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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Can’t Any Bunny Here Play This Game?

Fine with me if you dug into a basketful of chocolate bunnies, creme eggs and jelly beans on Sunday. Or macaroons, mandel cuts and leftover sponge cake. Whatever kind of peep you fancy yourself, I do hope you didn’t confine yourself to only sweets and treats. No matter how festive the occasion, filling up exclusively from the candy & cake plank of the food pyramid doesn’t make for a well-rounded diet.

You know what you can snack on too many of to the exclusion of what’s good for you? Solo home runs. I love a solo home run now and then. Everybody does. But that’s not a meal. It’s a sugar rush at best, and not the kind you get when Edwin “Sugar” Diaz rushes in from the bullpen to successfully protect a ninth-inning lead.

Nevertheless, the Mets attempted to create a feast from four leavened fly balls on Easter Sunday/the second day of Passover in St. Louis. Each was tasty. A couple were so brightly wrapped you were tempted to paste the foil in your scrapbook. But altogether they weren’t enough by themselves to help the Mets pass over the Cardinals on the scoreboard or rise in the NL East standings.

You want clickable highlights? You got to press “PLAY” to your heart’s content, albeit in a losing cause. Pete Alonso going 444 feet off erstwhile college rival Dakota Hudson was immediate social media gold, especially with the backstory that he beseeched Mickey Callaway to let him play the day after a pitch hit him in the hand. “I must rain down plagues on the House of Hudson!” Alonso righteously thundered as dramatic prelude to his eighth homer of the young year. Or Sweet Pete simply pestered his manager persistently and, ultimately, effectively. Either way, Alonso got even with whatever forces he had it in for in the first inning, launching a ball so far that it was not only hit off a Dakota, it probably landed in one.

But it was one run.

Noah Syndergaard, this generation’s Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden when it comes to pitchers homering, was another video clip darling Sunday. In the fourth, a long Thor fly cleared the Busch Stadium fence, spiked for a point by Cardinal middle blocker Dexter Fowler, whose unorthodox defense in the moment — the ball bounced off his glove — would have been welcome by the Redbird faithful had the wall been a net and the sport been volleyball. In baseball, however, the center fielder’s gotta catch those to keep the opponent from scoring. We who don’t dress in red didn’t mind the assist one little bit. We adore when our pitchers homer. We are practically used to having our anti-DH stance so brilliantly illustrated. Twenty Nineteen marks the fifth consecutive season in which we have witnessed two or more home runs slugged by Met pitchers, and Syndergaard’s latest raised the Met pitcher tater total for the 2010s to fourteen, tying the 1980s Mets for most in a decade, with 141 games remaining to set a new standard.

But it was one run.

By the time Noah crossed home plate with his fifth career home run — trailing only Gooden’s seven and Seaver’s six among Met hurlers — he’d already given up five runs. True, his shortstop’s leather wasn’t necessarily kosher for baseball…and the official judgment of balls and strikes was best suited for Charmin (please don’t squeeze the Syndergaard)…but Noah knew better than to blame Amed Rosario or Bruce Dreckman. “Unacceptable,” the starter called his pitching this season to date, clear through to his five innings of six-run ball in St. Louis, which left his 2019 ERA festering at 5.90. Nobody watching from New York was prepared to argue his self-aware point let alone accept his recent output. Syndergaard is a very talented pitcher who’s delivered some spectacular games for the Mets since 2015. Right now he’s more famous than good.

The rest of the Mets’ offense was Robinson Cano hitting a solo home run in the fifth; Robinson Cano being hit by a pitch in the seventh; Robinson Cano writhing on the ground in pain; Robinson Cano having been deemed by crew chief and third base ump Paul Emmel to have swung for a strike despite being hit by said pitch before he swung; Robinson Cano leaving the game with a two-strike count; Juan Lagares entering to complete Robinson Cano’s jury-rigged strikeout; and Michael Conforto hitting a solo home run two batters later. You can’t swear Conforto’s shot would have happened had Lagares been on first as a pinch-runner instead of on the bench as a technically blameless pinch-hitter, but he wasn’t, so Michael’s homer, like Robinson’s, wound up an exercise in not-so-splendid isolation.

Four home runs unadorned by baserunners was it for the Mets in what became a 6-4 loss to end a 4-6 trip on a 2-6 sag. It was also, per Baseball Reference, the fourth time in club history — and the first time on the road — the Mets attempted, however unwittingly, to get by on four solo homers and no other kind of run…and the fourth time it didn’t work.

On August 2, 1962, the Mets’ two prime power threats from their inaugural season, Frank Thomas (34 home runs) and Marv Throneberry (16) each whacked the Phillies’ Art Mahaffey for a pair of dingers at the Polo Grounds. Marvelous, right? Alas, Mahaffey whacked back by allowing nothing else but a single (to Thomas) across nine otherwise sparkling innings. Philadelphia won, 9-4.

On June 13, 1997, the Mets welcomed an American League opponent into Shea Stadium for the first non-exhibition time since the 1986 World Series. Fittingly, their initial Interleague foe was the Boston Red Sox. Less fittingly, the Mets lost, 8-4, despite two long balls from Carl Everett and one apiece from Todd Hundley and Alex Ochoa. The Mets totaled twelve hits in all, but future playoff nightmare Jeff Suppan and five relievers limited their damage to just that quartet of solo acts.

On August 5, 2017, Citi Field was the site of four solos, no winning. The trajectory was frontloaded in this one. Rich Hill surrendered a leadoff homer to Conforto, then, following two outs, back-to-back blasts from Wilmer Flores and Curtis Granderson. We had three hits and three runs. We were poised for rare greatness versus the Dodgers. Or so we fleetingly thought. Hill settled in for his requisite five innings, no longer giving up home runs or any other runs. Eventually, the Mets fell behind, 7-3. In the ninth, René Rivera added a touch of solo window dressing to make it a 7-4 loss.

Sixteen home runs. Sixteen runs batted in. Four vacuums. Four defeats: 9-4, 8-4, 7-4, now 6-4. The futility seems inevitable, but at least the games are getting closer.

