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No, They Did Not Win

As any black cat could tell you, many of the seminal legends in Met lore involve the Cubs, including the go-to tale of the person who called a local newspaper sports department one fine day in 1964 to inquire how many runs the Mets scored in their game that afternoon at Wrigley Field. The newspaper employee dutifully reported the total was nineteen. The caller had a followup question:

“Did they win?”

You’ve heard that one before. It usually gets trotted out when the Mets, particularly in a down period, somehow light up the scoreboard for a change. We all have a good laugh because a) the Mets in their down periods preternaturally lend themselves to laughability; and b) yes, they did win. They won that day in 1964, 19-1. They’ve won every time somebody references “did they win?”. Even the Mets tend to win when they pile up a ton of runs. You’d figure the same concept would apply to any occasion when they pile up a ton of anything that could be construed as positive. They do that, they win.

Don’t they?

Welcome to early June 2018, the heart of apparently another down period in the history of the New York Mets, when their ace starter can be characteristically unhittable; their shaky bullpen can be aberrantly able; and they can strike out more batters as a pitching staff in one game than any Mets pitching staff had struck out batters in any game before…yet you still have to ask the followup question:

“Did they win?”

No, they did not win [1]. The Mets — primarily Jacob deGrom [2], but also Robert Gsellman, Jeurys Familia, Jerry Blevins, Hansel Robles and Tim Peterson — struck out 24 Chicago Cubs across the first 13 innings at Citi Field on Saturday night, and they lost, 7-1, in 14 innings.

I guess it’s laughable, sort of like promoting a Todd Frazier Batting Practice Pullover giveaway and then not giving away [3] the Todd Frazier Batting Practice Pullovers as promised (never mind not having Todd Frazier around lately). But it might take a few decades and an intervening championship to find the funny in the defeat that followed the imploded promotion. Four hours and fifty-three minutes of inducing swings and misses to no avail was enough to make Brandon Nimmo mopey, and he grins at everything. Little is for smiles let alone chuckles when Mets batters can’t connect any more effectively against Cubs pitchers than Cubs batters could against Mets pitchers. The Mets struck out 15 times in 14 innings, which came off less as epic than typical. There was no majesty to our futility. The Mets not hitting Mike Montgomery, Cory Mazzoni or Justin Wilson didn’t seem out of the ordinary (we’ll get to Luke Farrell later). DeGrom not giving ground to an opponent, even one as good as the Cubs, probably wasn’t noteworthy, either, but, oh, the way he didn’t give ground…

That was magnificent.

Of course it was. It was deGrom. He’s always magnificent and it usually amounts to nothing. But we didn’t know that for sure in the first inning when he was nicked for three soft singles, including the first hit he’d given up with a runner in scoring position since the George Stone Age, yet allowed no runs. The one-out RISP hit only moved one Cub from second to third and another from first to second. That was Chicago’s mistake. Loading the bases versus deGrom is one thing. Sending anybody from those bases home is a whole different matter. Jake struck out Willson Contreras looking and Kyle Schwarber swinging to escape the first unscored upon.

The tone was set. DeGrom, who got all three of his outs in the first on K’s, commenced to cornering Cubs where they could not make contact. A fourth strikeout in the second; a fifth and sixth in the third; the seventh and eighth in the fourth; nine through five. The Cubs didn’t get to one of the greats when they had him on the ropes early, the same way their ancestors learned that not knocking out Seaver or Gooden when they were in trouble was a recipe for eventual regret. In the sixth, two more soft singles did lead to a Chicago run, but another deGrominant gut check derailed another bases-loaded threat. Jake struck out Albert Almora for No. 10 and Addison Russell for No. 11 and no further damage ensued.

DeGrom trailed, 1-0, just long enough to resign ourselves to his and our usual fate. But two outs and no runners into the bottom of the sixth, a Met batter did something besides relentlessly disappoint: Michael Conforto belted a Montgomery delivery onto the party deck. Celebration ensued. The Mets weren’t winning, but deGrom wasn’t losing. At this point in 2018, that’s a victory for us.

Jake was permitted to start the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. In another era, that would not be reason to call a local newspaper sports department. These days, you set your Google Alerts for when it happens. DeGrom was around 100 pitches. Do you know how many pitches Seaver would throw when striking out and shutting down the opposition in his prime? Neither do I. Nobody counted. They started counting when Gooden came along, mostly to marvel at how many of his pitches were strikes. (This message has been brought to you by Wistful Nostalgia for The Way Certain Things Used to Be.) Jake indeed made it through seven innings, adding two more strikeouts and giving up no more runs.

This is where we brace for the bullpen to do its worst to whatever deGrom has left them, but the first wave of Met relievers picked up the gauntlet crisply. Gsellman walked Anthony Rizzo to start the eighth, then struck out everybody else. Familia, who nailed down a pennant against the Cubs less than three years ago, struck out Russell and Ian Happ to start the ninth and grounded out Kris Bryant with two on to end it. In the tenth — where we floated once Conforto’s blast revealed itself a blip on the Mets’ otherwise blank offensive radar — Blevins went into bend mode, but resisted breakage. Jerry made it 20 K’s overall.

The only other time a Mets staff totaled 20 strikeouts was against the Cubs. Sometimes it seems most Met things worth recalling happen against the Cubs. This one occurred on August 1, 1999, at Wrigley. Al Leiter fanned 15 in seven innings and Pat Mahomes fanned Jeff Reed in the thirteenth for No. 20, but what lives on longest from that sweltering Chicago Sunday is Billy Taylor, obtained from Oakland the day before, came on in relief of Armando Benitez in the tenth. Taylor was so fresh to the Mets that he’d had no time for a pregame meeting with his catcher, Todd Pratt. Thus, Tank initiated one on the mound.

