. . . and, will it come back smartly?

2020-05-12 SeanDoolittle

Sean Doolittle during last year’s World Series. He’s now concerned that baseball considers everyone’s health before coming back.

Forget for the moment how arduous might become the grapple between owners and players on how to pay whom if the Show returns. More significant will be how to keep more than just the players healthy, a significance that has not escaped the thoughtful eye, ear, and mind of one Washington Nationals relief pitcher.

Sean Doolittle isn’t even close to the only major league player with health on his mind. But it isn’t every player who’s unburdened himself aboard Twitter to lay out the health questions that must be answered if the Show is to come back to give a coronavirus-exhausted nation even a small degree of respite.

Bear with me,” Doolittle (who calls himself Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle on Twitter) began his Monday stream, “but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season.”

There are players and other personnel now who may be more vulnerable to the virus than others almost regardless of the health and safety protocols MLB might secure, as Ken Rosenthal observes in The Athletic. Colorado outfielder David Dahl is one. Rosenthal cites the Mayo Clinic saying your vulnerability to life-threatening infections heightens after spleen removal. Dahl’s spleen was removed five years ago.

Doolittle’s own wife, Eireann Dolan, is vulnerable thanks to being asthmatic. Two Chicago Cubs, pitcher Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, are cancer survivors. Cleveland pitcher Carlos Carrasco has battled leukemia and, six years ago, undergone “non-invasive heart procedure,” Rosenthal writes. At least three players are Type 1 diabetics: pitchers Scott Alexander (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Jordan Hicks (St. Louis Cardinals), and outfielder Adam Duvall (Atlanta Braves).

One and all of them plus countless more players are only too willing to play ball this year. “Obviously, this thing is unstoppable if it gets you the right way,” said Rizzo, who’s worked with and through his charitable group aiding Chicago front-line workers, in April. “But they said I’m cured and as strong as ever and that everything functions the right way. If I was to get it, they’re not overly concerned, like they would be with older people who have had conditions before.”

Doolittle also knows it’s not that simple to work with. “Because this is a novel virus, there is still so much we don’t know—including the long-term effects,” he said aboard his Twitter stream. “On top of respiratory issues, there’s been evidence of kidney, intestinal, and liver damage, as well as neurological malfunctions, blood clots & strokes.”

Referencing several research results, the lefthanded relief pitcher cited coronavirus patients’ vulnerability to scarring in their lungs, “found even in asymptomatic patients, and because the virus often affects both lungs, can cause permanent damage in some cases. Definitely a concern for an athlete.”

It’s also a concern, and Doolittle knows it, for those who work in close enough proximity, including clubhouse personnel, press personnel, team staffers, and stadium workers. Baseball as a game may work in a kind of social distancing on the field, if you don’t count the three-man cluster of batter, catcher, and umpire at the plate, but off the field in the dugout, the clubhouse, and the ballpark is something else.

Even if the Show returns come July with no fans in the stands to begin, it isn’t going to be simple. “We know that sharing indoor spaces greatly increases the infection risk,” Doolittle continued, “and it’s rare that only 1 person gets sick. Will there be modifications made to clubhouses or other facilities to prevent a spread?” Indeed.

“Even if maybe guys don’t realize it right now, it’s our job and MLB’s job to make sure all those concerns are taken care of,” says Cardinals relief pitcher Andrew Miller, who’s a member of one of the player’s association’s executive sub-committees. “Health and safety of our players and our staff is first and foremost before we can even think about getting games off the ground and the logistics of all that.”

Baseball players might not be in close contact during a game the way football players are,” Doolittle tweeted, referencing the prospects for an NFL season this fall, “but there is a lot of shared space in a clubhouse among players, coaches and staff.”

That’s one reason why it isn’t going to be as simplistic as just keeping the owners from using baseball’s measured return to try suppressing players’ pay, considering the question to be answered as to whether the players will play for a 50-50 revenue split or for the contracted-for pro-rated 2020 salaries to which they agreed in March.

