- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

For Their Consideration

Who were those slick-fielding ballplayers on display in blue and orange Wednesday night, and what have they done with the New York Mets?

The Mets’ current incarnation is not heavy on “leather guys,” to use Davey Johnson [1]‘s mildly disparaging phrase — the strategy in recent years has been to limit enemy runs with good, strikeout-heavy starting pitching and then outhit what they give away in the bullpen and on defense. That’s how they’ve wound up with J.D. Davis [2] and Dom Smith stumbling around out there in left, with everyone from Michael Conforto [3] to (yikes) Yoenis Cespedes [4] pressed into service in center and with Robinson Cano [5] anchored (all too literally at times) at second. When Cespedes opted out, some saw a silver lining: The Mets had plenty of other options for designated hitter who would benefit from more playing time. Well, OK, but it would have been equally accurate to say, “This team sure has a lot of guys best suited to DH.”

With the starting pitching eroded by injuries and the Wilpons’ unwillingness to spend, the Mets have turned to groundball guys such as Marcus Stroman [6] and Rick Porcello [7] instead of strikeout machines to fill holes. That’s put more pressure on the defense and turned the spotlight on that defense’s limitations — and what can go wrong. For Exhibits A and B, see Porcello’s first two starts as a Met, in which errors by the normally reliable Jeff McNeil [8] and the normally, um, hard-working Davis opened the gates for damaging innings.

On Wednesday night, though, necessity forced the Mets to give Porcello a different supporting cast, and it worked out wonderfully.

With Cano, McNeil and Amed Rosario [9] (who’s much improved as a defender, to be fair) on the shelf, the Mets’ infield was Pete Alonso [10], Luis Guillorme [11], Andres Gimenez [12] and Davis — with speedy new acquisition Billy Hamilton [13] in center. And what a difference that made.

As a hitter, Gimenez will have to face a reckoning soon as pitchers finish assessing him and start poking for weaknesses — a process every young hitter goes through, and which we should regard with whatever patience we can muster. But he’s a plus defender right now — smooth afield and with the kind of baseball instincts that are either there or aren’t, and can’t be developed.

With one out in the fourth and the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead over Washington, old pal Asdrubal Cabrera [14] smacked a single into right field that seemed destined to send newly activated Juan Soto [15] to third. But Conforto — miscast in center but able as a corner outfielder — fielded the ball well in right and threw a perfect strike to Gimenez covering third. Gimenez saw Soto’s momentum coming into the bag and knew there was an opportunity there, so he kept the tag on Soto as he slid through third and came slightly off it. There wasn’t time to strategize; Gimenez simply knew the chance was there, and reacted accordingly, getting the out and short-circuiting the inning. He’s quickly become a player you trust to do the right thing in the field; too many of his teammates are not.

One pitch after Gimenez’s tag play, Eric Thames [16] smacked a hard grounder to Davis’s right at third. While J.D.’s never going to be Brooks Robinson [17], he does better on plays where he doesn’t have time to think, and he turned in a nifty play here, smothering the ball and heaving the ball from his knee to Alonso to end the inning. If things go a little bit differently, that’s two outs not quite made and a Nats’ team that’s up 2-1 and looking for more. Guillorme, a defender with the same sound instincts as Gimenez, also made a couple of smooth plays at second as well to help keep the Nats at bay.

This isn’t to say Porcello was saved entirely by his defense — he was far better Wednesday than in either of his first two starts, with a more reliable sinker and change-up. He pitched aggressively, working quickly, throwing strikes and generating ground balls. You can play Tetris with cause and effect there however you like, but I don’t think that was an accident: Porcello is a veteran who knows what gives him the best chance to succeed, and the defense behind him fit his strengths.

The rest of the game was “just enough,” with a couple of strange notes. Max Scherzer [18] left after a 27-pitch first, felled by a tender hamstring that disrupted his mechanics. The Mets got key hits from Guillorme and Smith to grab back the lead and get insurance, and a six-out save from Seth Lugo [19], looking more like himself after a poor outing in Atlanta.

The game also featured a couple of milestones with asterisks: Porcello’s win [20] was the 150th of his career, while Hamilton stole his 300th base. The asterisks, of course, are because neither player had won or stolen anything as a Met. The smiles were real and the congratulations from teammates were presumably heartfelt, but they were somewhat sheepish milestones from a Mets perspective — think Gary Sheffield [21]‘s 500th home run (after 499 hit wearing other uniforms), Eddie Murray [22]‘s 400th dinger, or the 300th victory by a certain pitcher who will go nameless.

And now the Mets get that rarest of things in the improv pandemic season — an actual day off, before they return to New York to play the ever-shifting assemblage of guys dressed as Miami Marlins. Wear your masks, fellas — and bring your gloves. That’s always a good idea.