Cut the crap

Sandy Alcantara’s pitch ricochets off Ronald Acuna, Jr. in the third.

So far as the Miami Marlins seem concerned, the heir apparent to Freddie Freeman as the Atlanta Braves’s franchise face doesn’t wear a Braves uniform. He wears a target. Especially after he hits home runs, in the postseason and otherwise.

Here we went again Tuesday afternoon. Game One, National League division series. And, yes, it was weird enough that the Braves and the Marlins played in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, with the Braves as the home team.

Then Acuna hit the second pitch from Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara over the right field fence opening the bottom of the first. As is characteristic of the ebullient outfielder, he watched for the briefest moment before flipping his bat to one side on his way up the first base line to run it out.

Acuna had reason enough to celebrate even before the Braves demolished the Marlins with a comeback 9-5 win. He became the youngest man in Show history to hit a leadoff bomb in a postseason game. He and the Braves got to enjoy it until the bottom of the third, with the Marlins holding a 4-3 lead and Acuna at the plate with one out.

Alcantara threw at and hit Acuna on an 0-1 count with a 98 mph fastball. At least Alcantara waited until Acuna greeted him again instead of going completely infantile and drilling Freeman following Acuna in the first. That may be the only thing to his credit.

Acuna might have said after the game that he’s kinda, sorta, kinda getting used to being Fish fodder, but that didn’t mean he was necessarily thrilled to be so high on their hit parade when the third-inning pitch struck. He took a few steps forward, toward the mound, holding onto his bat a bit, and both Braves coaches and umpires surrounded him before he entertained any ideas about relieving Alcantara of his head or any other extremities.

“I looked over to their bench,” Acuna said post-game. “I said it’s been five times. At this point, I think we’ve become accustomed to it.” Not necessarily. If that were true, the Braves wouldn’t have engaged in a chirping contest with the Marlins before Acuna finally dropped his bat and took his base.

They also might not have answered the Marlins’ three-run top of the third with Marcell Ozuna doubling Acuna home following Freeman’s followup fly out and Travis d’Arnaud doubling Ozuna home to bring things back to within a run.

And they wouldn’t have bided their time, chased Alcantara out of the game in the seventh with a pair of inning-opening infield singles, one by Acuna himself, before Freeman forced Acuna at second with Yimi Garcia on the mound, Ozuna singled home Austin Riley to tie the game at four, and d’Arnaud hitting a 2-0 grapefruit far enough over the center field fence.

Nor would Ozzie Albies have followed d’Arnaud’s demolition with a base hit to chase Garcia in favour of James Hoyt, whose first service to Dansby Swanson disappeared over the center field fence, too.

That’s where the score stayed other than Matt Joyce’s excuse-me RBI single in the top of the eighth.

“I think it woke us up,” d’Arnaud said of Alcantara drilling Acuna. “And we took advantage of the momentum.” Said Braves manager Brian Snitker, “You better be good at going in and not hitting [Acuna] after a homer.”

Alcantara wasn’t, obviously. Nor was he especially good at covering his tracks after the game. Any expressions of the-ball-got-away-from-him/the-dog-ate-his-homework got vapourised when he added, referencing Acuna’s brief but interrupted advance to the mound, “If he’s ready to fight, I’m ready to fight, too, no matter what happens.”

Cut the crap.There was only one reason Acuna might have been ready to fight, and that was getting drilled his next time up after hitting one out and—oh, the hor-ror!—showing his pleasure over his feat.

Cut the crap. He’s hitting for a .318/.414/.665 slash line against them since he first faced them in 2018. It couldn’t possibly be that the Fish are fed up with Acuna making tuna salad out of them so far in his career.

Cut the crap. It doesn’t matter that has a .182 lifetime batting average against Alcantara into the proceedings. Maybe Acuna also felt like celebrating finally having something more to show than two walks, two strikeouts, and nothing else off the Miami righthander in ten previous plate appearances. Since when does that give Alcantara a license to drill when the first hit he surrenders to Acuna is a parabolic opening launch?

Jose Urena, whose 2018 drilling of Acuna after a bomb-flip got Urena suspended six games, has decent performance papers against Acuna otherwise, if not quite those of Alcantara’s: five strikeouts, three walks, four hits including that lone bomb, and a .235 batting average against him. But Acuna also has a .409 on-base percentage against Urena in 22 plate appearances. And he’s been hit twice in the bargain.

