I took strange comfort in Daniel Murphy’s first-inning grand slam off Zack Wheeler Sunday night. Very strange, admittedly, but comfort nonetheless from looking at it this way:
What’s the worst Daniel Murphy can do to the Mets with a given swing?
He can hit a grand slam.
Well, he already did that. That’s a 4-0 hole courtesy of the guy who drills more of them at Citi Field than Deepwater Horizon ever did in the Gulf of Mexico. My counterintuitive thinking was if that’s the worst Daniel Murphy can do, and the game isn’t immediately ruled over, maybe we’ll be not necessarily OK, but less dead than you’d suspect.
Even with Max Scherzer on the mound. Even with half the Mets unavailable or physically unfit for service. Even with the bloom off April’s rose, the shine off expectations’ silver and the telecast on ESPN. If Daniel Murphy has done his worst in a month whose sense of demise defies exaggeration…in a ballpark where doing his worst is Murph’s standard operating procedure…how much worse could a Sunday night game that begins Nationals 4 Mets 0 become?
Surprisingly, no worse. Not tangibly better, mind you, as the Mets did go on to lose, 6-3, absorbing an eighth defeat in nine outings; getting swept by their ostensible archrivals; and falling 5½ lengths from first place, a position we could have sworn was their reasonably attainable goal this season.
Murphy hit a grand slam. Scherzer went eight and struck out nine. The Mets never led or fully contested the inevitable result. Nevertheless, it felt like it could have been worse.
After a stretch of 1-8 baseball, the Rheingold mug can be judged no more than 11.1% full, yet there was just enough to sip on and feel sated from within the context of relative doom. The pitch Zack Wheeler threw to Murphy was the last of 101 total to irreparably harm him. He settled down, gave the Mets seven innings and the Nats no more runs. His command was sharp, his pitch count was manageable and his return from two years gone continues encouragingly. Make no mistake: he gave up a four-run homer to the fifth batter of the game, and that will deflate your win probability pronto, but if we assume we’re not smothering the rest of 2017 in a hastily flung towel, Zack’s post-slam recovery is a very good sign.
The Mets demonstrated the difference between presumed dead and confirmed buried. Wheeler’s efforts were made competitively worthwhile when Michael Conforto fired back immediately at Scherzer, leading off the bottom of the first with a homer and then notching two base hits at the stellar southpaw’s expense besides. It was right around this time last year when another star hurler, Madison Bumgarner, confounded Conforto and halted his post-rookie joyride. Michael began rowing his boat onto the rocks of a sophomore slump which ended only when 2016 did. It’s a year later. Bumgarner’s the one whose decidedly nonmetaphorical conveyance has taken a spill, while Conforto may be making himself an immovable object from the top of the Mets order, lefty-lefty matchups be damned perhaps (though, Scherzer is, you know, a righty).
This potential next step in Conforto’s steady transformation from bench caterpillar to lineup butterfly can be construed as another very good sign to emanate from yet another pretty bad night. As can Neil Walker stroking a two-run homer to push the Mets within one of the Nats in the third (though Walker producing half as many runs as his predecessor seems sadly apropos). As can the preternaturally gimpy but relentlessly game Asdrubal Cabrera withstanding a visit from the Grim Trainer in the first. As can Jeurys Familia tossing his first immaculate inning of the year, albeit an inning after Ryan Zimmerman sullied Josh Smoker’s ledger with a messy two-run blotch. As can WOR’s audio, via SiriusXM, syncing beautifully to ESPN’s video while my remote’s mute function maintained television silence. As can Yoenis Cespedes standing upright in the on-deck circle with a bat in his hands. Yo emerged in deference to the extremely remote chance Jose Reyes could extend a modest last-chance rally, which is to say there was one on with two out and the Mets down by three in the bottom of the ninth. Jose and his classic rock batting average — .104 on your dial — proved incapable of reprising any of the hits he used to be known for, but at least we had visual evidence that Cespedes lives and breathes and might even be ready to take another swing real soon.
As will the Mets. It’s the best they can do.
Were the Mets even part of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Nationals? I went to the Mets’ ballpark, saw players in Mets uniform on the field and read the name “Mets” on the half of the scoreboard where nothing was doing, but there was little evident indication that the entity known as the New York Mets was competing with the Washington Nationals.
At the moment, that’s a frightening microcosm of the National League East, a unit whose non-Met membership acts less and less hindered let alone impressed by the Mets’ presence every day…probably because their presence is so hard to detect.
We’re in the midst of a thousand-game stretch during which the Mets play only N.L. East opponents. It began promisingly enough at 7-3, it is floundering (or Marlining) badly at 8-10. The schedule shall remain divisionally familiar through May 7, when the Mets’ record, if current trends hold, projects out to 8-and-a-million.
Doing the actual arithmetic and leavening it with slighter amounts of dismay will bring you more rational numbers, but the Mets are neither inspiring reason nor generating offense, so fill in the blanks as you like. Blanks are in abundance.
I once attended a Gio Gonzalez complete game one-hitter at Citi Field, making the two-hitter that he and three sweat-free Washington relievers teamed to toss on Saturday old hat as well as cold comfort. It’s nice to not to get no-hit, though if that’s your victory for the day, you might want to recalibrate your personal win column.
Jacob deGrom produced the worst double-digit strikeout game of his career, past, present and — one hopes — future. The K display lit up often enough to satisfy discount-minded Subway patrons, but the BB board, brought to you Take An Eye Without That Thing, also glowed. Jake walked six when he wasn’t striking out ten. Blended in among those true outcomes were six singles, two doubles and three runs that loomed larger than the Unisphere, the Trylon and the Perisphere. Our pitcher was pulled before he got through the sixth, which prevented any chance of deGrom being credited with a quality start. This start had a quality about it, all right, if you keep in mind that not every quality is attractive.
