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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 Night They Drove Chris Flexen Down

With the possible exception of Angel Hernandez, moral failings are undetectable after the fourteenth inning. They don’t call it “free baseball” only because conductors don’t come around to collect a step-up fare (though I can’t imagine Rob Manfred hasn’t contemplated implementing such a revenue-generating opportunity and labeling it a loyalty reward).

You’re free if you’re in marathon territory. You’re free of implications. You’re free of judgment. You’re free to be. Baseball games are plotted to be decided in nine, with allowances made that a tenth is entirely possible, and if ten innings can’t settle the matter, an eleventh looms. As you drift into a dozenth inning, you’re less attached to the formalities that dictated human behavior back in the hazily recalled era known to historians as regulation. Thirteen…fourteen…that’s crazy enough, but you can still see those first nine in your rearview mirror if you squint hard.

Get to a fifteenth inning, you’re in another state. You’re on your honor to try your best with the understanding that circumstances aren’t close to best. You can’t be overly faulted for your shortcomings as a baseball person or person in general

Unless you’re Angel Hernandez, for you are no good any hour of the day or night.

If you wish to blame Satan’s home plate umpire of record for the Mets losing to the Brewers in eighteen innings Saturday night in Wisconsin/Sunday morning for us folks back east, feel free, for you, too, are unbound by decorum. “The ump is crooked and inept and against us” isn’t necessarily an airtight argument for the prosecution; it speaks more to persecution. But we’ve known Hernandez for decades. We know he will find a way to screw with us and ours. He doesn’t need an extra inning. Any old frame will do.

Chris Flexen got squeezed some. He kind of asked for it (as if that old devil Angel requires a signed permission slip). He nibbled in the eighteenth inning when a more direct approach to the plate — like you and your fork would employ at the first diner you pull into after a long Saturday night out — might have served his purposes better. Then again, he’s Chris Flexen. A lot more innings than originally scheduled have to fly by before you grudgingly call his number.

With or without official assistance, Flexen loaded the bases on walks in the bottom of the eighteenth after the Mets had furnished him with a lead in the top of the eighteenth. Ryan Braun, who’d already notched five hits, was the man up with three teammates on. It’s not a scenario that advertises ostentatiously for a nineteenth.

No nineteenth inning materialized. Braun delivered a sixth hit and two RBIs to create a 4-3 victory for Milwaukee in Milwaukee. The box score says it’s Flexen’s fault, as he’s the only Met saddled with an additional “L” for his name. Our eyes suggest it’s Hernandez’s misdeed, which is a default reflex as deeply ingrained in us as shouting “Let’s Go Mets” or cursing…well, Angel Hernandez. But let’s not, à la Angel, lose sight of things here.

It was the eighteenth inning. Eighteenth innings are foreign territory to all of us. This goes for Mets, Brewers, umpires, fans, broadcasters, anybody who comes in contact with overly extended play. Sure, we can whip out our stories of having visited there on a handful of occasions in our younger years (“did I ever tell you about that time Shaun Marcum and I backpacked through the Marlins lineup?”) and are able to phonetically dust off a few phrases we’ve retained in ancient Sudolese, but none of us is truly comfortable there. We’re all just trying to persevere in this strange place until our ride to tomorrow — or later today — arrives.

So let’s not hold too much of what the Mets didn’t do well toward the end of their deluxe Miller Park package tour against them. Let’s celebrate Zack Wheeler’s seven strong innings (or six strong innings surrounding his lone limp one). Let’s celebrate Wilson Ramos rampaging from first to home on Amed Rosario’s second-inning triple; scoring from first on a triple doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment until you consider he who had to thuddingly negotiate those 270 feet. Let’s celebrate the recently dormant power source known as Pete Alonso, who decided going down meekly was no way to continue a weekend in Milwaukee. Alonso’s leadoff homer in the ninth was a bolt of beauty. It was almost worth the staying up long thereafter that it mandated.

Of course break out the Champagne of Beers on behalf of every Met reliever who wasn’t Chris Flexen. Let’s have a roll call to recognize Daniel Zamora, Seth Lugo, Edwin Diaz, Drew Gagnon, Ryan O’Rourke and Robert Gsellman, who kept the Brew Crew off the board from the eighth through the sixteenth. An especially hearty handshake is due Seth and Rob for their three scoreless innings apiece. If you’re feeling charitable, tip a cap to Flexen and his characteristic 11.12 ERA for the scoreless seventeenth that preceded the execrable eighteenth.

And hey, how about that Jeff McNeil, not really a left fielder, making a dazzling catch in left in support of Edwin Diaz (in a tie-game, non-save situation) when Braun bid for what would have been yet another hit, probably a leadoff double, in the twelfth? The hit that never was could have prevented future Braun belts because there’s a decent chance it would have set up a winning run six innings sooner than actually occurred. Now maybe you’d have preferred an earlier final out, but in the twelfth, things are still a little normal. You’re still looking to prevail over the Brewers, not just defeat sleep.

McNeil is lodged in left for his bat, and he brought it to bear, collecting three hits, including the single in the eighteenth inning that put the Mets ahead, 3-2, when Jeff drove home Adeiny Hechavarria. Adeiny Hechavarria? The journeyman glove guy whose only Met distinction to date was inadvertently elbowing Dominic Smith off the roster? Turns out he was called up to be our extra-inning secret weapon, sneaking a single through the infield, stealing second and racing home when McNeil connected. As introductions go, that’s a display of good manners worthy of any inning.

If you’re still wiping the loss out of your understandably grumpy eyes, don’t blame the Mets for losing in the eighteenth. Blame them for not hitting during most of the first nine and the several that followed. Blame the starting shortstop who’s showing no sign of being a glove guy; Rosario’s sloppy defense might not have directly led to any Brewer runs, but Amed is not embodying strength up the middle. Blame the enduring Miller Park hex that keeps the Mets from ever (since 2009, anyway) winning the penultimate game of a series in which the Brewers host them. Blame the array of management types, uniformed and otherwise, for whatever you deem as their complicity in assembling and steering an alleged powerhouse team to its current discouraging pit stop of 16-17. Under .500 is no place for a purported contender to rest for the night. Then again, an eighteenth inning is no place to draw conclusions regarding that same team’s intestinal fortitude.

