Beltway bombshells—Soto, Mancini go west

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto is a young man going west to San Diego . . .

The Big One dropped, in both directions on opposite coasts. The Nationals, who’ve gone from surrealistic World Series champion and National League East powerhouse to hell in a little over two and a half years, traded what should have stayed a franchise foundation to the Padres, the National League West contenders who often enough mistake splash for sustenance.

Juan Soto goes West the day after it turned out he’d end his Nats tenure with a bang, throwing Tomas Nido out at the plate to keep the Mets to a mere three-run top of the second, and crunching his former teammate Max Scherzer’s 1-1 fastball for a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fourth en route a 7-3 loss to the Mets. It won’t make it easier for Nats fans to swallow this.

Soto became expendable when he turned down a $440 million extension that looked stupid-fat on paper while packaged to deny him the thing he wanted most. He wanted ten years and got them. He wanted the total dollars and got them. He didn’t get the highest annual average value the way the packaged was packed.

Maybe Soto was foolish taking the all-or-nothing stance. But maybe the Nats were just as foolish, with or without a pending potential ownership change, to decline making even that small enough adjustment. Standing just as all-or-nothing, with Soto not due to hit free agency for the first time until 2025, the Nats decided even the next Ted Williams was expendable.

Stop laughing at the Ted Williams comparisons. Only five hitters through age 23 have higher OPSes than Soto does: Williams, fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Stan Musial, and Hall of Famers to be Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. The order from the top is Williams, Cobb, Trout, Musial, and Pujols. His June slump leaves his season so far not quite as good as his priors, but rehorsing himself last month restored Soto on the way back where he belongs.

But if he had a fat enough hand in the Nats’ 2019 in-season resurrection from the outhouse to the Promised Land, will it be fat enough to push the Padres to the Promised Land at last? Baseball’s worst kept secret is that Padres general manager A.J. Preller has a genius for trades equal to Soto’s big swings and nothing much to show for them.

Oh, he’s managed to land some of the bigger fish on the trade market in exchange for high-rated prospects who haven’t yet returned to take a big bite out of his hind quarters for the most part—if you don’t count Trea Turner. (Nat turned Dodger.) But there’s always a real first time. Isn’t there?

He’s run the Padres eight seasons, delivered such blockbuster trade acquisitions, at the in-season deadline or the offseason, as Mike Clevinger, Jake Cronenworth, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, and Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres haven’t yet gone to any full-season postseason. (They reached the National League division series during pan-damn-ic short 2020.)

And he may be lucky that his incumbent first baseman Eric Hosmer declining to waive his no-trade clause to move to Washington didn’t kill the Soto deal. Hosmer has declined so precipitously since becoming a Padre as a free agent that, if Preller wants to get the rest of his due salary off the San Diego books, he’ll have to move yet another good prospect to do it if he finds a team willing to take Hosmer on.

Then, again, as USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale notes, Soto locked in through 2025 has another upside: in the unlikely event the Padres still can’t cross the threshold, Preller can still find a way to flip him on behalf of bringing other delicious-looking prospects back for a team and organisational renewal.

If there’s good news for the Nats, it’s getting five prospects in return for Soto and Josh Bell, with all five rated somewhat higher than the haul they took back from the Dodgers in exchange for Max the Knife and Trea Twinkletoes. But if there’s worse news for the Nats, it’s the number one problem with prospects: No matter how highly rated, they’re just prospects who might or might not cut it fully as Show players.

If they do cut it, it’ll take the sting out of losing a bona fide franchise player only if their cutting it turns into another world championship or two. If they don’t, this one’s liable to sting for Nats fans as long and as deep as such historically notorious purgings as Brock for Broglio, Ryan for Fregosi, Seaver for a quartet that sounds more like a law firm—Flynn, Henderson, Norman, and Zachry—than team reinforcements.