“The risk of exposure to the virus is one reason players are adamant about not accepting a further reduction in pay,” Rosenthal writes. “They agreed in March to pro-rate their salaries in a shortened season, but the league will seek additional concessions, sources said, because the games, at least initially, will be played without paying customers.”

Doolittle also pondered, not unreasonably, whether baseball could or would consider additional health care benefits for players and staffers “extend[ing] beyond their employment and into retirement to mitigate the unknown risks of putting on a baseball season during a pandemic?”

We don’t have a vaccine yet, and we don’t really have any effective anti-viral treatments. What happens if there is a second wave? Hopefully we can come up with BOTH a proactive health plan focused on prevention AND a reactive plan aimed at containment.

Doolittle and other players hope any plan to bring the Show back considers plans to acquire enough real coronavirus tests “ethically,” and the best, most feasible protocols if any player, staffer, or ballpark worker contracts the virus.

The owners and the players union have that to think about as well, even if they also have to ponder concurrent issues. For the players, they know the longevity of given careers isn’t guaranteed. For the owners, whose longevity is far more assured, there’s the risk that the national economy’s eventual recovery doesn’t happen before they’re forced to furloughs, firings, and bankruptcies.

“We want to play,” Doolittle concluded. “And we want everyone to stay safe.”

Not once in his Twitter exegesis did Doolittle talk about money. The cynic might reply that that was easy for him not to say, since his full 2020 salary would have been $6.5 million and his pro-rated nut wouldn’t exactly be pocket money. Hearing comparable health and safety concern from more players such as Doolittle and Miller would go plenty far enough.

Before this week’s return proposal, earlier ideas that meant complete player isolation put several players on edge for having to go to the serious work of play without their families. A normal baseball season provides separation enough. A season played in near-isolation with out-of-the-ordinary health and isolation issues is tricky above and beyond the safety concern.

Mike Trout and his wife, who’ve been donating quite liberally to front-liners in the region of his native southern New Jersey (including donating food), await the birth of their first son in August. He’d rather hit the deck after taking a hit off the helmet from a headhunting pitcher than be absent when Baby Trout premieres.

Clayton Kershaw, whose third child (and second son) was born three months ago, and who raised money (and matched it dollar-for-dollar out of his own deep pocket) for a Los Angeles group serving 13,000 meals a day during the pandemic, has suggested the balance between playing baseball safely and being isolated from their families didn’t exactly thrill himself or his fellow players.

Still, it’s always reassuring to know that there are those who actually play the game, who understand that, for all the dollars they earn to play it, the common good of the game isn’t always the same thing as just making money for it or dividing the spoils from it.

They also know a coronavirus-exhausted country needs what they do. Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon doesn’t want to be ill, doesn’t want people making each other ill, but wants a way for the game to return for those who love it and those who depend on it for their living.

“But bigger than that,” Blackmon said in a Monday radio interview, “this country needs baseball.” This country, and baseball itself, also needs to have it done right.

Limits to crisis addiction

2019-08-11 SeanDoolittle

This time, Sean Doolittle wasn’t at the mercy of his 2019 nemeses, the Mets.

Seek the clinical definition of “crisis junkie,” and you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the definition includes, “New York Mets.” As white hot as they’ve been since the All-Star break, the Mets have not been in complete recovery from crisis addiction.

Every crisis junkie believes it’ll take just one turn of luck, the cards, or both to escape his or her latest crisis. On Sunday afternoon, down three going to the bottom of the ninth, the Mets had more than enough reason to believe theirs was coming in from the Nats bullpen. Sean Doolittle.

Doolittle—whom they’d battered for four runs to win at the last minute Friday night and bullied otherwise all season long. With the top of the order due up for the Mets and the Citi Field crowd giving Doolittle a standing ovation as he arrived on the mound.

Doolittle—who got Jeff McNeil to line out hard to right, struck out Amed Rosario swinging, and got Michael Conforto to ground out into a right-side shift. Crowning a scoreless two-and-a-thirds relief job by Doolittle plus Daniel Hudson and Wander Suero before him.