Unless they won. Then we’d say it was destiny.

First Things First Don’t Last

To start a game, you want to see your leadoff batter, Jeff McNeil, get on base. McNeil, we can all agree, is the greatest hitter extant. He was batting .352 as Friday night began, which is all the proof our Mets fan hearts require to declare supremacy on behalf of one of our own. Sure enough, Jeff gets on base via infield hit, and you know things are going your way.

To keep the game going, you want to see NL Rookie of the Month for April Pete Alonso (it’s a real award), come up next and give May a powerful boost. Except Alonso was better earlier in April than he was later, and he strikes out with McNeil running, and McNeil is thrown out, and there are two outs, and what happened to our way?

To regain the game’s bearings, you want to see a veteran like Robinson Cano battle the starting pitcher, working the count to three-and-two, then fouling off four-seam fastball after four-seam fastball until the pitcher, Brandon Woodruff, comes too far inside with his twelfth pitch to the third hitter of the evening and walks him. A dozen pitches seen and a base on balls…that’s some steamy baseball porn right there. Cano, sitting on 2,499 hits, may not spin his odometer to 2,500, but he doesn’t have to sit down. You can sense a productive first inning in the offing despite that unpleasant little strike ’em out/throw ’em out double play.

To maintain the momentum of the game, you want Michael Conforto, not hot, to reach, which is what he does on an infield hit, sending Cano to second. Your dreams of the moment are on the verge of coming true.

To prove that this game is gonna be yours, you want Wilson Ramos — a.k.a. the Torpid Torpedo — not to hit the ball on the ground. Don’t strike out, don’t pop out, don’t fly out, don’t make out at all, but at least leave a little mystery to the process. A ball on the ground off the bat of Wilson Ramos looms as another double play, never mind that there are already two out. They’ll just forward the second out of his GIDP into the next inning. Except the Buffalo’s stance pays off this time around as he laces the second fastball he sees from Woodruff into right field, chasing Robinson home and Michael to third. Wilson will settle in at first. A Buffalo can only roam so far.

This Friday night game at Miller Park is going well, don’t you think? The first hint of an onslaught might have been elbowed aside, but the Mets didn’t relent. Their three, four and five hitters each made something good happen and created a run for their efforts. Meanwhile, Woodruff has thrown 31 pitches, and as much as Craig Counsell enjoys lifting Brewer pitchers in favor of other Brewer pitchers, this was probably not in his game plan. The Mets are up, 1-0, they have two men on, and…

And the game never got any better from a Met perspective. Brandon Nimmo, who ignited the Mets in their first game at Milwaukee last May with four hits and a walk, grounded out. The 1-0 lead became a 1-1 tie three pitches into the bottom of the first when Lorenzo Cain took Steven Matz’s sinker over the left-center field wall. Matz squirmed in and out of trouble into the sixth inning, pausing to remain ensconced in a mess in the fifth when Ryan Braun launched a two-run rocket, making the score 3-1 for the home team. Woodruff’s 34-pitch first seemed to fortify him for what qualifies for the long haul in Craig Counsell’s scheme of things. The starter lasted five, giving up nothing else of substance.

Then came Alex Claudio for an inning, Junior Guerra for an inning and Josh Hader for an end to whatever chance the Mets had. Hader, the Brewers’ best bullpen option, went two because sometimes you use your closer to get the closing going as soon as possible. The Mets’ offense, it turned out, closed out of town, the curtain coming down on it in the first inning. The second through ninth yielded four base hits and two walks. There were no runs. There was no change to Brewers 3 Mets 1.

The 16-16 Mets aren’t hitting, aren’t scoring and aren’t winning any more often than they are losing. They’re pitching well, which is incredibly reassuring, for the Mets are simply not the Mets when they are not pitching, but now we’re in wasting one good outing after another territory — unless the starting pitcher homers to not just help his own cause but successfully account for all of it (which is fun as hell, but doesn’t exactly signal the drenching of a drought).

Among those not hitting for the Mets on the Friday night was Dominic Smith, but that’s because he was optioned to Syracuse despite being one of the more likely players to come off the bench and make something positive happen with a bat. Smith was victimized by the fine print in Adeiny Hechavarria’s contract. Hechavarria, the experienced backup infielder we’d been lacking to date, had to come up or be let go. Judgment will be reserved regarding the importance of keeping Adeiny in the fold. Dismissing Dominic seems shortsighted. Hopefully his exile will last no longer than Nimmo’s inexplicable three-day demotion last April. That was another of those instances in which the Mets, faced with a roster squeeze, opted to cast off the most vulnerable young player whose presence they instinctively undervalue.

Hopefully, Smith is back soon. Also hopefully, the Mets’ offensive woes last less long than Nimmo’s this season (.211/.342/.347), which more than a month in, no longer qualifies as a small sample size. We miss Brandon’s smile. We miss our smile. We miss what the top of the first inning felt like.

We Will Thank You for That, Noah

Zachary Wheeler gets his pitch count risin’
He doesn’t care for an early hook

Jason Vargas sees the order twice ‘n’
Mickey figures out he is cooked

Jake deGrom is a Cy Young winner
Ain’t ya glad he showed up? (Oh yeah!)

And when the ballclub is fallin’ apart
Sometimes Matz gets it all sewed up

And then there’s Thor
He strikes out ten
And then there’s Thor
Gives up no runs
And then there’s Thor
Goes all the way
And then there’s…

Mascot-trashin’
Dinger-bashin’
Beats the Reds in solo fashion
Right on Thor!

***

Translation for all you kids out there who aren’t fluent in MaudeNoah Syndergaard threw a 1-0 shutout and homered to defeat Cincinnati at Citi Field on Thursday afternoon. The Bea Arthur reference in a 2019 baseball game recap is no rarer than the concept of a Met pitcher doing what Noah did.