This wasn’t even the top deal of the day when it comes to breaking fan hearts. It’s not that Nat fans weren’t wringing hands and drying tears once they first knew Soto became expendable, but Oriole fans in the throes of seeing an unlikely revival enough to put the team right into the wild card hunt from almost out of nowhere hurt even more losing Trey Mancini.

Hours before Soto moved west, Mancini’s ticket to the Astros was punched in a three-way deal sending promising but inconsistent outfielder Jose Siri from the Astros to the Rays, pitcher Chayce McDermott from the Astros to the Orioles, and pitchers Jayden Murray and Seth Johnson from the Rays to the Orioles.

Trey Mancini

Trey Mancini tipping his cap to Oriole fans after what proved his final home game in Baltimore—he goes somewhat west now, to the Astros.

For Mancini it’s a terribly mixed blessing. One moment he goes from a home ballpark whose left field fence was moved back far enough to cut his power production at home to a ballpark with a short enough porch that he’d have hit over twice the ten bombs he has on the season so far. But he also says goodbye to a mutual love affair between himself and a city starving for the days when the Orioles were consistently great, year-after-year.

His agreeable personality and his courageous fight to beat colon cancer two years ago endeared him even further to Oriole fans than his live bat. As Baseball Prospectus observes, “Mancini . . . was the heart and soul of a franchise long depleted of either.”

The depletion may include Orioles general manager Mike Elias, who offered one of the most cacophonous explanations ever heard after a team struggling to return to greatness unloads a highly popular and franchise-valuable player:

The winning last couple of months that we have, the momentum we have, has made this a much more difficult decision and a much more complicated trade deadline than it would have been or that any of the past ones have been.But ultimately, I have to tether my decisions to the outlook and the probabilities of this year. We have a shot at a wild card right now but it is not a probability that we’re going to win a wild card.

Translation: In one deal and one bowl of word salad whose flavour no dressing on earth could improve, Elias as much as told Oriole fans he’s pushing the proverbial plunger on both this season whole and his team’s gallant, almost-from-nowhere re-entry into the postseason picture, however much distance the Orioles might still have to travel to get there.

Maybe Elias is still building for the nearest future after all. But maybe something could have been done without making the Orioles’ heart and soul the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Could, and should. “He’s the nicest human I’ve ever met,” says Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, a sentiment that seems to be common in the Oriole clubhouse and Baltimore itself.

Until today, people were even willing to bet on the Orioles having a phenomenal enough shot of reaching in. Now they’re uttering a couple of four letter words, one of which is the vulgar synonym for fornicate and the other a word meaning either a large receptacle for holding gas, an armoured attack vehicle, or taking a dive. Three guesses which meaning Orioles (and Nats) fans think applies.

“Teams liked to claim that captains were no longer necessary because one player shouldn’t be elevated above his teammates,” BP says, “but also, that same force made one player essentially untradable. If someone is designated the heart of a team, you can’t cut him out. Their value might go to waste.”

The region of the nation’s capital has taken enough blows that have knocked the wind out of its belly in the last few years. The Nationals and the Orioles, both of whom enjoy substantial capital followings, have told them, basically, “What’s two more sucker punches among friends?”

Juan gone?

Juan Soto

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One of the 2019 World Series and helped his Nats reach the Promised Land that fall. That was then, this is now, and the still-top-flight Soto spurned a glandular contract offer, prompting trade speculation almost all around.

Almost three years ago, the Nationals sat atop baseball’s pyramid. They’d won a World Series entirely on the road. And a kid who wasn’t old enough to drink legally until the Series began had a big enough hand in the triumph.

Juan Soto stole the show in Game One with a mammoth fourth-inning home run and a long two-run double an inning later. He had Astros catcher Martin Maldonado dazed. I feel like, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen Soto more than my wife,” Maldonado cracked post-game.

Then, in Game Seven, Soto helped push Astros starter Zack Greinke out of the game in the seventh, after Anthony Rendon crashed one into the Crawford Boxes to cut the Astros’ 2-0 lead in half, when he hung in on 3-1 and wrung out the walk.

