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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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The Pitcher Whisperers

Even in Little League I was a no-tool player: completely inept at hitting, catching and throwing. (I could run, but never had any reason to.) The only thing I could do, kind of, was play catcher.

To be sure, I couldn’t even do that. There was no stealing in our league and maybe one play at the plate per year. My only job was to corral pitches. Balls would hit my mitt, thud to the ground, roll underneath me and have to be fumbled out of the dust while the parents in their lawn chairs tried not to think how they’d actually rather be doing errands. Once I retrieved the ball, I’d generally short-hop the pitcher or wing it over his head.

But I did have one specific skill: I could steal pitches off the bored junior-high kids pressed into service as umps. I knew the strike zone with painfully geeky, precocious accuracy and would turn my mitt up, down or sideways as needed. Think of it as extremely primitive pitch-framing.

I was ferocious about defending this tiny bit of turf. It meant more time on the field, which I wanted desperately because I loved baseball even though I was beginning to suspect I’d never get better at it. It meant I got to wear all the cool gear and swagger out like a very scrawny warrior. And it meant I was involved in all the action, instead of standing in right field surreptitiously hunting for four-leaf clovers with my toe while praying to the baseball gods to send the ball anywhere else.

My affection for catchers has never gone away. They have a brutal job, playing a position that will a) destroy your speed and your mobility; b) injure you in small ways every day and periodically in large ones; c) force you to take the blame when pitchers can’t or don’t hold runners; d) require you to study hitters and outthink them; e) demand that you improvise as you figure out which pitches are AWOL; f) make you a critical communications link between the guys in the dugout and the guy on the mound; g) ask you to play both diplomat and lawyer with the umpire standing right behind you; and h) appoint you as the first responder when the pitcher gets that spooked-horse look and has to be coaxed, comforted or cajoled back into line.

Rene Rivera caught for the Mets on Memorial Day, but it was easy to overlook his role in the story. The attention was on Matt Harvey, who wasn’t banished to the bullpen or the DL or Vegas or Tartarus but sent back out to face the White Sox. He did so in front of a packed house that was familiar with his recent struggles (and his refusal to speak of them) and jittery to the point of panic about the recent deeds of Chase Utley, Adam Hamari and Jeurys Familia.

Harvey came out looking great. (Stuffwise, at least — the green camo and blue pinstripes made me remember having to pound on the side of a TV whose color was on the fritz.) The fastball was in the high 90s and moving, the change-up was down in the zone where it belonged, and the slider came and went but was effective enough of the time to be a weapon. Mark Simon and Riley Foreman note that for the day Harvey got a 27% miss rate with his fastball, compared with an average of 8% in his last three starts; he threw 10 change-ups that netted five outs and no baserunners, compared with the six change-ups that Nats converted into three hits, two of them home runs.

But we’d seen good early returns before, so we weren’t convinced: nervousness hovered over every pitch Harvey threw, and he looked grim and weary out there. Meanwhile, the Mets were doing nothing against Jose Quintana. Zero after zero hit the scoreboard, and we waited for something to break, fearing it would be Harvey.

In the fifth J.B. Shuck singled for the first Chicago hit and Brett Lawrie (whose extravagant approach to eyeblack suggests it be called cheekblack) lashed a ball to right — only to have first-base newcomer Wilmer Flores make a stumbling lunge to spear the drive and convert first-and-third, one out and stadiumwide moaning into inning over and rapturous cheers. In the seventh, Harvey allowed a leadoff walk to Adam Eaton and a single to Jose Abreu, with Melky Cabrera advancing both with a sac bunt. But Harvey got Todd Frazier to pop up and then coaxed Shuck to hit a hard one-hopper to Asdrubal Cabrera on his 87th and final pitch of the afternoon. The Mets had escaped, and Neil Walker led off the bottom of the inning with a long fly ball that was held up by the wet summer air until it reached the safety of the party deck.

Familia arrived in the ninth to protect a 1-0 lead, sending us all back out on the ledge … which is where this story comes back to Rivera.

Familia’s first couple of sinkers to Dioner Navarro were high, and you could see he was fighting himself out there, trying to force the ball to go where it was needed. Behind the plate, Rivera began directing traffic, signaling repeatedly for Familia to snap his wrist and putting down fingers like a man with all the faith in the world in the pitches he was summoning.

With the count at 3-2 on Navarro, Rivera marched out to the mound for a brief and emphatic conversation, then resumed his duties. Familia’s 3-2 sinker was a beauty that fanned Navarro. That seemed to free up whatever had been stuck: Familia started Eaton out with another good sinker, then got him to tap a 1-1 pitch back to the mound.