That, when broken down by its component parts, was as rare as a Mets pitching/hitting performance gets.

• Nine innings from a starter surely seems exotic to the point of extinct, but it actually still happens once in a great while. The Mets chalked up three complete games last season.

• Allowing zero runs across those nine innings is highly unusual, yet not without precedent in this modern world. Syndergaard himself achieved such a feat on the final day of 2018.

• A Mets pitcher homering will never not be cause for jubilation, but with four instances of DH-defying hurler power in the books already in 2019, we can no longer refer to it as a wholly infrequent phenomenon.

• Winning 1-0 while driving in the run that makes you the victor is an extremely uncommon occurrence, but Met examples exist. Most famously, Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell turned the trick in the same doubleheader at Pittsburgh in 1969. More obscurely, we’ve also had Buzz Capra versus the Giants at Shea in 1972 (the day before Willie Mays’s debut); Ray Sadecki at Atlanta in 1974; and Nino Espinosa at Philadelphia in 1977. Forty-one years passed without an addendum until Wheeler beat the Pirates, 1-0, last July at PNC Park, doubling in the “1” himself.

But Zack, who was the only pitcher in this scenario to register his RBI with an extra-base hit, went only six. Cardwell and Capra each turned the ball over to Tug McGraw after eight to save their respective superlative efforts. Koosman, Sadecki and Espinosa went nine, but no, they didn’t homer.

Noah homered (in the third inning, high and deep to the opposite field, off Tyler Mahle).

Noah completed what he started (scattering four hits, walking only one).

And, for that matter, Noah became the only member of the seven-Met 1-0/1-RBI club to notch double-digit strikeouts, including a ninth-inning K that Wavin’ Jesse Winker was hilariously ejected in the middle of (bye Jesse!).

Koosman-Cardwell Arms has been headquarters to a very exclusive society for a half-century. After fifty years, it’s been compelled to add a private penthouse suite. You homer for your only run in a 1-0 complete game win as Noah Syndergaard did, you have earned the most singular view of them all.

Baby Steps

Can you have good developments on a day that saw the Mets lose a 1-0 game on another homer off their vaunted closer?

Well, maybe.

The first good development is that the Mets put Jeurys Familia on the Injured List with some kind of complicated malady that, depending on your level of cynicism, is best described as a bone spur or that old standby, inability to pitch. If you feel like you need to squint pretty hard to see that as good, I get what you mean, believe me. But Familia hadn’t been effective, he seemed lost about how to regain his effectiveness, and Mickey Callaway seemed hell-bent on continuing to jam that particular square peg into a round hole, because he’s Mickey Callaway and there’s no brick wall he thinks he can’t bash down with his own forehead, the lack of felled brick walls notwithstanding. Hopefully Familia will get the time he needs to silence his barking shoulder and/or the nagging voices of self-doubt, and return looking more like the valuable pitcher we hoped we were getting back. (As for Mickey and his noggin, well, we’ll save that for another post.)

The second good development was that Jacob deGrom looked a lot more like, well, Jacob deGrom. He was throwing strikes and the Reds were swinging and missing his fastball instead of lining that pitch up gaps. But deGrom’s good stuff came without the benefit of an accompanying offense, and in the fourth inning the Reds loaded the bases on an error, walk and a hit by pitch. With two outs, up came Tucker Barnhart, who worked a 3-2 count. Out to the mound went Tomas Nido to discuss what to do.

Their decision — and I’ve yet to hear whether it was Nido’s preference or deGrom’s — was to go with the change-up. Which is a pitch that’s gone from critical piece of deGrom’s arsenal to misfiring ordnance of late. With deGrom’s mechanics out of whack, his change-up has been sailing wide of its target, winding up ignorably outside or perilously over the middle of the plate. An errant change and the game could easily be 4-0 Reds.

DeGrom fired, the pitch arrowed towards the plate as if it were a fastball above the knee, and then it darted outside to dot the outside corner — a perfect location even if Barnhart hadn’t swung through it. Barnhart let his swing carry him through a discontented little pirouette at the plate as Nido trotted towards the dugout and deGrom trudged off the mound. SNY’s cameras caught him looking tired and vaguely irritated, as if he was thinking, “Why wasn’t that pitch behaving like that when I needed it?”

Which I’d bet is pretty much exactly what he was thinking.

During deGrom’s run of un-deGromlike starts, the Mets have insisted that the problem wasn’t a physical malady, and haven’t officially cast a cold organizational eye on the composition of this year’s baseballs. They’ve maintained that the problem was one of mechanics, compounded by illness and disrupted between-starts routines.

It would be nice if Wednesday night was evidence they were right, whatever the scoreboard read at the end of the evening.

They Really Shouldn’t Have Gone to Such Lengths

“Oh, what’s this? I wasn’t expecting anything!”
“C’mon, open it.”
“I almost don’t want to. It’s so beautifully wrapped. Who put the bow on it?”
“That was Pete.”
“As if Pete hasn’t already done enough. I’m going to undo it very carefully…oh my!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it!”
“It’s an extra-inning win.”

“I can see that!”
“We all put it together for you. See? There’s ten innings in there.”
“Such interesting craftsmanship. The foundation is so sturdy.”
“That was Jason’s doing. He crafted the first five-and-a-third.”
“Jason? The same Jason who could barely get through a third of an inning just a few weeks ago?”
“The very same. He’s been taking classes.”
“It shows!”
“I hope you don’t mind the little crinkle there just past the fifth.”
“No, it’s wonderful. It shows it was made with his very own left hand.”
“It was Mickey’s idea to let Jason keep working on it. It was also his idea to eventually make him stop.”

“Well, it’s beautiful. You don’t even notice there’s something a little wrong with the sixth. Is this a hair?”
“Oh, that’s Robert’s. Robert helped Jason do the sixth and then he did the seventh all by himself.”
“The hair just makes it more authentic. Ooh, what’s this little thing over here?”
“That’s a bunt. Jeff put that on in the third.”
“Jeff is so smart! Like a regular little squeezing squirrel.”
“That’s not all Jeff did. Take a look. He put four hits in altogether. Scattered them throughout.”
“The way he’d hide nuts for the winter — what a clever young man!”
“And did you see this catch over on the right? Michael made that. And this RBI single. He came up with that, too.”
“Michael was certainly busy, I see. Did he put this ball all the way over here?”
“No, that was Todd. Todd wanted to do something special, and that’s basically what he knows how to do.”