Exit Greinke, enter Will Harris, and home came Soto when Howie Kendrick somehow got hold of Harris’s cutter coming in off the middle and to the lower outside corner and rang it off the right field foul pole—an inning before Soto drove Adam Eaton home for an insurance run and two before Eaton sent two more home with a bases-loaded single.

From there Soto simply got better. Just the way those watching him make his bones in the first place suspected he would. In the pan-damn-ic shortened 2020 he led the entire Show in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS; in 2021 he led with 145 walks, a .465 OBP, and with almost twice as many intentional walks (23) as he led in 2020 (12).

Soto’s also going to his second All-Star Game and leading the Show with his 79 walks thus far. He took awhile to round himself up this season but he got heated up in earnest this month. Under Nationals team control through the end of the 2025 season, Soto turned down a fifteen-year, $440 million offer this week.

He wasn’t exactly thrilled that it got into the press. “It feels really bad to see stuff going out like that because I’m a guy who keeps everything on my side,” Soto told reporters before  the Nats fell to the Braves 6-3 Saturday. “I keep everything quiet . . . I keep everything quiet and try to keep it just me. But they just [made] the decision and do whatever they need to do.”

Now, Soto is also the undisputed Show leader in trade speculation. The split second it became known he turned that offer down, the trade fantasies hit ludicrous speed. Show me a contender, show me a rebuilder right on the threshold of contention, and I’ll show you fan bases tabulating what it would take for their teams to wrap Soto in their silks.

I’ll also show you a Nationals team whose general manager Mike Rizzo said as late as the beginning of June that the Nats planned to reconstruct in their usual fashion but almost entirely around Soto himself. And, unlike an entity such as the Angels, whose deep-pocket owner can’t seem to install general managers who can think like Rizzo or operate without said owner’s meddling hands around their throats, Rizzo is one GM who can get it done without breaking a sweat.

Soto spurning fifteen years and $440 million must have given Rizzo the worst sweats of his year. It also must have given several teams dreams of not just a final piece of the proverbial puzzle but a nice, long, wide, multiple-season window of opportunity.

The Nats don’t have to trade the left fielder, but they’d be close to irresponsible if they didn’t listen to trade offers. Right now the Nats have the Show’s worst record. But they can think with pleasure about the haul Soto’s likely to return if they decide after all that turning down $440 million leaves them little choice but to unload him.

What prompted Soto to turn it down? According to Washington Post writer Jesse Dougherty (whose chronicle of the Nats’ 2019 back-from-the-dead conquest, Buzz Saw, is the best read you’ll find on that season), it was two-out-of-three-ain’t-good-enough: Soto wanted the years and got them; he wanted the total dollars and got them; but the average annual value of the deal wasn’t quite enough for him.

“While $440 million would be the biggest contract in the sport’s history by total value, the annual value of $29.3 million would rank 20th,” Dougherty writes.

Soto is looking for both double-digit years and an average annual value that is significantly higher, according to multiple people with knowledge of his camp’s thinking. When [future Hall of Famer Mike] Trout signed his extension with the Angels in March 2019, he was 27 and set records for total value ($426.5 million) and AAV (about $36 million). Trout remains baseball’s highest-paid position player.

Like Trout before the injury bug began nipping, tucking, and biting at him, Soto’s a player whom observers love to compare to Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Like Trout, Soto isn’t self-congratulatory about his talent or his performances. But there’s the issue. Soto would like to be like Trout in the bank account. So how does he compare to Trout through age 23?

My Real Batting Average metric shows them damn near the same player at the plate . . .

Through 23 PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Trout 2877 1368 361 34 31 37 .636
Juan Soto 2392 1037 452 52 11 8 .652

They’ve both played in home parks favouring pitching, but through age 23 Trout’s 167 OPS+ is seven points higher than Soto’s, while he also slugged a few points higher. (Soto through 23: .540; Trout through 23: .549.) They have about the same volume of black ink  and the same percentage of hits going for extra bases: 41.

