Stick this!

Joe Musgrove

Lend Me Your Ear Dept.: Having the umps check Joe Musgrove (second from left) for new old-fashioned medicated goo on his ears and elsewhere looked like desperation from Buck Showalter as Musgrove and the Padres bumped the Mets to an early winter vacation Sunday night.

Few things in this world are as profound as the wrench that happens when an individual resembles a genius one night and a fool the next. Unless it’s when a team resembles a well-lubricated Porsche one night and a two-stroke Trabant the next.

That wrench sent Buck Showalter and his Mets home for the winter after they played a Saturday and Sunday that put their entire season into microcosm. Including the re-exposure of the lacking that turned them from National League East dominators to division sliders finally settling for second best after a self-deflating previous weekend in Atlanta.

It also sent Showalter from being the skipper with the nerve to throw The Book to one side, and his best relief pitcher into the game when its “save situation” presented itself earlier than the ninth inning, to the one who thought a too-little/too-late gamesmanship exercise might knock the Padres off their game slightly more than mid-way through.

That was when the Padres didn’t expose it for them. The Mets’ few lackings this year included offensive depth past the middle of the batting order. The Padres out-lasted them in this wild card series when the lower end of their order suddenly figured out how to hunt, peck, hector, pester, and puncture.

The Padres didn’t lack for issues all year, either, but they rode Joe Musgrove and two relievers to a 6-0 Game Three one-hit shutout, on a night Musgrove simply fed the Mets things they could only hit with moderate contact to Padre defenders on red alert. The nearest Musgrove came to disaster was when Mark Canha sent one deep enough to right center field to send Trent Grisham crashing into the wall after he caught the drive with only inches to spare.

The Mets might have loved nothing more than the crash actually yanking Grisham out of the game. All series long he’d gone from the nothing-special regular season element, whose seventeen home runs didn’t negate puny plate performance papers otherwise, into a 1.917 wild card series OPS. His Real Batting Average on the season: .422. His RBA in the wild card set: 1.167.

The only thing better than moving Grisham to one side for the Mets would have been ridding themselves of Musgrove, who pitched the first no-hitter in Padres history in April and pitched Sunday night as though he’d made the Mets into the classic cartoon volunteers for a cartoon magician’s guaranteed-to-embarrass magic tricks.

Showalter thought he might do what his batters couldn’t entering the bottom of the sixth. He ambled out of the Mets dugout and asked Alfonso Marquez’s umpiring crew to check Musgrove for, shall we say, that new good-old-fashioned medicated goo. Marquez delivered the message to a slightly flustered Musgrove promptly.

“He said, ‘Buck wants to take a look at your glove, your face, your hat, all that stuff’. I said: ‘You take what you want, man’,” Musgrove said postgame. The umpires took looks at all that stuff, including an almost comical-looking inspection of Musgrove’s admittedly shining ears and lobes.

What irked Showalter was information handed him that indicated the spinning rate on Musgrove’s pitches were higher Sunday evening than they were all season long. Baseball government’s obsession with foreign substances (Spider-Tack, et. al.) and lack of apparent concern for consistently made and grippable baseballs was bound to yield oddities but nothing quite like this until that moment.

“When you see something that jumps out at you . . . I get a lot of information in the dugout,” Showalter said postgame. “We certainly weren’t having much luck the way it was going. That’s for sure. But I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets. And however it might make me look or whatever, I’m gonna do that every time.”

“Was that what he did?” asked Padres third baseman Manny Machado, who had a respectable if not spectacular wild card series himself, who happened to be a measly three feet from Musgrove while the pitcher was being frisked, and who knows Showalter from playing for him as an Oriole. “I wasn’t sure. I mean, how many hits did Joe give up? He gave up one hit? That’s pretty smart by them.”

Maybe not as smart as Machado charitably allowed. Showalter’s shortstop Francisco Lindor seemed uncertain himself. “There were some talks in the dugout,” he told reporters. “Buck made the decision to go check him. I respect that. I respect his decision. At the end of the day, hats off to Musgrove. He flat-out beat us.”

Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t find it that amusing. If anything, he found it a character assassination attempt. “The problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” he fumed. “Questioning his character, that’s the part I have a problem with and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is above board as any pitcher I know, any player I know, and unfortunately the reception he got after that was not warranted.”

That’s a reference to the Citi Field crowd chanting “Cheater, cheater!” at Musgrove post-check. Maybe the crowd became as desperate as Showalter’s sticky-stuff gambit made him look. Maybe they remembered Musgrove was a member of the 2017 Astros whose sign-stealing operation leaves that triumph suspect for all time, even though the pitchers had nothing to do with it. Maybe they forgot Musgrove admits to being embarrased to wear his ’17 Series ring because of his then-team’s shenanigans.

They certainly didn’t consider that the guy from El Cajon which is a very brief commute from San Diego, the guy who grew up rooting for the Padres, was a guy who took the mound amped up with thoughts that he really was living the dream, handed the ball in a Padres uniform on the most important night of his life to date.

“I dove into the fact that we got all the fans in San Diego waiting for this moment,” Musgrove said. “The girlfriends and wives here. The fan base that followed us from San Diego, and I tried to put that on my shoulders and carry.” That fan base had a contingency enough in Citi Field Sunday night that you could hear the “Beat L.A.!” chants as the game neared the finish.

The only question for these Padres now is whether they can and will beat the ogres of the National League West awaiting them in a division series come Tuesday night. They survived the loss of Fernando Tatis, Jr. to a shoulder injury and then a suspension over actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. It doesn’t mean they’ll survive the Dodgers. But they may not make it that simple, either.

There’s no “only” question for these Mets entering their long winter.

Sunday starter Chris Bassitt embarrassed himself. It only began when Bassitt loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the second before another of the Padres’ final third in the order, catcher Austin Nola, swatted a two-run single . . . on 0-2.

“I was just beating myself,” he said honestly of his four-inning performance. “Looking back at the Atlanta start, I’m not sure how many runs they scored on walks, and then tonight I know they scored two guys on walks. Not too proud of that.”

It was the last thing Bassitt needed with free agency looming for him. He’s not the only one in that position. Saturday’s pitching heroes, starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Díaz, face free agency, too: deGrom by way of exercising his contract opt-out, Díaz by the expiration of a deal that once looked like a franchise embarrassment before he corrected himself and went from nothing like Seattle to this season’s never-better performance papers.

Brandon Nimmo, one of three Mets to acquit himself series-long at the plate, also faces free agency, as do pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Trevor Williams. General manager Billy Eppler, who looked like a genius last winter in signing or acquiring Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardor Escobar, Bassitt, and Canha, doesn’t look so sharp for not having made a trade deadline fortification move even rummaging an admittedly thin trading floor.

And the Mets don’t look so smart for having built themselves so surely around deGrom and Scherzer they failed to have a consistent rotation behind that pair when their health faltered. Scherzer still looked ailing from his season-long oblique trouble when he was battered in the first wild card set game. DeGrom pitched just enough to his standard to give the Mets room for their Saturday night special.

But the lack of offensive depth behind Marte, Pete Alonso, Nimmo, and NL batting average champ Jeff McNeil burned them, too. When Marte was lost from earliest September through the start of the wild card set with a finger fracture, that lack behind the remaining three bit the Mets where it really hurt. The team on-base percentage for the set was a weak .283.

And with Max the Knifed on Friday, plus Marte playing the wild card set despite the lingering finger issue, the Mets’ health maintenance may need yet another review and remake.

None of which will dissolve the sting of their Sunday embarrassment. The Padres didn’t bomb the Mets into submission Sunday night, they just pecked, poked, prodded, and pushed on a night the Mets had no answer for Musgrove other than one desperation gambit.