“What’s up, dude? What do you have?”
“Sinker, slider, changeup.”
“OK, let’s go.”

In brevity, there was salvation. Taylor retired Sammy Sosa in the tenth. Mahomes singled home Roger Cedeño in the thirteenth. Did they win? Of course they won. Up period, down period, it shouldn’t matter. As with scoring 19, you’re supposed to win when you strike out 20.

I mean, I suppose you are. The alternative to scoring is not scoring, but outs are outs, no matter how they are wrangled. Runs can technically be scored around strikeouts and often are. Ask Steve Carlton how that works (and when he remains tight-lipped, ask Ron Swoboda). Figuratively speaking, almost everybody strikes out constantly in contemporary baseball, yet somebody from one side or the other has to win the games amid the K’s. Literally speaking, almost every Cub struck out constantly in Saturday’s game. Robles struck out the night’s 21st Cub in the eleventh (and amazingly surrendered no home runs) to establish a new franchise record, yet the Mets hadn’t won. By the middle of the thirteenth, low-profile Peterson’s second inning of work, the franchise record was 24…and the Mets still hadn’t won.

They’d take a definitive step toward not winning in the bottom of the thirteenth. Only the trained eye could see it coming. With two out, Jose Bautista doubled to deep left-center. Conforto, the lone Met who’d done something constructive with a bat during the previous twelve innings, was intentionally walked. Mickey Callaway sent up his last bench player, Jose Lobaton, to pinch-hit for Peterson. I would have gone with Zack Wheeler in that spot, but Callaway’s of an American League mindset and doesn’t realize some National League pitchers are better hitters than some Quadruple-A catchers. But all credit to Lobaton for coaxing a full-count walk out of Luke Farrell, the Cubs’ de facto long man, at this point in his fifth inning of yeoman relief. Farrell had never pitched this long in his thus far eighteen-game big league career. Joe Maddon, however, was determined to preserve the business end of his bullpen or show another facet of his genius or whatever. Farrell was 75 pitches deep into this most uncommon appearance. He had just lost a .152 hitter on ball four. Their Luke was on the cusp of becoming the late-night version of our Jake, the pitcher you can’t believe wouldn’t be rewarded for throwing so many impressive innings.

We were on the verge of shoeing that other foot. We couldn’t get deGrom a win (again), but we could make hay from those 24 strikeouts. All we had to do was push Bautista home from third against a rookie reliever who had been pushed to the brink of exhaustion.

Yeah, that’s all.

Kevin Plawecki was up. The erstwhile half of Travin d’Arwecki had been stationed at first base to begin the game to provide righthanded punch versus the lefty Montgomery. There was nothing in Plawecki’s past to suggest any punch was forthcoming, but he was righthanded, and considering how little the left-leaning Mets hit southpaws, every infinitesimal bit was judged helpful. Somewhere along the way, first baseman Kevin became catcher Kevin via double-switch. His only position of importance in the bottom of the thirteenth with the bases loaded and two out was that of batter. His only immediate task as Farrell prepared to throw his 76th pitch was to take. Take a pitch. Walk’s as good as a hit here. Moreover, the pitcher who just walked Lobaton needs to be given the chance to dig himself the deepest hole possible.

So what does Plawecki do? He swings at the very first pitch he sees, grounding it sharply to Russell at shortstop to facilitate the simplest of putouts at second and ensure a fourteenth inning.

As Rose Marie advised, wait for your laugh. It’s coming. It will take a while if you’re a Mets fan. Perhaps the tale of the team whose first six pitchers struck out 24 batters in thirteen innings before its final two gave up six runs in the fourteenth will come off as amusing in a future context. Not hilarious at this juncture, however. Buddy Baumann didn’t strike out any Cubs. Nor did Gerson Bautista. Outs of any sort were elusive for that duo until the barn door was detached from its hinges.

Trailing 7-1 in the bottom of the fourteenth, with the clock having passed midnight, the Mets attempted to foment a rally off Cub closer Brandon Morrow, the fellow Maddon was so desperate to withhold from action. With one out, Amed Rosario beat out an infield single. It was the Mets’ seventh hit of the evening/morning and maybe a sign that something crazy could happen. Crazy things have happened in Mets-Cubs games forever, dating back from before Familia caught Dexter Fowler looking in 2015; before the hurried Taylor-Pratt Summit of 1999; before the black cat crossed in front of the visitors’ on-deck circle at Shea Stadium in 1969; even before the 19-1 victory that required media confirmation in 1964. Marv Throneberry not touching first — or second — in 1962? That was against the Cubs. The first fourteen-inning game between these teams? That wasn’t in 2018 — it was in 1963, one the Mets won on Tim Harkness’s grand slam at the Polo Grounds, struck only after Billy Williams whacked a two-run inside-the-park homer off Galen Cisco in the top of the fourteenth. And let us not forget the night the Mets had to amend their offer of Todd Frazier Batting Practice Pullovers to the first 15,000 fans through the turnstiles because of a “quality control issue”. That, too, came against the Cubs…on the same night the Mets struck out 24 batters but trailed by six runs in the fourteenth inning.

To be fair, the Mets gave out vouchers for Frazier pullovers and rustled up leftover Conforto jerseys from the night before. Also to be fair, it’s not like the Mets aren’t striving to rise above their present down period. On Friday night, after giving away free shirts and a sloppy loss, Callaway held a team meeting to remind his players to play the game “the right way”. A little more than twenty-four hours later, there was Rosario getting that hit off Morrow in the fourteenth.

And a little more than twenty-four seconds after that, there was Rosario getting doubled off first on Adrian Gonzalez’s line drive to short to end the game in the fourteenth.

Team meetings probably work better when you have a better team attending the meeting.