And while Soto walks a little more than he strikes out while Trout strikes out a bit more than he walks, Soto’s more prone to being lured to hitting into double plays: seven a season for Trout through his twelfth major league season; sixteen a season for Soto through today.

Trout also won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards at age 23. Soto has a pair of top ten finishes and one top five finish. But if Soto believes he’s as valuable overall right now as Trout through age 23, he’s got a reasonable case. Absent unforeseen circumstances beyond his control, Soto stands to continue playing at a Trout-like level for a lot of years to come.

Remember: The Lerner family is looking to sell the team. “[T]hey wanted to clarify their position with Soto for prospective buyers,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “Soto is an asset, but not if his contract is so big that it would make it difficult for the Nationals to build around him.”

Hark back to that fine 2001 day when the Rangers—who were at least as pitching strapped then as today’s Angels have been for nigh on a decade, but without the truly deep pockets the Angels now have—decided that the cure for their Show-worst team ERA was to spend the equivalent of a solid pitching staff on . . . one shortstop named Álex Rodríguez.

It made A-Rod mega-rich but also kept the Rangers throttled while stirring insecurities enough into baseball’s then-best all-around shortstop—pounding himself inside to live up to that deal—that he waded into the dubious waters of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances in the first place. And the Rangers didn’t return to the postseaon until well after A-Rod moved on to the Yankees.

Soto’s agent Scott Boras is well known for preferring his clients test their open markets as soon as they’re eligible to have them. Soto isn’t averse to testing his market value when the time comes with or without Boras. Any team able to deal for him would have to part with delicious enough Show players and prospects. (The Nats now have the third-worst farm system, according to Athletic analyst Keith Law.) And, prepare to either sign him big long-term or watch him walk in a little over three years.

If the Nats really are making him available for the right price, don’t be shocked to discover the Nats’ front office phones ringing courtesy of the Mets, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Braves, the Red Sox, maybe even the Astros on the pretext that if you couldn’t beat him, make him join you.

Maybe the Padres will get into the mix. “Such a move would be bold, perhaps borderline nuts,” says The Athletic, “but [GM A.J.] Preller is not one to shy away from a splash.” Maybe even the Yankees, who don’t look like they need help just by the American League East standings, might rather have a Soto who can hit all around over a Joey Gallo who can bomb but little else at the plate and isn’t really doing much bombing now.

Technically, It wasn’t that long ago that Soto had a big enough hand in the Nats reaching the Promised Land. But a spurned contract extension and trade speculation suddenly make it feel like eons past.

Bauer isn’t quite off the hook at last

Trevor Bauer

He may not face prospects of prison, but Trevor Bauer—shown in the visitors’ dugout at San Francisco’s Oracle Park—isn’t quite off the whole hook yet.

Please note very carefully the language of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office when announcing Trevor Bauer won’t face criminal charges in the sexual assault/domestic violence case that cost him half the 2021 season. “After a thorough review of all the available evidence,” the statement says, “including the civil restraining order proceedings, witness statements and the physical evidence, the People are unable to prove the relevant charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Those words mean Bauer simply won’t face a criminal prosecution, never mind that he doesn’t face the prospect of time behind bars. Those words don’t say the evidence is false as much as they say getting a criminal conviction at trial would be tougher than hitting an outside slider over the center field fence. But Bauer isn’t off the hook entirely, so far as the law and the courts are concerned.

He’s off the criminal hook, but the victim who obtained a temporary restraining order against him last June could still decide to hit back with a civil lawsuit. Such has happened in cases far more grave. Over a quarter century ago, a botched criminal murder trial didn’t prevent the family of one of O.J. Simpson’s victims from suing him and winning.

So far as Major League Baseball is concerned, Bauer could still face serious discipline from commissioner Rob Manfred, who isn’t bound by a lack of criminal charges from exercising baseball’s domestic violence policies and punishments. Neither are the Dodgers.

