The Mets didn’t win last night. Oh well. What were they going to do with a win if they’d attained it, anyway? Throw it on the pile of wins that never quite measures up to their taller pile of losses? Then what? Win again?
Much as youth is said to be wasted on the young and plate appearances are almost certainly wasted on the Youngs, it occurred to me during Wednesday night’s tight but not exactly tense game against Milwaukee that wins are wasted on the Mets. I root for them to win, I find their winning preferable to their losing, but if they do win an odd game here or there, it’s not like they’re going to start winning them in volume. The Brewers, who won despite squandering multiple tack-on opportunities in classic Metsian fashion, seem like a team that could make good use of a win. They’re exceeding expectations and holding off the Cardinals as they maintain first place in their division. It’s hard to begrudge them an extra victory, even if it was earned at mostly vacant Citi Field in opposition to our beloved New York Nine. By contrast, when the Mets won the night before, what did it add up to? One more square x’d out on the pocket schedule, one more day until whatever year it is when wins and losses will severely matter to this franchise.
My favorite moment of the 2014 season to date, next to Ike Davis’s pinch-hit, come-from-behind, walkoff grand slam that beat the Reds (back when who won or lost a given game could still be interpreted as figurative life and death), may have been this past Sunday when Terry Collins removed Zack Wheeler with two outs and two on in the fourth inning in San Francisco. Zack had struggled some, ratcheting up his pitch count to an unsightly 86, but he wasn’t flat-out awful — but he also appeared not fully in control of his pitches or his emotions. He was in that zone talented young pitchers sometimes drift into, not having things go his way after two consecutive starts when he was mostly untouchable. The last hit he’d given up was a Tim Lincecum grounder that snuck by Ruben Tejada. The next batter due up was lefty Gregor Blanco, who had driven in a pair in the second when he doubled convincingly off the righty Wheeler
The develop-now, win-later handbook suggests you let Wheeler learn on the job. You let him face Blanco because as you’re cultivating one of your theoretical handful of aces, you know he has to deduce how to retire a troublesome lefty in a tough spot. You assume this is a moment that will tell you something about Zack and maybe in few decades, Zack will be announcing a baseball game on TV and telling his partners about the time he had to grow up in a hurry in San Francisco. If Zack Wheeler is this generation’s Ron Darling — his career trajectory to date feels fairly similar — this is where Davey lets Ronnie go after Leon Durham or Dave Parker.
Plus, to use the reigning manager’s favored vernacular, it’s only the stinkin’ fourth inning, for cripes sake.
But this was where Terry, saddled with a five-game losing streak and momentarily stripped of his pitching coach (Dan Warthen was off attending a graduation), decided not to be Davey Johnson in 1984, but Casey Stengel in any number of years when Casey saw the chance to pounce. Stengel was known to pinch-hit for his pitcher ASAP if he thought he could break a game open, no matter the inning. He did it for the dynastic Yankees of the 1950s and he did for the dreadful Mets of the early 1960s. The longest relief stint in Mets history, Larry Bearnarth’s ten innings thrown against the Cubs just over 50 years ago, was a result of Stengel sending up Rod Kanehl to bat for Bill Wakefield, who had already replaced Al Jackson, in the second inning. Kanehl singled to continue a rally that gave the Mets a lead…that they promptly gave up; these were the 1964 Mets, after all. The larger point is Casey understood a game could be won or lost in the early innings as much it could be later on. The Mets, as it happened, won that particular game on June 9, 1964, 6-5, in twelve, and Kanehl, like Bearnarth, played a huge role. (Read all about it here!)
The Mets have emphasized “later” seemingly forever. On Sunday Terry opted to be about now, albeit on defense. He could’ve let Wheeler find himself. Or he could’ve decided the long flight back to New York would be even longer if the Mets had to schlep a sixth consecutive defeat onto the plane. He decided the paramount goal in the moment was not letting Blanco extend a 4-2 Giant lead until it was out of Met reach. So he patted Wheeler on the ass, called on his newly rediscovered lefty toy, Josh Edgin, and Edgin took care of Blanco to keep the Mets viable a little longer.
A loss was in the offing anyway, but I liked the move. Wheeler not getting the opportunity to redeem himself is as much a lesson as anything he would’ve gleaned from another encounter with Blanco. And Collins, for at least an instant, shook things up in a meaningful, competition-minded way.