Seems Like Old Times

Those of you who say the New York Mets don’t respect their history should be ashamed of yourselves.

Why, on Saturday the Mets held a throwback event that was meticulously researched and thoroughly authentic — and they did it for a road game, no less!

The Mets’ Turn Back the Clock 2017 event began on a familiar note, with Chris Flexen on the hill. Back in 2017, Flexen had just turned 23 and was clearly not ready for prime time, as his 7.88 ERA indicated. That was a while ago, and it was fair to ask if Flexen could possibly recreate the magic of that bygone campaign. But on this sunny April Saturday in 2019, Flexen took pains to make sure he looked like the vintage model. High and straight fastballs, not particularly tight curves — he served them up and the Cardinals got into the spirit by whacking them all over the park.

With Flexen having done his part, the Mets turned to non-2017 Met Luis Avilan, the one jarring note in their otherwise careful homage to a year we all remember so fondly. But Avilan soon departed, to be replaced by … Jacob Rhame! Yes, the same begoggled hero who put up a 9.00 ERA in a late-season cameo back in ’17. He was on point, too, turning in a singularly unimpressive 1.1 innings.

Even the fondest memories cool after a time, so Rhame handed off the nostalgia baton to old friend Paul Sewald, recently celebrated in these parts as the Mets’ latest Jonah. Arriving with such accolades, Sewald could have simply doffed his cap and let us soak in reminiscences of his 4.55 ERA as a newly minted big-leaguer. But he went the extra mile — of course he did, he’s Paul Sewald — by surrendering a run as well. What did you expect? Eric Clapton doesn’t sit in on a number without giving the audience a solo.

All this impressive work by beloved 2017 Mets was part of a 10-2 loss to the Cardinals. And kudos to the Mets there as well. Because if we’re celebrating 2017 — as we so obviously should — a humdrum 4-1 loss would feel perfunctory, like a mere exercise to make the cash registers ring.

It wasn’t a perfect recreation, alas. We didn’t get Terry Collins finding a reason to sit Michael Conforto, or Nori Aoki patrolling the outfield like he’d lost a bet, or Tomas Nido ending the game by getting tagged out 20 feet shy of home plate. But no matter how high the tides of yearning, you can’t go home again. A fellow wrote a book about that once, they say. It’s good advice.

My biggest regret on an otherwise perfect day was the absence of Tommy Milone. Milone exemplified the 2017 Mets — 0-3 record, 8.56 ERA, reporting for duty despite no resemblance to a big-league pitcher — but in fairness he was busy, starting for the Tacoma Rainiers on the road against the Albuquerque Isotopes.

Milone was busy, but there in spirit: Ed Leyro, our old friend and fellow 2017 Mets devotee, notes that before Saturday, the Tommy Gun’s 8.56 ERA was the highest for any Met who’d made at least five starts. But no longer — that record now belongs to fellow ’17 star Flexen, whose career mark in 11 starts stands at 8.59.

I know, I know — I need a minute too. This must be what it felt like watching Ted Williams bat on that final day in ’41, or seeing Henry Aaron running down a legend in the spring of ’74. Chills, I tell you.

And while Milone couldn’t soak in our grateful applause on Saturday, in Albuquerque he gave up four in the first, en route to a 12-4 loss.

Now that’s a True 2017 Met.

Get Us Over

We know from starters, emergency starters, long relievers, middle men, lefty specialists, setup men and closers. In 2018, thanks mostly to the machinations of the Tampa Bay Rays, we were introduced to something called the opener.

Jason Vargas filled none of those defined roles Friday night in St. Louis. Yes, he started as scheduled, though any scheduled Jason Vargas start is essentially an emergency. Because he threw the first pitch of the game, you couldn’t call him a reliever. Because there was no plan to limit him to one inning or one batter, he wasn’t exactly an opener. Because Mickey Callaway knows what he has in Vargas, he wasn’t going to extend him an open-ended invitation to keep pitching until his participation was no longer optimal…yet he wasn’t on a strict pitch count, so there was no obvious off ramp to his evening.

Somehow, on the heels of a very stressful piece of Met pitching news, Jason Vargas provided relief, going four innings, giving up one run on three hits and three walks and getting the hell out of Dodge with a three-run lead at his manager’s behest. He looked as good as he possibly could soldiering through the Cardinal order precisely twice, which is to say two very deep fly balls were somehow contained within the confines of Busch Stadium and a typically VERY VARGAS debacle was ducked. As aficionados of the Vargas Index are keenly aware, SORT OF VARGAS represents a triumph of the human spirit, a veritable schissel of chicken soup for the Mets fan’s soul.

In another era — or in this one with another pitcher — you’d cringe that a healthy pitcher up 4-1 one inning shy of a decision would be pulled. With this pitcher who is almost never NOT AT ALL VARGAS, you had to be thrilled luck wasn’t hubristically pushed. Jason threw 75 pitches to record his twelve outs. The one run he yielded came in the fourth, on a leadoff home run by Jose Martinez, his fourteenth hitter overall. Hitter No. 16 of 18, Dexter Fowler, walked. You could feel the leaves crumbling from Vargas’s clover. To escape minimally scathed was to succeed. Asking this particular starter, whose previous outing lasted one-third of an inning too long (which is to say one-third of an inning), would have constituted managerial malpractice.

Mickey occasionally properly processes the limitations of his personnel. In the pregame presser, Callaway said he just wanted to “get through” the upcoming game, which is an unorthodox rallying cry until you comprehend the context. The skipper had been asked how the rest of the series might play out from a starting pitching standpoint in light of that very stressful piece of news alluded to above. True, late Friday afternoon Mickey didn’t know who was going to pitch on Saturday night, but he definitely knew who was going to be pitching on Friday night. No use soft-pedaling the reality that a Jason Vargas start is the competitive equivalent of a get us over curve.

