run.

So does a shameless and welcome display of emotion such as Alonso—who’d made the Mets out of spring training on a non-roster invitation—showed when he nailed Soroka’s rotation mate Mike Foltynewicz on the next to last regular season night in New York for the record, then couldn’t hide the tears when he returned to first base.

But so does finding the way to elude baseball government’s edict against special haberdashery commemorating the 9/11 atrocity, as Alonso did for that very anniversary. The Mets and a few other teams wanted to wear such hats; baseball government said no, stick with the official commemorative patches on the sides of the uniform hats.

Alonso said not so fast.

Telling no one but his fellow Mets what he was up to, Alonso gathered up the shoe sizes of his teammates, manager, and coaches, then arranged for special commemorative cleats to be made for the game by Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers. It isn’t every major league rookie who delivers the kind of audacity that ennobles his team and his game.

2019-09-13 Mets911Shoes

The shoes that put the Mets’ best feet forward on 9/11.

The cleats featured American flag striping, the initials of first responder agencies, a small image of New York firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero, and a silhouette of the Twin Towers. Making the major league rookie salary of $550,000 for the season, not to mention winning $1 million as this year’s Home Run Derby champion at the All Star break, Alonso paid for every pair of the special cleats himself.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help,” said Alonso, a Florida first grader when the atrocity happened. “I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

He hatched his podiatric plot well in advance of the 9/11 anniversary, and it’s not exactly impossible that the Mets being so unified as a team on the matter might have kept baseball’s customarily capricious official leadership from sanctioning the team.

It probably didn’t hurt, either, that a little favour fell upon the Mets from the Elysian Field gods that night. Their surprising bolt out of the post All-Star gate could only get them to within three games of the National League’s second wild card, proving that even the subordinate gods work must work within a budget, but they could at least spend a little extra on the 9/11 anniversary itself.

Thus did the Mets, wearing Alonso’s subversive commemorative cleats, shut the Diamondbacks out on . . . nine runs and eleven hits, including six home runs, two (Todd Frazier, Brandon Nimmo) back-to-back in the Mets’ five-run first, and with Frazier and Jeff McNeil each hitting a pair of them before the carnage was finished.

The following night, the Mets again nailed eleven hits off the momentarily hapless Diamondbacks, but this time they were good for eleven runs, the big blow the first of Juan Lagares’s pair of blasts, in the bottom of the third. The center fielder checked in with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Mets up 1-0 on an unearned run, then hit a full count service from Alex Young into the left field seats.

And any threats of fines or disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets over the commemorative shoes went unfulfilled.

Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ phenom bombardier, was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year unanimously, beating out Orioles pitcher John Means, Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, and Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio—the son of Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

By arriving in a June callup after decimating the two highest minor league levels, Alvarez has the second-shortest Rookie of the Year season behind Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. And, as Alonso did in the National League, Alvarez won a trio of American League Rookie of the Month prizes. (June, July, August.)

He premiered by teeing off against another Oriole pitcher, Dylan Bundy. He went on to tie the rookie record for the most home runs in 100 games or fewer, hit righthanders and lefthanders with equal deadly force, and followed an almost invisible American League Championship Series by hitting .412 with one bomb in the Astros’ seven-game World Series loss.

The third Rookie of the Year in Astro history—Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell won the award in 1991; Carlos Correa (2015) became the first Astro to win it after they were moved into the American League—Alvarez is Alonso’s near-opposite, the strong, silent type. He shares Alonso’s essential humility, but you’re not likely to see him shred the jersey away of any Astro nailing a game-ending hit. Yet.

“He’s a quiet man by nature,” says his manager A.J. Hinch, “and his demeanor is very low key. But he’s always in tune with other players and other people and the information.”

Alonso is the Mets’ sixth Rookie of the Year, following Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (1967), Jon Matlack (1972), Darryl Strawberry (1983), Dwight Gooden (1984), and Jacob deGrom (2014), and only the second Mets position player (after Strawberry) to win the prize. His race for the prize might have been a lot closer, maybe even lost by a hair, if the Padres’ phenom Fernando Tatis, Jr. hadn’t been held to 84 games thanks to the injured list.

Interesting synergy. This year’s Rookies of the Year belong to a pair of teams born from the same expansion draft, for 1962. Neither of whom could possibly have imagined the day to come when one would be the team to be named later when a third expansion team, the Brewers, would be traded to the National League.