The game was deservedly played through a chilly mist, which is the official weather of the 2017 New York Mets, especially the chilly part. I’ve been to Citi Field five times in what is still technically the first month of the season and it’s never been anything resembling comfortable for more than an inning. Probably the most welcome feature of the facility in April is that the men’s rooms are heated — though one of the logistical letdowns is that the replacement of quiet paper towel dispensers with loud hand dryers negates one’s ability to hear the otherwise thoughtfully piped-in radio play-by-play. Sure, there’s not much satisfying Mets baseball filling the airwaves these days, but hearing Howie and Josh upon stepping out of the damp cold constitutes one of life’s small Met-related pleasures.
There were several of those away from the main stage on Saturday, a day I wouldn’t have spent at Citi Field without the gracious invitation of my old pal Dan, with whom I celebrated Curtis Granderson’s two extra-inning homers to tie and beat the Twins last September under the Branded Beverage Pavilion. We didn’t lunge for any longballs this time around, but we did stay dry in those same seats; we did extract levity from baseball misery; we did swap Charlie Finley stories (mine was second-hand; his happened to him as a child); and we did continue to appreciate Grandy’s commitment to taking care of business, everything from the subtle gestures of acknowledgement he makes to his right field minions to the defensive hustle that never stops. On Saturday, Curtis made a dive into the veritable Ageean Sea, robbing Michael Taylor of an extra-base hit as if it mattered. This was in the sixth, when it was Nationals 3 Mets 0, the Mets mathematically eliminated already, but what a catch nonetheless.
Dan and I arrived around dawn for the four o’clock first pitch, lured by the restriction of the Matt Harvey Garden Gnome Giveaway to the first dozen handfuls of people through the gate. The Harvey Gnome was joined by a most unexpected companion…no, not a supermodel gnome, but a Todd Zeile Beanie Baby, dropped off at my seat by dear friend Sharon, who read what I wrote earlier this week and, because she’s Sharon, just happened to have a Todd Zeile Beanie Baby to pass along. Kudos also to Jim and George, guys who waved me over to chat while they were in the growing gnome line. The conversation lasted long enough for Dan to find me and then, well, since we were already in line and the line started moving toward the gate, no sense going to the back of the pack, which is where the Mets seem headed Eastwise if they don’t start hitting and healing soon.
But we did get our gnomes. You take your small Met-related pleasures where you can get them.
Matt Harvey wasn’t supposed to pitch Friday night, but went seven. Zack Wheeler is rarely supposed to hit, but he doubled as a pinch-hitter for Harvey. Robert Gsellman neither hit nor pitch, yet he was bunted to second and took third on a groundout. Michael Conforto, despite presumed holes in his game, hit a home run the other way and made a running catch just shy of the left field sidewall. Curtis Granderson, mired in his traditional April morass, singled a run home in the fourth, clouted two runs home in the sixth and later slid just shy of the right field sidewall to catch a fly ball in the sitting position. That play was in the tenth, by the end of which Jerry Blevins, Addison Reed and Josh Smoker had combined for three shutout innings.
The Mets held their own with what comparatively little they had for as long as they could, past the regulation boundaries of a normal game, whatever a normal game is anymore. Eventually, though, the Mets — whoever the Mets are anymore — succumbed to their current state of affairs and lost to the Nationals, 4-3, in eleven.
Daniel Murphy (.323/.362/.523) didn’t have quite a game for a change, but Bryce Harper (.407/.521/.864) surely did. Bryce tagged Harvey for a two-run homer in the “surprise — you’re starting!” first and evaded a tag from “surprise — you’re here at all!” third baseman T.J. Rivera in the eleventh to set up what would become the winning run. Matt also gave up a solo shot to Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton, who crossed home plate and then texted Wilson Ramos to let him know Nat catchers can still homer at will against Mets pitching.
Except for the two long balls, Matt, sans best stuff, kept Washington in gridlock. The Mets were a match for Tanner Roark, who gave up three runs in the other direction. The Nat bullpen, unfortunately, wasn’t so easily tapped, not even the enduring left arm of social pariah Oliver Perez. It indeed took until the eleventh for everything to certifiably fall apart. Smoker’s best efforts from the tenth fogged over in the eleventh. He gave up a leadoff double to freaking Harper, stood on the mound while a signal was relayed indicating an intentional walk of Murphy and exited in favor of closer from happier times Jeurys Familia.
Familia tried shaking off his considerable rust Thursday night versus the Phillies, yet it clung stubbornly to his heretofore inactive right arm over thirty low-leverage pitches. Asked to rescue a game rather than save it during Friday’s eleventh, Jeurys wasn’t really Jeu-ready. He threw a pitch wild enough that allowed Harper to race to third from second. Kevin Plawecki (another very recent promotion) took just long enough to find the handle before winging the ball to third just late enough so that Rivera couldn’t eliminate Harper. Replay review showed Bryce was barely but definitively safe. Murph, who courteously didn’t instigate a double play when he could have earlier — how do you suppose pinch-runner Gsellman moved up to third? — didn’t take second when he clearly could have. Daniel is still being Daniel, generously attempting to aid two teams at once.
The Mets could use two teams. Their first team continues to crowd Ray Ramirez’s spooky lair and their second team inevitably finds its hands full. In this case, first and third with nobody out overwhelmed Familia. Two walks followed his wild pitch, which meant he loaded the bases and then opted for the unorthodox strategy of placing the go-ahead run on home. Then he fanned the next two batters, closing the barn door good and tight once the horse was securely outside of it.
No runs off Shawn Kelley in the bottom of the eleventh, as the Mets went down for their sixth defeat in seven games. Also, for those keeping score of those of whom you can’t necessarily expect to keep score of at present, no Lucas Duda (DL), no Wilmer Flores (DL), not much Asdrubal Cabrera or Travis d’Arnaud (able to pinch-hit as long as they don’t use their bodies), no Yoenis Cespedes (at least not last night) and no deGrom. A stiff neck bumped our thus far most effective ace Friday. If it’s still stiff Saturday, Sean Gilmartin is your starting pitcher for Matt Harvey Garden Gnome Day, when the first 15,000 and everybody else will wonder what the hell is going to go wrong next.