Jason’s four & door meant getting through nine would require five bullpen innings, a daunting order to be sure, but a scant request compared to the 7⅔ needed in Vargas’s last start. His successors would be working from ahead this time, thanks to a plethora of Met baserunners off Adam Wainwright and Geovanny Gallegos during the first four innings, enough driven in to construct four runs (Robinson Cano fully awoke from his offensive nap with three hits and raised his batting average from .192 to .218). Seth Lugo thus had some wiggle room when he entered in the fifth, which was great, because he had to wiggle it quite a little bit, stranding two in his first inning of work and giving up two runs on Lane Thomas’s first-ever homer in his second.

The net result of Seth’s shakiness was the contraction of a three-run advantage to two. In between his frames, that young hellcat Pete Alonso — who’d somehow gone an entire week without exploring the real estate beyond National League fences — stepped up and belted a 432-foot home run to center off Cards reliever Ryan Helsley. Pete mashes all his taters off relievers. He loves the other team’s almost as much as Mickey is compelled to rely on his own.

Jeurys Familia, whose presence used to make me a little nervous on occasion but now catapults me into a constant state of fatalism, was superb in the seventh, putting down the Redbirds in order on seven pitches. Who could blame Callaway for continuing to roll his Familia dice? He’d been so admirably careful not to expose Vargas, why not give Jeurys a shot? One out and one double — to Yadier Molina, natch — indicated his luck had been pushed plenty. Familia gave way to Justin Wilson, who proceeded to mix dollops of misfortune (infield single, J.D. Davis throwing error) with a spate of bad pitching (four unintentional balls to Kolten Wong, of them of the wild pitch variety). The cumulative effect wound up trimming the Mets’ lead to 5-4 and placing Cardinals on first and third. Wilson vamoosed in favor of Robert Gsellman, who’s been having not such a great year to date. Maybe it was his turn to turn it around, and he did, popping up Jedd Gyorko and grounding out Matt Carpenter. The Mets escaped the eighth up one.

This is where Edwin Diaz comes in and blows away the opposition for another breeze of a save, but these are the Mets and those are the Cardinals and this is the bottom of the ninth at Busch Stadium. That’s not fatalism talking. We know St. Louis. It’s not the Gateway to Easy Wins. Sure enough, after striking out Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong proved nearly one Paul one too many. He lined Diaz’s one-oh slider on a plane to left field, but before you could say “there’s trouble in River City” three times fast, ace glove man Jeff McNeil — just transferred in from the outfield — nabbed that harbinger of doom for the second out. McNeil took a rare collar Friday night, his 0-for-5 plunging his .424 BA clear down to .391, but this is one Squirrel who always finds some kind of nut.

You’d have to be some kind of nut yourself to figure the storm had passed. Diaz walked Marcell Ozuna and allowed a single to Martinez, chasing Ozuna to third. The next batter was Molina. The next batter has been Molina since 2006. We survived Wainwright Friday. What were the odds we’d get through Perpetual Hurricane Yadier without one last huff and puff and potential blow of our house down?

Somehow we did. Somehow Edwin flied the Big Yad Wolf to center and the Mets were somehow 5-4 winners. I keep saying “somehow” because the more the night wore on — despite Vargas’s competent start and the visitors’ eleven hits — the more it developed a strong “we have no business winning this game” vibe. On the other hand, because of Vargas’s competent start and the visitors’ eleven hits, it also maintained an equally strong “we have no business losing this game” vibe. Sometimes the vibe you prefer high-fives you when the game is over.

Unavailable for any kind of maneuvers involving the use of an arm for at least the next week is Jacob deGrom, whose Metsian significance is so gargantuan it’s a wonder his name isn’t in the first paragraph of this otherwise relatively informative report. In the interest of preserving a modicum of good vibrations, I opted to bury the lede as deep as I could. I just hope we don’t have to bury the season. Jake, who was first going to start Friday, then Saturday, was announced as a St. Louis non-starter altogether by Callaway. The best right elbow in baseball was “barking,” the manager explained, which didn’t explain much, except variations on “barking,” including “bark” and “barky,” immediately replaced “redacted” as the most repeated word on social and electronic media.

It’s all about caution, the Mets barked back. Jacob had that strep throat, so he wasn’t on his usual between-starts routine. He felt a little “mild soreness” on the off day, but rebounded to “significantly better following treatment” from the team’s health and performance staff Friday. Leaving alone the straight line a decade of injury-fueled cynicism has bequeathed us, we’ll truly believe the trainers did no harm. Anyway, the Mets decided not to mess around with their crown jewel and opted to IL him, which is now a thing, and schedule him an MRI, which is always a thing. If you peer hard into the Mets’ skyline logo, you’ll see a magnetic resonance imaging tube whirring steadily on one of the Woolworth Building’s upper floors.

With deGrom out for a spell (and nothing more, we hope/pray/beseech the gods), Saturday’s game, the one Callaway didn’t want to think about Friday before getting through Vargas’s start, will be in the hands of Chris Flexen. Its first pitches, anyway. Lest you’ve forgotten from his Quadruple-A cameos, Flexen’s the pitcher Vargas stands next to in the team picture to feel less bad about himself. But we’ll get through this, too.

There’s a big night coming up at Citi Field May 1, a week from Wednesday. It’s Island Harvest’s “Home Run to End Hunger,” a fundraiser organized by the food bank and presented by Petro Home Services. The event will revolve around the Mets’ game versus the Reds, include a Field Level ticket, offer premium experiences depending on the level of support a person can give and feature Mr. Met. What could be more of a home run?

Island Harvest provides food and services to more than 300,000 Long Islanders who could really use the help, with “94 cents of every dollar contributed directed back” into its vital mission. You can learn more about “Home Run to End Hunger” here.

The Human Element

Wednesday’s matinee against the Phillies was simultaneously an excellent baseball game and one about which there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say at first glance: Zack Wheeler was good, but Jake Arrieta was a little better. Wheeler gave up solo homers to Scott Kingery and Cesar Hernandez, while Arrieta surrendered one to Michael Conforto, but got double plays when he needed them. Oh, and Wheeler’s line included a sac fly struck by Maikel Franco. We’ll get back to that one.