They may have said formally that they won’t comment publicly until MLB’s investigation is done, but it doesn’t mean they can’t cut ties with him when it’s done. They can terminate Bauer’s deal if he “fail[ed], refuse[d] or neglect[ed] to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the club’s training rules.”

When Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dianna Gould-Saltman lifted the original temporary restraining order, last August, you may remember, she ruled that Bauer’s victim was “not ambiguous about wanting rough sex in [their] . . . first encounter and wanting rougher sex in the second encounter.” But the victim was anything except ambiguous when testifying in court that she drew a line, in effect, between agreed-upon rough sex and unwanted assault.

I say again that you wish only that Gould-Saltman explained how the victim was supposed to keep making her boundaries clear, or to stop Bauer from crossing them further, when she was in dreamland after Bauer choked her unconscious with her own hair in the first place.

Bauer’s legal beagles mulcted inconsistencies from her then that spoke, as former NBC Sports analyst Craig Calcaterra wrote for Cup of Coffee at the time, “to secondary and surrounding matters—how she reacted to the assault—and not at all to the assault itself . . . What Bauer’s attorneys did not do at all was discredit the central claim that he assaulted her in horrible ways.”

Maybe that makes it harder for the accuser to recover any money from him in a civil suit. Maybe that makes a prosecutor less likely to bring a criminal claim against Bauer for fear of the case being difficult. But the central truth of this entire affair—the stuff that Major League Baseball will look to regarding Bauer’s behavior, irrespective of whether charges are brought—points pretty clearly to Bauer doing exactly what his accuser said he did. Everything else is secondary.

After 12 hours of testimony, his accuser said, under oath, “I did not consent to bruises all over my body that sent me to the hospital and having that done to me while I was unconscious.” There was zero evidence presented which explained how those bruises appeared in a way that was benign or refuted the idea that the woman was unconscious when Bauer inflicted them. That, in my mind, is all that matters.

While baseball nation grappled with the Bauer ramifications, the Nationals found themselves facing a domestic violence issue when infielder Starlin Castro faced domestic violence charges but wasn’t yet suspended or even placed on “administrative leave.” Nats general manager Mike Rizzo made it as plain as a line single when talking to reporters then: “The process is the process. You asked the question, ‘Do I plan on having Starlin Castro back?’ and I said I do not plan on having him back.”

Rizzo even held a meeting with his players and laid down the law: “it’s unacceptable and it’s zero tolerance here and I don’t care how good of a player you are, it’s zero tolerance and we’re just not going to put up with it.” And they didn’t. The moment Castro was hit with a thirty-day suspension, the Nats said publicly they’d release him the moment his suspension ended. On 3 September they made good on that promise.

Nobody says the Dodgers are thrilled over Bauer’s misbehaviours, but it’s hard to forget team president Stan Kasten telling reporters what he advised manager Dave Roberts after Bauer was put on the first of his renewed administrative leaves last July: “I told him they’re going to talk about Trevor Bauer. Just say, ‘Can we please talk about foreign substances?'” That got nothing but a terrible look for the Dodgers and a public rebuke from Manfred.

The Dodgers haven’t yet said whether domestic violence is zero tolerance, they’re just not going to put up with it, they do not plan on having Bauer back, and as soon as they know whether Bauer will receive a full MLB suspension—whether it’s retroactive to time served on administrative leave or new time to serve—they’ll prepare his release for the moment the suspension officially expires.

Maybe it was easier for the Nats because Castro was almost at the end of a two-year deal when he got drydocked. Bauer is in the middle of a three-year deal, signed when the worst the Dodgers knew of him was that he was a mere misogynist. The Dodgers are on the hook for $32 million in 2022 and 2023 each, unless Bauer opts out at the end of the 2022 season and elects free agency. But Rizzo still looked far more decisive, and sounded far more emphatic, than the Dodgers have done so far.

“[Y]ou’ve heard me say it a million times, that [we prefer] you read about our guys in the Sports section and not the other sections,” Rizzo said amidst the Castro flap. “And this time we failed. I’m responsible for the players that I put on our roster and on the field.” That’s called owning it emphatically, and doing something about it decisively.