Cut the crap. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. You don’t want Acuna turning his bat into a helicopter rotor when he hits one out against you, stop throwing him cantaloupes to hit in the first place. You want to be a Fun Policeman, wear a police uniform and not a Marlins uniform on the mound.

It ruined Alcantara having a solid outing otherwise, until the Marlins bullpen—whose main men are the proud possessors of a 2.72 irregular season ERA—got dismantled in the seventh. It also put a little smudge on the Marlins’ 2020 reputation as a pleasant surprise who missed winning the National League East by finishing four behind these Braves.

But it also reminded close observers that Acuna has been bitten twice as often by the Fish as he’s been by any other major league team. MLB.com’s Mark Bowman was kind enough to point out that Acuna’s been drilled by Miami pitching once every 41.2 plate appearances—and once every 80 plate appearances by everyone else’s pitching staffs.

Acuna answered on social media after the game too. “They have to hit me because they don’t get me out,” he said in one tweet. “I’d like to take this time to apologize to absolutely NOBODY,” he insisted in an Instagram post. I’d like to take this time to say Acuna owes apologies to absolutely nobody.

It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

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Cespedes went into the seats in his return but deGrom added just more evidence for a non-support case Friday.

Pandemic delay or no pandemic delay, the 2020 season finds the New York Mets picking up just about where they left off last year. Not that beating the Atlanta Braves 1-0 on Friday was a terrible thing for them, of course. And not that Yoenis Cespedes, too long among the Mets’ living dead on the injured list, going long his first day back was terrible, either.

But their neglect of theirs and the National League’s best pitcher two seasons running, pending Jack Flaherty’s continuing maturation, continues yet. He’s too much a team player to say it, but surely Jacob deGrom thinks of games like Friday’s and thinks to himself, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Defending back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching like a future Hall of Famer, eight strikeouts in five innings, one walk, and one measly hit. (The innings limit was the Mets taking no chances after deGrom’s back tightness last week.) And nothing to show for it other than an ERA opening at zero.

Last year, deGrom had twelve such quality starts, averaging seven innings per, and came out with nothing to show for those. If his team played the way he pitched, he’d have been a 23-game winner and the Mets might have ended up in the postseason. Him definitely; them, might. As a former Mets manager once said, it was deja vu all over again Friday afternoon in Citi Field.

The Braves’ starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, got a grand taste himself of how deGrom must feel at times. He pitched six innings and, while he wasn’t deGrom’s kind of strikeout pitcher Friday afternoon, he did punch out three, scatter four hits, and come away with nothing to show for it but handshakes from the boss and whatever equals a pat on the back in the social-distancing season.

His relief, Chris Martin, wasn’t so fortunate. After ridding himself of Michael Conforto to open the bottom of the seventh on a fly out to deep enough center field, Martin got Cespedes to look at a first-strike slider just above the middle of the plate. Then he threw Cespedes a fastball just off it, and Cespedes drove it parabolically into the empty left field seats.

The piped-in crowd noise at Citi Field drowned out the thunk! when the ball landed in no man, woman, or child’s land. It was the game’s only scoring, but the Mets’ bullpen had a surprise of their own in store once deGrom’s afternoon was done.

They left the matches, blow torches, gasoline cans, and incendiary devices behind. They performed no known impression of an arson squad. They cleaned up any mess they might have made swiftly enough.

Seth Lugo, maybe the Mets’ least incendiary reliever last year, shook off a double to left by newly minted Brave Marcell Ozuna, and his advance to third on a passed ball, to get Matt Adams—signed but let loose by the Mets and scooped up by the Braves—to ground out to third and Austin Riley to look at strike three. Crowning two innings relief in which Lugo also made strikeout work of Alex Jackson and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Justin Wilson, taking over for the eighth and looking like he was finding the right slots last year, shook off Dansby Swanson’s leadoff single to strike Adam Duvall out looking, before luring pinch hitter Johan Comargo into grounding out to second and striking Acuna out for the side.

Then Edwin Diaz, the high-priced closer who vaporised last year, opened by getting Ozzie Albies to ground out, shook off a walk to Freddie Freeman, and struck Ozuna out looking and Adams out swinging for the game.