“Todd does it very well. He should be proud. Tell me, though, whose idea was it to make this an extra-inning win? That wouldn’t have occurred to me!”
“Funny story about that. We weren’t gonna do that originally. I mean not that you’re not worth the extra effort…”
“Please. Mind you, a regular win would have been just fine.”
“But Mickey had this idea about making it extra.”
“Mickey again? First he has Jason do more than five innings and now you’re telling me this was his brainchild? So creative, that one!”
“He got Jeurys to help him.”
“Jeurys? Did he do the eighth inning? Did he do it all right? I know sometimes Jeurys has trouble.”
“No, Jeurys was fine with the eighth. Well, mostly fine. Good enough.”
“That’s a relief. I know Jeurys tries so hard. It would have been fine with me had he just signed the card.”
“Mickey thought it would be good to let him do the ninth, too.”
“The ninth. Really?”
“Oh yeah.”

“Um, I hope this doesn’t sound unappreciative, but doesn’t Edwin usually do the ninth? I wouldn’t want to bother him too much, but he does so well with those.”
“Mickey didn’t want to disturb him again so soon after he did his last one, not to mention the ones just before that.”
“I understand. It’s just that Edwin is so good with those.”
“So Mickey asked Jeurys to do the ninth.”
“Uh-huh. Listen, I really don’t want this to come out wrong, because the thought is really what counts, but is that the reason…”
“The reason the ninth looks like it does? It’s OK, you can say it.”
“Well, I know this was obviously put together with so much love and care — and Jeurys really does try his best — but the dents, and the splotches of Red…”
“It was Mickey’s idea.”
“I see.”
“Now to be fair, Jeurys tried his best.”
“Oh, of course, of course! I’m absolutely sure he did.”
“But he’s not as handy as Mickey seems to think, so…”
“Is that why there’s an extra inning?”
“Pretty much.”

“But it’s a very nice extra inning. Who made it?”
“Drew put the top half of it together.”
“Drew? It’s such exquisite work! I didn’t know he knew how to do something like that!”
“None of us did. And the bottom half, that was J.D. and Jeff — and you already saw the bow Pete put on it.”
“It’s extraordinary. It really is. I’m going to line it up right over here with the other wins you boys have given me. See? It looks gorgeous next to them. I’m going to tilt it just a little but so you can’t make out the ninth unless you go looking for it. I mean I know Jeurys worked hard on it and all.”
“And Mickey.”
“Oh, Mickey. Of course, Mickey. So creative. Two innings for Jeurys, the eighth and the ninth. I guess it all turned out for the best, but…”
“But what?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. There, in this light, this win is absolutely flawless.”

Not How the Story Was Supposed to End

Zack Wheeler had a bad inning, not a full-game meltdown but an uneasy, Leiteresque mix of wildness and poor BABIP luck. That bad inning was enough to put the Mets in a 4-0 hole, but then Tanner Roark couldn’t get anybody out either. The Mets crept to 4-2 and then Roark became the latest opponent to get excused further duty by his manager despite having the lead and being close to qualifying for that hoary but still valued stat, the win. With two outs in the fourth but the bases loaded, Roark walked Pete Alonso on four pitches, prompting Reds skipper David Bell to opt for Wandy Peralta … who rewarded him by walking Brandon Nimmo on four more pitches.

Tie game, and this is the kind of thing we ought to remember when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves: The Mets do not, in fact, have a monopoly on misery and all-encompassing woe-is-me baseball hangdoggery. Tie game, and it seemed all but certain that the Mets would break through and untie it, finishing an unlikely comeback and authoring a feel-good story for Wheeler a day after writing a feel-good story for Steven Matz. Why, that’s the kind of thing that can give a ballclub confidence and a sense of lift, which …

Oh that’s right, there was the remainder of the game to be played. Which, alas, proved to be more than a formality.

The Mets had their chances: there was the bases-loaded opportunity after Nimmo’s walk, of course, but they also put runners on first and second with two out in the sixth and got a one-out double in the seventh. All for naught; it was the Reds who were knocking on the door.

In the eighth, Mickey Callaway stubbornly went once again to Jeurys Familia, whose dumpster fire of a season has to be one of the Met storylines most worthy of concern. Familia walked Scott Schebler and hit Jose Iglesias in the shoulder, leaving the Mets looking at miles of bad road. Tucker Barnhart followed with a perfect bunt up the third-base line, which Todd Frazier pounced on and turned into an out; Familia then gave up a sharp grounder over the third-base bag to Jose Peraza, not an impossible play but also one that routinely ends with an errant ball bounding down the line and a left-fielder frantically exploring the corner and way too many enemy baserunners gamboling around. Frazier coolly converted it into a double play and Familia had somehow escaped his own mess.

He escaped and handed the ball to Edwin Diaz, working his third straight game in a row. And before you could say “Conor Gillaspie,” Jesse Winker had spanked a sluggish slider over the right-field fence. Winker’s home-run trot was so enthusiastic it called for a choreographer, but you know what? If fortunes had been reversed, Alonso’s bat would quite possibly have wound up in geosynchronous orbit. Winker was enjoying the moment, even if I decidedly was not, and my objections are confined to the outcome.

The Mets couldn’t answer and in rapid succession they lost, fell to .500, and tonight will send Jason Vargas out against Luis Castillo, who is not that Luis Castillo but a pitcher whose early-season successes are bad omen enough. None of that was lost on me, as I fumed and vindictively decided to let recap duty wait until morning. (A mistake: Why begin a day rubbing your own nose in the previous night’s loss?)

So why did I have the feeling that the story had gone wrong, that the Mets had been destined to win that game and something had malfunctioned? It’s an interesting question to ask as a fan of a statistically mediocre outfit whose expected strengths are so far proving flimsy.