If it was a monkey off Doolittle’s back after his season-long futility against the Mets, the Nats could still be forgiven if they felt that even this 7-4 win, snapping the Mets’ eight-game winning streak, didn’t necessarily feel like a win.

Even if the Mets spotted the Nats three unearned runs in the top of the first, on a throwing error to first and a dropped ball at the plate that would have kept Juan Soto from scoring that third run: Mets catcher Wilson Ramos had him cold by several feet before the ball fell from his mitt.

Because the Mets broke their weekend habit of fourth-inning ties by tying it at three in the bottom of the second—on a pair of one-out singles, a two-out RBI single, a sneak-attack, bases-loading, two-out bunt by Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom, and a two-run double. By then the Nats must asked, if they hadn’t the previous two nights, “What the hell do we have to do to put these pests away?”

They may not be the only team in the league tempted to keep cases of Raid in the dugout or pest control crews on call when they face the Mets.

For their part, the Mets may not quite be ready to send themselves to a twelve-step program for crisis addiction. Because if that’s what’s keeping them white hot and helping them prove they can hang with the big boys—even those addled otherwise by the injured list and by self-immolating bullpens, just as the Mets were earlier in the season—they’ll work with it.

The twelve steps could wait until the season was over or the Mets fell out back out of the races. Whichever came first. Couldn’t they?

“It’s magic!” crows a Met fan of my acquaintance. He’s probably echoed by a few million Met fans who prefer seeking extraterrestrial causes for both the heights of success and the depths of failure. You’d think they couldn’t bear to admit that playing heads-up baseball when the Mets needed to play it the most had anything to do with their post-All Star break success.

Let the Nats pull back ahead 5-3 in the seventh on a two-out, two-run double by Asdrubal Cabrera that followed a little shakiness out of the Mets’ bullpen? The Mets weren’t going to let that stand without an answer if they could help it. Conforto’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly off Nats reliever Hunter Strickland said as much.

But for a brief moment it looked as though the Nats were going to pay the price for their manager’s unconscionable brain freeze right after that. How could Dave Martinez not have challenged Pete Alonso being ruled hit by a pitch when the pitch hit the batter, not the ball, with every television replay available showing as much?

A called strikeout later, ex-Nat Wilson Ramos drilled a frozen rope right into Gerardo Parra’s glove in left to strand two Met runners and make Martinez look like a genius for a few moments. Better not to let Alonso have another swing with two aboard. Except J.D. Davis loomed and could crunch one. Strickland nailed Davis with a called strikeout before the Ramos line out. That’s called dodging the atomic bomb.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the net result is also called wasting yet another stellar deGrom start. He shook off the three unearned in the first to all but have his way with the Nats, but that first inning drained him enough that he wasn’t likely to pitch more than five innings. All odds favoured even the Mets’ shaky bullpen against the Nats’ shakier pen.

Until Jeurys Familia—once the Mets’ closer, this year a prodigal son having a horror of a season—found his old self at just the right hour to strike out the side in the top of the eighth. And Wander Suero sandwiched a grounder back to the box between two strikeouts in the bottom of the eighth.

Then Doolittle was up and throwing in the Nats bullpen and the Mets could just taste the gift coming. In a way, that was part of their problem Sunday. They looked as though they were trying to hit six-run homers in about half their plate appearances. They looked as if they wanted to get to the win without navigating the traffic on the way all day long.

Didn’t quite work out that way. Now, before they got another crack at Doolittle they had to get past the Nats in the top of the ninth. And they trusted Edwin Diaz, command struggles and all and with almost a full week’s rest in the bargain, to perform that assignment. With the dangerous top of the Nats order to greet him.

Diaz shook off a one-out walk to Adam Eaton and didn’t let Eaton stealing second stop him from catching Anthony Rendon, having a four-hit day to that point, looking at strike three. But up stepped Victor Robles, a late-game insertion to center field, after Parra was moved to left following Juan Soto’s ankle turn on a seventh-inning baserunning out, after ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera doubled home a pair to break the three-all tie in the first place.