The night before, Showalter resembled a prudent man who learned a hard lesson for bringing in Díaz—his and the league’s best closer on the season—in the seventh when the save situation was then and not the ninth. Sunday night, Showalter resembled a flailing  man overboard who’d take an anchor for a life preserver.

“Let me phrase this the right way,” said Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, not doing these games since ESPN carried them but appearing on an SNY postgame show.

Buck Showalter is completely in his rights to ask the umpires to check a pitcher for foreign substances. It’s up to umpires then to decide whether it’s an appropriate thing to do. I thought that considering the circumstances, 4-0, sixth inning, season on the line, it smacked of desperation and it was fairly embarrassing I thought for Buck to do that in that spot. It was not necessary. As it turned out, Musgrove was not cheating. If you’re going to pull a stunt like that, you better be right and Buck wasn’t right.

Lucky for Showalter that he doesn’t believe he’s too old to learn. We’ll to learn soon enough what he learned from this weekend that might do him right in managing a team that may yet have a different enough look next year than the one he almost led deeper into this postseason.

Dear Joe and Jane Cyberjerk

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Not even facing questions squarely after Tuesday night’s disaster prevented Trent Grisham from Joe and Jane Cyberjerk’s vulgar and witless wrath.

Now that I think about it, it’s a bloody good thing Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Mickey Owen, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Leon Durham, Don Denkinger, Donnie Moore, Bill Buckner, and Mitch Williams didn’t live in the cyberspace era. Not to mention too many Cubs, Red Sox, Phillies, and St. Louis Browns.

At least they had to wait for the next newspaper editions to suffer the sewage thrown their way for committing their immortal sins. They didn’t have Twitter feeds or Internet forums to explode with the sort of insults that would have been considered obscene in Larry Flynt’s playroom.

Trent Grisham doesn’t have their temporary luxury. And if Joe and Jane Cyberjerk had their way, the only luxury he’d have would be a coffin, the sooner the better. Just look him up on Twitter. At the minute I sat down to write the cyberjerks didn’t quite out-number those looking to give the Brewers’ rookie a hug, but they were as nasty as the year is long and Grisham’s off-season will be longer.

The goat business still does booming business even though it should have long, long gone the way of the buggy whip, the stove iron, and the autogyro. Maybe there’s no point asking when they’ll ever learn. Two more laws of sports remain impervious to sense: 1) Somebody has to lose. 2) Too many people think losing a game equals moral failure, if not terpitude.

All Grisham did with the Nats having the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the eighth was scamper in from deep positioning in right field, get his glove down to cut off Juan Soto’s frozen rope single, and watch the ball skip to his right unexpectedly and behind him, ending any prayer he had of keeping the Nats from doing anything worse than tying the National League wild card game.

He didn’t start the Civil War or leave Mrs. Lincoln to answer questions about the play. He didn’t lead the Sand Creek massacre, sink the Titanic, assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, start the Chicago Fire, order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, or found the Soviet Empire. He didn’t bomb Pearl Harbour, plot the Holocaust, or build the Edsel. He didn’t assassinate two Kennedys, a King, or a Beatle, blow up the Challenger, shoot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, level the World Trade Center, or create New Coke, either.

So tell us, Joe and Jane Cyberjerk. Be honest for once. And can it with the “my five year old would have come up with that ball!” crapola, while you’re at it. That theme’s been beaten to death and back more than a bazillion times. Even the simplest plays turn rotten through no fault of a human’s own. And you don’t know whether your five year old would have come up with Soto’s single.

Now tell us: Would you have been willing to go to work in front of 55,000 people right there in your office, and a few million more watching you on the flat screen, or listening on the radio, and take the risk that one errant baseball skipping away from your properly positioned glove in right field would ruin your day? If not your team’s? Your year? And several more to come?

I didn’t think so.

