Do you remember R.A. Dickey shutting down the Mets last June in Toronto and then letting it be known he was pitching a couple of days after his father’s death? Taking the ball was something his manager, John Gibbons, said he felt he had to do. That stayed with me in light of my father at the time attempting to recover from his recent brain surgery. I wondered whether if placed in the same situation soon — not inconceivable, given the long odds my dad faced — I’d want to write about a baseball game like I usually do.
It turns out I do.
Dad, flanked by admirers, the year before I began thinking about baseball.
My father, Charles Prince, died in the early hours today. He was 87. Those of you who’ve faithfully read this blog over the past fourteen months are probably aware of the ordeal he endured, one which I am frankly thankful is over. If you’ve read my occasional dispatches tracking his journey from diagnosis to rehabilitation to relapse to inevitable decline, you are probably also aware that baseball often provided the two of us with an oasis from the onslaught of discouraging medical news. We watched a pennant race together. We watched a postseason together. We watched a World Series together. We even got one final Spring Training game in together.
Clearly there are things in life more important than a baseball game, especially a baseball game with no impact on the standings. But after this past year-plus, I wouldn’t call any baseball game meaningless, not if being distracted by it for a spell puts you in a better place.
Today, my mind is necessarily elsewhere, yet it keeps drifting back to last night, hours before I got the phone call to tell me my father died. It drifts back to the last baseball game I watched while my father was still alive, when I worried about him, but couldn’t technically say I missed him. I did miss him from when he was truly himself, of course, but he wasn’t in the past tense on Tuesday night. Now he is. It’s strange.
It’s also strange that despite nothing being more important in my thoughts right now than recalling the man I knew and loved, I’m still irked at how last night’s All-Star Game went down. Not so much that the National League lost, but where, from an admittedly parochial perspective, the National League’s manager went wrong.
In conversations today, I’ve discussed two subjects: my father dying and the All-Star Game. Perhaps it’s an outlet. Perhaps it’s compartmentalization. Perhaps I just have skewed priorities. I do know that thinking about an allegedly meaningless exhibition game somehow feels better than dwelling on the reality that is never going to leave me.
I don’t need a tissue, thank you. I need to write like I usually do.
Specifically, I need to blog about Terry Collins mishandling his most simple task as All-Star Game manager: get one of the Mets on the mound for a minute at least.
To be surprisingly human about it, Terry looked awfully tired in his postgame press conference, and I really do hope he’s OK. He’s 67, he’s a month removed from an unforeseen hospital visit in Milwaukee and he was working without the usual built-in break most baseball people are granted in July. No doubt everybody wanted a minute of the National League manager’s time. Throw in the additional transcontinental travel, and I’m sure the experience wore on him. When he was shown listlessly answering questions Tuesday night about his leading the N.L. to its annual midsummer defeat, he looked like he wanted nothing more than a decent nap on the flight home.
So I hope Terry’s all right. I also acknowledge All-Star Games have a Brigadoon quality to them. By Friday, few will much remember the 2016 affair. Terry’s gaffe — and I do believe it was a gaffe — will dwell primarily in our collective subconscious as we get back to games that count (I mean really count). It won’t spring back to a full-blown existence until “that time the manager didn’t use any of his own players” becomes an overcited anecdote in July of 2017, then July of 2018, then probably forever more.
Despite my concern for the well-being of the manager and the grip I have on the scheme of baseball things, I do think Terry mishandled his assignment. If you’re the All-Star manager, you have two public relations responsibilities: get somebody from the host team in the game if he’s in your league; and take advantage of the rare opportunity to show favoritism to the players from your club. Terry took care of the Padres. He didn’t take care of the Mets.
His stated strategy of holding out Jeurys Familia for the ninth with a lead and Bartolo Colon for extras in case of a tie crackles with logic on paper, but by two out in the bottom of the eighth, as the American League batted (they were the designated home team because MLB is silly that way), the National League was down by two, with only one of fifteen participating senior circuit clubs not having had one of its players enter the fray.
You know which one.
Terry and his college of coaches — did you ever dream you’d see so much of Dick Scott on national television? — didn’t pause to improvise a contingency plan. With the N.L. behind and not guaranteed of roaring back, it was an ideal moment to call Familia in from the bullpen. Jeurys has been the best closer in the league this year. He is the unsung hero of many Mets wins. He’s as good a reason as anybody that Terry was granted the honor of wearing a ridiculous batting practice jersey to begin with.
But let me not be too altruistic about this. I really like Jeurys Familia being our closer. I think he may be the best we’ve ever had, certainly from the right side of the menu. Yet my dismay that we didn’t see him face one batter isn’t generated only for him. This one was for us. This is the only high-profile game in the course of a year that is conducted with minimal competitive implications, almost solely for the enjoyment of the fans. The enrichment of corporate sponsors, too, but mostly the fans. World Series home field or not, you can mess around a little.