On 2-1 Diaz hung a slider to Robles. And Robles hung it over the left field fence. And after Matt Adams grounded out to second for the side, Diaz walked into the dugout looking as though he’d been told his favourite pet was kidnapped and left for dead. Pitching coach Phil Regan spoke gently to him and hugged him, like a father comforting a heartbroken son.

And this time Doolittle stood up well enough to his season-long bullies.

Yet considering their Friday and Saturday night surrealistics, Sunday afternoon’s loss probably didn’t feel like a loss to the whole of the Mets, either.

With apologies to Vin Scully, in a second half that has been so improbable, the impossible happened. Friday night the Nats put a boot on the Mets’ throat in the top of the ninth, and the Mets yanked it away in the bottom of the ninth. Also known as the last minute. On Saturday night, the Mets had to settle for the Nats putting the edge of a shoe against their neck and bumping it to one side in the eighth. Also known as the next-to-last minute.

Friday night the Mets overthrew two three-run deficits and Strasburg becoming the Nats’ all-time franchise strikeout leader to win. Saturday night they overthrew a two-run deficit in the fourth and a one-run deficit in the eighth to win. They’d tied against Strasburg and Patrick Corbin alike. When it came time for the running of the bullpens, the Mets ended up looking a little less like bull.

And on both nights Citi Field rocked and rolled as if this was a postseason series. It didn’t escape the Nats’ eyes and ears, either. Strasburg’s in particular.

“They pull for their team,” the righthander said, calmly but firmly, after Friday night’s shock. “And I don’t know if they come play us again, but I hope all the fans are watching the game cause it gets into crunch time and those things really carry teams and get us to the next level.”

Actually, the Mets are scheduled for one more trip to Washington, down the stretch, a 2-4 September set to end the season series between the two teams. If this weekend doesn’t make or break either the Mets’ or the Nats’ seasons, by the time that Monday-Wednesday meeting comes to pass either team could be looking closer at a wild card slot or an early winter vacation.

Theoretically, both teams could also be nipping at the heels of the National League East-leading Braves by then, too. If not sooner. The Braves are a .500 team for August so far, and after winning four straight after the All-Star break they’re 12-13 since. They’re no longer a necessarily impossible target.

But the Mets since the All-Star break restored reasons for the throngs to rock their ballpark. The Nats had a 5-6 homestand before their current road trip, but if Strasburg was calling out Nats Nation to give the team a little more in the way of the Mets’ current kind of crowd incentive, since they’re not quite dead and in the coffin just yet, Nats Nation would be wise to heed.

Even taking two of three from the Nats stands the Mets well with a trip to Atlanta looming. A Mets win Sunday would probably have made them feel invincible no matter where they traveled afterward. Ending the day at 21-7 since the All-Star break still leaves them baseball’s hottest team since that break.

A Nats loss Sunday—compounded by Max Scherzer’s continuing absence, the continuing rehabs of both Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, and the likelihood that pending free agent Rendon may be playing his last weeks in Nats fatigues—might have made them feel as though the string to be played out was closer to resembling the clothesline from which they’d hang to dry.

The Nats have a slightly more balanced schedule the rest of the season. Starting with a weekday set against the Reds at home, they get to mix sets against the flotsam and jetsam with sets against the big boys. The Mets should be so lucky. Theirs isn’t that well balanced a schedule the rest of the season. They might have felt charmed Friday and Saturday, but Sunday should have re-grounded them enough.

Enough to remind them that crisis addiction isn’t always the way to stay in a wild card race after you’ve returned from the living dead to get back into one. Especially with bigger enough fish than the Nats swimming into the waters in which they’re about to bathe the rest of the season.

Walk through the door of your friendly neighbourhood Crisis Anonymous. Say it loud and humble. “Hi, we’re the Mets. And we’re crisis junkies.” Step one. Take it ASAP.

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.

Murphy’s law: Celebrate!

2019-06-14 TomLawless

Tom Lawless, the patron saint of bat flippers, starting his flip in Game Four, 1987 World Series . . .

The Fun Police have a new protester who played the game in an earlier era. And when Dale Murphy talks, it would be wise for the Fun Police to lend him their ears and not their billy clubs.