The Mets were one out away, and Familia got to an 0-2 count on Abreu. Which was when Rivera went back to the mound.

His mission: to explain why Familia should throw the slider instead of riding that rediscovered sinker. Familia complied and threw one that was low and outside, where it was meant to be. He then followed that up with a high fastball that Abreu awkwardly wrapped his bat beneath, not wanting to swing but getting pretzeled into doing so anyway.

Ballgame, and a huge exhalation for both Harvey and Familia. And, if you would, a respectful nod for the dirty, sweaty, weary guy behind the plate — the pitcher whisperer who’d helped them both get there.

31 comments to The Pitcher Whisperers

  • I think I was the only one who cheered when Rene Rivera was called up. Sure, he can’t hit half his weight, but he is about as good a catcher as there is in the game today. When Rivera is behind the plate, I know he’s going to get the most out of his pitcher, the most out of the umpire (no one frames pitches better; seriously, there’s a stat for that and Rene gets more balls called strikes than just about any catcher out there), and I know I don’t have to worry about stolen bases.

    I was thrilled for Harvey and I still think he’s going to be a monster before the season is over. I still think he’s the best of our starters (though you could certainly make an argument for Thor, Matz or deGrom). And I sense a Topps NOW card coming…”The Dark Knight Rises” (how could Topps resist?), but Rene deserves a sizable share of the credit and I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees that.

  • Dave

    I was wondering if perhaps Lowrie had an audition after the game with the Misfits ir perhaps an Alice Cooper cover band. Using the eyeblack as whatever type of makeup it is that makes cheeks rosy, that was a bit much.

    I really hope that the rest of this lineup hits enough to carry Rivera’s bat. Plays the position like a Gold Glover, but might not outhit most of the starting pitchers.

  • eric1973

    No way Familia should have started that inning on Friday, up by 4 runs. Just was not necessary, because there are enough games with closer scores that he will be needed in.

    Friday: Well rested — up by 4 runs —
    Ineffective
    Sunday: Well rested — tie score —
    Ineffective
    Monday: “Exhausted” — save situation —
    Effective

    Jason — There’s your scientific study that you asked for! :)

  • eric1973

    To all the experts out there who believe all the managers know more than we do, in every situation:

    What team is Matt Williams managing today?

    • Dennis

      Same as you…..not managing a major league team. But actually he’s still employed in MLB and probably earning a nice salary coaching 3B for the Diamondbacks. Not a bad gig for getting fired after last season, huh?

  • Matt in Richmond

    All Mets fans can be grateful that TC is our manager and not Matt Williams. It’s nice to have a manager with the guts to make moves that he believes to be right even if they are unpopular with the armchair second guessing crowd. And he has proven himself time and again. I realize that for some fans, second guessing is a big part of following the game, but most of those fans would not have started Harvey today, and most of those fans would not have sent Familia out for the
    ninth.

    As to Familia coming in with a 4 run lead, nothing in the world is easier than questioning that after he gives up 4 runs. But you don’t honestly believe that closers can only be used in save situations do you? Sometimes they’re going to have to pitch in low leverage situations. Everyone forgets how that inning started….a dork off the end of the bat and a swinging bunt. Could have easily been 2 out with no on and no drama.

    The net result is that once again, despite an unusual amount of injuries and health problems, several players underperforming expectations so far, and a hot start by the Nats, TC has pushed enough right buttons to have us right where we need to be. Nobody else I’d rather have doing the job.

    • Dennis

      Isn’t it something? 29-21 and a game out of 1st place, and the whiners are brining up the same boring complaints about Collins, just like last season. I truly believe some people are happier when this team loses.

  • Matt in Richmond

    I think you may be right Dennis. One interesting point to consider; the part of the team that has performed well above expectations this year is the bullpen. A logical person might suggest that Collins should get at least some credit for this, as bullpen management is the part of the game that the manager has the most affect on. Unfortunately, and oddly, there are a lot of “fans” that give him no credit when things go well, but can’t wait to assign blame when they don’t.

  • Jacobs27

    That is a spot-on description of the (my/our) little league experience, Jason. And a nice show of appreciation for catchers.

    Reminds me of Jacques Barzun waxing poetic: “The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff – or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it.”