Sending down Travis d’Arnaud sent a similar message, though it shouldn’t have been a difficult one to transmit. “Don’t hit .180 and expect to start in the big leagues” should be self-explanatory to a rookie, no matter how much of a can’t-miss prospect he’s been labeled forever. I don’t worry that d’Arnaud is a “bust” based on 2% of precincts reporting any more than I worry about Wheeler not being Matt Harvey. Jerry Grote, John Stearns and Todd Hundley all turned into stalwart Met catchers who ranged from competent to spectacular as offensive contributors, yet they were all overmatched by opposing pitchers when they came up to the majors. Hundley was yo-yo’d for a couple of years between AAA and MLB and split more assignments than he would’ve liked with Charlie O’Brien and Kelly Stinnett before fully establishing himself as a legitimate starting backstop. Chronic viewers of Mets Yearbook: 1976 will recall Stearns asked to be optioned to Tidewater so he could hone his skills daily rather than sit behind Grote. Catchers not named Piazza or Posey take time. The Mets, based on their fierce lack of urgency, have plenty of that.
The only part of d’Arnaud’s d’Emotion that didn’t sit right was reading that he and his teammates were “shocked” that it happened. At .180 and showing zero power, they should have been shocked that he hadn’t been Vegas-bound sooner. I suppose their reaction is indicative of how little emphasis the Mets place on the Mets winning ballgames. Travis is hitting again out west. Swell. Keep hitting and come back soon. Taylor Teagarden’s Tuesday night swing for the ages notwithstanding, we’re gonna need Travis d’Arnaud like we’re gonna need Zack Wheeler.
Someday it’s not going to be a question of eventual development versus immediate performance. For now, though, it’s nice to be reminded that winning means a little something in the short-term.
Terry Collins clearly wasn’t brought in to mold a winner. The best thing anybody has to say about his skill set is he communicates well with his players and that he doesn’t lose the clubhouse. Apparently keeping replacement-level talent calm trumps getting much out of it. As of last night, Collins had managed 551 Mets games without compiling a winning record in any of his three-plus seasons at the helm. If he leads these Mets to at least 53 wins in their final 97 games this season and finishes at 82-80 (or better), then he’s off the board in that regard. Until that happens, here are the most Mets games managed without as much as a winning season in the portfolio:
It’s unusual to get to hang around if you don’t win anything. You couldn’t tell from the Mets and Collins, but winning usually means something in baseball.
Stengel was a singular figure in unprecedented expansion circumstances. It was a broken hip that took him out of the game. Torre, as new to managing as Stengel was old but ultimately a Hall of Fame skipper just the same, was given yards of rope in light of his hollow roster and reasonably glamorous name (yes, even then). Joe also benefited from Frank Cashen not having quite enough time or juice to immediately eliminate him when Cashen took over as GM basically five minutes before Spring Training heading into Torre’s fourth season. Green’s charge was to clean up a bleach-stained mess; he had the Mets noticeably improving for a couple of years before they regressed into unquestioned mediocrity. At that point, like most managers who guide teams to terrible records, he was replaced.
Sooner or later, somebody takes the fall for 77-85, 74-88, 74-88 and (current winning percentage pro-rated to 162 games) 72-90. We’ve seen all our lives it’s usually the manager. It’s not boorish to begin to wonder what Terry Collins brings to his role if it’s not an ability to win a lot or just win a little more than has been the case. All that vaunted communication doesn’t explain why young players come up, are touted as real helps to the lineup and then get glued to the bench within two games. On Sunday, Collins had a reasonably better option in the moment when he removed Wheeler and summoned Edgin. Most nights he’s not exactly sitting Andrew Brown or Wilmer Flores because he’s blessed with Billy Williams and Barry Larkin. It’s a fine line discerning what you do, with limited personnel, to win this very game right in front of you, as opposed to what you do with an eye on what underknown quantities might become if only you gave them more consistent reps.
In our Metsopotamian world, you get whatever’s left to be wrung out of Bobby Abreu’s last legs and the amortization of Chris Young’s megamillions deal and the increasingly untantalizing teases provided by Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada. You get a gratifying grand slam out of nowhere from a journeyman catcher but not an actual solid backup option who could mentor your projected star receiver. You don’t get the most for your roster-construction dollar, even considering this is a team operated on a shoestring, so you don’t get all that excited by an individual win or loss, yet you still wonder whether that’s a case of the team being bad, or you, the fan, being not as good as you could be because you’ve stopped taking losses to heart the way you always used to.
You see the ranks churn — only four of the 21 players used in the 20-inning game of just over one year ago are on today’s active roster — but you don’t see much change. You remember grumbling like this when the Mets were wallowing at 24-39 last season, but then, a week after that marathon loss to the Marlins, your spirits were hoisted sky-high when Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a home run off Carlos Marmol and the Mets took 22 of 37 and you thought things were turning for real. But since that invigorating stretch expired in late July, the Mets have gone 57-71, which is the mathematical expression of More Of The Stinkin’ Same, For Cripes Sake.
And though you’re happy to watch on TV because the announcers are so much fun, and if you’re not near a TV you’re fine with the radio because those guys are fun, too, you notice you’re thoroughly unmoved to get up and go to the ballpark. You think about going, but then you decide, what fun is that?