There isn’t a baseball team alive or dead that failed to understand that nothing’s guaranteed even when you’re strong enough to guarantee it. The biggest braggarts the game’s ever known know in their heart of guts that the minute the umpire hollers “Play ball!” all bets are off, all boasts are void, and from the first pitch to the final out nothing’s given except that someone wins, someone loses, and anything can happen in between—and often does.

Bigger game than Merkle, Lindstrom, Lombardi, Owen, Branca, Mauch, Durham, Denkinger, Moore, Buckner, and Williams have come up fatefully short on the game’s biggest days and nights.

Or did you forget Babe Ruth being foolish enough to try stealing second with the Yankees down to their final out of the 1926 World Series but with Bob Meusel at the plate and Lou Gehrig on deck?

Did you forget Robin Roberts missing a pickoff sign and throwing right down the pipe to Duke Snider, his kishkes saved when Richie Ashburn playing shallow nailed Cal Abrams at the plate, letting the Phillies’ 1950 Whiz Kids live long enough for Dick Sisler to hit the pennant-winning home run?

Did you forget Willie McCovey hitting a speeding bullet of a line drive that would have blown anyone else’s brains out but somehow caught Bobby Richardson with a bulletproof vest (well, glove) ending the 1962 World Series?

Did you forget Carl Yastrzemski popping out against Goose Gossage with two on despite the chance to yank the Red Sox back from the dead instead of ending the 1978 American League East tiebreaker game?

Did you forget Tommy Lasorda thought it was secure to let a relief pitcher pitch to Jack (The Ripper) Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from the 1985 World Series, only to watch Clark hit a glandular three-run homer and the Dodgers have no answer in the bottom of the last?

Did you forget Dennis Eckersley hanging a slider to Kirk Gibson to end Game One of the 1988 World Series?

Did you forget Mariano Rivera throwing Luis Gonzalez the one cutter that didn’t cut but did cut the Yankees down for keeps in the 2001 World Series? Or having no answer when Dave Roberts broke for second with the Red Sox three outs from being swept out of the 2004 American League Championship Series?

Maybe only Hall of Famers have any business coming up short in the biggest hours. One and all of the foregoing errant Hall of Famers were allowed to go forward with their Cooperstown careers. Except that they weren’t yet Hall of Famers when those horrors beset them.

Or maybe Ruth, Yastrzemski, Lasorda, Eckersley, and Rivera had a license to shake it off because they’d been there, done that on the big stages.

Maybe rookie outfielders who enter a wild card game after committing no errors in 70 outfield chances during 42 regular-season games don’t have any business getting a glove down only to see the ball behave like a Super Ball for a split second and escape like Bugs Bunny outwitting the witless Elmer Fudd yet again.

Maybe they make it too easy to forget relief pitchers brought in to shoot for six-out saves but having enough less of their usual command to load the pillows for the Sotos in the first place. Lucky for Josh Hader. His pleading Tuesday night’s disaster was on him wasn’t half as much fun as sending Grisham to the stockade.

Or maybe Thomas Boswell was right thirty years ago, lamenting Donnie Moore’s suicide, when he wrote, “The reason we don’t forgive you is that there’s nothing to forgive.” And maybe Joe and Jane Cyberjerk picked the wrong day to miss their second grade teacher’s having that in her lesson plan.

Almost to a one, Grisham’s Brewers teammates got to him as fast as they could in the Nationals Park visitors’ clubhouse and let him know they had his back. Grisham himself made it even easier. He didn’t flinch from even the most ridiculous questions after the game. He answered honestly, candidly, making no attempt to blame anyone else or anything else. Obviously he wasn’t raised to become an American politician.

For that his Wikipedia page got vandalised, too. It only began with inserting parenthetically, next to his name, “AKA ‘Bill Buckner’ and ‘Helen Keller Player of the Year’.” How about awarding Joe and Jane Cyberjerk the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary?

Dancing Nats skip to a division series

2019-10-01 TrentGrisham

It was Trent Grisham’s first error of the season. After 70 flawless chances in 42 major league games.