Already freshly minted Mets manager Luis Rojas looks like a genius, or at least unlike a lost explorer. And Cespedes—about whom it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever play major league baseball again—made sure any complaints about this season’s universal DH were silenced for this game at least.

“The funny thing is I joked with him before the game,” deGrom told reporters postgame. “I said ‘why are you hitting for me?’ He went out and hit a home run for us which was big. I was inside doing some shoulder stuff, my normal after pitching routine and yeah I was really happy for him.”

It didn’t work out quite that well for the Braves, with Adams going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on the afternoon. Neither side mustered an especially pestiferous or throw-weight offense other than Cespedes’s blast.

But you half expected a low-score, low-hit game out of both deGrom and Soroka considering the disrupted spring training, the oddity of “summer camp,” and perhaps just a little lingering unease over just how to keep playing baseball like living, breathing humans while keeping a solid eye and ear on social distancings and safety protocols.

In a sixty-game season it all counts even more acutely than it would have on a normal Opening Day. The Mets and the Braves were each expected to contend this season before the coronavirus world tour yanked MLB’s plans over-under-sideways-down. They’re not taking their eyes off that just yet.

Before the game began, the Mets and the Braves—like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals in D.C., like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants by the Bay Thursday night—lined up on the baselines and held a long, long, long black ribbon. This time, with nobody kneeling before “The Star Spangled Banner” was played.

Maybe athletes can remind people that it’s dead wrong for rogue police to do murder against black and all people without running into the buzz saws of explicit national anthem protests and fury over the protests, after all.

The Braves have other alarms, though. Freeman, of course, is recently recovered from COVID-19 but two of their three catchers—Tyler Flowers and former Met Travis d’Arnaud—showed COVID-19 symptoms and went to the injured list. The good news: both catchers tested negative for the virus.

But lefthanded pitcher Cole Hamels hit the IL with triceps tendinitis. Not good. Every live arm counts in a short season, especially for legitimate contenders. Just ask the Mets, who’ll be missing Marcus Stroman with a calf muscle tear, even if Stroman historically heals quickly.

You hope both teams recover swiftly enough. You also hope the Mets find a way to make deGrom’s won-lost record look as good as he pitches and fast. Those non-support filing papers don’t take that long to draw up.

 

NLDS Game One: Fun cops vs. fun cops

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Was Yadier Molina (left) reminding Carlos Martinez about throwing stones in glass houses Thursday afternoon?

Oh, brother. You knew going in that things between the Braves and the Cardinals in a division series would be interesting, to say the very least. Especially knowing the set pits one precinct of fun police against another. Then you got reminded soon enough about being very careful what you wish for.

The Cardinals and the Braves put on a few shows for the price of one, before the Cardinals hung in to finish a 7-6 win Thursday afternoon. The Comedy of Errors, starring one of this season’s most vaunted defenses. The Late Show, starring both sides’ bombardiers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. And Get Off My Lawn, starring Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez out of the ninth inning bullpen.

When the Show’s number three team for defense in terms of runs saved (95), the number five team for turning batted balls into outs (.705), and the number thirty team for allowing errors (a mere 66) allows three Game One runs on extremely playable grounders, you try to remind yourself the Elysian Field demigods do have a sense of humour, if you’re a Cardinals fan.

When your franchise youth settles for a long single in the seventh, after taking a leisurely stroll out of the batter’s box, and barely arrives at first when he might have pulled into second when the right fielder turned to throw in after playing the ball off the height of the fence, you try to see it from the youth’s perspective, if you’re a Braves fan.

When Cardinal fan’s relief ace—who’s renowned for making like Tarzan when he nails strikeouts or induces critical outs—calls out the same youth for having a ball when he does hit one that’s no questions asked out in the bottom of the ninth and has a blast running it out, demanding the boy wonder respect him, Cardinal fan has to remind himself or herself that Mama said there’d be moments and brain farts like that.

When Braves fan has to listen to venerable veteran Freddie Freeman call out Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s earlier stroll, he or she needs every ounce of restraint to keep from reminding Freeman—and any other Brave sharing Freeman’s thinking—that, all things considered, being at second where he belonged in the seventh might not have gotten them more in the end.