Things could get dicey in years that turned out swell. Read about those trials, tribulations and triumphs in Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, my new book about Mets clubs that were alternately awful and awesome until they were ultimately Amazin’.
“Just brushed my elbow up against the baserunner, Ray. I think I’ll be OK.”
“Head down the tunnel, Lucas.”
“You’re the head trainer, you must know best.”
“My wrist and the guy’s bat made contact, Ray. No biggie.”
“Head down the tunnel, Travis.”
“Gotta do what the trainer says, I guess.”
“Something with my knee, Ray. Feels a little off, but I can play if Terry needs me.”
“Head down the tunnel, Wilmer.”
“Can’t argue with good advice.”
“Ooh, the hammy’s got a little shock or cramp or something. Chilly night, huh Ray? Lemme just get loose and I’ll be good to go.”
“Head down the tunnel, Yoenis.”
“You’ve got our best interests at heart, so, yes, I shall head down the tunnel as you strongly suggest.”
“Hey Seth. Hey Steven.”
“Hey Travis. Wilmer. Yo.”
“Oh, hey David. I didn’t know you guys were all still down here.”
“Yeah, Ray sent us down the tunnel.”
“I don’t like the tunnel.”
“Travis, you always say that.”
“And I never like it.”
“I dunno. I think it’s kind of homey.”
“Steven, you would say that.”
“All right gentlemen. Who’s first?”
“First? First for what?”
“I needed an octet. I only count seven of you. Where did Mister Lagares go?”
“Juan’s taking grounders at short.”
“And Mister Syndergaard? His blisters and nails were so close to bringing him down the tunnel.”
“He’s pitching. Hanging in there, too, despite how much we kind of suck right now.”
“Seven shall do then. Seven souls has a nice ring to it.”
“Speaking of rings, I’m still hoping to get a ring. You’re gonna help me get back on the field so I can win one, right, Ray?”
“Shush, Mister Wright. Where’s my equipment?”
“You mean like your medical tape? It’s right there on the shelf, Ray.”
“Calm down, Mister Flores, you shall get yours out soon enough.”
“Get my what out?”
“Gentlemen, the sooner the questions cease, the sooner I can begin the procedures.”
“Hey, anybody got a score?”
“Your teammates are losing and shall lose, six to four. But all they are losing is a baseball game, Mister d’Arnaud. You gentlemen, on the other hand, shall be bereft of your souls by night’s end.”
“Say what, Ray?”
“Did you pull a hamstring in your ear, Mister Cespedes? Ah, there’s my scythe. Let me just sterilize it with a little rubbing alcohol…so do we have a batting order yet or what?”
“Mister Duda, you’re awfully vocal suddenly. Is that your way of saying you want to be the first of my seven soulectomies? I didn’t know if you boys wanted to go by salary or tenure or I could just flip the seven-sided coin I carry in my cloak.”
“This is creepy.”
“Mister Lugo, you’re still fairly new here. You should really calm down.”
“Yeah, Seth, I find this relaxing.”
“Steven, man, you’re weird.”
“Mister Wright, you are the one they call Captain. You tell me how this proceeds.”
“I’m selfless, Ray, so I might as well be the first to go soulless.”
“That would be fine, Mister Wright, but you were just moved to the sixty-day DL, so time is not of the essence. You can just stand over in the corner and resume ‘baseball activities.’”
“Like work on my swing?”
“Sure, work on that swing. Sixty days will be up before you know it. Mister Cespedes, how about you?”
“No hablo ingles, Ray.”
“Gato got your tongue, eh? No worries. It’s not your tongue your trainer is after. Mister Matz, you seem too eager to be here, so your soul might jump out of your body and that’s no challenge for my ambitious scythe. Mister Lugo, I’d like your confusion to wear off before having you on my table. It’s less messy that way. Mister Flores?”
“Hey, wasn’t there a TV in here last time? I think Friends is on.”
“This is ‘The one without the shortstop’s soul,’ and you’re guest-starring.”
“I don’t really play shortstop that much anymore. You’d think I’d get a chance between Jose and Asdrubal slumping.”
“SILENCE! THIS IMPUDENCE IS UNNERVING! MY SCYTHE IS SHAKING! I MUST HAVE SOULS! FRESH MET SOULS FOR MY COLLECTION!”
“Hey, Ray, what’s that hanging on the wall?”
“The soul of Kelvim Escobar, my finest work. Enough questions! I’ll just start with the catcher as I usually do. Get up on the table, Mister d’Arnaud.”
“Sure, Ray…ow! I think I just strained my soul again!”
“Mister d’Arnaud, your lack of health can’t even stay healthy.”
“I’ll do it, Ray.”
“Mister Duda, is that you?”
“Why so willing, Mister Duda?”
“Grandy said it would make a good video.”
“THERE IS NO VIDEO IN MY TRAINING ROOM! ALL OF YOU, GET OUT OF MY CHAMBER! GO SIT ON THE DISABLED LIST OR BE ‘DAY-TO-DAY’ LIKE COMMON INJURED PLAYERS!”
“See ya later, Ray.”
“Yes, I will see you all later. Sooner or later, every Met soul shall be mine.”
Have you ever seen anything like Jay Bruce? Once, maybe. Like most precedents, it’s inexact. Unlike most precedents, this one had physical proximity going for it.
On Wednesday night — a night when the Mets’ starting pitcher pitched into the eighth instead of the fifth and the Mets’ manager used three relievers instead of all of them — Bruce let loose with a pair of home runs that accounted for five runs batted in and exquisite timing. The first clout, in the sixth, turned the score at Citi Field from an irritating Phillies 2 Mets 0 to a jubilant Mets 3 Phillies 2. The second, in the eighth, unlocked a 3-3 deadlock and put the Mets up, 5-3. Jay thought of everything, including breathing room for the inevitable post-Gsellman bullpen blip that made it 5-4. That was a final we could handle, just as the Bruce trade is a transaction we can bring ourselves to embrace.
Remember when we were wary of acquiring Jay Bruce last year and no better than resigned to keeping him this year? No, me neither. We all loved Jay Bruce being on the Mets starting with the moment it became counterproductive not to.
