“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.

. . . but the little gulls understand

2019-07-19 AT&TParkSeagulls

A flock of seagulls over AT&T Park’s outfield, not unlike the one Pete Alonso of the Mets scattered in the sixteenth Thursday night.

A pair of National League also-rans meeting to start a four-game set in San Francisco. One managed by a three-time World Series-winning skipper, the other managed by a former pitching coach who’s caught too often unawares but still might break a record for in-season votes of confidence that make his team’s fan base anything but confident.

A pair of starting pitchers whose names appear as often in trade-deadline speculation as Harold Stassen used to run for the presidency. Backed by one bullpen that has three bulls whose names are sometimes whispered in trade talks and another backed by a group that plays with matches a little too often for its own good.

And, a marathon in which both sides’ pitching traded off otherwise lockdown work around twenty hits, ten for each side, with 32 strikeouts between them for fifteen innings, and a flock of seagulls flying above the left side of the AT&T Park outfield in circular patterns that looked taunting one minute and challenging the next.

Thus the Mets and the Giants Thursday night entering the sixteenth inning tied at one. Until Pete Alonso opened the top of the inning almost doing to a seagull with his bat what Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson once actually did to a dove from the mound to break the tie at long enough last.

The Mets entered the bottom of the sixteenth with a 2-1 lead and exited with a 3-2 loss to the Giants in which Mets reliever Chris Mazza, who’d worked a spotless fifteenth, couldn’t get an out if he’d pre-ordered them on Amazon Prime Days just before the Mets hit the Bay Area.

Both teams all but emptied their bullpens, following seven strong innings from Mets starter Noah Syndergaard and nine from the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, with the Mets’ pen of all people having a little bit of the better of things until the sixteenth. And that was after both Syndergaard and Bumgarner could swap a few jibes about how the single runs each surrendered might look almost like happy accidents in the box score.

Mets rookie Jeff McNeil scored in the top of the first—while Alonso himself dialed Area Code 6-4-3 with nobody out. Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar scored Pablo Sandoval with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth. And no matter what the Mets and the Giants threw at each other or swung against each other, nobody else came home until the sixteenth.

Bumgarner still felt his oats after the ninth, doing everything he could short of bringing Perry Mason in to plead his case to manager Bruce Bochy to go out for the tenth. “He lobbied, trust me, he did,” Bochy said after it finally ended. “In fact, I came in after the game, he’s still mad at me for not letting him go out there in the 10th.”

“I didn’t try to make it much of a conversation but he wasn’t having it,” the normally ornery Bumgarner said with a few chuckles punctuating his remarks. “Usually if I really want to I can get my way with him, but he wasn’t having it today. How many times do you get to go out for the tenth?”

He struck out six in nine to Syndergaard’s eight in seven. Then came the running of the bulls. The Mets’ pen—in order, Seth Lugo, Luis Avilan, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman (working two innings), and Justin Wilson—scattered three hits and three walks with a combined ten strikeouts (including Gsellman’s three) before manager Mickey Callaway sent Chris Mazza out for the fifteenth.

The Giants’ pen—in order, Will Smith (another trade deadline subject), Reyes Moronta, Tony Watson, Derek Holland, and Trevor Gott—was equally stingy until the sixteenth, scattering four hits and a walk while striking out a collective eight. (Including three each by Smith and Gott.)

Both the Mets and the Giants, riding concurrent hot or semi-hot streaks into Thursday night, might yet be pondering the reset buttons. But several players on both sides made themselves look a little more attractive to prospective contending suitors a fortnight before the new single trade deadline.

The men don’t know, but the little gulls understand.

Then Williams Jerez, who’d shaken off first and second in the top of the fifteenth, went to work in the top of the sixteenth. He had Alonso 0-2 with a foul. Then he hung a changeup, and Alonso hung it into the left field seats, missing one of the circling gulls by inches. Imagine the gulls as they scattered: Incoming! Hit the deck! There is no deck!

Jerez nailed a pair of back-to-back strikeouts before walking Amed Rosario, but he escaped when he picked Rosario off and got him thrown out for attempted grand theft. Then it was Mazza’s turn to work a second inning.