Darned if the Mets didn’t make you think they were going to pull this one out. Arrieta began the ninth with a 3-1 lead, but departed when Pete Alonso reached on an infield single. Gabe Kapler brought in Adam Morgan, who unhelpfully hit Robinson Cano in the back before retiring Conforto on a fly ball. Enter Hector Neris, who struck out J.D. Davis, but then yielded a run-scoring infield single to Amed Rosario and hit Wilson Ramos with a pitch, loading the bases for Keon Broxton.

Broxton battled through a superb at-bat, pushing the count to 3-2. A walk would tie the game; a hit could put the Mets ahead with Edwin Diaz hot and ready in the bullpen. Broxton spat on a Neris splitter that was just low and figured Neris would throw him another one.

The ball came out of Neris’s hand headed for the middle of the plate. But it didn’t dive towards the dirt — it wasn’t a splitter, but a four-seam fastball. Broxton had guessed wrong, and bent his knees in reflexive horror as the pitch zipped through the strike zone. Ballgame.

But let’s go back to that Maikel Franco sac fly. It came in the second, and put the Phils up 1-0.

Wheeler’s first pitch to Franco was a curve ball that was a strike. Go look it up — it’s nowhere near a borderline case. Ted Barrett flat-out missed it, and called it a ball. Wheeler hung a curve in the strike zone that Franco swung through, then dotted an inside fastball at the knee — a perfect pitch, but one that Barrett’s miss meant was strike two, not strike three. Wheeler tried the same pitch again and sawed Franco off, resulting in a limp fly over the infield — one that proved just deep enough to score J.T. Realmuto.

What would have happened if Barrett had called that first pitch properly? It’s too simple to say Wheeler would have punched out Franco and kept the run from scoring. Hell, maybe Franco hits the hanging curve over the fence and things wind up worse for the Mets. But what is clear is that the at-bat was changed, and the outcome of that at-bat wound up costing the Mets a run they would desperately need.

And this is now routine in baseball. In nearly every game, a critical at-bat is marred by an umpire missing balls and strikes. Sometimes it clearly matters; other times it doesn’t; most of the time we don’t know and prefer not to think about it.

It’s past time for this to change. The technology exists to take balls and strikes away from umpires, who have proven collectively unable to judge them with the accuracy both pitchers and hitters deserve. And with that long-overdue change, let’s sweep away all the sentimental nonsense around the strike zone as adjudicated by human eyes. The idea that someone’s a hitter’s ump or a pitcher’s ump on a given day would strike us as unacceptable if we had a less fallible starting point — the strike zone should be the strike zone, full stop. (And the same for “a rookie doesn’t get that pitch,” “it’s 9-1, so swing the bats, boys” and all the other unwritten inanities.) Say goodbye to pitch framing — teams have wisely focused on its value in recent years, but a skill that encourages further errors by umpires is clearly a bug and not a feature. And don’t give me the old saw that umpire mistakes “even out.” For one thing, it’s self-evidently ridiculous to accept a mistake-prone system because the inherent shoddiness deals out unfairness more or less equitably; for another, it isn’t always true, and too many World Series highlight films are evidence of that.

Yes, baseball should always be fundamentally about the human element. But that ought to be about the players, not the referees. It ought to be about whether Broxton guesses splitter or four-seamer, and whether Neris can outthink him and execute that pitch. That’s how Wednesday afternoon ended, and it made for thrilling baseball. But that outcome was shadowed by another bit of human element — Barrett’s mistake on a first pitch that shaped a critical at-bat. It’s past time for that human element to disappear so the game can be better.

'Ee's a Jonah, He Is'

I spent the last five days in Chicago, getting my Star Wars on at McCormick Place and in the hotel bar. So my Mets attention was fitful and scattershot. I saw news of the first night’s events in amazing seats behind the plate at Wrigley Field (plenty of good options available when it’s still frigid), departing in the seventh when freezing rain began tumbling out of the sky. I followed the first game in Philadelphia on MLB.TV, huddled in a corner of the Delta Sky Club while wondering if I’d ever get back to New York and if the flu I’d caught would be fatal. (So far: yes, and probably not.) I was on the plane and monitoring GameDay when I saw Michael Conforto‘s AB turn into IN PLAY, RUN(S), which I took as a good omen. As, indeed, it was.

And then I got to recap Tuesday night’s delight.

With that con flu ripping through me, I conked out in my bed around 7pm, Howie Rose and Wayne Randazzo speaking beside me. I woke up some indeterminate time later to hear Howie sounding exasperated, even by Howie standards. I peered at the phone. It was 8-0. Well, that wasn’t ideal.

From there I spent the game in a strange dose, sometimes just beneath the surface of consciousness and sometimes just above it. The Mets seemed to be getting an inordinate number of hits for a team down by double digits, and I knew if ever there was a park where impossible comebacks might happen, it was Philadelphia. My sick, slumbering brain proved more creative than actual reality, though — I kept dreaming comebacks which turned out not to exist. The gap steadily widened, the narrative turned into the relative heroism of Drew Gagnon, and Howie began complaining about HBO shows not being “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the Barclays Center and its unsuitability for hockey, and anything else about modern life that crossed his radar. (To his credit, he was generally amusing in his grumpiness, and admitted that hey, it was 14-3. Meanwhile, Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were trying on hotdog hats next door. However you tuned in, the night was more about survival than broadcasting awards.)

One thing I’d missed while in Chicago was the return of Paul Sewald. I must now sigh deeply.

For years I’ve had an odd habit of taking a deep dislike to one Met on the roster, concluding that everything that befalls the team is obviously his fault. Sometimes players deserve this by seeming generally unlikeable — Michael Tucker, Jon Niese, or Jim Leyritz in his happily brief spring-training cameo. (By the way, Steven Matz was thoroughly Niesean in his performance, and it’s high time someone taught him to stop feeling sorry for himself on the mound.)

Sometimes my deep dislike is inexplicable — I detested Jose Vizcaino for years before he became a Yankee and crushed our dreams in 2000. Couldn’t tell you why, but anyone singing the praises of “the Viz” made me want to throttle people. Other times my animosity builds gradually, in response to ever-mounting hangdog tragedy and buzzard’s luck. For an example of this last kind of dislike, we need go no farther than Aaron Heilman.