Businesses with or without public transmission can and do discipline employees often enough over off-the-job misconduct that won’t necessarily put them behind bars and isn’t half as grotesque, never mind abusive and injurious. There’s no such thing as an absolute, God-given “right” to particular employment in a particular business or profession.

A predilection for consensual rough sex is one thing. Each to his and her own. But punching an unconsious woman in the poontang and bruising her enough to require hospital attention, while she’s in no position to say yes, no, stop, or don’t-even-think-about-it, isn’t just unaligned to being a good citizen or sportsman. It’s unaligned to being human.

Thumbs up!

Kevin Pillar

Kevin Pillar, one of the Mets’ Thumb Bunch, after slicing ninth-inning grand salami at the Nats’ expense Sunday afternoon.

That was last weekend: A few Mets decided to give what-for to Citi Field’s boo birds of August unhappiness. They flipped the script. If they were going to get booed for coming up short no matter the effort, by God they were going to give the fans thumbs down when they came up hit, pitch, play roses.

The racket was such a ruckus—or, should that be the ruckus was such a racket—that nobody paid much attention to the August-challenged Mess winning two straight from the retooling-on-the-fly Nationals. They were too busy reading beleaguered team president Sandy Alderson’s fan-their-behinds retort to care.

This is the end of this weekend: Including that previous Saturday and Sunday, the Thumb Bunch have won seven of eight, kicked themselves back into enough of the thick of the National League East they’d lost gruesomely enough during most of August, and out-scored the opposition 41-26 while they were at it.

Who cares if it came against the Nats and the equally also-ran Marlins? The Mets looked so badly like a team that couldn’t get next to a win if they paid by the run that the worst editions of the St. Louis Browns would have looked like pennant contenders against them.

Now, they’ve finished this weekend-to-weekend raiding with a 13-6 Sunday dismantling of the Nats that included a jaw-dropping six-run top of the ninth. In which the three major members of the Thumb Bunch were very much the major players. “If there’s a higher power looking over the Mets,” said broadcaster Gary Cohen, “He or She has an infinite sense of humor.”

He or She must have, since the Mets got close enough to letting the game escape in the first place. A four-run top of the first turned into a 4-3 squeaker in the bottom of the inning. A 6-3 lead after four and a half turned into a six-all tie in the bottom of the fifth. Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika’s sacrifice fly sending Javy Baez home with the bases loaded in the eighth broke the tie.

These are still the Mess, aren’t they? They’re still virtuosi at wasting leads and putting the crash carts on triple red alert, no?

They were until Francisco Lindor faced Nats reliever Austin Voth to open the top of the ninth. Lindor saw only one pitch, a spicy meatball right down the middle, and drove it over the center field fence. A two-run lead’s better than one, right? Even with Juan Soto looming as the third man due up in the bottom of the ninth, right?

Pete Alonso wasn’t taking chances. He followed Lindor’s launch with a double to the back of left field. Michael Conforto singled Alonso home and took second on a throw in. Baez finished a 4-for-4 afternoon by singling Conforto to third. Jeff McNeil wrung himself a four-pitch walk to load the pillows. Up stepped Kevin Pillar, to hold his lumber on two out of the strike zone before fouling away a pair off the middle.

Then Voth threw Pillar a low fastball. And Pillar drove it high and into the seats above the Mets bullpen. It may yet stand as the biggest slice of grand salami with mustard on their season to date. All this on an afternoon when Lindor went 1-for-2 with a pair of walks and two runs scored, Baez scored three times in addition to his four-fer, and Pillar went 2-for-4.

Some teams crumple under the lash of controversy, whether the controversy is real, alleged, ginned up, or imagined. Others discover it’s better than a diet of pitches over the middle of the plate for a royal feast.