He got that turn because Callaway had no choice: he had nobody left in the pen, it wasn’t their fault the Mets were as futile in getting runs home until Alonso’s blast, and he didn’t want to burn a starting pitcher if he could help it. Callaway admitted after the game that if it went somehow to a seventh inning he would have sent left fielder J.D. Davis to the mound and pitcher Jacob deGrom out to play left field.

Thank God it didn’t quite come to that, except that the Giants made sure it wouldn’t get to that point off Mazza in the bottom of the sixteenth. It’s a luxury the Mets couldn’t have afforded unless they’d gotten more in their half than just Alonso’s almost-seagull shoot.

A leadoff double (Alex Dickerson), RBI double to re-tie (Brandon Crawford), a hit batsman (Austin Slater, who took over for Mike Yastrzemski in right field in the ninth), a bases-loading single (Pillar), and the Mets’ infield in to choke off the run that wouldn’t be choked off when Donovan Solano (who’d replaced Joe Panik at second in the tenth) sort of snuck a base hit into shallow right field.

“Syndergaard did a great job of pitching out of some jams early and their guys did too,” said Callaway after the game. “There were a lot of baserunners at third with less than two outs and nobody got in. It was a tough night to score runs.”

It was for fifteen innings, until the bases-loaded jam the Mets couldn’t escape the way they did in the fourth, when Pillar’s sacrifice fly began life as a potential bases-clearing hit until J.D. Davis ran it to the rear end of left field and made a leaping snatch.

But the Giants finally banked a win to be proud of and the Mets banked a loss they couldn’t really be ashamed of. Even the gulls looked as though they tried congratulating both sides when it finally ended.

The Mets leave the Twins a mess for now

2019-07-17 PeteAlonso

Pete Alonso hits . . . not just a two-run homer but a conversation piece Wednesday in the eighth.

Until the All-Star break the Twins, of all people, looked like the shock of the season with reasonable ownership of the American League Central. And the Mets looked like the National League’s clown show without the benefit of drawing laughs other than those mixing disgust and dejection.

Twins fans have taken the ride savouring every day so far. Mets fans have laughed like Figaro—that they might not weep.

Except when Pete Alonso catches hold of one, with or without men on, in the eighth inning or otherwise. Then, Mets fans weep for sheer joy. Unless their jaws hit the floor as on Wednesday afternoon, when Alonso didn’t just hit a two-run homer, he hit something liable to be picked up on satellite-orbiting radar.

This was one day after the Mets kind of snuck a 3-2 win past the Twins. A former Minnesotan of my acquaintance habitually believes anything good from the Twins is an illusion and anything bad a matter of established fact, phrasing it as politely as longtime Twins fans are reputed for being. Then came Wednesday’s top of the eighth and it was too much for even the most cynical Twins fan.

Who did the Twins think they were all of a sudden—the Mets?

It began with a walk. It climaxed with a monstrous home run. In between came the sort of thing for which the Mets are only too well disregarded and the Twins aren’t exactly among baseball’s most notorious practitioners.

Twins reliever Matt Magill opened by walking Robinson Cano, the designated hitter on the day, who’s come to that point in his career where he’ll take his base any way he can get there, unfortunately for the Mets. Then, Magill struck out Todd Frazier and Michael Conforto swinging in succession. Followed by Amed Rosario shooting a base hit up the pipe for first and second. And then it happened.

Mets second baseman Adeiny Hechevarria sent a fly toward the left field track. Eddie Rosario, sunglasses wrapped snugly around his eyes, drifted back with a perfect bead on the ball until, so it looked, even the sunglasses couldn’t keep his eyes focused as the sun hit the lenses with a nova-like blast. The ball descended to his glove, then rebounded right out of it.

Cano and Rosario hit the jets and scored handily. Then Jeff McNeil doubled off the right field wall to send Hechevarria home. Dominic Smith—who’d smashed a pinch-hit three-run homer to give the Mets a 5-3 lead in the first place an inning earlier—sent McNeil home with a single.

Up stepped Alonso. He looked at two sliders sailing up to the plate under the strike zone floor. He looked at another slider hitting the inside wall of the zone, barely. Then he saw a slider hanging up in roughly the same spot, maybe an inch further on the inside of the plate. And he sent it halfway up the third deck past the left field fence, bouncing off an empty seat and past a female fan who’d bent over futilely trying to grab the ball.