I’d wax literary about this reservoir of good feeling and its secret wellsprings, except I don’t know where they come from.

Maybe on Monday night it was simple arrogance: the Reds are a mess and desperately need someone to tell them that their road uniforms look like late-aughts throwbacks, about which no one on the planet is nostalgic. (I mean, seriously? Two-tone caps, drop shadows and whatever’s happening with that number font? There’s so much “Oh honey, no” going on there that I wanted to watch the game peeking through my fingers.) Maybe it’s simply the presence of Alonso, the baseball equivalent of a golden retriever who just ate a sleeve of coffee pods and a bag of sugar and is so glad to see you he can’t even. Maybe it’s that when they actually manage get out of their own way, the Mets are still capable of sending out a starting pitcher who will throttle the opposition in merciless, highly watchable fashion. Or maybe it’s just that it’s still early spring, and I catch myself being surprised that baseball is something I can watch instead of just daydreaming about.

Whatever the reason, there’s a disconnect, and I remain stubbornly optimistic about a team whose results would suggest wariness as a wiser response. Is that a problem? Maybe, but I think I’m happier without having it fixed.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Catcher

Travis d’Arnaud once said something for de facto public consumption maybe only I caught. Perhaps Travis would appreciate my use of the past tense of catch in the previous sentence. He’d probably appreciate more “will catch” in the sentence that begins the next paragraph of his career, wherever it’s written.

The exchange to which I allude transpired in May of 2014, when the Mets communications staff still invited bloggers who covered the team not as a job but as a self-imposed adventure to come around and visit a few times a year. We were non-traditional media, so it seemed like a very progressive policy (which makes it odder to think it’s a policy that is now in the past tense). But we were simply media in the eyes of anybody who was directed to treat us as such.

One of those people was d’Arnaud, in what was supposed to be his first full season as starting catcher for the New York Mets. “Supposed to be” implies he wasn’t. True enough, as d’Arnaud was on the DL and thus not playing a full season. By that measure, we’re still waiting for Travis d’Arnaud’s first full season as starting catcher of the New York Mets.

Travis’s inactive status that night made him fair game for our PR minder, who saw him standing around in his shorts and t-shirt and asked him if he could take a few minutes to talk to these bloggers. Sure, Travis said, in that way I noticed ballplayers had of evincing cooperation when there was no polite way of withholding it. Besides, he was sitting out that night’s game. What else did he have to do?

We gathered around d’Arnaud somewhere behind the dugout and asked general, genial questions. We were media but we were fans. I don’t know that Travis knew the difference, or that it mattered. I always tried to snap into professional mode in these situations, using second-person rather than first-person to refer to the Mets. I also tried to think of questions a player hadn’t already been asked myriad times.

I know, I thought — he’s the starting catcher. The young starting catcher. Travis was 25, touted as one of the next big things in the Met scheme, somebody who was going to lead us (I mean them) out the endless morass that had enveloped the franchise for a half-decade. The Youth of America in Stengelese. I imagined Kim Wilde serenading them. Young Lagares; young Wheeler; young Familia; young Harvey recovering from Tommy John; the recently promoted young deGrom; young Syndergaard down on the farm; and young d’Arnaud, who was attached to Syndergaard in the trade that was supposed to help transform Met fortunes. R.A. Dickey to Toronto for an enormous fireballer and a stud catcher. The least we could get for our beloved Cy Young winner was a bright future.

We hadn’t seen Noah Syndergaard yet, at that moment honing his craft at Las Vegas, which makes him sound like a card sharp in the making, but we’d been witness to d’Arnaud’s earliest major league development dating back to the previous August. We couldn’t wait to get a look at him. He was one of those minor leaguers, all fresh and new when all about us felt old and stale. The mission of the summer of 2013 was to shove aside the latest veteran catching placeholder — John Buck —with all deliberate speed and make room for d’Arnaud. Td’A, as we’d taken to abbreviating him, came up on August 17 and gave us a glimpse. He registered his first hit on August 20, his first homer on August 25. On September 13, in the last game Ralph Kiner would ever broadcast, d’Arnaud singled home Lucas Duda in the twelfth inning to d’Liver a 1-0 win over the Marlins.

The hits were the milestones. The catching was implicit. It’s always like that, isn’t it? For three decades leading up to d’Arnaud, we idolized Carter, Hundley, Piazza and Lo Duca not for how they filled their job titles but for what amounted to what they did while moonlighting. They’d slug, we’d cheer. They’d squat, they’d get up, they’d squat again, they’d nurture a different pitcher at the beginning of every game, probably another few before the game was over, all while an umpire kept a hand on their shoulder, an umpire they couldn’t tell to kindly remove his paw because they had to curry his favor in case their mitt moved a centimeter in the wrong direction while receiving pitches that dart hard and unpredictably.

And you fume when they go into a slump.

The pitcher is “1” in your scorecard, the catcher “2,” which hints at the institutional afterthought nature of the position. Vice president of the battery. The guy who has to throw the ball back to the guy whose throwing is the only throwing we’re really interested in…unless the catcher is forced to throw somewhere besides the pitcher’s mound, in which case we are lightning-quick to judge when the catcher isn’t lightning-quick to the base where a lightning-quick runner is taking off toward quite possibly because the pitcher didn’t hold him on sufficiently.

Catchers take all sorts of hell behind the plate. They are made to wear more equipment than anybody else in the game, and even then they are left vulnerable. D’Arnaud was on the DL in May of 2014 because he suffered a concussion from absorbing a backswing. Baseball’s grudging acknowledgement of the fact that this happens fairly often was to spin off a shorter version of the disabled list just for that. ”You were whacked in the head with a violently thrust piece of lumber? Take seven days and get over it.” Until that very year, it was considered admirable for opposing baserunners to crash into the catcher in quest of a run. A rule was implemented to stop doing that and we instinctively grumbled that the game was being ruined.