Murphy inaugurated his partial new life writing for The Athletic with a September 2018 essay in which he applauded doing away with throwing at batters on hot streaks. That was after the Marlins’ Jose Ureña was stupid enough to think the proper way to stop Ronald Acuna, Jr. from making mincemeat out of Marlins pitching was to open a game by drilling Acuna’s elbow.

The longtime Braves bombardier said then pitching inside is one thing but drilling hitters who offend you is something else entirely. “If Ureña thought he was being tough, he wasn’t. Good pitchers–and staffs–will take command of a situation before a guy is swatting home runs left and right. The Marlins kept throwing Acuña fastballs down the middle. Well, what did they think was going to happen? A light should have gone on. Hmm, maybe we should try something else.”

Now, Murphy wasn’t exactly amused when Madison Bumgarner barked at Max Muncy after Muncy drove one of Bumgarner’s offerings clean into McCovey’s Cove last week. Murphy was far more impressed not just that Muncy was sharp enough in spontaneity to hand Bumgarner a classic one-liner (I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean) that begat a classic troll shirt, but that Muncy had no qualms about even a lower-keyed celebration of, you know, achievement.

“Admiring a home run is OK,” Murphy writes in an essay published Friday. “Bat-flipping is OK. Emotion is OK. None of that is a sign of poor sportsmanship or disrespect for an opponent. It’s a celebration of achievement — and doing so should not only be allowed, but encouraged.” And he’s not limiting its encouragement to hitters alone, either. “Pitchers can shout excitedly after an important out,” he writes. They can pump their fist after a clutch strikeout. Players, fans—and basically any rational-thinking human—will understand that no harm is intended by these spontaneous expressions of joy.”

Last year, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle jumped onto the fun train. And he said he wanted more than just bat flips. “If a guy hits a home run off me, drops to his knees, pretends the bat is a bazooka, and shoots it out at the sky, I don’t give a shit,” he said. To which I myself added, “I hope a lot of pitchers start channeling their inner Dennis Eckersley and start fanning pistols after they strike someone out. I’d kill to see a hitter moonwalk around the bases after hitting one out. Let’s see more keystone combinations chest bump or make like jugglers after they turn a particularly slick and tough double play.”

“These are some of the best athletes in the world, competing against some of the other best athletes in the world, with generational wealth at stake,” writes Murphy. “Yet, they’re expected to play baseball like they’re doing calculus at afternoon tea.” My own expression was (and remains) that whereas Willie Stargell was right saying, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’,” if you want to play baseball like businessmen, take the field and check in at the plate in three-piece suits.

“In what other sport does this happen?” Murphy asks. “In what other sport is celebration considered disrespect? In football, guys plan celebrations. They choreograph them with teammates. They gesture when they get a first down. As far as I know, the world hasn’t ended.  Baseball is a strange place. It’s not OK to watch your home run, but it is OK for someone to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour at your head if you do.”

It’s still funny in anything but a ho-ho-ho way that when it’s free agency signing season the Old School wants us to remember they’re getting overpaid to play a game, for crying out loud . . . but when it’s time to actually play the game, God forbid the players look like they’re, you know, playing.

Murphy is careful not to say that those on the field who don’t like celebrating their achievements should be allowed not to like it, either. But he’s adamant that if they want to celebrate, they shouldn’t risk being decapitated the next time they bat against the pitcher they just took into the ocean. And, to Madison Bumgarner’s eternal credit, he didn’t even think about trying to flip Max Muncy when Muncy faced him the next time.

Neither did the arguable and unlikely father of the home run bat flip as we’ve come to know it face revenge.

I take you back to the 1987 World Series. The one in which no game was won on the road and the Twins won in seven. The one in which Tom Lawless—journeyman infielder, minus 2.1 wins above a replacement-level player, lifetime .521 OPS, lifetime hitter of two regular-season major league home runs, who hadn’t hit one out since 1984—squared up Frank Viola (a Cy Young Award winner the following season) with two on and nobody out, in the bottom of the fourth, in a tied-at-one Game Four, and hit a meaty fastball over the left field fence.