With all the foregoing and more it almost felt as though the Cardinals hanging tough, coming back, yanking far ahead with a four-run top of the ninth, and still beating the Braves, was a tough loss. And weren’t things weird enough without Braves reliever Chris Martin going down for the rest of the series after straining his oblique . . . while coming in from the pen assigned to work the eighth? Without throwing a single pitch?

“Every out, every pitch is important,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who didn’t start but who pinch hit in the eighth and dumped the quail off Braves reliever Mark Melancon in the eighth to tie things up at three. “There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”

“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games. You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow,” said Freeman, who shot one over the center field wall one out after Acuna yanked a two-run homer into the same real estate in the ninth, then watched Josh Donaldson ground out and Nick Markakis look at strike three to end the Braves’ afternoon a day late and a dollar short.

Those two homers were joined by Golschmidt in the top of the eighth. Off Luke Jackson, who had to go in after Martin’s in-from-the-pen oblique tweak and watch Goldschmidt send his second pitch over the left field wall. They were the only bombs on a day both teams seemed hell bent on proving small ball hadn’t yet gone the way of the Yugo. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn some things were supposed to have been outlawed in recent times.

Things like Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader not just beating out an infield single in the fifth and moving to second on—the horror!—a sacrifice bunt by Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, but stealing third for the first such theft in a measly two tries off Braves starter Dallas Keuchel all year long. Not to mention Bader tying the game at one when he scored on Dexter Fowler’s ground out to second.

Things like Donaldson pushing the first run of the game home on what should have been dialing Area Code 4-6-3 in the bottom of the first but for usually easy-handed Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong blowing his backhand toss to first leaving all hands safe and enabling his Braves counterpart Ozzie Albies—who reached on a walk in the first place—to score.

Things like the Braves taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth with only one hit—with Donaldson plunked with one out, Markakis doubling him to third, pinch hitter Adam Duvall handed first on the house, and, a pitching change and a strikeout later, Dansby Swanson motoring to beat an infield RBI single that turned into an extra run home when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong’s throw to second bounced off Wong’s glove.

Except that most of the conversation turned around Acuna’s eighth-inning trot. Some of it came from Freeman, who knew how frustrating it was to lose a potential run in a one-run loss with a mistake that wasn’t the first such.

“But I think you have that conversation once,” the well-respected first baseman continued. “It’s kind of beating a dead horse after that if you keep having the same conversation over and over again. You have to know that was a mistake.”

“It could have been a double, but things happen,” was Acuna’s way of explaining it. “I didn’t speak with the manager about it. I just went out to enjoy the game. I always try to give my best, but these are things that sometimes get away from me. They are not things I want to do. As players, we always try to give our best effort, but we make mistakes, we are human.”

He’s right about players being human and making mistakes, of course; in this instance, he’d been there before this year and been benched briefly for it. So is Braves manager Brian Snitker right when he says, “He should have been on second. And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”

But it’s open to debate whether Alibes is right saying, “He probably scores in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.” Albies is probably right in his second and third sentences there. About scoring from second, not quite.

Because Albies followed Acuna immediately with a grounder that pushed Acuna to third, but Freeman got hit by a pitch immediately to follow and Donaldson’s immediate bullet liner—with Acuna likely to run on contact—would have been the double play it became regardless.

Then Martinez had to make all that look like the mere warmup for the main attraction, when Acuna had what Martinez believed a little too much of a ball around the bases after depositing a meatball practically down the pipe over the center field wall. “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martinez fumed afterward. “Just play the game.”

Martinez even had ideas about chirping a lecture or three toward the Braves dugout before his veteran catcher Yadier Molina interceded and nudged him gently but firmly back to the mound. This was almost too rich for words in a game featuring a pair of teams only too notorious around the sport for being fun police units.

You almost can’t wait for the Braves to fume the next time Martinez goes into his Tarzan act if he ends a dicey inning with a nasty strikeout: “We want him to respect us as the National League East champions and not just a bunch of plug-ins who needed all 162 games to get here.”

If that’s the way the Cardinals and the Braves are going to be—as if playing a delicious Game One division series thriller and spiller just wasn’t quite enough—then let them suit up for Game Two in business suits, for crying out loud. Huffing “just play the game” after demanding “respect” tells me (and should tell you) that someone forgot about the “game” part. And, about throwing meatballs to power hitters.