The Nationals had the plan for the National League wild card game. Max Scherzer would start. All hands would be on deck in the pen including Stephen Strasburg in case Scherzer got into hot water, and Patrick Corbin in case Strasburg fell into the soup.

It’d be their big rotation guns against the Brewers’ bullpenning game. With Christian Yelich out of the picture thanks to that busted kneecap, the Brewers would be short of power while the Nats would abound with it. Right?

It wasn’t in the plans for Scherzer to get taken deep early before settling in. Or, for the Nats to take a three-run deficit into the bottom of the eighth, have to tangle with the Brewers’ best bullpen arm, Josh Hader, and turn it into a one-run lead on a misplayed, bases-loaded, bases-clearing single. By a rookie right fielder who hadn’t committed an error on 70 chances in 42 previous major league games in the outfield. Right?

Oh, sure, they planned that Juan Soto, the boy wonder, would be one of the big men in the absolute clutch. So does every Nats fan and observer. Even on a night when it began to look as though the Nats began thinking the clutch was something you had to pump in an ancient car.

They just didn’t imagine Soto would whack the line single that sent the Brewers home for the winter, 4-3. Any more than the Brewers imagined right fielder Trent Grisham, though playing deep, wouldn’t be able to come up with the ball and keep the Nats to maybe a single run on the play. Any more than Grisham could imagine being a postseason hero in the first inning and a postseason victim in the eighth.

But it wasn’t in Grisham’s plans, either, to see the ball take a bizarre little skip under his glove and off to his right as he hustled forward and extended his glove down to take the likely hop. He reached to good position, then he saw the horrific skip away. Just like Leon Durham did in the 1984 National League Championship Series. Just like Bill Buckner did in the 1986 World Series.

Even as he retrieved the ball to start the rundown play that nailed Soto for the third out, Grisham would be forgiven if he wanted to lift up the Nationals Park right field grass, crawl under it, and leave behind nothing but a sign saying do not open until spring training.

He didn’t do that, but he did stand up and fess up to a rookie mistake. “I was getting ready to throw to home,” he said after the game. “Came in off-balance, it took a little funky hop on me because I came in off-balance. I didn’t really gather myself and the ball got by me.”

Said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “The inning was an ugly inning. Crazy things happen.”

To think the Dancing Nats, whose celebratory dugout rug cutting after big hits has become their season’s trademark, skip on to a division series date with the Dodgers. Crazy things, indeed.

Certainly it wasn’t in the Brewers’ plans to have no further solution for Scherzer as he shook off the early-inning bombs, or Strasburg as he flicked any hints of mischief away like annoying mosquitoes, or Daniel Hudson off whom they got nothing but a one-out single in the top of the ninth before a fly out to center sent the Nats Park crowd nuclear.

Apologies, John Lennon, wherever you are. Baseball is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, too.

Just like that, the Brewers’ heroic late September driving despite losing Yelich—playing like a threshing machine bound to overcome the imploding Cubs, getting about as close as the thickness of a sheet of paper to snatching the National League Central—meant nothing but getting the chance to let a game they almost had in the vault slip to the Nats.

“We finally caught a break,” said Scherzer, knowing only too well the Nats’ previous futility in winner-take-all games. “Man, this is so good for this city, and the team, and this organisation. It’s getting the monkey off your back. It gives you a reason to believe.”

For Grisham, by his own admission, the eighth inning is “gonna sting. It’s gonna sting for a long time.” His teammates did their best to remove the sting, he said, with plenty of words of encouragement and assurances that they might not have reached even the wild card game without him.

“I can take solace in what a lot of these guys said to me, especially a lot of the older veteran guys,” Grisham continued, talking to reporters after changing clothes, his voice calm, his manner matter-of-fact. “I have a lot of faith in them and trust what they said to me . . . I just ended up making an error. It’s not my first, and it’s not going to be my last.”