But Alonso played all but one game in 2019. And it took the Mets’ often-criticised general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, a former players’ agent, to convince the club to take Alonso north with them when spring training ended, rather than do as too many other clubs have done with promising youth and bury him one more year in the minors for the sake of extended team control.

Unlike in days of Mets future past, there’s a realistic chance that they might be able to lock Alonso down on a longer-term commitment when his first free agency comes within not-so-distant sight. They’ll be freed of major commitments to too-oft-injured Yoenis Cespedes (in danger of missing all of 2020 as well off multiple-ankle and knee surgery) and aging Robinson Cano well enough when that day arrives.

Assuming Van Vagenen makes no more trades that involve importing still-onerous contracts, such as the deal that landed Cano in the first place, the Mets would be able to keep Alonso in the blue and orange for a long enough time to come. Assuming Alonso continues the kind of performance he showed exponentially in 2019, it would be manna for a franchise that often forces its fans to dine on quail.

And in this case we’re not talking strictly about Alonso’s performances at the plate or at first base, where he shook away the periodic hiccup to establish himself as more than capable afield. Whether Alonso proves the equal of Mets legend Keith Hernandez, who revolutionised the position by making it one of infield leadership as well as fielding virtuosity, remains to be seen, but he showed the potential for either or both.

He showed more than the right stuff in uniform. First, he sent a tenth of his Home Run Derby prize money to a pair of 9/11-inspired charities, the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.

Then, he plotted and executed his end-run around official baseball’s official strictures against any 9/11 commemorative gear above and beyond the hat patches. The gesture couldn’t possibly restore the lives lost in the atrocity but they could and did at least indicate to the city battered by it almost two decades earlier that someone playing baseball in a New York uniform understood that baseball’s transcendence sometimes has to wait its turn behind spiritual transcendence.

It wasn’t given to Alonso to electrify the Citi Field audience this 9/11 the way Hall of Famer Mike Piazza did in the Mets’ first game back in the late Shea Stadium after the original atrocity. When Piazza swung on 0-1 against Braves pitcher Steve Karsay with pinch runner Desi Relaford aboard in the bottom of the eighth and hit it far enough over the center field fence to ricochet off a television camera posted on a scaffold. And, prove the game winner for the Mets.

With his family and his fiancee in the house, Alonso had to settle for sending Foltynewicz’s 2-1 service over the center field fence in the bottom of the third on 28 September, pushing him past Aaron Judge as the single-season rookie home run champion and bringing the Citi Field crowd to its feet not just because of the blast itself but because he couldn’t keep his emotions from overflowing in its immediate wake.

With the memory of his 9/11 commemorative subterfuge likely still fresh, the crowd refused to turn off the love as Cano flied out to deep center for the side and the Mets re-took the field. And Alonso stationed at first base finally couldn’t contain himself, lowering his head and crying shamelessly, the magnitude of his accomplishment overwhelming him in disbelief.

It was the perfect night for nice guys to defy Leo Durocher. While Alonso swung his way into the record book, on the opposite coast the Astros’ Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander threw his way into it.

Verlander struck out the Angels’ right fielder Kole Calhoun in the bottom of the fourth for career strikeout number 3,000, and struck Calhoun out again in the bottom of the sixth for season strikeout number 300. Lifting a page from the late Ernie Broglio, Calhoun can say at least that he played with a couple of Hall of Famers and helped put at least one pitcher there.

Unlike Alonso, alas, Verlander’s entry into history came with a p.s. The fourth-inning strikeout went for a wild pitch, enabling Calhoun to first base, where Calhoun stayed only long enough for the next Angel batter, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, to hit one into the left field bullpens. It didn’t stop the Astros from winning the game, but sometimes you just can’t slip further into the books without one misstep.

Verlander’s a very well seasoned veteran and Alonso is a freshly-initiated kid with, hopefully, a long enough career ahead of him. Maybe, if the Mets don’t relapse and see the core of Alonso, deGrom (still young at 31), McNeil, Nimmo, Michael Conforto, J.D. Davis, Seth Lugo, and Amed Rosario as a young enough core to build around and not fool around with, including a postseason or three.

Maybe even a postseason taking the Mets to face the Astros in a World Series. Maybe. If astronauts first walked the moon when the Mets won their first Series at the tender age of eight, and the Nationals could win this year’s World Series entirely on the road, it reminds you of one of baseball’s truly unimpeachable laws: Anything can happen—and usually does. So who’s to say?

Alonso’s uniform number—20—is deemed by Bible scholars to indicate the perfect waiting period, and by numerologists to indicate infinite potential in relationships and diplomacy. Of course. He fell into the perfect waiting period to make his Show debut this season—no waiting, right out of spring training—and, proving that good things indeed come to those who wait, to break Judge’s rookie home run record on the next-to-last day.