Impatience is no virtue

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Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s fourth-inning bomb was almost half as important as bagging Todd Frazier trying to score in the sixth Tuesday night.

Zack Wheeler took the blame himself. The Mets pulled into heat-hammered Atlanta Tuesday and came up short against the National League East-leading Braves. Wheeler simply said he didn’t have it. But he had lots of help along the way to the 5-3 loss.

“It stinks,” Wheeler lamented after the game. “We’re on this run and I really didn’t give us a chance. This one’s on me.” Not entirely. A lot of the help Wheeler got came through the kindness of Braves left fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s heart.

And if there’s justice in baseball world, Acuna should extend that kindness to Mets third base coach Gary DiSarcina and credit him with a major assist.

Because no sooner did Todd Frazier atone for a rally-compromising double play in the top of the sixth, whacking a double to the back of center field off Braves starter Max Fried, than Mets center fielder Juan Lagares lined a single right to Acuna playing in a none-too-deep left field positioning.

Frazier isn’t as swift afoot as he was earlier in his career, but even Hall of Fame road runner Rickey Henderson would have resembled Wile E. Coyote on a hit that shallow against a left fielder with an arm like Acuna’s.

You get why Frazier had eyes on the plate with the Mets down four runs at the moment. But DiSarcina should have thrown up a stop sign post haste. With the pitcher’s spot due to follow Lagares, and Wheeler’s evening over with recent acquisition Brad Brach up and throwing in the pen, the Mets were certain to send up a pinch hitter with Jeff McNeil, their leadoff man, due to follow if the pinch swinger could swing.

The light never even changed to yellow. Frazier rounded third at just about the moment Acuna let fly. Frazier was such a dead pigeon sliding toward the plate you got the impression Braves catcher Brian McCann tagged him out as a mere formality. And a grand chance to close the distance escaped the Mets.

“His arm,” said Acuna’s manager Brian Snitker, “is a weapon.” Disrespecting that weapon equals disaster.

Coming off taking two of three from the Nationals last weekend, winning the two in almost anti-textbook examples of doing things the hard way, the Mets let Fried and the Braves compel them to try doing it the hard way again. I said it before, I’ll say it again: crisis addiction only wins you so many games.

All night long, whenever they swung the bat the Mets swung as if they thought they could hit the ball right out of Fried’s hand. With Fried pitching exactly the way you’d expect a guy with a 1.38 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, patience would have been the Mets’ virtue. Tuesday night they approached Fried as though patience were what you saw in the doctor’s waiting room.

And the Mets better hope they duck another kind of crisis, after McNeil tweaked his left hamstring trying to hustle out a leadoff ground out in the top of the ninth. He flung his helmet to the ground in obvious discomfort, let a trainer escort him back to the dugout, and said after the game he didn’t feel anything pop.

“Just a little snag,” said McNeil, who undergoes an MRI Wednesday. “Nothing crazy.” He and the Mets better hope it’s nothing “crazy.” Things have been crazy enough for them this year.

The Braves are deep enough that they could withstand life without shortstop Dansby Swanson and rookie slugger Austin Riley for a spell, even if they have been only 17-13 since the All-Star break. And they’re deep enough that even that post-break record doesn’t hurt them after spending the first half eluding everyone else in their division at 54-37.

The Mets aren’t that deep no matter how they’ve looked since the break. They can’t afford to lose McNeil for any appreciable time. And they know it.

“It’s tough. He’s a huge part of this team. He brings fire every day to the field,” said Wheeler. “He’s a ballplayer and you need those type of guys on your team and you need them in the lineup. It’s unfortunate that happened, hopefully it’s not too serious and he can get back decently quick. We need his bat, that’s for sure.” His bat, and his passion.

Recently minted Joe Panik’s going to play a lot more second base now, and he can still whip his leather with authority as well as postseason experience. Bringing back prodigal veteran Ruben Tejada—whom the Mets re-signed in March, but who hasn’t played a major league game since he was a 2017 Oriole while hitting .337 at Syracuse this year—is a band-aid.