The 1972-74 Athletics throve on internal friction; the 1977-78 Yankees didn’t earn the nickname the Bronx Zoo because they were tame and allergic to nuclear-level back-page 72-point headlines. The 1986 Mets made St. Louis’s mythological Gas House Gang resemble an Amish picnic. This year’s Astros seem to be using the noisily lingering hostilities over Astrogate as feud for thought—and thump.

This year’s Mets won’t inspire what those A’s inspired Jim Bouton to remember (in “I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad!”)—“[T]hey didn’t have many rules. Oh, maybe they weren’t allowed to punch each other in public. No punching a teammate, I suppose, in a nightclub. Fighting only allowed in the clubhouse. No screaming at each other when the wives are around. And don’t embarrass the manager to more than two wire services during any homestand.” (Today, of course, we’d say “to more than two Web  reporters.”)

This year’s Mets may or many not have any player ready to say of them what third base virtuoso Graig Nettles said of his time (sentence?) in the Bronx Zoo: “Some kids want to join the circus when they grow up. Others want to be big league baseball players. I feel lucky. When I came to the Yankees, I got to do both.”

Unless I’m very wrong, and I hope I am, there isn’t a Met in the bunch now who’ll look back two decades later and remember this team the way ’86 Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda would remember that team, who broke an entire airplane celebrating their National League Championship Series triumph: “We were a bunch of vile [fornicators].”

These Mets may not be quite what Nettles’ Yankees became, but there were times this year when you thought the Mets couldn’t decide whether they were re-making E.R. . . . or Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

They play one more against the Nats on Labour Day, then take a trip for three more against the Marlins. Then, they come home to face the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Phillies. Before you remind them that those three aggregations aren’t exactly pushovers—even if the Yankees have just lost five of eight—ponder the point that momentum comes from unlikely places.

Even from places in which turning thumbs down after splendid plays to retaliate against the boo birds becomes the molehill turned by the hysterical into the Himalayas.

Five straight for the Thumb Bunch

Jeurys Familia, Pete Alonso

Jeurys Familia and Pete Alonso have a victory handshake after the Mess (er, Mets) won their fifth straight Friday night—with plenty of help from the Thumb Bunch.

Almost a full week ago, the Mets were likely to be number one on a baseball fan’s hate parade. You know, you can’t have those ornery spoiled brats giving thumbs down when doing things right to the fans who spent most of August booing their heads off during what seemed, once and for all, like a classically surreal Met implosion.

You could only imagine the curses and hexes fans wanted to place on their heads for their dissing the people who pay their goddam salaries. Never mind that fans alone, or even predominantly, haven’t really paid baseball players’ salaries in decades.

But the Mets looked so vividly like 2021 baseball’s biggest self-inflicted trainwreck last month that you could still be forgiven for expecting a complete collapse. Maybe even firing squads in the clubhouse and guillotines outside the ballpark.

The hell with Pete Alonso’s happy talk channeling his inner Tug McGraw. Maybe Alonso didn’t use the specific phrase “ya gotta believe,” and McGraw in 1973 deployed it sarcastically after a lame rah-rah clubhouse speech by then-Mets lord M. Donald Grant. But when he said, “If you don’t believe in yourself, then who else is going to believe,” around 10 August, things only got worse instead of better.

Maybe Alonso really was onto something after all. Because look who’s won five straight including the two games last weekend that brought the thumbs-downing to a boil before the weekend ended. Look who’s even figured out a way to blow a lead in the ninth to force extra innings and then won the game in the extras, anyway.

Never mind that the streak’s come at the expense of two other sputtering teams, the Nationals and the Marlins. The way the Mets looked for most of August, they could have lost handily to a lineup of nine arthritic maids, a pitching staff of five one-armed janitors, a bullpen of seven legless movers, and a bench of six quadriplegics.

But ever since the down-thumbing suddenly caught the attention of the rest of the world, the Mets have outscored the opposition 27-13. And on Friday night, they took a precarious 2-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, watched Edwin Diaz surrender a leadoff home run (to Juan Soto) and an RBI double (to Riley Adams) to tie . . . and pried four unanswered runs out of the Nats in the top of the tenth to win, 6-4.