This was the world d’Arnaud entered willingly. The Phillies liked him enough to draft him in the first round out of high school in 2007. The Blue Jays liked him enough to insist he be a primary form of payment for Roy Halladay in 2009. The Mets were the next to like him three years later. We, the Mets fans, liked the idea of replacing Josh Thole, who left for Canada with Dickey. Not all that long before, we loved the idea of Thole halting a parade of Lo Duca successors.

On May 22, 2014, nine nights since his concussion (the third of his professional career), Travis d’Arnaud hadn’t yet done enough to either douse optimism that he would be the answer at catcher nor have us wondering if maybe the Mets’ first-round pick from 2012, Kevin Plawecki, loomed as a better long-term bet. It was too soon. D’Arnaud’s progress was stalled by injury. He’d be back in there within a week, though. He remained 25. His rookie status was intact. We were all comfortable talking in the future tense with him.

My ask to d’Arnaud was about something that inevitably loomed around catchers’ availability: day games after night games. It was one of the few concessions to the demands of catching that your regular starting catcher wasn’t expected to strap it on — you name it, catchers strap it — less than sixteen hours after having strapped it off. Day games after night games, we learned around the turn of the millennium, were why God made Todd Pratt. You bought a ticket to the matinee, you accepted that you were likely to draw the understudy. You can debate who represented the heart and soul of Bobby Valentine’s Mets, but there was no question Piazza, who passed 30 at the end of his first summer in New York, was its formidable bulk. Star or no star, Piazza’s bulk needed a blow now and then. So did Carter’s, belonging as it did to a ten-year veteran when the Mets got him, back in the day after night. “Ladies and gentlemen, the role of catcher in today’s production will be played by Ed Hearn” wasn’t your idea of dream casting, but 162 performances across 181 days required flexibility from personnel and audience alike.

D’Arnaud, on the other hand, was a rookie raring to go with every curtain. In light of the precedent that benched even the best of catchers (especially the best of catchers), what did he think about not catching day games after night games?

He didn’t seem think much of the question, to be honest, because Travis kind of stared at me and told me he wasn’t sure he understood what I was getting at. So I posed it again with a few fewer syllables. The recovering concussion patient took a beat and answered cordially but still gave me the impression that I was asking something that didn’t make much sense to him. Catching daily, he told me, was what he planned to do. “It’s part of my art,” he said.

His art. That stayed with me forever after as Travis d’Arnaud got back to catching. What’s the phrase we use for masks, chest protectors, shin guards and everything else a catcher straps on? The tools of ignorance. Pitchers, we say admiringly, have repertoires, whereas catchers, we chuckle, have ignorance. They would have to be a few degrees shy of a GED to want to do what they do. Just watch two of them shake hands in retirement.

But they embrace it. Piazza did. Carter did. D’Arnaud surely did. He saw it as something more than the logical outcome of a hypothetical trade school education. It was his art. He would create from behind the plate. He’d sculpt a pitching staff for us. He’d use the diamond as his palette. As the catcher, he was the only one who was always looking over the entire canvas that was the field.

At the end of his first more or less full season, Travis showed up down-ballot in the 2014 Rookie of the Year voting. The winner was Jacob deGrom, whom d’Arnaud caught regularly while Jake’s award case was coming into focus. The Mets were set at catcher at the outset of 2015…and then groping around for a replacement when Travis took a pitch off the pinky finger of his right hand — as a batter (making you wonder whether catchers aren’t the ones who ought to have a hitter designated in their stead) barely two weeks into the new season. We were introduced to Plawecki, who did what he could, and waited for d’Arnaud. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Getting hurt seemed to come naturally to Travis, though catching will certainly make a person more “injury prone” than walking around upright not proactively courting aches and pains. He was back in his chosen position on the same night Wilmer Flores legendarily confounded expectations, both by enduring in a Mets uniform and tugging at the Mets wordmark when he won the July 31 game from the Nats. D’Arnaud embroidered himself into the story of that dramatic weekend sweep over Washington when he was captured on cell phone camera by Mets fans as he pulled out of the parking lot between the Saturday and Sunday contests. The fans were shouting enthusiastic sentiments at Travis. Travis, in the same earnest tones I remembered from our brief encounter, replied with comparable enthusiasm. “Let’s take this shit,” he told them regarding their admonitions to grab the division from the Nationals. And when they informed him they wanted to see some October baseball, Td’A clarified their ambitions for them:

“November.”

Them he understood and that he made good on. The Mets played November baseball in 2015, having won two postseason series in October, each of them featuring d’Arnaud power, all of their games anchored by their starting catcher of pennant record. Piazza, d’Arnaud’s childhood idol, had to grab a couple of blows in the 1999 and 2000 postseasons. Td’A, like Lo Duca, Carter and Jerry Grote, caught every inning.

We and Travis d’Arnaud will always have that. Everything after 2015 was a little less storied. More injuries, more trips to the DL until the DL became the IL. The longest of them was almost all of 2018 for Tommy John surgery, a procedure named for a pitcher that’s usually applied to a pitcher. Travis the catcher caught the UCL bug in his right elbow. The Mets went on not well without him. Eventually, similar to when they were forced to face life after David Wright despite David Wright still residing on their 40-man roster, the Mets couldn’t wait any longer for Travis d’Arnaud. As 2019 approached, they sought a veteran catcher. The one they’d had since 2013 wasn’t likely to be ready by Opening Day.

Come March 28, Wilson Ramos the 2015 Nat was catching deGrom. Td’A was activated April 7, having been tendered a contract to serve as backup catcher over the winter. D’Arnaud, now 30, had never performed the part of an understudy. Whatever he thought of this iteration of his art, he didn’t appear well suited for it. Playing sporadically, no facet of his game seemed healthy. By Saturday night, giving Ramos a night off before a day game, Travis was exposed as not ready for prime time. Balls got away. Runners got to second. For bad measure, he himself got thrown out trying to stretch a single into a desperate double. Fans booed en masse like whatever was wrong at the moment was solely the fault of the former top catching prospect.