There wasn’t much Wheeler could do on a night he admits was an off night from keeping the Braves off the bases and the scoreboard. Acuna himself opened the proceedings with a base hit in the bottom of the first and, after Freddie Freeman sent him to third with a one-out single, Josh Donaldson singled him home. A fly out later, Matt Joyce singled to deep enough right to score Freeman.

The Mets were in a 2-0 hole before they got a second crack at Fried. They’d squandered the first one brilliantly. Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis wrung back-to-back walks out of the Braves lefthander, but Ramos with a near-perfect inner zone pitch to handle and pull whacked it instead to Charlie Culberson, the former Dodger now pressed into shortstop service until Swanson returns from the injured list. Culberson tossed to second for the inning-ending force.

They looked like they’d get to Fried in the top of the second when, after two quick enough outs, Lagares singled up the pipe and, of all people, Wheeler himself got plunked to set up first and second. Never one to look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, McNeil drilled a single deep enough to left to send Lagares home and cut the deficit in half. But Mets shortstop Amed Rosario let Fried fool him with a slider that broke right under his bat for the side-retiring strikeout.

Freeman put things a tick further out of reach in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single. After the Mets wasted two-out baserunners in the third and the fourth, Acuna made it a little more tough to catch up in the bottom of the fourth. With one out and nobody aboard, Acuna wrestled his way back from 0-2, caught Wheeler’s two-seamer traveling right down Main Street, and sent it traveling over the left field wall.

Ender Inciarte turned a three-run Atlanta edge into a four-run distance in the bottom of the fifth, after Wheeler wild-pitched McCann (leadoff single) to second, hitting a double into the right field corner to send McCann home with the fifth and final Braves run.

But come the top of the seventh, it was Sun Trust Park’s scattered audience now in need of oxygen above and beyond the oppressive heat: the Braves went to the bullpen. And in came Luke Jackson, whose recent misadventures may not have spelled final disaster but were misadventures enough to make Braves fans wonder if he hadn’t been taking lessons in pressure pitching from last postseason’s version of Craig Kimbrel.

Now the Mets went to pinch hitter Luis Guillorme in the pitcher’s hole to lead off the seventh. And Jackson gave the home audience a better reason to put the nitro pills under their tongues. He got Guillorme to pop out to Culberson out from shortstop, then caught McNeil and Rosario overanxious enough to strike them out swinging back to back.

But then Snitker went to Shane Greene, the new toy from Detroit who was supposed to step into the lockdown job out of the Braves’ pen but whose ERA since joining the Braves is a ghastly 14.54. If even one fan in the stands pondered thoughts of Snitker taking pity on the Mets with this move, you couldn’t blame him or her.

Right off the bat, Alonso and Davis singled back to back to open the top of the eighth. And after Ramos forced Davis at second, Snitker took no more chances, bringing in former Met Jerry Blevins. Michael Conforto grounded one to first that got rid of Ramos at second but sent Alonso home with the well overdue second Mets run.

Out came Blevins and in came another former Met, Anthony Swarzak. Frazier singled Conforto to second promptly, and Lagares beat out a grounder to the back of first base to score Conforto almost as promptly, pushing Frazier to second, and suddenly the Mets were back to a mere two-run deficit. But pinch-hitter Panik, swinging a little over anxiously himself, grounded out to short for the side.

Drew Gagnon, recalled from Syracuse (AAA) for his third spell with the Mets this year, got rid of pinch hitter Rafael Ortega, Acuna, and Ozzie Albies almost in a blink in the top of the ninth. But after McNeil’s ham snagged, another trade deadline-minted Brave reliever, Mark Melancon, shaking off his Miami disaster admirably, struck out Rosario and Alonso swinging to end it.

There are teams up and down the standings against whom you can go into crisis and come out with your heads intact and triumphant. The Mets were reminded Monday night that the Braves aren’t one of them.

Neither is Acuna’s throwing arm. Give it even a fraction of an inch, and he’ll take as much distance as you let him get away with. Not to mention his trying and having an excellent chance of becoming only the third player 22 or under to hit forty or more into the seats in a season—behind Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews, the latter a Braves legend in his own right.

If the Mets want to remain baseball’s hottest post-All Star break team and stay in the postseason hunt, they’d better not dismiss that reminder lightly. Especially against these Braves, who almost never show mercy to those asleep at the switch.

This Derby doesn’t quite fit that well

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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.