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.

 

“#L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets]?”

2019-08-14 SunTrustPark

Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park Wednesday night, shortly after scheduled game time–but not a Mets disaster— was delayed.

Rain and the look of a storm of doom over Atlanta’s Sun Trust Park delayed game time between the Mets and the Braves by about an hour and a half Wednesday night. By the time the game ended, traveling Mets fans in the ballpark must have wondered if that storm-of-doom look was really an omen of doom.

For the Mets.

If the Mets’ post All-Star break surge and swath turns into disaster the rest of the way, their faithful are liable to look back to the bottom of the seventh Wednesday night. And ask themselves how often even the most heads-up rookies make the kind of rookie mistakes that prove to deflate the re-aspiring.

The kind that turn a two-all tie early in the bottom of the seventh into the open door through which the Braves finally finished a five-run inning that may have had even them wondering whether they were really there even if they were the beneficiaries.

The kind Pete Alonso, to this point a solid Rookie of the Year candidate, including normally steady and heads-up play at first base, instigated when he ran so wide of first to try for a grounder that had “second baseman” clearly in its destination window that it turned into an RBI single. When nobody was left to cover first on the play on which Alonso should likely have stayed in his proper position.

The kind that serve as a prelude to the Braves gifting the Mets the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth, after the Mets scratched their way back to a two-run deficit, and the Mets looking the proverbial gift horse not just in the mouth but all the way down the creature’s throat.

The kind that clear a path to a 6-4 loss that stands an excellent chance of entering Mets lore on the wrong side of the ledger, because it’s the kind of loss that can and often enough does turn what had been baseball’s hottest team until arriving in Atlanta into a collapsing bubble.

Alonso made a plain rookie mistake. It invited more than just a single inning five spot against the Mets. It invited serious thinking as to whether these Mets, as plucky and as willful and as tenacious as they’d been before they arrived in Atlanta this week, played too far over their own heads since the All-Star break to think of any kind of serious contention until next year.

And it was the last thing the Mets needed after learning their top-of-the-order ignition switch, Jeff McNeil, hit the ten day injured list with a left hamstring strain.

With the tying run already home against Mets reliever Seth Lugo and the bases still loaded, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers grounded one toward second. Alonso may have taken a couple of cheat steps to his right at the moment of contact, but the ball headed just too clearly toward Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada.

Alonso still scrambled to his right furiously. And the ball scrambled right past his downstretched glove. And Lugo at the mound may have been caught completely flatfoot by Alonso scrambling for a ball he really had no business trying to play. Tejada would have such a simpler grab that, in proper position, Alonso could have taken the throw for the out at first and thrown home to get Braves left fielder Adam Duvall.

And with Lugo not even close to covering first on a play where he shouldn’t have had to think about it, Tejada did grab the ball after Alonso’s staggering miss. With no place to throw. With Duvall scoring safely and the Atlanta ducks still on the pond.

Then pinch hitter Matt Joyce lined one that Mets right fielder Michael Conforto almost reached before it hit the grass, Conforto having to settle for a sliding short-hop pick and a throw in to get Flowers at second while Johan Camargo scored. And Ronald Acuna, Jr. singled to right center to send Ender Inciarte home and Lugo out of the game in favour of Luis Avilan.

Ozzie Albies greeted him with sixth single of the inning before Avilan got Freddie Freeman to hit into a step-and-throw inning-ending double play.

Too little, too late.

Or was it? After wasting Steven Matz’s solid start against a surprisingly stingy Dallas Keuchel, the Mets found themselves pushing reliever Mark Melancon and the Braves up against the wall in the top of the ninth.

Lagares rapped a one-out single and Joe Panik pinch hitting doubled to shallow left. Amed Rosario singled Lagares home and pinch hitter Luis Guillorme singled Panik home. And up stepped Alonso in desperate need of redeeming himself and his terrible miscue.

He rapped a bouncer toward second, where Albies threw it inside-out to Camargo coming over from shortstop. Camargo caught the ball as Guillorme arrived sliding but—as replays and review showed, strangely enough—Camargo began transferring the ball out of his glove a split moment before his foot touched the base, and he couldn’t hold the ball in his throwing hand, the ball bumping and grinding away from him.

The review overturned the original out call at second. The Mets were just handed the bases loaded and only one out. A base hit was liable to tie the game; an extra-base hit liable to give the Mets a one-run lead at minimum.

But Wilson Ramos struck out swinging on a Melancon curve ball that dove like a fighter plane shot down. And Braves manager Brian Snitker brought in a lefthanded former Met, Jerry Blevins, to work to lefthanded incumbent Met Michael Conforto.

First Conforto missed hammering Blevins’s opening fastball for a grand slam by a couple of feet wide of the right field foul pole. Then, Conforto fouled off a curve ball. Then, he swung on and missed a curve ball.

Even Mets manager Mickey Callaway’s decision to lift Matz when the Mets wrested a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh—after Matz himself hit a two-out single and scored the first of two tiebreaking runs on J.D. Davis’s single up the pipe—won’t be second guessed as heavily as Alonso might be for hustling himself into such a mishap instead of standing his ground and waiting for the putout that might have changed the inning tone. Might.

It’s hard enough when you run yourself into a fateful fielding mistake while in proper position. It’s worse when it happens as you’re scrambling and rambling too far out of position. And don’t ask about when you subsequently scratch, claw, burrow, and shovel your way back to within a pair of runs and ducks on the pond with one out in the ninth, and come up with the ducks quacking fowl over abandonment.

It’s worse to think that Alonso, the rookie who’s been so magnificent for these Mets all year long, through the worst of times and the better of times alike, may yet be remembered the way Met fans remember David Cone leaving the Dodgers bulletin board fodder in the 1988 National League Championship Series.

Or, Kenny Rogers walking home the pennant-losing run in the 1999 National League Championship Series.

Or, Carlos Beltran frozen by strike three to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

Or, Hall of Famer Tom Glavine battered on the final day to secure their fall out of the 2007 postseason.

Or, Lucas Duda, with the easiest chance on earth, throwing home offline in the top of the ninth of Game Five, 2015 World Series.

Men who had done well enough or better as Mets only to come up, despite careers ranging from modest to good to great to the Hall of Fame, like enough 20th Century (and one or two 21st Century) Cubs and Red Sox to start writing their own snakebite history.

This year’s Mets continue learning the hard way that they can’t win everything at the last minute, or even the next-to-last minute. Alonso’s own rally hashtag, #LFGM, may have begun turning from “L[et’s]F[ornicating]G[o]M[ets!]!” to “L[et’s]F[or]G[et]M[ets!]”

It may take a radical intervention to get the Mets into crisis addiction recovery, after all. And by that time it may yet be too little, too late, to save a season they looked as though they were turning into surrealistic redemption.