He wasn’t helping, but the loss wasn’t entirely on him. It was one game of a career that was supposed to have gone better than it had. In the end, it was one game too many. Had the Mets come to the conclusion they reached by Sunday morning, deciding to deciding to designate Travis d’Arnaud for assignment, he wouldn’t have to have heard the boos. He didn’t deserve them. He caught the only game the Mets have ever played in November, a World Series game.

Without d’Arnaud, the Mets won their day game after a night game Sunday, 5-2. Ramos started and shepherded Steven Matz to seven solid innings versus the Brewers. D’Arnaud’s successor as backup, Tomás Nido, pinch-hit and doubled in a pair of insurance runs. The Mets got on the board in the first inning shortly after Pete Alonso tripled deep to left. As he attempted to field the ball, Ryan Braun felt something wet. It was a beer that had escaped the M&M’s Sweet Seats. The brief shower didn’t appear malicious. Replays showed a fan thought he’d be cute and try to catch Alonso’s near-homer in his cup.

I’d like to think he was pouring one out for Travis.

We Inevitably Pass This Way Again

The Mets lost to the Brewers at Citi Field on Saturday night, 8-6, in an ugly game made briefly attractive before it reverted to hideous. Noah Syndergaard pitched badly, Travis d’Arnaud caught badly and Jeurys Familia thought badly. In between, Pete Alonso provided a powerful antidote to the mounting blahs, but nothing anybody did well could overcome everything everybody adorned with dollops of ineptitude.

And now the Mets are a .500 ballclub, 13-13, steadying the record of the franchise since the founding of this blog at 1,147-1,147, thus marking the 53rd time Faith and Fear has, whether from above or below, reached .500 in its lifetime. It should be a familiar sensation to us, because the team we root for calls itself a .500 enterprise at some point every year of its life, save for a handful — not counting 0-0, wise guys.

In 1985 and 2007, seasons that ended a couple of hairs shy of thick and luscious, the Mets soared above .500 to start and were never pulled back to flat ground, not even for a day. The rest of Met time, .500 has proven either a way station or, early on, an elusive aspiration (though, strangely enough, never an 81-81 destination). Our pioneers spent all of 1962 through 1965 yearning to have won as many as they lost, but otherwise all Mets sans ’85 and ’07 have pulled in at 1-1 or the like as they began to fill their 162-box bingo cards.

Perhaps the current year, fueled by Alonso Unleaded, struck you as containing the potential to be one of the aviating outliers. We launched 2-0, then 5-1, then 9-4, then hung in clear to 13-12. Alas, 2019 will consistently defy gravity no longer. For 25 games, these Mets were nothing but winners in the winning percentage sense of the concept. Eventually, though, 50-50 odds catch up with you. It happens every spring. Or summer, in the case of 1991, when .500 didn’t track the Mets down until August 15 (57-57). The 2018 Mets, it will be recalled with minimal memory strain, shot out of the gate like a house on a fire until they went down in mixed metaphorical flames. The team that ascended to 11-1 and maintained a cruising altitude of 17-9 at this very stage of last season, finally discovered itself .500 after 50 games: 25-25. Two games later, they were 26-26; two games after that, 27-27. Then…well, let’s just say .500 looked pretty darn desirable by the halfway mark.

Conversely, teams we remember for extending their years joyously experienced a moment or more of stumble and humble. Your October-bound heroes from 1986 and 1988 bottomed out at 2-3. The 2015 club not only held that same drab five-game record but were no better than break-even after 84 games. The 1999 and 2000 Mets each dropped their Openers and reluctantly revisited territory beneath .500 somewhere down the road. The indomitable 2006 edition missed out on claiming wire-to-wire distinction by pausing at 1-1 (and sitting a half-game out of first for a blink). Our most recent playoff entrants, from 2016, not only lost their first regular-season game but found themselves looking up at .500 deep in the heart of August. Their spiritual ancestors, the 1973 Mets, famously climbed to first place and .500 simultaneously, hitting 77-77 on September 21 in a National League East that was more comfortable shopping at Korvettes than it was Saks.

There was this one April ages ago when the New York Mets were doing what they were known to perennially do: lose more than win. After engineering the modest self-esteem boost of a 2-1 start, those Mets slipped to .500, then below it, then characteristically far below it as quickly as they could. Those Mets were, at various plot points on their graph, 3-7, 6-11 and 9-14. It was a huge historical deal when they proceeded to win nine of their next thirteen and scaled their way to the highest peak commonly imagined for them: .500.

Oh, those 18-18 Mets were hot stuff in the eyes of their traveling press, the members of which had never seen a literally not bad edition so late in a Met season. Witnesses to the big clubhouse celebration were few, however, because most of the Mets weren’t celebrating. A winning percentage of .500, their best player scolded the media, was nothing to celebrate.

After which, the Mets lost five in a row to fall to 18-23, ha-ha.

After after which, the Mets won eleven in a row to rise to 29-23, and whether because you already knew the salient details or you’ve been paying a scintilla of attention all your life, you know I’m talking about the 1969 Mets, currently our fiftieth-anniversary darlings, forever the avatars of anything being possible. There was a time, however, when they weren’t “the 1969 Mets” yet, except in name. They might as well have been any other Mets to date based on their sub-so-so record. But records are forever subject to change while a schedule plays out, and a whole lot of games are waiting to be won beyond April. Tom Seaver, the Met who advised reporters to go find another story, knew that. Gil Hodges, who’d been convincing his charges since St. Pete that not bad wasn’t their ceiling, knew that. Soon, the whole world turned savvy.

Not every Mets team that touches .500 uses the most level of platforms as a trampoline — and three losses in a row maybe has us fearing we’re about to excavate rather than elevate — but let’s have faith that 2019’s next bounce takes us sky high and keeps us suitably aloft. What goes up can always come down some other year.

When It All Goes Wrong

What’s wrong with Jacob deGrom?

That’s the question we’d all like answered, starting with “my God, just tell me it isn’t the elbow.” And we had a lot of time to ponder that question Friday night, as the Mets finally kicked off a chilly, rainy game against the Brewers nearly three hours late and were then out of it early. A blowup inning for deGrom, followed by a blowup inning for Corey Oswalt, and there wasn’t much to do after that except shake our heads at the 100 or so diehards out there in the cold and worry about our ace.