And Sewald. Sewald always looks doughty and determined, but it never makes a damn bit of difference — he’s doomed when he steps on the mound, and everybody knows it. Yeah, he was OKish Tuesday night. That’s because the game wasn’t close. If it had been 3-3 he’d have been undressed by a line drive, Charlie Brown-style, and have Jeff McNeil bring back the baseball in a dog dish. You know this, I know this, and most likely Paul Sewald knows it. (Mickey Callaway probably doesn’t, because I don’t think he knows anything.) Sewald is a warm body, a replacement level nonentity, a ham-and-egger with no detectable redeeming features besides being bipedal and ambulatory. Every day he spends on our roster eats minutely at my soul.

This tradition of inexplicable blame goes back way before baseball — in the English navy, tragic shipmates were known as Jonahs, and treated with everything from open hostility to secretly murderous intent. I certainly don’t want any of those things to happen to Sewald, who seems a decent sort, but he’s a Jonah and disaster will stalk the Mets so long as he trods the decks of the S.S. Mickey, getting whacked by booms and run over by poorly secured barrels and skulled by heavy, salt-sodden lines.

While thinking of Jonahs, a postscript: in the offseason I started gathering Topps cards for potential new players, and noticed a weird set with a unique Gregor Blanco card. What was Topps Emerald Nuts? It turned out to be a sponsored set given away at Giants games, with the same look as that year’s Topps cards but some different photos and unique cards. And I realized to my horror that it had existed from 2005 through 2012 without my being aware of it.

The Emerald Nuts people would probably say they just wanted to make a nice giveaway, but I know the truth: their sets constitute a rogue’s gallery of all-time Met Jonahs, possibly with malefic powers. The thoroughly detestable Guillermo Mota got unique Emerald Nuts cards in three different years. Fantastically useless outfielder Andres Torres got two. Inexplicably incompetent Ramon Ramirez got one. So did Joaquin Arias, and Tyler Walker, and Jose Vizcaino. So I spent the winter haunting eBay for sets featuring players I’d been happy to mostly forget, grumbling all the while.

Paul Sewald has no Emerald Nuts card. The set hasn’t been given away since 2012. But given who Sewald is, one day he will have one. That’s a when, not an if.

Saving Face if Not Time

I hope the Mets don’t have one of those mobile plans that limits their minutes, because they’re tearing through them at a prodigious rate. Time of game over the past week reads like the schedule board at Grand Central as it gears up for rush hour. 4:08; 3:15; 3:14; 3:07; 3:34; 3:36. The Harlem, Hudson and New Haven lines have rarely chugged along as deliberately as these Mets and their most recent spate of opposition. On Monday night, a date technically dedicated to the memory of Jackie Robinson, the American hero and baseball pioneer who ran fast and stole home, the pace-of-play rails slowed to an absolute crawl…but at least the Mets didn’t go off them.

It took four hours and twenty-nine minutes for the 7:05 from Philly to finally pull into the win column, including three hours and forty-six minutes ensuring a step up in fare to extra innings would be necessary. This train took its sweet time from the first inning to the ninth, then the ninth to the eleventh.

Time is apparently one commodity the Mets don’t know how to save. The game, however, got itself rescued on several occasions. Four stand out.

1) Jeff McNeil, who started in left field (and notched three hits to raise his average to .404), saved Jeurys Familia’s bacon in the eighth. Two were on, none were out, Familia had as little as possible in his arsenal while facing Maikel Franco, who hit a bullet to third. Where in the world was Jeff McNeil? In a position to grab the hot liner near the hot corner and convert it into a 6-4-3 double play that moved Odubel Herrera to third but kept the Mets’ lead at 6-5. What a lucky break that the man they call Squirrel had changed positions between half-innings. That Mickey Callaway is some genius, huh? Now all Mick had to do was be just as brilliant about taking out Familia, who had given up a single and a walk prior to Franco’s sizzler, and bring in Edwin Diaz to end the eighth and set up a serene ninth.

2) Having drawn a 4 on 16, Callaway couldn’t leave his hand be and said “hit me” again and again. Actually, he left Familia in to walk a pair of Andrews (Knapp and McCutchen) and load the bases. Having blown past 21, Mickey finally decided to deal Jeurys out of the game. Robert Gsellman, not Diaz, was his next call. It probably wasn’t Gsellman’s call to immediately walk Jean Segura, but that’s what happened, which made it a 6-6 game, which made the second save of the night possible: Juan Lagares racing from second to score when Rhys Hoskins muffed the hard grounder hit to him by Michael Conforto in the eleventh. Now that was some Jackie Robinson-style flair. Fittingly, Lagares wore 42. Less fittingly, so did everybody else. At that point, anybody who put the Mets ahead as Juan did deserved to be awarded not just the uniform number of honor but a save. After Noah Syndergaard had given back leads of 3-0 and 5-3 (he went five) and the Familia-Callaway-Gsellman straight royally flushed away the edge Brandon Nimmo gained them on his sixth-inning homer, not only the win had to be saved. So did face.

3) Diaz — remember him? — came on in the bottom of the eleventh and, for the first time as a Met, pitched like we all heard he did as a Mariner. Just a no-doubt eleven-pitch, three-strikeout dismissal of Bryce Harper, Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto, a pretty fair slugging trio to nail down the 7-6 victory. It was Edwin’s sixth and biggest save of the season, not only vaulting the Mets back into first place but kicking the Phillies the hell out of it. That’s some cold Trading Places stuff right there, apropos considering both the movie and the ballgame were shot on location in Philadelphia.

4) Though the win was safely in the books, Callaway needed to be saved again afterward when reporters couldn’t quite buy his declaration that no way, no how (at least not until the hypothetical playoffs) would he ever bring Diaz in to secure more than three outs. Seeing as how he was prepared to go down with his ship in the eighth — the S.S. Familia-Gsellman was surely taking on water — this was quite a decision to cement in advance of the next 146 games. Enter into the picture Brodie Van Wagenen to clarify and expand on Callaway’s policy, confirming this is indeed how the organization plans to use its most potent defensive weapon at critical junctures of contests that could determine the outcome of the division. Brodie allowed that there might be a touch of flexibility down the road, but to the Mets, a closer is a closer, no matter how close a critical situation might be.