His potential on and off the field appears infinite enough. For now you get the parallel pleasure of seeing that not only does the right player swing for the record book, and play to earn a major award, but every so often he proves to be the right man for both.

Defiance yields dividends

2019-09-13 Mets911Shoes

You can do anything but lay off the Mets’ 9/11 commemorative shoes . . .

Baseball’s unwritten rules are ridiculous enough. Some of the written or at least known-to-be rules are even more ridiculous. Which is why Mets rookie star Pete Alonso’s 9/11 defiance ennobles and should elevate him and shame baseball’s government.

When the Mets played their first home game following the original 9/11 atrocity, they wore hats brandishing NYPD, NYFD, and other first responders with their uniforms. They defied baseball government then, too. And ever since, baseball government has shot down subsequent similar bids to honour the rescuers and the fallen. And others.

As the Mets pondered violating the edict on 9/11’s tenth anniversary (they ended up obeying baseball government orders for nothing more than an American flag on their caps), the Nationals had ideas about wearing Navy SEALs caps during a game around the same time, honouring those SEALs killed in Afghanistan that August. Baseball government said sure—pre-game only. During the game, don’t even think about it.

Alonso—a first grade Florida kid when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11—wasn’t having any of that nonsense.

If baseball was going to shoot down his original idea for custom hats featuring New York police, fire, and assorted first responders* and others, Alonso was going to shoot his own weapon—he got his teammates’ shoe sizes and footed the bill himself for Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers to make special 9/11 commemorative game cleats.

“I’ve just been thankful and gracious for this opportunity,” Alonso said to Yahoo! Sports‘s Mike Mazzeo, referring apparently to both his surrealistic rookie season and his chance to do honour to 9/11’s victims and responders.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help. I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

Baseball government at least had the Mets, the Diamondbacks, and other teams wear patches on their caps showing MLB’s official logo converted to an American flag backdrop, a red-white-blue ribbon behind the logo, and “We shall not forget” embroidered into one side of the surrounding blue circle. Royalties from replica sales will go to three national 9/11 memorial groups.

That’s something commendable, but the idea that Alonso—who gave ten percent of his Home Run Derby prize money to two 9/11-related charities, the Wounded Warriors Project and the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation (Stiller was a New York firefighter killed during 9/11 rescue efforts)—should have had to defy his game’s governors to honour those killed in America’s arguably worst single-attack atrocity, is grotesque.

Maybe the Mets being one and all on board with Alonso’s footwear helped keep the Manfred regime from slapping the team with a fine or other disciplinary measures. Or maybe the sense that fining or otherwise disciplining Alonso and the Mets for it would bring the regime more negative publicity kept it on its better behaviour.

And maybe the Mets’ defiance delivered them a little favour from the Elysian Fields gods.

First, they flattened the visiting Diamondbacks Wednesday, 9-0—nine runs on eleven hits including a five-run first. Then, as if to prove that some good deeds go unpunished, the Mets finished a four-sweep of the Snakes Thursday with an 11-1 battering.

Again, the Mets used eleven hits, including a single-game team record six clearing the fences, including center fielder Juan Lagares doing it twice, while Marcus Stroman nailed his first genuinely quality start on the mound since becoming a Met shortly before this year’s new single trade deadline.

Lagares’s first blast was only the biggest blow. Todd Frazier’s second-inning leadoff blast against Diamondbacks starter Alex Young and J.D. Davis’s two-out RBI single in the third off Young opened the game 2-0 Mets. A base hit and a walk loaded the pads for Lagares in the third when he wrestled Young to a full count.

Then Young threw a fastball arriving under the floor of the strike zone, and Lagares picked the perfect moment for his first career salami, hitting the equivalent of a five-iron shot into the left field seats.

The center fielder joined the long ball party in the bottom of the fifth, too. Aging second baseman Robinson Cano opened the inning with a line drive into the right field bullpen at Snakes reliever Robby Scott’s expense. Michael Conforto drew a one-out walk and, a strikeout later, exit Scott, enter Jimmie Sherfy, and exit another Lagares launch, this one landing in the seats near the right field foul pole.

Mets catcher Tomas Nido—the backup to Wilson Ramos, and the receiver half the Mets’ starting rotation seems to prefer throwing to (the Mets’ team ERA with Nido behind the plate: 3.68; with Ramos: 4.46), but who doesn’t hit enough to enable them to cement that preference—batted next. He didn’t give Sherfy a chance to breathe after Lagares’s second blast, lining one off the back left field wall above the thick orange line marker that denotes a home run.

