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Seth Slips ‘Em a Mlicki

Last month I quoted the old Earl Weaver [1] maxim that momentum’s only as good as tomorrow’s starting pitcher, not knowing what a cruel joke that would turn out to be. The Mets managed the head-scratching accomplishment of losing eight in a row while getting brilliant starting pitching: in that stretch, no Mets starter allowed more than three runs, only to see their work undone by bad defense, lousy relief and an utter absence of hitting. Not once or twice — that happens — but every single time.

I mean, honestly. How is that even possible?

Enter Seth Lugo [2], called out of the bullpen for a spot start when Noah Syndergaard [3]‘s finger proved uncooperative. Facing the horrors of the Yankee lineup, Lugo made us recall Dave Mlicki [4], who famously drew first blood way back when the Subway Series was a raucous novelty instead of something to be endured. Mlicki’s strikeout of the last batter (some guy named Jeter) completed a nine-hit shutout in a Yankee Stadium that had been abandoned by its usual infestation of pinstriped mooks to become a playground for jubilant Mets fans, and my oh my was that ever a glorious night [5]. (Somehow it was 21 years ago. I’m as horrified as you are.)

Mlicki never managed to convert an impressive arsenal of pitches to lasting success, winding up with a decidedly journeyman career: a 66-80 record and an ERA close to 5. Lugo has arguably already done better than that, starting when he brought his knee-buckling curve to the 2016 Mets’ rescue — the team won his last seven starts. 2017, alas, was another story: Lugo came out of the World Baseball Classic (grrrr) with a partially torn UCL that shelved him until June, and lost further time in August. This year he wound up in the bullpen, where he’s simultaneously seemed miscast and been one of the few trustworthy Mets.

What to do with Lugo is an interesting question: during his career he’s been tattooed when facing batting orders a third time, and working out of the pen has added several miles an hour to his fastball. But it’s a question for another day: on Sunday night, all we wanted to know was if he could save us from further indignity, averting a sweep by the Yankees and an 0-9 homestead.

He could and did. He was phenomenal. So was the Yankees’ Luis Severino [6], with the difference a Severino slider that Todd Frazier [7] served over the left-field fence. Phenomenal, but of course starting pitching hasn’t been the problem of late. There was no way Lugo could go the distance, and the mind quailed at what horrors might await once he departed.

Mickey Callaway [8] squeezed six innings and 84 pitches out of Lugo, the last of them a fastball on the corner of the plate that left Giancarlo Stanton [9] rolling his eyes in disgust. Robert Gsellman [10] pitched a spotless seventh, which was good except for the fact that with Jeurys Familia [11] injured and Lugo departed, Gsellman was the Met least unqualified to be pressed into service as a temporary closer.

With one out in the eighth, Gsellman surrendered a single to Miguel Andujar [12] and faced pinch-hitter Aaron Judge [13], whose arrival at the plate sent the Yankee fans into a baying frenzy. Judge grounded to second, where Jose Reyes [14] was filling in for Asdrubal Cabrera [15] and his suddenly balky hamstring. (Yeah, I know.) It was a double play — until Reyes threw the ball midway between first and home. And until replay clearly showed that Reyes had neither foot touching second base.

Yeah, yeah, the neighborhood play. It would have been an out when Jose Reyes was any good. But that was a long time ago.

Anyway, Jose turned a double play into a double error, and here was the disaster we’d feared, delivered in a fashion that was even more cruel than we could have imagined. Except, somehow, the Mets slipped the noose. Gleyber Torres [16] popped to Adrian Gonzalez [17] in foul territory, and veteran Met-killer Brett Gardner [18] hit a soft liner to Brandon Nimmo [19] in left.

They’d slipped the noose, but it might be a temporary reprieve, because who was going to close? The answer was Anthony Swarzak [20], last seen giving up a titanic homer to Judge. Swarzak started the ninth by getting Stanton looking, an unexpected turn of events that seemed to startle him as much as it did the rest of us, for he promptly lost the ability to throw a strike. He walked Greg Bird [21], then missed low and away on the first two pitches to Gary Sanchez [22].

The third pitch was low and inside — and caught way too much plate. Sanchez smoked it, sending it screaming toward the left-field corner. Except first it met the glove of Frazier, standing squarely between Sanchez and disaster. Frazier threw over to Gonzalez to double off Bird and the ballgame was over [23], with Devin Mesoraco [24] giving Swarzak a “holy shit” look at the mound and Swarzak giving him an “I know, right?” look in response. Which is pretty much the same exchange my kid and I had on our couch, and thousands of pairs of Met fans had at Citi Field and on couches of their own.

The Mets had escaped. Escaped, and apparently realized that what they’ve got now isn’t working. After the game, we learned that Gonzalez has been released, with Jose Lobaton [25] ticketed for a DFA on Tuesday in Atlanta. (Why Tuesday? Unless Lobaton needs the frequent-flyer miles, this seems cruel.) Their replacements will be Dominic Smith [26] and Ty Kelly [27].

Lobaton was a bad idea the first time around and a worse one the second, but Gonzalez was honestly better than I’d expected: he went about his business in a professional manner, made the most of his diminished skills, and never embarrassed himself. Still, Smith has reached the point where he needs to learn at the big-league level, and it’s pretty clear his growing pains won’t be the thing keeping the Mets from a title. So that’s progress … except for the fact that Reyes remains on the roster.

What was obvious Sunday afternoon has to be blindingly obvious after Sunday night. Reyes no longer has any demonstrable ability to hit, run, or field any infield position. And yet the Mets continue to tiptoe around even intimating that his skills might not be quite what they were during the Bush administration, negotiating the departure as if he’s Cal Ripken [28] in the middle of The Streak instead of a .149 hitter, a wan shadow of the player we all once loved [29] and all know is gone for good.

I guess he has one skill left: he’s certainly a survivor.

Anyway, good luck to the Mets as they continue to navigate these inexplicably delicate negotiations, and good luck to Dom Smith on the new job. Tuesday will be the first day of the rest of our lives and all that, so let’s go beat the Braves.

Still, I swear: if Reyes is playing first on Tuesday, I’m out.