Give Van Wagenen the save for coming into take some of the heat that was glancing off Callaway, I suppose. Mind you, the heat was deserved. There were instances when Diaz could have come in real handy, yet — despite having him warm up — the manager went in other directions. Gsellman. Luis Avilán. Drew Gagnon, freshly recalled from and recently started in Syracuse, was going to be the eleventh-inning man if Lagares hadn’t brought home the seventh run. Relievers are notorious for grumbling about getting up in the pen repeatedly and then not getting into the game (“dry humping,” they colorfully call it). Young Diaz said only he’s down with anything he’s asked to do by his manager.

But his general manager? The bizarreness of the postgame scene wasn’t that Callaway and Van Wagenen resided on the same debatable page. It was that Brodie thought it necessary to speak for in-game strategy. For as long as the Mets’ TV partners have been covering their clubhouse for viewer consumption, a practice that dates back at least as long as SNY as been on the air, I couldn’t recall until Monday a moment when the GM stepped forward to talk about how players had just been used and would be used. I don’t remember reading about it in the papers or seeing anything like it on the news before there was a Snigh. Omar Minaya didn’t do it. Sandy Alderson didn’t do it. The chronically kibitzy Steve Phillips resisted the temptation, at least not right after a game. There’s an unwritten rule quality to this practice. It’s a rule that probably didn’t need to be written. Managers address what happened in the game. General managers don’t pull focus unless there’s a front office kind of reason to clear a throat and announce a transaction.

BVW has never been a GM before, so you could look at his action several ways. You could say it’s inexperience, that he simply does not know that this is simply not done; you could say it’s a tacit vote of little confidence in Callaway, the manager he didn’t hire and the manager who last year did not lead the league in clear explanations; you could say it’s a bold overstep and as much of a breach of baseball etiquette as not stealing six runs up or flipping your bat toward the second deck before trotting around the bases; or you could say that Van Wagenen isn’t going to be bound by the hidebound if it doesn’t make sense to him.

I’d like to believe it’s the last one. If Callaway wasn’t getting his message across about Diaz going one inning and one inning only (as dopey as that message might be), he didn’t want to leave his manager hanging out there like a curve that didn’t break. At his inaugural press conference, the GM said something about everybody being in this Mets mission together, right up to the owners. An organization that isn’t hung up on titles and roles might be more nimble and better positioned to respond to a dozen different issues and challenges that pop up in the course of a week.

Which sounds great, even if the GM doing what a GM doesn’t traditionally do on the manager’s turf comes across as a little bush…and even if Diaz probably ought to be brought in to get batters out when the freaking game is on the line. That would be pretty nimble, too.

Everywhere You Don’t Want to Be

“I’m not really throwing the ball where I want to,” Jacob deGrom explained to reporters Sunday night. He probably meant in relation to where Brave batters could hit it. I’d add I’d have preferred Jake not throwing the ball on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, which no matter how it’s presented is an inevitable bummer.

I’ll leave it to Jake to figure out where the ball is going in advance of his next start. In deGrom we continue to trust. Our ace said he’s going to watch some video. Too bad. Nobody who roots for the Mets should ever want to watch this one again.

Sunday wasn’t Tuesday, the previous deGrom start that lacked quality. He didn’t get jumped on but he was clearly groping for his groove. For five innings it was out of his grasp, but at least he and it were in the same lane of I-285. DeGrom leaving the Mets in a 3-1 hole at SunTrust Park is not the same as Jason Vargas operating an earth mover, dumping tons of dirt on his team’s chances and skedaddling with 26 outs to go. Jake, however, did need 114 pitches for his five innings, precluding desperately desired length. He struck out nine but walked four and gave up five hits. Not quality, but not disastrous.

Except that in the wake of Vargas & Co. the night before, you’d sure like invincible deGrom to show up on cue and do what we’ve come to define as his thing. Maybe we just wish Jake could always throw the ball in 2018.

The relievers who followed him — Justin Wilson, Paul Sewald and Justin Familia — didn’t seem to throw the ball where they wanted to, either, while Met hitters for the most part didn’t hit the ball to too many useful places. Down by three in the eighth with two on, there was a moment of hope. Brandon Nimmo was up, Pete Alonso was on deck, the sense that three-and-a-half hours devoted to this exercise was going to feel worthwhile was palpable. But Brandon fanned, the Braves plumped up their lead and a 7-3 loss (played in a torpid 3:36 preceded by a 27-minute delay) oozed to a conclusion.

For this I DVR’d BillionsBarry and Veep? Well, sure. The Mets are my prime time programming of choice, even when the episode in progress begs to be flipped away from. I appreciate Howie Rose and Wayne Randazzo being more entertaining in sound than whatever was appearing in pictures, yet it’s a little early in the season to be deploying “TV down, radio up”. Early, but on Sunday night, necessary.

Piling on Sunday Night Baseball and the network that broadcasts it is an instinct as old as Paul Sewald himself, which is to say it dates back to ESPN first bringing us baseball in prime time in 1990 (which was when Sewald was born; it only feels like the Mets have been shuttling him in from Triple-A for the past 28 years). Plucking a Sunday ballgame from what we are conditioned to believe is its natural environs — Sunday afternoon — and making us wait around for hours on end plays havoc with our ballological clock. Shifting it from the warm and familiar surroundings of SNY and shoehorning it within somebody else’s platform and making our team fit somebody else’s agenda further dissonates our cognition. And whatever benefit a “national game” has for out-of-market Mets fans doesn’t resonate in the streaming age like it used to as a good reason for going Snighless.

I tried to give ESPN a chance. Before fleeing to WCBS, I listened to Matt Vasgersian set the scene. The Braves, he said, entered this game with a chance to take three of four from the Mets. The Mets, to that point, had taken two of three from the Braves.

Thumb meet mute.