  • open the gates

    It’s interesting – maybe it’s because the Mets have had so many slugging catchers over the years – Carter, Hundley, Piazza, and now d’Arnaud – that the fans have forgotten that catching is primarily a defensive position. It could be argued that the most important catcher the Mets ever had in terms of his position was Jerry Grote, for being the perfect batterymate to the young Tom Seaver and his cohorts. Grote was a little before my time, but I understand that he wasn’t much of a hitter, but boy could he catch. And at the end of the day, maybe that’s the guy you want behind the plate – your #8 hitter, not the guy you’re relying on for the big three run homer, but the “pitcher whisperer” like Grote, or Rivera. Maybe it’s time for the Mets to consider making Rivera a regular there, and when d’Arnaud comes back, going the Todd Zeile route with him and teaching him some corner infielder skills. He may wind up more valuable there than behind the plate, and he might be less likely to develop injuries there. Just my 2 cents.

    • Eric

      It adds up. The Mets need to shore up the corner infield positions with both their 1B and 3B starters suffering from chronic back injuries. And they allowed their best back-up corner infielder – Murphy – to join their main rival in the division.

      d’Arnaud would be picking up new positions to keep his bat in the line-up, but so did the bat-first Murphy. I hope d’Arnaud is receiving a crash course on the infield during his rehab assignment.

      The main strength for the Mets, the reason they win, is the starting pitching. The rotation of aces is what makes this Mets edition special, and if Rivera can help make the feature more special, that’s better. With close games likely for the foreseeable future, whether or not Rivera catches, the importance of the relief pitching is heightened as well. Rivera apparently boosts the pitching. That adds up to start Rivera at C, (try to) shift d’Arnaud to shore up the infield, and back up Rivera with Plawecki.

  • Rob E.

    The thing with Familia (or ANY pitcher) that we’ll never know is how much does he need to pitch to stay sharp? Before last Friday’s game he threw an inning on Wednesday (16 pitches) and an inning on the previous Sunday (7 pitches in that game). That was it. So it’s POSSIBLE that Collins saw a four-run lead and saw a chance to get the guy an inning of work. Familia SUCKED, which he hasn’t done very often, and that opens the door for the Monday morning quarterbacks. But it’s not unreasonable thinking (if that was what TC was thinking), and ANY major league pitcher should be able to get through one inning giving up no more than three runs. David Robertson had an even worse meltdown that same day…it happens, these guys are human.

    Regarding other criticisms…I think this organization and this manager showed enough in the past year to warrant a little benefit of doubt. They went from zero-to-the-World Series, and with all the injuries this year, they are playing .580 and are a game out. There is FAR more to be happy about than to be upset about. Are they perfect? NO. But we are relevant and it looks legitimate.

  • Greg Mitchell

    We will check back with all those defending Terry’s use of bullpen in July if Familia still on pace to be in 90 games and Reed over 80. Last year’s high for any MLB pitcher was 81 and closers never pitch that many.

  • Rob E.

    MANY pitchers have pitched between 74-81 games the past two years, and Familia himself has pitched in 76 both years. In the bigger picture, I don’t think anything out of the ordinary is going on here after about 1/3 of the season. Seasons have hills and valleys, unless you think Daniel Murphy is going to hit .395 and Stephen Strasburg is going to go 27-0.

  • Matt in Richmond

    Exactly Rob E. 23 pitches in 5 days is nothing for Familia. I’ve often heard it said that Familia likes to throw frequently to stay sharp. It would seem that it’s at least possible that he is more of s workhorse type reliever than your average closer. He certainly got (by today’s standards) a lot of 4+ out saves last year, to no ill effect. I’m honestly at a complete loss as to what has given anyone the notion that he’s been overworked.

    I’m all for Rivera being given the opportunity to play a bit more on a trial basis, but I think it’s premature to expect him to be the new full time catcher in the long term. As important as defense and handling a pitching staff is, in today’s mlb you pretty much have to get at least some offense from the position. Maybe he can hit enough, I’m just not sure. He’s looked pretty overmatched most of the time. And I’m not sold at sticking D’Arnaud at a corner infield spot. With Loney taking over at first until Lucas returns and getting Flores back, even with Captain’s status in limbo I don’t see a pressing need at the positions either.

  • Greg Mitchell

    No “notion” of being overworked? Find another closer in recent years who got in 90 games. And note that while Familia got in 76 last year he faded badly in World Series–despite all the added rest between playoff series which had refreshed him until then. But then I guess Terry is smarter than the other 30 managers who won’t use closer with four-run leads.

    • Dennis

      “But then I guess Terry is smarter than the other 30 managers who won’t use closer with four-run leads.”