Two innings later, and after pinch-hitter Ildemaro Vargas doubled home the only Arizona run in the top of the frame, Conforto punished reliever Kevin Ginkel for a third straight four-seam fastball, driving the down-and-in service into the upper deck in right.

Nothing, however, made even half the impression Alonso’s defiance in tribute to 9/11’s fallen and heroes made. The rook plotted the subterfuge for weeks and, by all known accounts, got the Mets’ team leaders including defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on board with the plot.

Threats of fines or other disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets have proven unfulfilled, so far.

The fact that such a threat was made or implied and even had to be taken seriously tells you plenty of what you need to know about why baseball’s government has such a rotten public image while the game itself and most of those who play it have one of simple beauty.

Thus does baseball remain very much like its country—our government has a rotten image that’s very well deserved, but our country and most of those who call it our own have one of simple beauty.


* In my college years, briefly, I dated a Long Island nursing student named Kathy Mazza. It never became serious between us, but we had a few pleasant dates including a couple that ended with an all-night hunt for bialys—they differ from bagels in being smaller and based in flour, not malt—which I remember were a particular favourite snack of hers at the time.

Kathy eventually became an operating room nurse turned Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police officer whom, her eventual police officer husband once swore, became a cop to show him how policing was really done. In due course, she became the second woman to earn captain’s bars on the PAPD and the first to command its police academy.

Her achievements there included convincing the Port Authority to install portable heart defibrillators in the airports it oversaw and training the 600 PAPD officers posted to those airports on how to use them. She also taught emergency medical procedures at the PAPD academy.

And, she died in the 9/11 atrocity.

Joining PAPD responders at the North Tower, she shot out the glass walls of the North Tower’s mezzanine enabling hundreds to escape; the tower ultimately collapsed while she and fellow PAPD officers tried leading more out of the tower. Her body was found a month later, I believe.

Kathy Mazza was one of 37 PAPD officers including its then-chief killed on 9/11. She’s still the only woman ever killed in the line of duty on the PAPD, which suffered the largest single-event loss of life of any single law enforcement agency in history on 9/11.

This column is dedicated to her and their memory.

“#L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets]?”

2019-08-14 SunTrustPark

Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park Wednesday night, shortly after scheduled game time–but not a Mets disaster— was delayed.

Rain and the look of a storm of doom over Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park delayed game time between the Mets and the Braves by about an hour and a half Wednesday night. By the time the game ended, traveling Mets fans in the ballpark must have wondered if that storm-of-doom look was really an omen of doom.

For the Mets.

If the Mets’ post All-Star break surge and swath turns into disaster the rest of the way, their faithful are liable to look back to the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night. And ask themselves how often even the most heads-up rookies make the kind of rookie mistakes that prove to deflate the re-aspiring.

The kind that turn a two-all tie early in the bottom of the seventh into the open door through which the Braves finally finished a five-run inning that may have had even them wondering whether they were really there even if they were the beneficiaries.

The kind Pete Alonso, to this point a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, including normally steady and heads-up play at first base, instigated when he ran so wide of first to try for a grounder that had “second baseman” clearly in its destination window that it turned into an RBI single. When nobody was left to cover first on the play on which Alonso should likely have stayed in his proper position.

The kind that serve as a prelude to the Braves gifting the Mets the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth, after the Mets scratched their way back to a two-run deficit, and the Mets looking the proverbial gift horse not just in the mouth but all the way down the creature’s throat.

The kind that clear a path to a 6-4 loss that stands an excellent chance of entering Mets lore on the wrong side of the ledger, because it’s the kind of loss that can and often enough does turn what had been baseball’s hottest team until arriving in Atlanta into a collapsing bubble.

Alonso made a plain rookie mistake. It invited more than just a single inning five spot against the Mets. It invited serious thinking as to whether these Mets, as plucky and as willful and as tenacious as they’d been before they arrived in Atlanta this week, played too far over their own heads since the All-Star break to think of any kind of serious contention until next year.

And it was the last thing the Mets needed after learning their top-of-the-order ignition switch, Jeff McNeil, hit the ten day injured list with a left hamstring strain.

With the tying run already home against Mets reliever Seth Lugo and the bases still loaded, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers grounded one toward second. Alonso may have taken a couple of cheat steps to his right at the moment of contact, but the ball headed just too clearly toward Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada.

