Impatience is no virtue

2019-08-14 RonaldAcunaJr

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.

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.