Hank Aaron was a special guest in the booth for a couple of innings. Of course you want to hear from Hank Aaron when in Atlanta. Hank Aaron is the very definition of a living legend. Even if it distracts from deGrom’s (and Julio Teheran’s) pitching, you shrug it off in April. He’s Bad Henry, for goodness sake. But I couldn’t. I tried. Unmuted here and there, but Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez together could be distilled into a spray can and be marketed as baseball repellant. Mostly Vasgersian, really, but the combined effect is an ad for silence. It didn’t help that ESPN flashed a photo of what it claimed was Hank with Jackie Robinson from their playing days, Robinson the old Brooklyn Dodger, Aaron the young Milwaukee Brave. Except it was Jackie Robinson and Boston Braves outfielder Sam Jethroe. Jethroe and Aaron didn’t look much alike. They weren’t even on the same Braves club let alone in the same Braves city. To plop a cherry atop the inaccurate Sunday Night sundae, the same photo labeled the same way pinged around Twitter a few months ago and was widely spotted and corrected.

Later, when I saw a highlight package devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Mets, I unmuted again. Tommie Agee was referred to on screen as Tommy Agee. Vasgersian proceeded to read from a script that said the Mets had gone “from the pinnacle to the pit” in seven years, as opposed to what they actually did. Howie Rose…take me home…

ESPN does many things well, including posting and archiving the AP recaps we’ve linked to for just about every game the Mets have played since 2005. But experiencing ESPN televising a regular-season baseball game — especially one involving a team you care about — leaves the impression that the last thing ESPN wants to do is televise a regular-season baseball game anybody cares about. Me, I’ll always look forward to a regular-season Mets game. Just not that much on a Sunday night or at all on that channel.

Take the Fifth

You know what they say: you’re gonna win a third of your games, you’re gonna lose a third of your games and apportioning 20% of your games to Jason Vargas to start is self-defeating.

Why is Jason Vargas the Mets’ fifth starter? Because you need a fifth of Jim Beam, official bourbon of the New York Mets, to get through one of his starts. Or you would if he could make it to the fifth inning.

Saturday night he didn’t. Vargas pitched in the first but not to its end. Six batters faced, five batters reached via hit or walk (Alfonso Marquez’s strike zone was small enough to be drowned in the proverbial bathtub), four runs earned. The Vargas Index blew through the roof. VARGASM achieved.

It wasn’t enjoyable. It never is when your ERA after two starts and one mop-up relief appearance is 14.21, which is what Jason’s leading indicator was in the first months of 2018, too, so let’s rule out element of surprise for explaining why he remains a rotational stalwart for a presumed contender. One could squint and detect progress by season’s end, when he pitched competently enough to lower his earned run average to a nifty 5.77. It doesn’t sound terribly nifty, but for a while there it might as well have been fifty.

Vargas gave way not to texting Dallas Keuchel’s agent ASAP but to Corey Oswalt. Oswalt was not to be confused with either Keuchel or Allen Iverson, a.k.a. the Answer. Somebody had to take the ball after the starter evaporated. Corey, called up last week in exchange for Tim Peterson, did something we’ll assume was shy of his best. For the Braves, we were talking about practice…batting practice. Once Oswalt was done after the fourth, the Braves had nine runs and he had an ERA of 12.27…which wasn’t even the second-highest among those Mets who pitched Saturday night. Luis Avilán gave up a run in two innings to remold his earned run average to 12.71.

As in Augusta, high numbers in this part of Georgia are not the object of the competition. Not coincidentally, starting Vargas isn’t the mark of a competitive approach to baseball. In the wreckage of the Mets’ 11-7 loss (the game wasn’t really that close), Mickey Callaway — who forgot to call me for additional special advice — didn’t particularly commit to this veteran for another go-round and Vargas couldn’t say much more than he hadn’t pitched long enough to make definitive judgments about his outing. That was probably as on target as the pitcher was all night.

The most jolting development regarding a Mets pitcher Saturday had nothing to do with those who threw. During the SNY telecast, Ron Darling announced he’ll be leaving the booth for a while to have a “large mass” removed from his chest. Planned recovery, he says, should have him back on the mic next month. Of course we hope to hear from him as soon as possible, but mostly we hope that the man attached to one of the signature arms and voices in Mets history comes through this situation in spectacular health.

Remember Dave Liddell? No? That’s OK. He was a Mets catcher for a fraction of one June afternoon in 1990: one inning caught following one plate appearance. The lone time up yielded a single at Veterans Stadium. Though that’s the scope of his big league career, there’s an intriguing backstory to Dave Liddell worth knowing. It comes to us via mlb.com’s Anthony Castrovince, who tracked down the handful of players whose offensive statlines — 1-for-1 in 1 PA — are as perfect as their stay at the top of their profession was brief. There’s Liddell and four other guys alive who fit the description. Meet them here.

My Special Advice to Mickey Callaway

During Spring Training you might have noticed Brodie Van Wagenen was enlisting special advisors left and Wright: Captain Dave; Al Leiter; John Franco; Jessica Mendoza. You hadn’t seen so many advisors being deployed since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Since special advice is so in Met vogue, I let it be known that I was also available to dispense it.

Thus, it was no wonder that Mickey Callaway called me from Atlanta Friday afternoon. He was concerned about various components of his first-place club and maintaining the synergy they’d produced to date. He was a little worried that since his team had gotten off to a great start a year ago and then imploded they might be due to disappear soon.

I advised him everything was gonna be fine.

Mickey asked me about Brandon Nimmo, who’d started the season stuck in a swamp of strikeouts.

I told him Brandon’s still the same lovable hitter he was last year, but if it makes you feel better, bat him eighth, take some pressure off him.

Mickey asked me about Zack Wheeler, who seemed to have backslid from his downright deGrominant second half of 2018.

Listen, I reminded him, Zack’s working with Dave Eiland on arm angles and such. Zack will figure it out, probably save your bullpen for a change…not to mention Jason Vargas’s upcoming start.

Mickey asked me about Robinson Cano, who’s been a boon to his teammates but not necessarily himself.

I said, Mickey, he’s Robinson Cano. Sure, he’s getting up there, but we’re gonna reap plenty of what he has left before long.