It was only Alonso’s first bomb since he won the Home Run Derby in Cleveland over a week earlier. But the 474-foot flog couldn’t have been any deadlier if he’d hit it with a sledgehammer and not a bat.

Magill got Mets catcher Wilson Ramos to ground out to end the carnage—temporarily. The Twins kindly sent reserve shortstop Ehire Adrianza out to take one for the team in the top of the ninth. The poor guy ended up taking three for the team thanks to a two-run triple (Amed Rosario) and an RBI double (Hechavarria).

Alonso himself looked as though he took pity on the Twins when he ended that inning with a hard ground out to third. Then Mets reliever Chris Mazza shook off a run-scoring ground out in the bottom of the eighth to work two solid relief innings and finish the 14-4 flogging.

These Twins opened the day with a cozy five-and-a-half-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central. But the Indians spent Monday and Tuesday dropping sixteen runs on the toothless Tigers for 8-6 and 8-0 final scores. And the Tribe didn’t seem likely to just roll over and play dead for the Detroit pussycats Wednesday night.

All of a sudden, the Twins thumping and bumping their way into being one of baseball’s 2019 feel-great stories looked very vulnerable after the Mets got through with them in a two-game set.

It didn’t start that way for the Mets. Already in certain disarray because of assorted issues and controversies on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the front office, they were forced to change plans when Zack Wheeler—scheduled to start Tuesday, in a certain trade-deadline-period showcase—hit the injured list with shoulder fatigue instead.

Forcing the Mets to turn to a bullpen game by using Steven Matz, a starter recently moved to the bullpen to fix himself, as an opener. Maybe it was an omen, because a lot of the kind of peculiar fortune that went against the Mets so far on the season went their way for a change.

Like in the top of the first, when McNeil and Conforto moved to third and second on a passed ball, Cano sent McNeil home with a sacrifice fly, and an error by Jonathan Schoop at second allowed Conforto home. Like when Rosario got to score while Conforto beat out a grounder to shortstop in the top of the fifth. And when six Mets relievers kept the Twins scoreless—despite loading the bases on closer Edwin Diaz—after the fourth.

A little more of that and a lot less of the kind of thing that turned them into a hybrid between nursery school and a slapstick academy and the Mets might not have made the wrong kind of truth out of rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s preseason challenge, “Come get us.”

Don’t look now, but the Mets are 5-1 including now a four-game winning streak since the All-Star break. And they’ve just taken a pair from the reputed threshing machine of the AL Central, including Wednesday’s human rights violations. It may or may not mean a turn of their sad seasonal tide, but this was one time the Mets didn’t need to ponder calling their therapists after a game.

Nor does being sliced, diced, pureed, and nuked Wednesday afternoon mean the Twins face a turn of their otherwise joyous seasonal tide in the wrong direction, either, just yet. But you might forgive them if they pondered calling Dial-A-Shrink for a few minutes.

This Derby doesn’t quite fit that well

2019-07-09 PeteAlonsoHomeRunDerby

One of the 2019 Mets’ few bright lights, Pete Alonso proudly hoists his Home Run Derby winning trophy Monday night.

The remade/remodeled rules of the thing enabled Pete Alonso to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. And Alonso, who’s one of the extremely few bright lights on a Mets team described charitably as a basket case, would have been the star of the show all around if it wasn’t for the kid named Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.

Gone is the longtime ten-outs window through which the Home Run Derby’s participants had to perform in the past. In is the three-minute, no-outs window through which they get to mash to their hearts’ content and their swings’ contact. Through that window did the chunky Blue Jay mash his way into becoming half of the only father-and-son tandem ever to win the Derby.

And, into the hearts of both the packed Progressive Field (commentators invariably noted the full house stayed full from late afternoon until the Derby finished) and the television audience. Hitting 91 home runs on the evening can do that for you, especially if you’re as effervescent as this son of a Hall of Famer showed himself to be.

It was great entertainment.

But it wasn’t baseball.

And there was the chance going in that this year’s Derby could be won by a guy who wasn’t even an All-Star in the first place.