Lawless took ten leisurely steps out of the box up the first base line as the ball flew out. When it banged off a railing above and behind the fence, he flipped his bat about ten feet straight up into the Busch Stadium air before starting his home run trot. The crowd may have cheered as much for that flip as for the ball flying out in the first place.

“Look at this!” hollered then-ABC commentator Tim McCarver when showing it on a replay. McCarver and Al Michaels sounded absolutely exuberant. Viola didn’t exactly look thrilled to have just surrendered a tiebreaking three run homer, but he wasn’t exactly spitting fire or raging in the moment, either.

As Bleacher Report‘s Danny Knobler observes in Unwritten: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball’s New Future, Viola never once retaliated for the Lawless flip. On 14 May 1989, Viola and Lawless met for the first time since that Series, with Lawless now a Blue Jay pinch hitting for Rob Ducey in the top of the fifth. Viola caught Lawless looking at a third strike in that pinch hit appearance. Lawless stayed in the game playing right field, of all places. He batted against Viola in the top of the eighth and grounded out to first.

Not once did Lawless face a knockdown or brushback.

It’s a shame someone didn’t teach that lesson to Hunter Strickland two years ago, when he opened against Bryce Harper by drilling Harper in the hip—over a couple of long, almost three-year-old postseason home runs the second of which Strickland thought Harper pimped, when the only thing Harper actually did was make sure the launch straight over the right field line and foul pole would fly out fair.

“I didn’t remember flipping it,” Lawless said after that ’87 Series game. “I’ve never been in a position like this before.” He never would be again, either. That blast was the only World Series hit of Lawless’s career, and he never played in the Series again.

In 2017, he told a Cardinals television broadcast interviewer, “I don’t have any idea why I did it. It just happened.” Spoilsport.

 

Talk of the trade

2019-06-12 MadisonBumgarner

Could Madison Bumgarner change employers at last by or before this year’s trade deadline? (Will it be the Yankees? The Brewers?) And who else might the contenders have eyes upon?

‘Tis the season to be pondering who’s coming or going before or at baseball’s new single trade deadline. I know the deadline isn’t June, but it seems just about every season that June is the month when trade talk becomes as fevered as a Trump tweetstorm. At this moment the temperature is low but sure to climb.

You have to be careful, though. Out there in the press mainstream merely speculating upon who’s liable to change addresses can lead to strange feelings among the speculated-upon. And their current employers. Maybe their employers-to-be. (Renters-to-be?) And it’s always healthy to try keeping the strange as much to the playing field as possible.

Everybody with me so far? OK. Now let’s consider potential candidates, understanding that they’re not officially on the block just yet but that teams with certain needs may cast eyes upon them:

Madison Avenue Dept.—Madison Bumgarner ain’t quite what he used to be, if you don’t count orneriness, but his postseason jacket alone would make him attractive to a contender looking for a) a rental lefthander, and b) a fun policeman, since he hits free agency for the first time after this season. (The Yankees are already rumoured to have eyes for him, and the Brewers may have likewise.) But pay attention, contenders needing bullpen help: the Giants have a sleeper for you. Will Smith, lefthanded closer, 2.19 ERA, 0.73 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, 35 strikeouts and a mere five walks in 24 2/3 innings so far this year.

Surprise Package Dept.—Don’t look now, but Ken Giles—he of the 2017 World Series disasters and the 2018 meltdowns that got him purged from Houston—has resurrected himself very quietly in Toronto. Giles has a 1.08 ERA, a 1.15 FIP, a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk rate, a 15.1 K/9 rate, and a 0.4 HR/9 rate this season. Contenders needing pen help shouldn’t ignore such closers. Bloodied-but-unbowed and otherwise.

On Your Marcus Dept.—Giles’ Blue Jays teammate Marcus Stroman has a year and a half left on his current deal, and a contender looking for rotation fortification might find him attractive enough to deal for him with eyes upon extending him with plenty of time to work something out. He may be hung with a major league-leading eight losses but those are definitely team efforts considering his 3.31 ERA. A contender needing a middle-of-the-rotation arm with postseason experience could make the Jays an offer they can’t refuse.