      I’m sure he wasn’t the first and I bet he won’t be the last. I’m certain you could go back last season and find other managers who have done that as well.

    • Rob E.

      Bringing him in with a 4-run lead is a legitimate question to ask, but that was ONE game (and the question of keeping a guy sharp is also a legitimate question). Like most of the complaints last year, you are criticizing him for something that hasn’t happened. Familia hasn’t pitched the 90 games you keep bringing up!

      Terry Collins gets killed no matter what he does. You are saying he melted down in the World Series because of “overuse”…other people say he should have brought him in for the ninth in Game 5. Last year he brought Eric O’Flaherty in with a huge lead and he got criticized for THAT.

      Harvey was awful until yesterday…is he overworked? deGrom hasn’t been sharp…is he overworked? Reed has pitched in the same number of games as Familia and he has been great. We don’t know EVERYTHING that goes on behind the clubhouse door. TC got us to the World Series, and he’s got us one game out of first.

  • Kevin from Flushing

    I was totally that kid in RF. Anytime I hear the Peter Paul & Mary song I get a little choked up. And you’re 100% right: I was simultaneously bored to tears and thankful for the scarcity of lefties in little league, lest I actually see some action.

  • Dave

    The whole “this is the way relievers are used” dogma is nonsense. The more managers stick to the plan of this guy is the closer and only pitches the 9th, this is the 8th inning guy, this is a 7th/8th inning LOOGY and all that, the more teams seem to have bullpen problems. Go back not even very far and you’ll see teams with half a dozen or more pitchers recording saves each year (maybe even a few here and there by starters). The relievers all whine, “I need to know my role.” You know what? You’re a pitcher, and there’s a guy at bat wearing a different color uniform. Your “role” is to get him out. Somewhere Tug McGraw is just shaking his head and saying that everybody is doing this all wrong.

    • As with most things in this grievously fallen world, it’s Tony La Russa’s fault.

      • Dave

        He has done more than his share of damage, hasn’t he? One usually has to hold or at least run for political office to spread that much chaos and despair.

  • eric1973

    Fine, you want to bring in Familia with a 4-run lead, because he needs the work, we can go with that. But never at the expense of him not being available the next day.

    Perhaps give him 15 pitches to get his work in, and then take him out? Too harsh, perhaps? But by then, you would need to bring in Familia to bail out Familia, and the whole thing turns into a travesty.

  • eric1973

    Matt Williams is no longer manager because he was not as smart as some of you folks think he is (was). So actually, you guys may be smarter than you give yourselves credit for.

    While we’re on the subject of Familia, the Official Scorer has the option of awarding the victory to someone other than the pitcher of record, if he appears AFTER the pitcher of record. So let’s say THAT inning was the 8th, and the Mets score 10 runs to take the lead. If Robles then pitches a scoreless 9th, he can then be awarded the win instead of Familia.

  • Matt in Richmond

    Lol Jason.

  • mikeL

    there is something to be said for a veteran behknd the plate who can create the unique comfort zone for each pitcher – and light a fire under the pitcher when he gets*too* comfortable.

    i like rivera a lot. haven’t seen much of him, but i’ve seen him get hold of one and hit it over the wall, dispatch a would-be base stealer…and catch a harvey who pitched like the harvey we have known and missed.

    the mets have had no offense at the position, even from d’arnaud while he was active. i too would like to see him out there more.

    on a team with several power bats, a defense-first catcher should be workable, especially if he can bunt, sac-fly, work counts and stay out of the DP.

    regardless, it was great to see matt pitch the way we’ve been hoping he could and would again.

    ======================================

    as for lawrie, could he be a living breathing promo for the coming Warriors remake? he looks more like the original’s basebsll furies than the furies themselves!

  • Ken K. in NJ

    Lost in all the euphoria is the fact that batters still managed to go 1 for 3 plus a walk against Harvey the 3rd time thru the lineup.

    Shows the stupidity of the sacrifice bunt. Gave Harvey a free out when odds were at least even that Melky Cabrera would have gotten a hit.

  • NostraDennis

    Anyone else sizing an Addison Reed jersey? I want one. The boy has been sneaky good thus far.

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  • […] again as the primary, hit a two-run homer in the ninth to give the Mets breathing room and was his emphatic self as life coach, pushing an exhausted Noah Syndergaard through the seventh. And James Loney, imported to replace […]

  • Hi there, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed thjs article.
    It was funny. Keep on posting!