It’s deja vu all over again for the Mets

2020-07-24 YoenisCespedes

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.

 

The Mets simplify the hard way

2019-08-10 LuisGuillorme

Luis Guillorme defied his unimpressive rookie slash line to help stun the Nats Saturday night . . .

In ancient times Casey Stengel would see ancient Satchel Paige warming up in the enemy bullpen and exhort his Yankees, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming.” This weekend, the Nationals’ mantra could be, “Get your runs A.S.A.P. Father Time’s predictable compared to these Mets.”

But the Nats don’t really want to know from Father Time, who may be coming sooner than they’d care to know.

Not when they followed a last-minute 7-6 loss Friday night with a 4-3 loss in the next-to-last minute Saturday night. It wasn’t quite the cardiac arrest Friday night was, but it was still enough to tempt them to think of keeping crash carts on call.

Perhaps deploying one out of their bullpen. And another to their manager’s office.

Dave Martinez just didn’t have the heart, or whatever else needed, to send Hunter Strickland—his new bullpen toy, but not even a topic Friday night—out for the eighth inning after Strickland manhandled the Mets in the seventh. But Strickland is two weeks removed from returning from a lat strain that kept him down four months, and Martinez didn’t want to overtax him. Even though he looked smooth enough Saturday night.

This time, his assigned closer Sean Doolittle wasn’t even a topic. Not after the Mets bastinadoed him for four runs in the ninth to win from three runs down Friday night. This Saturday night topic was now Fernando Rodney, the elder, whose previous comparative success against the Mets was two seasons behind and barely visible in the rear view mirror.

But there was Rodney and his trademark, CC Sabathia-like lopsided hat to start the New York eighth. And leading off was a Met rookie, Luis Guillorme, who brought all of a .156/.182/.188 slash line to the plate batting for center fielder Juan Lagares. It should have been meat for Rodney. Instead, he was dead meat.

On a full count, during the making of which Guillorme didn’t even wave his bat, and Rodney didn’t even hint toward throwing the changeup that was once his money pitch and was still reasonably effective, Rodney served Guillorme a meatball. And Guillorme provided the sauce. He sent his first major league home run clean over the right field fence to tie things at three.

Then late-game Mets second base insertion Joe Panik grounded one to short. Sure-handed, sure-footed Nats shortstop Trea Turner had it just as surely. But first baseman Matt Adams mishandled his uncharacteristic low throw, leaving Panik safe to move to second on a followup single lined up the pipe by Jeff McNeil for his first hit of the weekend.

Out came Rodney. In came Daniel Hudson, who’d worked a near-effortless eighth on Friday night. And, after Amed Rosario’s hard grounder pushed the runners to second and third, Pete Alonso checked in at the plate.

The Nats optimist said, we’ll have none of that nonsense this time around. That nonsense, of course, being Alonso drilling Stephen Strasburg for a two-run blast in the fourth Friday night.

The Nats realist said, pick your poison, Davey. Because putting Alonso on to load the pads meant facing J.D. Davis—who’d followed Alonso’s Friday night flog with his own game-tying solo jack in that same fourth. And, who hit one of two consecutive solo bombs in the Saturday night fourth, birthday boy (and former Nat) Wilson Ramos hitting the second of them to tie this game at two.

So Martinez picked Davis. The good news: this time, Davis didn’t reach the seats. The bad news: His fly to right was long and deep enough to send Panik home with what proved the winning run.

And if Martinez couldn’t bear to send Strickland out for a second inning’s work in the bottom of the eighth, Mets manager Mickey Callaway wasn’t as nervous as you might think about sending Seth Lugo out for a second inning’s work in the top of the ninth.

Lugo may have had command issues in the top of the eighth, magnified when Juan Soto hit his second homer of the night, a mammoth drive into the second deck in right, to put the Nats back ahead 3-2. But Callaway gambled that that was just Lugo getting really warmed up. He also wasn’t entirely sure about trusting Edwin Diaz, who’d warmed up during the eighth.

So Lugo, named the National League’s relief pitcher of the month for July, went out for the ninth. Noisy Citi Field and edgy Nats Nation, wherever they were, said their prayers accordingly.

But former Met Asdrubal Cabrera lined out to right.

And Victor Robles looked at strike three on the outer edge, on a night plate umpire Tripp Gibson gave Nats and Mets pitchers alike a very generous outer strike zone.

Then Gerardo Parra—maybe the Nats’ best pinch hitter and bench representative, entering the game with a .319 career batting average against the Mets—batted for Nats catcher Yan Gomes.

And, after Parra fouled off a 3-1 service, Lugo caught him looking at strike three.