Either Thor Dept.—Noah Syndergaard is actually pitching a little better than his 4.45 ERA shows, even if his tendency to just fire may actually be working against him now. (His K/9 rate isn’t the same as it was in 2015-16 and may not be again for a good while.) But if the Mets awaken enough to know they’re not likely to reach even a wild card berth this time around, Syndergaard still has upside (and is under contract through 2021) to bring them back some decent prospects and give a contender a not-so-secret weapon that may not disappear too soon.

Tribal Fission Dept.—Right now the Indians don’t look like the contenders they were thought to be this year—by themselves or by others. They also don’t look like sellers now, but that could change after Cleveland hosts this year’s All-Star Game and if the Indians don’t look like even a wild card outlier after the Game. The likeliest Tribesmen to bring back a haul if the Indians decide to remake/remodel? Pitchers Corey Kluber (assuming his return to health), Trevor Bauer, and Brad Hand; and, shortstop Francisco Lindor. Lindor especially would be the nugget: 25 years old, established star, and continuing upside.

Full of Colome Dept.—Smith and Giles may not be the only attractive relief target for deal-minded contenders. Alex Colome may look just as delicious even though he’s closing for a rebuilding White Sox team. That 2.19 ERA and 0.65 walks/hits per inning pitched rate are just too succulent for contenders needing relief to ignore. And, like Stroman, Colome has a year and a half left on his deal and a contender in need might find the 30-year-old  attractive enough to talk extension before the deal expires. Might.

Greene Fields Dept.—Contenders in need of relief might have even bigger eyes for Tigers closer Shane Greene. Like Colome, he’s 30. Like Giles, he has an ERA close to 1.00. (Specifically, 1.04.) Unlike Giles, though, Greene’s FIP is a little north of 3.00. But Greene at this writing has a 4.0 K/BB ratio and leads the American League with nineteen saves, and his 9.0 K/9 rate still makes him a catch.

The Nat’chl Blues Dept.—Like the Mets, the Nationals entered the season viewed as one of four National League East contenders. Like the Mets, the Nats are on the brink of fading away from that. And, like the Mets, the Nats have pieces they might be willing to move. Might. The nuggets: Anthony Rendon, their best position player still and a free agent after the season; and, Sean Doolittle, the only true decently consistent option in their inconsistent bullpen. But Howie Kendrick is also having a splendid season. If the Nats decide to sell, watch those three names.

Hot Seven Dept.—Nothing to do with Louis Armstrong, alas. Like the Nats, nobody knows just yet if the Reds might hang up the for-sale signs. But if they do, they’ve got seven men who become free agents at season’s end: Zach Duke, Scooter Gennett, David Hernandez, Jose Iglesias, Yasiel Puig, Tanner Roark, and Alex Wood. (With Wood, of course, it depends on his health.) For now, just watch. For now.

 

Even doing right can be turned wrong

2019-05-22 RajaiDavis

Can’t find the ballpark, get there in the third, can’t find the clubhouse, don’t see the boss until the fifth—that’s how you pinch hit a three-run homer in the eighth, folks . . .

There are few feelings in baseball worse than making the right move that gets blown up in your face. Especially when you have the league’s shakiest bullpen other than your closer. And you’re thought to be in a seat almost as hot as the one your counterpart in the other Citi Field dugout was thought to occupy.

Unless it’s watching your one genuinely reliable relief stopper surrender a three-run double and a three-run homer within two blinks. The latter hit by a veteran recalled from the minors who almost couldn’t find his way to the park or to his clubhouse.

Dave Martinez’s seat may have gone from toast temperature to broiler in one terrible eighth inning Wednesday night, and he had nobody in the mirror to blame this time. The Mets—including a former World Series almost-hero who couldn’t find Citi Field itself until about the third inning—took care of that with a six-run eighth and a 6-1 win and an omelette all over Martinez’s face.