Alonso still scrambled to his right furiously. And the ball scrambled right past his downstretched glove. And Lugo at the mound may have been caught completely flatfoot by Alonso scrambling for a ball he really had no business trying to play. Tejada would have such a simpler grab that, in proper position, Alonso could have taken the throw for the out at first and thrown home to get Braves left fielder Adam Duvall.

And with Lugo not even close to covering first on a play where he shouldn’t have had to think about it, Tejada did grab the ball after Alonso’s staggering miss. With no place to throw. With Duvall scoring safely and the Atlanta ducks still on the pond.

Then pinch hitter Matt Joyce lined one that Mets right fielder Michael Conforto almost reached before it hit the grass, Conforto having to settle for a sliding short-hop pick and a throw in to get Flowers at second while Johan Camargo scored. And Ronald Acuna, Jr. singled to right center to send Ender Inciarte home and Lugo out of the game in favour of Luis Avilan.

Ozzie Albies greeted him with sixth single of the inning before Avilan got Freddie Freeman to hit into a step-and-throw inning-ending double play.

Too little, too late.

Or was it? After wasting Steven Matz’s solid start against a surprisingly stingy Dallas Keuchel, the Mets found themselves pushing reliever Mark Melancon and the Braves up against the wall in the top of the ninth.

Lagares rapped a one-out single and Joe Panik pinch hitting doubled to shallow left. Amed Rosario singled Lagares home and pinch hitter Luis Guillorme singled Panik home. And up stepped Alonso in desperate need of redeeming himself and his terrible miscue.

He rapped a bouncer toward second, where Albies threw it inside-out to Camargo coming over from shortstop. Camargo caught the ball as Guillorme arrived sliding but—as replays and review showed, strangely enough—Camargo began transferring the ball out of his glove a split moment before his foot touched the base, and he couldn’t hold the ball in his throwing hand, the ball bumping and grinding away from him.

The review overturned the original out call at second. The Mets were just handed the bases loaded and only one out. A base hit was liable to tie the game; an extra-base hit liable to give the Mets a one-run lead at minimum.

But Wilson Ramos struck out swinging on a Melancon curve ball that dove like a fighter plane shot down. And Braves manager Brian Snitker brought in a lefthanded former Met, Jerry Blevins, to work to lefthanded incumbent Met Michael Conforto.

First Conforto missed hammering Blevins’s opening fastball for a grand slam by a couple of feet wide of the right field foul pole. Then, Conforto fouled off a curve ball. Then, he swung on and missed a curve ball.

Even Mets manager Mickey Callaway’s decision to lift Matz when the Mets wrested a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh—after Matz himself hit a two-out single and scored the first of two tiebreaking runs on J.D. Davis’s single up the pipe—won’t be second guessed as heavily as Alonso might be for hustling himself into such a mishap instead of standing his ground and waiting for the putout that might have changed the inning tone. Might.

It’s hard enough when you run yourself into a fateful fielding mistake while in proper position. It’s worse when it happens as you’re scrambling and rambling too far out of position. And don’t ask about when you subsequently scratch, claw, burrow, and shovel your way back to within a pair of runs and ducks on the pond with one out in the ninth, and come up with the ducks quacking fowl over abandonment.

It’s worse to think that Alonso, the rookie who’s been so magnificent for these Mets all year long, through the worst of times and the better of times alike, may yet be remembered the way Met fans remember David Cone leaving the Dodgers bulletin board fodder in the 1988 National League Championship Series.

Or, Kenny Rogers walking home the pennant-losing run in the 1999 National League Championship Series.

Or, Carlos Beltran frozen by strike three to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

Or, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine battered on the final day to secure their fall out of the 2007 postseason.

Or, Lucas Duda, with the easiest chance on earth, throwing home offline in the top of the ninth of Game Five, 2015 World Series.

Men who had done well enough or better as Mets only to come up, despite careers ranging from modest to good to great to the Hall of Fame, like enough 20th Century (and one or two 21st Century) Cubs and Red Sox to start writing their own snakebite history.

This year’s Mets continue learning the hard way that they can’t win everything at the last minute, or even the next-to-last minute. Alonso’s own rally hashtag, #LFGM, may have begun turning from “L[et’s]F[ornicating]G[o]M[ets!]!” to “L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets!]”

It may take a radical intervention to get the Mets into crisis addiction recovery, after all. And by that time it may yet be too little, too late, to save a season they looked as though they were turning into surrealistic redemption.

 

 

 

 

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.