All of a sudden, Soto’s two-run homer off Mets starter Noah Syndergaard in the top of the first seemed a small memory to plague Mets fans. Just the way Davis and Ramos’s fourth-inning destruction (setting a new Mets team record for consecutive multiple homer games) seemed to Nats Nation after Soto teed off in the top of the eighth.

Once again, the Mets found a way, any way,  past or around the Nats’ effective starting pitchers, in Saturday night’s case Patrick Corbin. Once again, the Mets got into a bullpen whose 10.10 ERA against them entering Saturday night meant giving them at least one definite victim against who they could fire whatever bullets happened to be handy.

And once again, the Nats couldn’t find a way to make anything stick, even on a night Syndergaard had to shake off an early explosion and some early inconsistency to keep them off the scoreboard further for the rest of his seven innings’ work. Not even on a night when Corbin was mostly his calmly effective self through six.

The Nats compelled the Mets to do things the hard way, late but their bullpen, retooling and all, showed it still had major kinks to un-kink. But the Mets didn’t exactly seem to object to doing things the hard way. It’s coming easier for them that way.

Now, it may not be a question of whether these still-somewhat-flawed Mets can hang with the big boys yet. But it may be a question as to whether these Nats will hang. With the big boys, or at the end of their own noose.

Don’t blame or curse the writers, bros

2019-06-23 SethLugo

Seth Lugo, who shouldn’t have been left in to start the eighth Sunday, after surrendering Javier Baez’s difference-making three-run homer.

Maybe the most frequent refrain around last year’s Mets was Jacob deGrom pitching like a virtuoso but his team losing for him regardless. It didn’t stop him from winning a deserved Cy Young Award then. But it stopped him and the Mets from banking a badly-needed win in Wrigley Field Sunday afternoon.

And it threatened to turn into a rumble in the clubhouse jungle after the game, after manager Mickey Callaway heard one too many questions around the likely theme, “What on earth were you thinking or not thinking when you let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning when he didn’t exactly have even his C+ game to work with?”

Not to mention Mets pitcher Jason Vargas challenging Newsday writer Timothy Healey to a fight as the postgame interviews ended. “I’ll knock you the [fornicate] out, bro,” Vargas snapped, when Healey first stood his ground after Callaway demanded team public relations people escort him away.

A man who surrenders four earned runs in four and two thirds innings, as Vargas did Friday in a game the Mets hung in to win 5-4, should spend more time thinking about knocking hitters out at the plate than knocking reporters out for doing nothing more than, you know, their jobs.

Because there was deGrom Sunday afternoon, with a nine-strikeout, two-run, six-hit start, shaving another point or two off his ERA, his breaking balls coming out to play very nicely with others starting in the second, playing a little too nice for the Cubs’ comfort, mostly, and coming out after six innings with a 3-2 Mets lead.

And there was Lugo—arguably the Mets’ most reliable bullpen bull this year so far, after shaking away some early-season struggling—unexpectedly laboring through the seventh, though the box score by itself won’t show it. He needed ten pitches to surrender a leadoff single to Victor Caratini and six to coax pinch hitter Daniel Descalso into dialing Area Code 5-4-3 before getting Albert Almora, Jr. to ground out for the side.

Listen up. It wasn’t the writers who decided it was better to send a less-than-fully-armed Lugo out to pitch the eighth instead of opening with a fresher Robert Gsellman, who’d been loosening up during the seventh.

It wasn’t Healey who fed Kyle Schwarber a sixth-pitch hanger on which Lugo was lucky The Schwarbinator didn’t hit across the street but rather up the middle for a none-too-deep base hit. Or, who walked Anthony Rizzo on 3-1 after Kris Bryant flied out to center. Or, who had Javier Baez in the hole 0-2 before serving him a slider that slid insufficiently enough to be sent into the right field bleachers.

Goodbye, 3-2 Mets lead. Hello, 5-3 Cubs lead to stay, after Pedro Strop took care of Robinson Cano and Carlos Gomez on back-to-back swinging strikeouts before pinch hitter Dom Smith lined out to right for game and series split.

And, goodbye for the time being to the good feelings of Rookie of the Year candidate Peter Alonso busting the National League’s record for home runs before the All-Star break Saturday and becoming the Mets’ all-time rookie home run leader Sunday when he sent Cole Hamels’s changeup seven or eight rows into the left field bleachers in the top of the fourth, leading off and tying the game at one.

Not to mention Tomas Nido—the backup catcher who isn’t much at the plate but is valued because he works so well with deGrom in spite of Callaway’s insistence that not even a Cy Young Award winner should have a personal catcher—surprising one and all in the top of the fourth with a 1-0 rip into the center field bleachers to give the Mets the lead they’d expand when deGrom himself snuck an RBI single through the middle later in the inning.