Remember his composure facing up to it after the wild card game. It was worth more than any brickbat heartsick Brewers fans are liable to swing in his direction. Remember that when men young or old try their best and fail, that’s all it is. Failure isn’t pretty but it isn’t a moral or character lapse.

The Nats didn’t expect Scherzer to get into hot water right out of the chute. They got the Brewers leading the majors in walks, but they didn’t expect Mad Max to walk Grisham on 3-2 to open the game before former Dodger Yasmani Grandal hit one into the Nats’ bullpen in right to end a six-pitch battle.

And they sure didn’t expect Eric Thames to open the top of the second defying the scouting reports—which command he be fed a diet of off-speed pitches to keep him from making mischief—and sending the second of Scherzer’s two straight curve balls over the right center field fence.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your hat and move on,” said Scherzer after the game.

Their only answer for long enough was Trea Turner with two outs in the bottom of the third, sending Brewers starter Brandon Workman’s only serious mistake of the evening into the left field seats. And after five innings’ and six strikeouts worth of work, plus a bottom of the fifth in which the Nats put two on and abandoned them, exit Scherzer and enter Strasburg. And Strasburg worked three mostly effortless innings, striking out four.

Effortless enough that the Dodgers may not get to wait as long as they’d prefer to deal with him in the division series, perhaps as soon as Game Two. With Corbin prepared to open against them. And Scherzer in Game Three on regular rest. (Memo to the Dodgers: Be careful what you plan for.)

The Brewers sent their vaunted enough bullpen out to continue nullifying the Nats. And for most of the game the Nats looked as though they were putting good at-bats together but spoiling them by seeming often as not to try to hit six-run homers with key swings.

Then the game got to Hader, who’s normally about as welcome out of the Brewers bullpen for his opponents as a case of hiccups is to a glass blower. And when he opened the bottom of the eighth by striking Victor Robles out after first falling behind 2-0, it began to look as though the Brewers had figured out every known escape hatch to use against the Nats.

Except that Hader’s pitch command looked suspect enough. And proved suspect enough when Michael A. Taylor pinch hit for Strasburg, worked his way to a full count, then got hit by a pitch. No, he didn’t. The ball hit the bat knob. No, it didn’t. Actually, it clipped Taylor’s hand and the bat knob. And in that nanosecond order. The review took a few minutes but the hit batsman call stood.

It may yet stand as the single most powerful plunk of all time.

At first it looked like it might end up otherwise, though, when Hader struck Turner out swinging. Then Ryan Zimmerman, the Nats’ elder statesman, who’d like to play one more season even as a role player, pinch hit for Adam Eaton, who’d been 0-for-3 on the night. The elder slashed a single right up the pipe for first and second. And Anthony Rendon, to the shower of a rollicking “M-V-P!” chant down from the stands, wrestled his way into a full-count walk.

Then it was Soto. With a foul off to open. Ball one far enough outside for a Washington Metro train to pass without bumping anything on either side. Then, the line drive that ducked and eluded the hapless Grisham’s glove. And ended up putting paid to the Brewers’ 2019.

Before the Brewers and the Nats suited up Tuesday night, Yelich actually let it be known he was half hoping for a shot at a World Series moment like Kirk Gibson’s in the 1988 World Series. The broken battler willing himself to one big swing where it mattered most and hurt the other guys most.

Just the way Gibson willed himself to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth of Game One, sent Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s hanging slider into the right field bullpen to win it, and pumped his right arm and fist more to urge a body that belonged in traction around the bases than to celebrate.

“I’ve seen it, yeah,” Yelich said. “I wouldn’t even be capable of doing that kind of run right now. We’re a long, long, long ways away from that happening, but you never like to rule anything out.”

Having fought so tenaciously after losing Yelich to get to Tuesday night in the first place, the Brewers didn’t exactly like having their postseason ruled out too soon, either. And, having fought back from an early 19-31 plotz that threatened to lay their season almost entirely to waste, these Nats didn’t intend for their postseason to be ruled out too soon, either.