So is it the elbow? Or some other critical part connected to a critical part? DeGrom sounded pretty adamant that it wasn’t, and after a fair bit of the usual Metsian nonsense he actually got an MRI, which came up clean. Pitchers are habitual liars about how their arms feel, but they usually don’t lie with such ardor. So, no, I don’t think that’s it.

That makes the culprit mechanics, a point upon which most everybody connected to Metdom seems to agree. I didn’t follow the whole discussion, largely because it was really freaking late at night, but basically the dominoes of his motion aren’t falling properly, particularly when pitching from the stretch, and the arm is dragging, and pitches that last year were darting with pinpoint accuracy are sailing outside, or to the wrong side of the plate, and they’re either balls to be ignored or fat strikes that get whacked.

At least that’s what Jim Duquette said, and what Mickey Callaway said, and what deGrom himself said. All offered variants of the same diagnosis, which is that it’s a mechanical flaw, the nature of that flaw is clear, and deGrom just has to turn the mechanical fixes into muscle memory to eliminate it. Which is a lot easier said than done, particularly after a stretch in which illness and rain and worry have done a number on deGrom’s usual between-games routine.

So say the people on the TV, and let’s hope so, because that does sound fixable. DeGrom’s cerebral and coachable and blessed with a lengthy track record of ideal mechanics and great success. Though of course the miracle is that pitchers can ever repeat their mechanics at all, given the complexities of pitching in isolation — to say nothing of game situations, aches and pains and everything else that can throw someone off by that minute fraction that means the clockwork jams up. Maybe the next start will be the one where deGrom’s location is there from the start, and the results are like the deGrom we saw not so long ago in Miami. Or maybe it will be the start after that.

Or OK, maybe this particular dark forest is darker than deGrom and his helpers realize, and they’re hacking their way deeper into it instead of back towards sunlight. That happens too.

Pitchers break — that’s a regrettable, bedrock fact of baseball. And even when they’re whole, pitching’s really hard. A season like Jacob deGrom’s 2018 is like a once-a-generation comet, to be viewed with awe and then remembered with a rueful, you-had-to-be-there head shake for years thereafter. Getting back to anywhere near that would be a victory for deGrom, the Mets and all of us.

Let’s hope it’s soon. And if it isn’t soon, let’s hope we can all be a little patient, and remember just how miraculous pitching on a high level is. It’s amazing it happens at all, let alone that it can become something you’re surprised not to see every fifth day.

Sometimes Boring's Not So Bad

Sometimes, it turns out, a dull baseball game is better without a little injection of excitement.

Wednesday night’s series finale between the Mets and Phillies started off glacial and boring and then turned glacial and annoying. The Phils nicked Jason Vargas for a run in the first but nothing else; the Mets couldn’t get the hit they needed against Vince Velasquez, with Wilson Ramos having a particularly frustrating night. And then Robert Gsellman came into a 1-0 game and got pounded and that was effectively it.

I could talk about Vargas being good, which statistically he undeniably was, but something just felt flat and off for both teams until Gsellman showed up and made you reconsider the watchability of flat and off. Take Vargas’s final pitch of the night, a 2-2 fastball to Bryce Harper. The pitch before had been a changeup that started inside and dove into the dirt, designed to get Harper looking inside. The next pitch, it was clear to me, everyone in the park, everyone watching on TV, and anyone you happened to wake up from a nap of between five minutes and five decades for a quick briefing, was going to be a fastball on the outside corner. It was, it arrived at a Vargasian 86 MPH … and Harper looked at it for strike three.

Yeah, that kind of night.

Anyway, Gsellman came in and was bad and that let all the air out of a game that had turned into a fallen souffle anyway. I’d spent an hour and a half waiting for the Mets to get a big hit, then downgraded my hopes to having someone on either team look vaguely awake. But then Mickey Callaway summoned Jacob Rhame because someone had to pitch the ninth, and Rhame had to face his Tuesday-night antagonist Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins came into that confrontation as wired as if he’d just hoovered up a bag of trucker speed, hit a home run down the left-field line, and should finish his trot around the time the other Phillies get off their bus back home.

And now let’s have 1,000 words about how baseball is a pale shadow of what it used to be, followed by a rant about how the pinkos banned leaded gasoline.

No, if you want that go listen to sports-talk radio or find dumb people on Twitter. (And, honestly, what are you doing here in the first place?)

Rhame wasn’t trying to hit Hoskins Tuesday night to avenge his sort-of-fallen teammates — he nearly hit him because he’s not a very good pitcher. To be more specific about something that doesn’t particularly deserve analysis, he nearly hit him because he’s one of approximately 90 raw chuckers stashed at AAA and called up to the big leagues when teams become disenchanted with their other not very good raw chuckers. They’re spaghetti at the wall, except the spaghetti is going nearly 100 MPH so you’re stuck with contractors in your kitchen all the time.

Hoskins was understandably upset because he could have been killed by the 25th guy on a roster demonstrating why he should be the 27th or 28th guy, but the rest was silly, which may occur to him at some point. (Or may not — I don’t know if Rhys Hoskins is a person things occur to.) Honestly, Hoskins doesn’t need to prove himself to the Jacob Rhames of the baseball world with a home-run trot that makes you think of continental drift; he does that by not having to live in an airport hotel when he’s in the majors.

At least the studious-looking Rhame showed some brains by being studiously uninterested in waving further red flags at this particular bull, noting that Hoskins doesn’t get to trot if he makes a better pitch. Points to him for that — and if there’s any sense left on the planet, that’s where this silliness will end. The Mets won’t see the Phils again until June, at which point if Rhame’s logged more than a couple of weeks away from Syracuse, something’s probably gone pretty seriously wrong.

Maybe in that series Hoskins can get mad at Drew Gagnon.

Morning update: The Athletic’s reporting says I’m wrong and this is all much, much dumber than I thought. Enormous sigh.