Bruce is productive. Other Met hitters are sporadic. A couple are dinged up — contusions of the wrist (d’Arnaud) and hyperextended elbows (Duda) are all the rage this spring — but only one lately seems prone to produce dingers, plural. That’s the Jay Hey Kid, as we’ve been calling him ever since I wrote the first part of this sentence.
If breathless cable news talking heads applied their talents to baseball, they’d declare that Jay Bruce launching those missiles is when he became president. But I’m not concerned with presidents here. I’m thinking precedents. Precedent for Bruce entered my headspace once Bruce’s bombs cleared Citi Field airspace. It helped that I had moments earlier been sharing actual space with another Met from another administration, though in my head, all Met time is continuous and encompassing. The Met whose example Jay was following without even knowing it was Todd Zeile, last seen swinging for a fence in these parts in 2004.
Why, you may wonder, am I bringing up Zeile a Home Run Baker’s dozen years later?
Let me count the whys:
• Zeile, like Bruce, was a run-producing veteran — five seasons of 90+ RBIs — who nevertheless didn’t receive much of a honeymoon period in the wake of his Met arrival. Todd dared replace the universally adored John Olerud when Olerud left (or was allowed to leave) for Seattle prior to 2000. Olerud was intrinsic to the dynamism of the 1999 Mets. The Mets could have brought in 1938 Hank Greenberg to succeed him and fans like me would have experienced a post-Olerud letdown.
• Zeile, like most of us, wasn’t Hank Greenberg. Or John Olerud. It might have taken a while to appreciate that Zeile being Zeile, like Bruce being Bruce, could help keep a good team going. The 2000 Mets were the first Flushing edition in fourteen years to go to the World Series. They got there with a first baseman who played 153 games, hit 22 homers and contributed greatly to the reassuring sense that his club usually knew what it was doing and — if nobody screwed up too badly — was sooner or later gonna figure out a way to win.
• Zeile, like Bruce if not most of us, had a game in which he homered twice and drove in five runs to account for all the Mets’ scoring and claim responsibility for the Mets winning. It happened for Todd in 2004 in a situation similar enough to Wednesday night’s. On June 2 of that season, at Citizens Bank Park, Todd came up with two out in the eighth, the Mets trailing Philly, 3-0. Vance Wilson was on third, Kaz Matsui on second. Zeile worked Ryan Madson to a full count. The end result wasn’t a walk, but a game-tying homer. Two innings later, the score was still tied, there were again two outs and Karim Garcia was on second. The pitcher in this encounter was Roberto Hernandez. The slugger once more was Zeile, who belted the future Met reliever’s two-one delivery out of sight and put the Mets up, 5-3, which would become the tenth-inning final. According to research I did a while back, the only previous case of a pair of Met home runs springing forth from the same bat that late and doing quite that kind of prodigious damage happened in 1967 at Shea, when Jerry Buchek walloped a three-run homer in the eighth and another three-run homer in the tenth to beat the Astros, 8-5. (Jerry blossoms were in full bloom that night.)
• But I suppose the most compelling reason I found myself thinking of Zeile while Bruce was enjoying his best Mets game to date was Todd was standing a few feet from where I was jumping for Jay. We were both in the SNY suite at Citi Field. One of us is probably invited to ballpark suites often. The other of us was not only happy just to be there but delighted to be given a couple of middle innings to watch the game with an authentic 2000 National League Champion New York Met.
Zeile does some work for SNY, so his presence wasn’t accidental let alone incidental. I was there because SNY reached out to a bunch of bloggers and such, which alone was delightful, given the spiffy accommodations (heated, with a 100% chance of Shake Shack and, oh yes, the Mets playing baseball directly in front of us). The fellow who set the whole thing up, an above-and-beyond director of communications named Kevin Sornatale, is to be commended for his outreach efforts. The suiteness, at field level behind home plate, was utterly fantastic.
Watching with and talking to Zeile for half an hour was above and beyond.
My main impression of Todd Zeile, sixteen seasons a major leaguer, was this was a baseball player who really felt the game. Still does, thirteen years after we last saw him, circling the bases against the about-to-be-extinct Expos in his and their final moments on the field. I love how his experiences have stayed with him, how, depending what he is asked, he is again…
a young catcher fiercely proud of his defense;
a converted third baseman, if not necessarily of his own volition;
a hardened professional who earned the right to be a little cynical about the business of sport;
a chronic trade-deadline target who learned to deal with being dealt;
a playoff junkie whose jones for another trip to October led him to New York on the cusp of the new century;
a determined competitor who can recite what went wrong in a long-ago playoff chase that didn’t quite work out;
a true romantic determined not to waste his last time ever batting drawing a walk (so he swung at a pitch up in his eyes and homered for the ultimate Toddy Ballgame moment);
and, with eleven MLB identities from which to choose, a Met in his heart. Zeile acknowledged his Cardinal roots, but said that everything about the Mets feels like family to him, and clearly he relishes the sense that he is at home within its hearth.
I like to say “we” when it comes to the Mets, fully cognizant of my conspicuous absence within the listings of Baseball-Reference. So I asked Todd what a player with more than 7,500 at-bats thinks of amateurs like me opting for the first-person plural to describe his team. It’s all right, he told me. When he’s on the air as an ideally neutral analyst, wearing a suit instead of a uniform, he hears himself saying “we,” too. Todd said he puts himself in “the Mets fan category” as much as any of the rest of us, no quotation-marks required.
One thing is markedly different in his wing of the family, though. When Bruce sent his second home run into orbit, every one of us Mets fans populating SNY’s suite leapt and screamed and high-fived. Every one of us but one. I turned and snuck a glance at Zeile. He just watched and knew. He didn’t have to cheer Jay Bruce. He had already been Jay Bruce.
Todd Zeile played with Mike Piazza in Los Angeles, Florida and New York. One of those periods is examined pretty closely in this book right here.
Some games are burn-the-tape affairs. Brooding about them won’t help — you’d be better served casting them aside and taking yourself somewhere else as fast as possible.