Mickey asked me about Jeff McNeil, who sometimes seems too good to be true, considering how the guy had knocked around the minor leagues without much notice, yet has done nothing but hit since being given a chance last summer.

Trust your eyes, Mickey, I advised some more — trust your eyes. And check the data if that helps. But whatever you do, Mick, keep finding space for Jeff. Lead him off if you have to.

Mickey asked me about Pete Alonso, first whether that ball he hit the night before had ever landed, and then about his plan to give him a seat on the bench.

I assured him that yes, the ball had landed (it was the wet one), and yes, it was OK to bring Pete along like a regular rookie and not some heaven-sent savior this soon into his career. Alonso was only supposed to be just now arriving here from Syracuse by dopey conventional wisdom and, besides, you gotta get Dominic Smith in the lineup now and then. Your team, Mickey, is a team, not just the sum of its parts. They all have to work in sync if they’re gonna keep up their first-place pace.

Mickey concluded I had given him sound advice and got on to managing the Mets to a 6-2 victory over the Braves in which Nimmo starred, Wheeler went a solid six, Cano contributed, McNeil continued to rake and Smith chipped in, too.

Mickey’s a good listener.

Pitching & 118.3-MPH Homers

Steven Matz went deep. Amed Rosario went deeper. Pete Alonso went deepest of all. Edwin Diaz made certain we didn’t plumb the depths.

And that is how the New York Mets took sole possession of first place twelve games into the 2019 season, which clinches the Mets absolutely nothing. My fellow math mavens with a memory longer than a caterpillar will recall one year ago at this juncture the Mets were the twelve-game champions of baseball, having won eleven of their first dozen contests, setting them up perfectly for losing 84 of their final 150.

Nevertheless, we’ll happily lay claim to first. All wins count regardless of month, and it’s not like you can unlose a loss. Then we can focus on expanding or at least sitting on our lead from this point forward. The Mets are a half-game in front of the Phillies, a game up on the Braves (their hosts and victims Thursday night) and a game-and-a-half ahead of the Nationals. You can’t have four teams in sole possession of four places with any less elbow room. The tightness hews to the bunching of the National League East we all agreed upon as imminent over the winter. The Nationals lost Bryce Harper but seemed no worse for the void. The Phillies added Bryce Harper and seemed better in many ways besides. The Braves were our returning champions and did nothing to detract from their eligibility to repeat. And the Mets, according to unbiased source Brodie Van Wagenen, were consensus favorites to leapfrog all three.

It’s 1975 again, the part of 1975 when I gobbled up preseason magazines that forecast an NL East in which one through four were supposed to be a shuffler’s delight. The Pirates and Cardinals had fought it out down to the wire in ’74. The Phillies, after languishing most of a generation in an abyss, were the Mentos of the circuit, fresh and full of life. And the Mets, with Joe McDonald exchanging players like some kind of proto-Van Wagenen, were not to be counted out. I don’t recall the GM then making bold pronouncements, but he did bring in Del Unser, Dave Kingman and Joe Torre.

Nineteen Seventy-Five turned out not so close in the end. The Phillies challenged, but the Pirates fended them off by 6½ games. The Mets and Cardinals finished over .500, tying for a distant third. I’m sure there’ve been other years when it looked like a quartet would compete teeth and nails for the title, but 1975 is the year that sticks with me as 2019 prepares to live up to its hype.

Twelve games in, we have the edge because in the twelfth game, we had Matz, Rosario, Alonso and Diaz, precisely in that order.

Long Island’s Own Steven Matz (LIOSM) can be Niese-level frustrating, but lately the lefty’s been a balm for nettled nerves. A couple of early runs did not upset Steven’s apple cart whatsoever. He wound up going six innings, the modern equivalent of eight, giving up nothing further. LIOSM features an ERA of 1.65 after three starts, his strikeouts dwarfing his innings pitched, his walks barely an issue.

Rosario, who we couldn’t wait to get a gander at less than two years ago, then somebody collectively deemed nothing all that special to look at, reminded us why we were poised to be so mad for Amed. His second-inning blast, with two on, gave Matz the cushion that allowed him to feel as comfortable on the mound at SunTrust Park as he does on the menu at the Se-Port Deli. And lest the shortstop be overly impressed with his power and start overswinging at everything in sight, the kid (he’s a lad of 23, you know) added an RBI single in the sixth. That made it four runs batted in for No. 1 and a little extra wiggle room for whatever might infect the bullpen once Matz departed.

Four runs not enough for the Mets? Is any quantity of runs enough for any pitching staff these days? The staff that doesn’t have to face Alonso may be the corps that survives longest in this league. Pete politely introduced himself to Jonny Venters in the top of the seventh. The small talk didn’t last long, as Alonso simply had to get going. This latest ’Lonsball special — his sixth — landed 454 feet from home plate, alerting the Braves that there may be a suburb even farther from Atlanta where they can next set up shop. (SunTrust, which debuted four months before Rosario, is practically a relic by local standards.) Everybody groans about the region’s horrible traffic, but if more commuters would park at the Pete & Ride, they’d get where they’re going in no time at all. Alonso’s two-run homer’s exit velocity was measured at 118.3 miles per hour. For reference purposes, that’s a homer hit as hard as hell. Perhaps harder. When Pete Alonso leaves a ballpark, Pete Alonso leaves a ballpark. Seriously, that thing struck water, specifically splashing into a decorative fountain beyond dead center field. That adorable touch of exterior decorating is a Metropolitan landmark now.

Once Pete has gone deepest, every other matter ought to be an anticlimax. But the Braves still have Freddie Freeman and you’re never truly free until you’re free of Freddie Freeman. Met Closer Diaz’s first facedown with fright incarnate came with two out and two on. Especially two on. Did I mention Diaz is the Met closer? And that Freeman was up in the ninth as the tying run? But before you could say “Dillon Gee” three times fast, Diaz struck out ye olde divisional nemesis and protected the 6-3 win that elevated the Mets above all comers. Not too far above, though. Just as well — if they got too high, they’d have to duck whatever Alonso socked last.