What did Callaway, Vargas, and any other earthly or otherwise being in Mets silks think the writers were going to ask about after a loss like that? Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s performance leading the Wrigley faithful in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch?

Actually, the first subject was Edwin Diaz, the Mets’ closer. Why wasn’t Diaz considered for a five-out save at the earliest sign of eight-inning trouble? “Just because you think so?” Callaway retored to Yahoo! reporter Matt Ehalt, who asked the question. “Absolutely not. We have a very good plan, we know what we are doing and we’re going to stick to it.”

If that’s the case, why not send Gsellman out to work the eighth from the outset, since it wasn’t exactly hidden from plain sight that Lugo laboured through the seventh?

Then came the questions about Lugo starting the eighth, including from Healey, apparently, and then came the testiness from Callaway and, in time, Vargas, who needed Gomez and Noah Syndergaard to restrain him before Healey finally departed.

A manager who’s been considered on the hot seat over dubious in-game strategies and his bullpen management since just about the second week of the season is in no position to bark “Get this [maternal fornicator] out of the clubhouse” at anyone, never mind a reporter seeking clarification on the non-move that turned the game away from the Mets in the first place.

Callaway said he thought Healey was being sarcastic when saying “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” after the questionings ended. First the skipper told Healey not to be a smartass. Then came the expletives undeleted.

Healey tried to assure Callaway he wasn’t being sarcastic but Callaway wouldn’t quit. He said much later Sunday the testiness began with “See you tomorrow, Mickey,” a harmless pleasantry rendered unpleasant when Callaway snapped back with Vargas in earshot and, apparently staring at Healey for a considerable period. “(I) recalled asking him if everything was OK,” Healey said.

Apparently not. That was when Vargas threatened to knock Healey the [fornicate] out, bro. “[T]hen Vargas took a couple of steps toward me,” Healey said. “Some people said charged—charged is super-strong.”

Whether Healey was right or wrong, so long as he and the other writers in the postgame interviews weren’t insulting Callaway and Vargas and merely asking tough but reasonable questions about the critical moment in the Mets’ loss, Callaway and Vargas stepped over a line. Office holders holler “fake news” as much over reporting they simply don’t like as over false reporting. But even they’re not known customarily to throw obscenities in reporters’ faces under or after tough questioning. (We think.)

“No matter what the reporter did,” veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said, “this can’t happen . . . The problem is Mickey Callaway probably should’ve been fired a month ago . . . ever since, this has been lingering over this team . . . everybody is simply waiting.”

“While Callaway has never had an outburst like this before with a reporter, the second-year manager has pushed back when asked critical questions,” Ehalt himself wrote later Sunday. “Vargas had not had an incident like this with a Mets reporter since he joined the team last year.”

Diaz himself also urged someone, anyone, to get Healey out of the area, but apparently Diaz and other Mets feared the altercation getting even more serious. They had to be unnerved already by their manager and one of their pitchers jumping all over Healey as it was. Especially if it was as much out of character for Vargas as seems to be the case.

After Healey finally disappeared, some reporters lingered to talk to Diaz. Without incident, apparently. But these Mets are a tense outfit right now and may have been long before Sunday afternoon’s follies.

The bullpen new general manager Brodie Van Vagenen built for this season is mostly mis-built. Some of his acquisitions have misfired. Former closer Jeurys Familia, re-acquired for this season, has proven an arsonist as as a setup man. And veteran second baseman Robinson Cano looks too vividly like an aging imitation of the one-time star who parlayed his Yankee success into glandular dollars in Seattle from whom the Mets took him in the deal that made Diaz himself a Met.

Under criticism this year for periodic loafing, Cano looked even more so Sunday, on a second-inning grounder that turned into a too-easy step-and-throw double play. And he showed his age in the fourth, unable to throw on to first while in mid-leap over a slide at second, to finish a likely double play.

And, there are still the Wilpons in the executive command post still unable or (Met fans and some writers accuse) unwilling to overhaul the organisation and allow a sound balance between analytics and game sense to take hold.

The Mets are good at jumping to apologise for their manager’s and pitcher’s out-of-line behaviour toward the reporters doing nothing worse than being reporters. If Callaway, Vargas, and any other Mets really thought no one would ask about why Lugo was left in to work the eighth after he was—by his own admission—less than at full power in the seventh, the question becomes whom among these Mets still have their heads in the game.

The team didn’t need to apologise. It should have been the manager and the pitcher doing it. No matter how beleaguered they are in fact or in supposition, no matter how out of character it might have been, they behaved out of bounds.

Callaway looked at first like he’d survive the vote of confidence he got publicly after the Mets suffered a weekend bushwhacking by the Marlins last month. Now the Mets may yet end up having to apologise for having engaged a manager as far in over his head as Callaway seems increasingly to be.