We do have historical obligations, so I’ll make this speedy: Zack Wheeler was pretty good but inefficient and still rebuilding his arm strength, so the Mets were forced to frog-march their exhausted bullpen through another campaign — and they had little room to maneuver, with the hitters having scored two runs off a shaky-looking Zach Eflin in the first but then substituting wild haymakers for the knockout blow the team needed. The game slowed into an ugly slog and then degenerated into a wretched farce.
With two outs in the eighth, Fernando Salas had thown 21 pitches with steadily diminishing effectiveness, pausing between each one to verify that his arm had not, in fact, fallen off and begun shriveling into a sad, mummified husk on the mound. (Give it time, Fernando — give it time.) Freddy Galvis helpfully lofted the 22nd pitch into the neighborhood of the third-base line, near home plate. Jose Reyes camped under it, drifted near an anxious-looking Travis d’Arnaud, then used his glove as a cesta to heave the ball over TdA’s head and send it rolling across the first-base line. That bit of slapstick kept the Phillies alive and moved the tying run to third.
Jerry Blevins came in and gave up a long double down the left-field line to Andres Blanco, a hit that would have scored Galvis but for his own sloth on Reyes’s misplay. (Quite the showcase for the national pastime tonight!) The game was tied and went into extra innings, the one place besides Soilmaster Stadium the Mets would rather not be right now. Mercifully, they at least imploded quickly, giving us a dizzying sequence of misplays and balls not quite fielded before slinking off on the wrong side of a wretched 6-2 loss.
Analysis? Must we? Early-season gag jobs like this are Rorschach blots — everyone will have his or her own interpretation, united only by being equally depressing. The relievers are exhausted in general and a couple are being ridden onto the DL, which is one of Terry Collins‘s less-amusing tricks … yet a manager has few alternatives when starters don’t supply length and offensive ineptitude removes all margin for error.
Jeurys Familia will be back soon, which should help. Reyes’s career body of work and recent performance suggest that he only looks like he’s completely forgotten to play baseball, though the act has been pretty goddamn convincing. Should he play the role too well for too long it will be time for Amed Rosario or a combination of Wilmer Flores and [I Dunno, Insert Someone Here] to report for duty instead.
But it’s too early for that. It’s too early for much of anything.
The season doesn’t have a story arc yet … which never stops us from playing fortune teller and writing our own. We stare into our cups and turn a few soggy tea leaves into a vast and woeful plantation when we’d be better off gritting our teeth and simply waiting. Every team has stretches where injuries, deficiencies and buzzards’ luck make you wonder if they’ll ever win again. From May through August we moan and groan but beneath all the noise we know it’s nothing personal, just the baseball gods telling us it’s our turn.
April and September aren’t like that, though. In those months we think we see destiny in a crummy week and go on a search-and-destroy mission for meaning. Most of the time we find nothing and only exhaust ourselves in the hunt. Soon enough it turns out it was just baseball, being wonderful and cruel and ridiculous without caring what we think of it.
This delightful game was my lone cameo between trips to Florida and California. Awesome! See you in a few days. Until then, be good to my blog partner, who’s taking on more than his share at a time when watching baseball’s not much fun.
As soon as Sunday’s game ended horribly, I thought of a similar four-game weekend road series. The Mets won the first game then, too; everything that had been going great felt even more wonderful. Then they lost the next three in varying shades of excruciating. The dates were July 17-20 in 1986, which should tell you that it all worked out in the end.
In the moment, however, the losses were awful. A Friday night shutout, the first we’d experienced all year. A dramatic Saturday night ninth-inning game-tying rally negated by a two-out walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth. A Sunday afternoon finale that marched grimly into Sunday night, decided on an irritatingly bad call at the plate in the bottom of the fifteenth, giving the home team, the Houston Astros, three wins in a row at the expense of our previously beyond-reproach Mets.
It’s not a perfect parallel, mostly because between the Saturday and Sunday games thirty-one years ago, four Mets were arrested and spent the night in jail, a.k.a. the Cooter’s incident (with off-duty Houston cops making as bad a call as the one Greg Bonin made to end that series). Also, the Mets were miles in first place more than halfway through the season, so if any enterprise could sustain three vexing losses, it was the 1986 Mets.
Nevertheless, they vexed, perhaps at the same level the three losses the Mets experienced in Miami this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Honest to god, I came away thinking this time around, as conventional wisdom held way back when, “This could be a playoff preview.”
The Marlins looked good enough to echo those Astros, who, of course, we met that October. Houston was still in a race with San Francisco in July 1986, yet you knew in your bones that matchup was coming. I know no such thing about anything in April of 2017. I tend to overestimate the Marlins going into every year and am delighted by my eventually being proven inaccurate, for like everybody else here, I detest the Marlins. But those frolicking Fish looked and played like the essence of indefatigable all weekend, rising from the sixteen-inning canvas Thursday and punching back successfully all weekend.
The Mets, on the other hand, looked like they’d been TKO’d by having to put in overtime on the first night of the series. The manager pretty much repeated the “we’re tired” line every chance he got. Give him points for honesty, I suppose, though you wonder why he couldn’t book a teamwide reservation at the same rejuvenating spa the Marlins — who played the same sixteen innings on Thursday — must have availed themselves of to return to fighting trim. Maybe it was the aftereffects of travel or the lack of an off day or the average age of the starting lineup being old enough to remember the Astrodome. Maybe it was Terry Collins projecting. He doesn’t make excuses. He offers earnest, impassioned explanations. Sometimes you wish he simply said, “Tough game, we’ll go get ’em tomorrow.”
I’m confident they will. Still, it would have been nice to have gotten ’em yesterday and the two days before, even accounting for the silly rule about not winning them all. Sunday’s game seemed maddeningly just out of reach all day, despite the work of yet another Met starting pitcher who appeared plenty fresh. Matt Harvey is an early candidate to win Comeback Player of the Year for the second time in three years. He may have a Bret Saberhagen odd-year thing going (which we’ll take for now and worry about the inverse next year). For six innings, he was very sharp and very unsupported. The Mets avoided scoring for him. Didn’t even threaten, lest they mistakenly help the Dark Knight see daylight. Harvey used to run up against Jose Fernandez in Miami in these types of encounters, and if he came out on the short end, you had to file it under those being the breaks, ace versus ace unfolding as it will.