And Rajai Davis, who was once an Indians icon for tying a seventh World Series game with a mammoth two-run homer, must feel like there was an angel on his shoulder after he could have spent the first night of his new promotion in the proverbial doghouse.

“I was trying to stay short to the ball,” Davis said after he hit a three-run homer to finish the six-run eighth. If he hadn’t, it’s not impossible that his stay as a Met could have ended up a long walk off the shortiest pier along the Gowanus Canal.

Martinez didn’t want to ask Sean Doolittle for a six-out save even though Doolittle is maybe the only Nats relief pitcher this year who refuses to leave himself at the mercy of an opposing lineup. Even with a 1-0 lead as the inning began.

Even with that lead earned the hard way, with the previous two seasons’ Cy Young Award winners, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, dueling hard, fighting through less than their best, and battling despite a plate umpire with an incredibly changing-on-a-dime strike zone that had both pitchers and about half of each side’s hitters fuming.

Martinez opened the Mets’ eighth with Kyle Barraclough. Having two outs but a man on second wasn’t Barraclough’s fault, since in between the outs Mets second baseman Adeiny Hechavarria—in the game after Robinson Cano strained a quad muscle on a baserunning play—shot one high toward the left center field wall on which, inexplicably, both Nats center fielder Victor Robles and left fielder Juan Soto pulled up short, allowing a catchable ball to hit the wall.

Then Barraclough walked Mets third baseman Todd Frazier on four pitches. With two out and the Nats still up by the sole previous run—a first-inning homer by Adam Eaton—Martinez took no more chances. He reached for Doolittle. He had every reason on earth to have faith in Doolittle.

He had no reason to believe Doolittle would hit Carlos Gomez on the first pitch to set the ducks on the pond, right off the elbow guard with a wicked ricochet. He had no reason to believe that Juan Lagares would clear the pond with a drive into the left center field gap. And he had no reason to believe putting late Mets catching insertion Wilson Ramos aboard to get to ancient Davis would telegraph disaster.

Davis signed a minor league deal with the Mets last December and was toiling on their Syracuse farm when Brandon Nimmo hit the injured list and Davis got the call. His age caught up to him in earnest, alas, little by little, after he became an Indians legend by taking Aroldis Chapman deep to tie Game Seven of the 2016 World Series.

When he arrived in New York Wednesday, the 38-year-old Davis had a hard time finding both the ballpark and the Mets’ clubhouse. He didn’t even meet his new skipper Mickey Callaway—the pitching coach for those 2016 Indians—until the fifth inning. Yes, that’s so Mets.

Naturally, then, Davis got the call to bat in the eighth. That, too, is just so Mets. And he fought Doolittle to a ninth pitch on a 2-2 count after several lofty foul offs. Then came pitch nine, the ninth straight fastball of the sequence. And Davis drilled it over the left field fence. There’s nothing like a howitzer shot for three runs to get you off the hook for failing to have your GPS calibrated properly on the first day of your new promotion.

Out in the Mets bullpen, a fully warmed-up Edwin Diaz suddenly knew he’d get the night off, and Tyler Bashlor shook off a one-out single by Juan Soto to strike Matt Adams out and lure Kurt Suzuki into a game-ending force.

Martinez may have had his issues with game tactics and resource management in his first two seasons on the Nats’ bridge, but this one wasn’t on him. He didn’t build this Nats bullpen, and it wasn’t his idea to enter tonight’s game with his pen brandishing a collective ERA over six going in.

If he couldn’t bring himself to ask Doolittle for six outs at least he was sharp enough to know his best chance to keep that 1-0 lead in the Nats’ harried hands was to bring his lefthander in for four outs.

If neither Scherzer nor deGrom expected to have to have a psychological wrestling match with plate umpire Ryan Blakney until they each came out of the game, Doolittle didn’t exactly go to the mound looking to hand Gomez first on the house, never mind a pair of bases-emptying drives that handed him his head on the proverbial plate.

All Nats fans know is someone got some splainin’ to do. Good luck trying to explain Wednesday night’s inexplicable. I’m not even sure the Mets can explain their part in it, and they were the ones doing it.