Let’s not kid ourselves just yet. The Mets get to abuse the Nats in Washington for four more games this weekend, then they get to fly to Miami to inflict a little more use, misuse, and abuse of the Marlins. After that? They come home to host three clubs who can be called many things without pushovers being one of them: the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Phillies.

There’s something to be said for gaining momentum even at the expense of the also-rans. And the Mets did claw their way back to .500 and to a mere four games out of first in the National League East.

Sure, they got some help from the Fish flattening the second-place Phillies 10-3 Friday night. Sure, they got some help from the Rockies eking out a 4-3 win over the first-place Braves. But a team that started August leading the division by three, and almost ended the month trailing by eight the night before the current streak began, has a few reasons to be happier.

Happier, but not quite to the delirious level just yet?

But let’s not spoil the fun. OK? Not the day after ancient Rich Hill pitched like a young man over six scoreless innings. Not the day after everyone in the Mets bullpen not named Diaz pitched three innings of one-hit, scoreless baseball.

Not after Diaz shook off those tying runs—and a scary collision between tying runner Andrew Stevenson and Mets catcher Chance Sisco that knocked Sisco out of the game at once—by ironing up and using a strikeout (of Carter Kieboom) and a ground out (by Luis Garcia) to strand the potential winning Nats run.

Not the day after Javier Baez, one of the Thumb Bunch, poked a one-out double down the right field line in the top of the second and came home almost at once when Michael Conforto—who’d gone from extension lock to question mark with a season’s worth of struggling—ricocheted a single off Nats starter Sean Nolin’s shoulder to send him there.

Not the day after Alonso, Mr. Belief, squared Nats starter Sean Nolin up on the first two-out, one-on pitch in the top of the third and yanked it as far down the right field line as he could for the RBI triple.

Not the day after Alonso drove Francisco Lindor—another of the Thumb Bunch, now deployed as the free cookie on second to open the New York tenth—home with a line single into the right center field gap.

Not the day after a third Thumb Buncher, Kevin Pillar, followed a free pass to Conforto by ripping a liner all the way down the left field line, sending Alonso and Conforto home as if they were escaping for their lives, Conforto following Alonso with an Olympic-level dive across the back of the plate.

Not the day after pinch hitter J.D. Davis was handed another free pass and Jonathan Villar cashed in at once by singling Pillar home for the fourth Met run of the tenth.

Not the day after Jeurys Familia returned to a once-familiar role, closing it out with a leadoff punchout and a pair of swift ground outs in the bottom of the tenth.

“As you can imagine,” Alonso the Believer said post-game, “it’s great. It’s awesome to rip off (five) in a row. [But] we just have to win every possible game that we can. Regardless of the standings, we can only control what we can control. There’s ebbs and flows in the season and right now we’re just looking to finish strong.”

“The whole thing is just the creativity as the game is kind of presenting what it is showing you as a pitcher, as a conductor,” Hill said post-game of his own solid outing. “You saw a variation of a lot of different things out of my mechanics tonight. It wasn’t necessarily just a traditional leg lift and a pitch and the timing was all the same. Trying to disrupt the timing is the whole art of pitching.”

So Hill isn’t as succinct as Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. (Hitting is timing, pitching is destroying timing.) But he sure pitched and sounded just as smart. Especially facing the heart of the Nats order three times, bringing them up empty, and surrendering only three hits overall during his six splendid.

Maybe the Nats helped the Mets’ cause by some rather uncharacteristic basepath mistakes. But if pitching is disrupting or destroying timing, then winning in large enough part is making the other guys pay for their mistakes. Usually, this year, the Mets have paid through the nose (and any other orifice) for theirs.

Enjoy it while it lasts. However long it lasts. Seeing the August Mess come back to life for even five games was still a pleasure. They might (underline that) even have a few more surprises in store when they come home from their current trip to the division swamps.

“Every game is really huge at this point of the year,” Alonso said. Stick to that attitude, Mets.