Matt’s mound opponent Sunday was Dan Straily. Not an ace, but who asks for credentials when you’re no-hitting an opponent for innings on end? Straily Dan rolled along, taking his no-hitter into the sixth, or as long as Don Mattingly would allow him. Relievers entered and the hitlessness continued clear to two out in the eighth. The Mets broke up that nonsense with consecutive singles, but the zero they had in the all-important run column held. They trailed by an insurmountable 2-0 heading into the ninth.
Then the surmounting at last commenced. Travis d’Arnaud singled with one out. With two out, sneaky fast Wilmer Flores singled and then hustled to take advantage of a Stanton flub in right and the Mets had second and third. Asdrubal Cabrera pinch-hit and drove them both in. The Mets tied a game they’d barely been in. More Amazin’: a Miguel Rojas double to deep left with Marcell Ozuna on first in the bottom of the ninth did not end the game. Yoenis Cespedes — let’s call him Yoarmis — brilliantly barehanded the ball off the wall and fired it to Cabrera, who had stayed in the game to play short. Cabrera lasered the ball to d’Arnaud, and Travis, for the second time Sunday, expertly (and legally) blocked the plate to successfully tag an onrushing runner. Three innings earlier it was Cespedes to Jose Reyes to d’Arnaud to nail Justin Bour, who victimized himself with one of those slides where the entire body bounces as if the dirt surrounding home is a trampoline.
Momentum doesn’t turn any faster than a 7-6-2 putout…unless it’s rookie J.T. Riddle turning on Addison Reed’s two-out delivery and sending it over the Marlins Park wall to end the game an eye blink later. The Marlins won in jubilant 4-2 fashion, the second game in a row there was much walkoff celebrating by the wrong team, the third game in a row when the ninth was the cruelest frame.
Noah Syndergaard was solid on Friday. Jacob deGrom was spectacular on Saturday. Matt Harvey was somewhere in between on Sunday. The Mets lost every one of those games anyway. The eight-man bullpen featured nobody who could record a definitive out. The lineup took most innings off in order to reflect. Catnaps were grabbed in plain sight. The sizzling winning streak the Mets extended upon hitting town has been replaced by a nagging losing streak that requires reversing Tuesday night at Citi Field against the Phillies. I’m willing to chalk the whole thing up to a case of long season/good club/bad weekend.
But what a bad weekend. Thank God It Isn’t Friday, Saturday or Sunday anymore.
It would have been nice had somebody gotten three outs without giving up three runs in the eighth inning of a Jackie Robinson Night celebration that rapidly deteriorated into, as a Twitter correspondent of mine so aptly put it, the Bummer of 42. Jacob deGrom…Fernando Salas…Jerry Blevins…the Easter Bunny…whoever. That remains my takeaway ample hours after a postgame loaded down with ping-ponging recriminations.
DeGrom, dazzling almost without pause since a couple of early belts from Elijah the Passover Gopher, could have started the eighth, considering there is no confirmed scientific evidence that his right arm, unquestionably valuable as it is, was going to fall off for him having thrown a few more than 97 pitches.
Salas, whose right arm might have already fallen off (it’s amazing what they can do with CGI these days), could have been led away from the mound after surrendering a troubling two-out walk and an anxiety-inducing two-run homer.
Blevins, one of four lefties populating a bullpen so crowded that the manager doesn’t want to go there anymore (yet does, frequently), could have been the choice to face lethal lefty Christian Yelich. Instead, Blevins sat and Yelich did a very unChristian thing to Salas, sending one of Fernando’s pitches in the direction of Jerusalem, or at least Boca Raton.
My takeaway doesn’t matter. The Marlins did the taking away that mattered, taking away a 4-2 Mets lead and converting it into a 5-4 win for their own insidious Saturday Night purposes. DeGrom (7 IP, 2 ER, 4 H, 1 BB, THIRTEEN STRIKEOUTS and probably the best 2017 Met who has yet to wear The Crown) wound up with a no-decision after Terry Collins made one of his Terryble decisions — not necessarily terrible, just characteristically typical. He opted to protect the business limb of one of his tri-aces in the belief that pitches not thrown in April will preserve his viability for starts up the road. In doing so, he potentially sacrificed a win now for who knows what later. Making deGrom go one more inning, per the manager’s cranky explanation, might have destroyed the republic, or perhaps done untoward damage to a pitcher who needed to pay down the deduction on his Ramirezcare and have an ulnar nerve repaired.
Would one more inning have killed deGrom or at least made him untenable in the 2017 long-term? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know. I understand why Terry wants to proceed with caution. I also assume Terry wants to win, and winning behind a starting pitcher who’s been turning out the lights all night — thirteen frigging strikeouts! — seems the best bet to lay down in any South Florida fronton.
But the S.S. deGrom had sailed and Fernando Salas’s tugboat was again being asked to blow its horn with whatever fuel it had in its tank. It’s a seaworthy vessel, all right, so much so that the skipper takes it for a three-out cruise virtually nightly. Two-thirds of the journey was splendid. The last part washed ashore when Miguel Rojas walked, Giancarlo Stanton went deep and Yelich yanked Salas and the Mets into the depths of the deep blue sea.
Presumably Blevins had a good view of the wreckage as he trotted in after Salas’s seahorse was out of the barn.
There are no foolproof answers to, “What should have Terry done?” because hypotheticals refuse to contain them. There are educated guesses, though, and the ones that speculated, “Bring Salas in” and “Leave Salas in” probably needed to go back for more educating. The best answer was, “Win the freaking game,” an option that didn’t seem to top the manager’s priorities, but he’s got the whistle, the clipboard and practically the longest tenure in Met managerial history and I’m just some guy trying to figure out which 42 is which.
You can’t win them all? Seriously? That’s a thing?