As likeable as he is, as promising as his future still appears to be despite his awkward career opening after he’d turned the minors into his personal target practise, Guerrero isn’t even a member of the American League’s All-Star team. And Joc Pederson, whom Guerrero beat to set up the final showdown with Alonso, isn’t a member of the National League’s All-Stars this time. The Derby operates by a slightly different set of criteria than the All-Star Game, which has problems enough every year.

But Alonso is an All-Star. So is Alex Bregman, the Astros’ deft third baseman who often seems to be six parts Little Rascal and half a dozen parts high on laughing gas, and you’re never quite sure which side dominates at any given time. Bregman was eliminated in the Derby’s first round after a mere fourteen blasts. He may not necessarily have been complaining.

Watching the showdown between Guerrero and Pederson, who put on a big show of their own (including two swing-offs) before Guerrero yanked his way to the final showdown with Alonso, Bregman got off the arguable second best line of the night: I couldn’t imagine three rounds of that. I was gassed after two minutes of it. The arguable best line of the night? It showed up on Twitter: Joc Pederson’s going after that $1 million like he’s behind in his rent.

And, on television, Dodger pitcher and All-Star Clayton Kershaw inadvertently provided the most charming moment—his two young children, Cali and Charley, accompanied Daddy to the ballpark for the Derby. There was Cali Kershaw, pretty in pink, pumping her hands and hollering, “Let’s go, Joc! Let’s go, Joc!” The little lady’s a natural scene-stealer, just as she was during last year’s National League division series.

This year’s Derby winner added $1 million to his bankroll for his effort. In Alonso’s case, earning $1 million for one evening’s glorified batting practise all but doubles what he’s earning all season long as a Met. And, entering the Derby and the All-Star break, Alonso out-performed the guy down the freeway in Philadelphia who signed a thirteen-year, $330 million contract by the time spring training was about two-thirds finished.

Alonso also made good on his very public promise to divide ten percent of the Derby prize money equally, if he won, between 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.

“There’s a lot I was hitting for tonight,” the exhausted Met said after he was handed the winning medal and trophy. “I’m just happy that I can donate some money to the causes that I wanted . . . I mean, I have the utmost respect for the people that put their lives on the line every single day. And I just want to show my gratitude, because a bad day for me is a lot different than a bad day for the service men and women that serve this country.”

Whom among the Derby participants is also an All-Star? Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves), Josh Bell (Pirates), Matt Chapman (Athletics), and Carlos Santana (Indians). Ridiculously, one of the Derby semi-finals was between two guys who aren’t even All-Stars this year. Alonso beat his fellow All-Star Acuna to set up the showdown with Vlad the Impaler, Jr.

Even an observer who isn’t irrevocably wedded to the more stubborn of baseball’s traditions is justified in saying that the Home Run Derby is more entertainment than baseball, since it is tied explicitly to the All-Star festivities, if it invites those who didn’t make either All-Star team as well as those who did.

And one is reminded even briefly that Yankee star Aaron Judge pre-empted any participation in this year’s Derby during spring training, when the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx said he was more concerned with helping his team win games after the All-Star break than with joining and winning a Derby. Judge won the Derby in 2017. His second-half performance wasn’t quite the same as his first half, and he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award anyway. (He also may have exacerbated a shoulder issue while swinging for his Derby win.)

I analysed Derby winners’ seasons at the time Judge declined and discovered at least half of them had lesser than equal or better second halves of the regular seasons in which they won their Derbies. Last year’s champion, Bryce Harper (now a Phillie), had a better second than first half, to name one; Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father (then an Angel) had a lesser second than first half when he won the Derby, to name one more.

It’s great entertainment.

But it isn’t baseball.

And, contrary to the naysayers, nannies, and nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, William Safire, of blessed memory), baseball games are better entertainment than million-dollar batting practise. Even million-dollar batting practise that turned out to contribute to two extremely worthy causes.

If there’s a 50-50 chance that a Derby winner will have a lesser than better second half after winning the prize, with or without Alonso’s admirable charity intentions, it’s a little more alarming for baseball than it is engaging for Joe and Jane Fan.

And guess who’s going to be the first to complain, of course, if and when their heroes in the Derby become less at the plate and in the field, especially if and when their teams hit the stretch drive running.