That’s a thing. It may be an unwritten rule, but it appears inviolable. Despite five consecutive days during which it felt as if the Mets would never lose again, they lost on Friday night. The defeat unleashed a sensation previously experienced less than a week before, yet I had forgotten how much it sucks.
It sucks a lot. Not just losing, but losing by one run in a low-scoring game in which your ace of aces is going and a tie is in effect until there are two outs in the bottom of the ninth and your least-desired relief pitcher (though that’s a close call) appears ever so close to pushing the night toward morning, which you wouldn’t mind, considering how well it worked the night and morning before.
But nah. Noah Syndergaard was effective instead of overwhelming; Josh Edgin was Edgin instead of anybody else; and the Stupid Marlins, as they are referred to in the league charter, pushed across the tiebreaking run to win, 3-2, and end our heretofore presumably endless winning streak.
You know a loss is coming eventually, but you’d prefer it plop itself down with a dose of “oh well” Them 11 Us 3 fatalism as Montero, Gilmartin and (of course) Edgin sacrificially lamb it so the likes of the shall we say real pitchers can get an extra day of rest en route to starting a new and longer winning streak tomorrow. In the loss we got, Noah was fine for his six innings, fine being a modest disappointment in Thorworld. He was undermined early by an infield fling gone wild and taken down ultimately by a couple of rogue fingernails. Between nails and blisters, you wonder if Syndergaard can just have his undefeated hair do his throwing for him or just dominate by force of personality.
Difficult to not notice the two-run ration with which Thor and his successors had to operate. The Mets placed runners on base by the multitude but the timely hits needed to convert them to runs were confiscated by security. Bright spots — a Duda bomb, a Conforto peg, Edgin fanning Ichiro — dim when the final montage consists of some Stupid Marlin doubling and another Stupid Marlin dashing home and all the Stupid Marlins embracing as Stupid Marlins will when given a reason.
Stupid Marlins. Furshlugginer Mets. Not the most optimal of matchups.
Yours truly visited with the crew of acclaimed Queens-based podcast Live From The Barrage, an episode on which hosts and guest spent an hour being rabid about the Mets. I was on, ostensibly, to talk about Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, but we meandered merrily all about Metsopotamia, starting at the 1:11 mark. I encourage you to listen. Chalk up the part where I look forward to writing up the game in progress as a Mets win to the intoxication of highly engaging conversation.
A grand slam? The Marlins thought they were gonna beat the Mets with a grand slam? Hey, Marlins, I got a team I wanna introduce you to: the Phillies. The Phillies thought they were gonna beat the Mets with a grand slam. Hey, Phillies, tell the Marlins how that worked out.
Yeah, I thought so.
The Phillies tried to beat the Mets on Wednesday night with a grand slam like they thought one big swing is the baseball equivalent of an incontrovertibly lethal weapon. What happened? The Mets left Philadelphia on a winning streak. We’d ask Maikel Franco for further comment, but he, like his teammates, were last seen eating the Mets’ dust.
Do the Marlins get scouting reports? Watch tape? Listen in on the grapevine? Don’t they know that grand slams don’t kill, don’t wound and don’t stop the New York Mets?
Apparently not, because in the very first inning Thursday night in Miami, the Marlins went straight into the Phillie playbook — load the bases, hit a home run, put four runs on the board. What, that again? Yawn. Marcell Ozuna took Robert Gsellman pretty deep, but not deep enough.
We acknowledge that Ozuna or later, the Fish are gonna get ya, especially in their own often haunted aquarium, usually later than Ozuna got Gsellman’s early-evening goat. But a grass roots grand slam was not the bait these Mets were gonna swallow whole before calling it a night.
The night, you understand, wasn’t going anywhere until we said it was.
Our boys trailed, 4-0, after one. Then they tied it in the second. We’ll see your grand slam with a catcher tripling in three runs — who said these Mets can’t triple? — and the catcher being driven in from third shortly thereafter. The catcher was Travis d’Arnaud, generating approximately as much offense in one trip around the bases as he did during last year’s trip around the sun.
By the third, the Mets were homering rather than tripling, one from Yoenis Cespedes, one from Wilmer Flores. In the fifth, Yo did it again. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Citizens Bank Marlins Park. Cespy and Flo “settled” for socking solo blasts, so it was only 7-4. More runs would have made more sense on paper, but clearly the Mets had already calculated how ineffectual grand slams have become in the current climate.
Gsellman, on the other hand, was growing in efficacy. His first inning was rough, but his second, third and fourth were spotless and scoreless. Three more outs would position him for the win, that curio that continues to linger from Henry Chadwick’s well-meaning 19th-century bookkeeping.
Gsellman, co-founder of the Metropolitan Bacon-Saving Consortium (established in conjunction with Seth Lugo, August 2016), pitched like he didn’t care about wins or losses. Dismissing ancient metrics with a flair nearly as postmodern as his coif, Bobby G put a few batters on. A couple scored. He left. Josh Edgin came in.
Soon enough, we could cheer a great delivery to the plate. True, it was from Jay Bruce in right gunning down Justin Bour after the Marlins had strung together four runs to take an 8-7 lead, but what an arm on that guy!
Edgin gave way to Rafael Montero, yet the Mets didn’t panic. No, they patiently waited for Cespedes to set things right. Sure enough, in the seventh, Yo struck out but took first anyway, because Yo’s on one of his torrid streaks during which outs land him on base. Did I say first? Yo not only struck out, but then proceeded to second via wild pitch. It was like he was going to score on nothing more than a single.
It was, in fact, remarkably like that when Bruce (who’d earlier confounded one of those awful shifts with a beautiful bunt) singled to left and Cespedes motored around third before rumbling across the plate. Among those patiently waiting to greet the triumphant baserunner was Neil Walker, a genuine student and fan of the game. He knows Yo is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, and when you’re fortunate enough to have the vantage point Neil was afforded as on-deck batter, you stand and you watch and you appreciate the athletic miracle that is Yoenis. You surely don’t make any crazy motions telling your teammate to get down and slide. Neil didn’t motion, Yo didn’t slide and Angel Hernandez of all people called Cespedes safe with the Mets’ eighth and tying run.
So, yeah, it was like Yoenis could score, but somebody with a replay button somewhere got confused and called him out, taking away that run. Imagine the nerve of a person overruling Angel Hernandez.
The Mets didn’t score in the seventh. That’s what they make eighth innings for. Travis, a certifiably high-functioning offensive machine in odd years, singled with two out, and Michael Conforto, a.k.a. Le Grand Ingenue, leapt from the bench and pinch-doubled home the best-hitting catcher the Mets have had since the 2015 rendition of Travis d’Arnaud. For the second time in two innings, the score changed to 8-8. For the first time in two innings, the score stuck.
Consistency would reign for a fashion. Mets relievers stopped giving up runs and Mets batters chose not to add any. Jacob deGrom pinch-hit. René Rivera played some first. Juan Lagares rematerialized. The score stuck at 8-8. The Marlins, having ridden their one-trick grand slam pony to no avail, couldn’t take advantage. Montero, Blevins, Salas, Reed…oh, we’re not done…Josh Smoker for three innings, human rosin bag Hansel Robles (you can find him on the mound every night) in the fifteenth…what’s the matter, Marlins, cat got your grand slam?
Finally, in the sixteenth, Td’A decided he had somewhere better to be and stroked a home run to put the Mets up, 9-8. Robles walked Christian Yelich to start the bottom of the seventh extra inning, but then took care of Stanton, Bour and old news Ozuna to preserve the first-place Mets’ fifth victory in a row, their second straight in which an opponent’s grand slam served little purpose other than decorative.
The entire exercise lasted five hours and thirty-eight minutes, surely enough time for the Marlins to brush up on their history. Maybe they didn’t know about Franco’s futile gesture from the night before. Maybe they didn’t know that on twenty occasions prior to 2017 the Mets have laughed in the face of grand slams — HA! — and gone on to win ballgames.
It had happened most recently in September of 2015, the afternoon the Mets brushed off Wilson Ramos’s four-by-four-bagger en route to executing the Nationals altogether. It happened in May of 2014 at whichever Yankee Stadium was around then. Gnattish Brett Gardner drove in four with one swing, but we had whichever Chris Young was around then and prevailed, 9-7.
Twice in 2012, grand slams were no more than showy window dressing, once off the bat of Todd Helton, once flying from the lumber of lumbering Ryan Howard, who pulled the same bit in 2008…also without it helping his team win. A Mets Classic staple, the Beltran walkoff versus Isringhausen and the Cardinals, was set up in part by an Albert Pujols grand slam that did not prevent that sterling August 2006 contest from ascending to heavy-rotation SNY status.
You know the guy who stands adjacent to first base and pats Met baserunners on the rear? Tom Goodwin? His grand slam at Coors Field for the Rockies in April of 2000 didn’t stop the Mets from getting Rockie-mountin’ high. Two years before Goodwin, there was Ryan Jackson of the Marlins slamming in a losing cause versus the Mets, and if you don’t remember Ryan Jackson of the Marlins, you probably vaguely recall a Larry Jones from the Braves. Of course he Chipped in a grand slam at Turner Field against the Mets in 1997. And of course the Mets won anyway.
When we’re talking grand slams that don’t fatally pierce Met armor, we’re talking:
• former Mets like Mike Vail (for the Cubs in 1979 as part of a five-run onslaught in the bottom of the eleventh that couldn’t quite answer the Mets’ barrage of six in the top of the eleventh, the scoringest eleventh inning there ever was);
• former Met farmhands like Jody Davis (for the Cubs in 1987, a footnote amid the Mets’ franchise-best one-game run total of twenty-three);
• former/future Mets like Hubie Brooks (for the Expos in 1989 while Gary Carter, for whom he’d been traded five years earlier, was driving in five);
• future Mets Spring Training invitees like Terry Puhl (for the Astros in 1982, the otherwise polite Canadian-born outfielder slammed closer Neil Allen to tie things up at nine, but Allen, batting for himself in the twelfth, stole the lead back on behalf of Bambi’s Bandits thanks to a Houston error and George Bamberger’s steadfast belief that closers should just keep closing);
• and future Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell. Stargell hit sixty home runs against the Mets during his Cooperstown-bound career. Nobody — not Howard, not Jones, not anybody — has hit more. One of Stargell’s shots was a grand slam off Jon Matlack, launched August 5, 1976. Matlack simply shrugged and went about defeating Pops and the Pirates in Pittsburgh, 7-4.
The remainder of the relevant ranks don’t share the rarefied air of a Stargell, a Pujols or a grown man who prefers to be called Chipper, but they could be sharp thorns in the sides of Mets pitchers: Melvin Nieves of the Padres in 1995; his San Diego teammate Brian Johnson in 1994 (Johnson’s lifetime OPS versus the Mets over more than a hundred plate appearances was nearly a thousand); Phillie backstop Darren Daulton in 1992; Giant infielder Ernest Riles in 1990; Pirate first baseman Jason Thompson in 1983 (in the first game of the cherished Banner Day doubleheader the Mets swept when Mookie Wilson scored from second on a groundout in the twelfth inning of the nightcap, the second twelfth inning that Shea Sunday); and the first batter who probably mistakenly believed a grand slam at the Mets’ expense would lead to a win, Vic Davalillo of the 1969 Cardinals at Busch Stadium. More than two months before Steve Carlton’s nineteen strikeouts went for Swobodan naught in the same ballpark, Davalillo pinch-hit against Ron Taylor after Jerry Koosman loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Vic vaporized Ron for a plenty potent pinch-hit — the Mets had been up, 4-0, but were now knotted, 4-4. Yet it wasn’t that potent. Six innings later, the Mets scored twice and went on to win, 6-4.
It took more than an opponent’s grand slam to slow the 1969 Mets, just as it’s taken more than opponent grand slams on consecutive nights — the second of them an extraordinarily long night — to impede the 2017 Mets. Good tries, Maikel and Marcell. Just not good enough.