They mess around a ton. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t make substitutions all night. Terry had one final substitution to make, and it was simple: substitute a Met into the game. He didn’t have Yoenis Cespedes. He didn’t have Noah Syndergaard. He definitely needed a long man kept available, so, fine, he didn’t have Colon in the single-digit innings (and even I would have resisted the temptation to pinch-hit at Petco in a two-run game). But he had Familia. He had a Met. He is the Met manager. If you’ve somehow landed the All-Star gig, you make your fans happy. You don’t even have to think about it.
Terry clearly didn’t. Jeurys didn’t pitch. The N.L. neither tied nor led in the ninth. On a broadcast in which it was proclaimed Collins judged it vital to make sure every team’s uniform was represented on the field of play, one style of clothing was conspicuously absent…unless you count Terry trudging to the mound to exchange Fernando Rodney for Kenley Jansen. In that case, yeah, we saw a Met on the field.
Three years ago, Terry’s professed professional role model, Jim Leyland, was managing the American League at Citi Field. It was going to be Mariano Rivera Night, whether we wanted it to be or not. Rivera was an icon because of how he pitched ninth innings. Leyland understood there might not be a ninth for an A.L. reliever to pitch. Thus, he determined ahead of time that Rivera would pitch the eighth. Mariano mission (such as it was) accomplished.
Something like that was all Terry needed to do. The script was simple to follow:
“Jeurys, Kenley, take a knee, fellas, let me tell ya what I got in mind for you two…if we’re behind, Kenley, I’m using my guy, since one of your teammates will already have been in. And Jeurys, Kenley’s gonna finish the eighth if we’re ahead, so be ready in the ninth.”
Not that hard.
Now for a commercial message:
Please don’t tell me that the non-use of Familia or, for that matter, Colon, is some kind of stealth victory for the forces of good because neither got hurt, and you can’t get hurt if you don’t play, so what a genius that Terry is for unrolling the virtual bubble wrap. If that’s how we’re gonna handle the All-Star Game, mail everybody selected a certificate and don’t bother me with three hours of Joe Buck. Players from 29 other teams (give or take Oakland) risked life and limb so not only they’d enjoy a moment in the proverbial sun, but so their fans at home could say “yay!” before getting back to staring out the window and waiting for the second half. Besides, Familia hadn’t pitched since last Thursday and won’t pitch any earlier than this Friday. If he’s not concealing one of those ever popular bone spurs, he can throw to a batter.
Now for a caveat:
Come season’s end, if Jeurys is pouring champagne over Bartolo’s head and they revel in having been kept fresh in San Diego while all those other chump players exerted themselves during the meaningless All-Star Game, then Terry’s a freaking genius. I’ll accept that conclusion if it comes to pass and offer a full Met-a culpa.
I watched the 2003 All-Star Game in which the lone Met representative, pity pick Armando Benitez, didn’t appear. That’s the way it goes, I reasoned. Same thing in 1994, when Bret Saberhagen was the extent of our delegation. Same thing in 1978, the year of Pat Zachry. Managers are more conscious of “everybody plays” these days, but you can only do so much. Sometimes somebody’s gonna sit.
The difference in 2016: Terry Collins manages the Mets. The Mets manager almost never manages the All-Stars. Only in four other instances did a Terry predecessor get the chance. You know what Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine had in common? They all got at least one Met in the All-Star Game they managed. It didn’t seem too much to ask.
The 2016 baseball season began approximately ten minutes ago and is now more than half over. It has tied the major league record for how quickly time flies, set in every other baseball season. Even the ones that drag zip by before you know it.
Embroidered in the fabric of the baseball season to remind us how much we value every second of it and how we can’t have a second more of it than it is willing to give us is the All-Star break. It is here and we can’t do anything about it.
The All-Star break is cruel. Four days, no Mets games. Boo.
The All-Star break is kind. Four days, no Mets games. Still boo, but maybe just a little all right, let’s regroup.
The team we watched Sunday needs a break. It scored two runs on solo home runs (both off the bat of the guy it’s still weird to see here) and nothing else. The team it faced won primarily because it has the guy it’s still weird to see there — plus they were facing a Mets team in need of a spa visit if not a full-blown vacation.
Three consecutive losses to the Nationals closed out the first “half,” or 53.7%, of 2016, diminishing the shine from the seven wins in eight games that preceded the present mercifully interrupted comedown. 2016 has been a lot like that. There’ve been some wonderful stretches encompassing games that prove how great these Mets can be. Then they end and are replaced by spans in which you can’t imagine the Mets getting from home to first without a medevac copter, except one isn’t available because it’s being used to transport somebody’s bone spur to the nearest MRI machine. When they’re playing like that, even the wins — layered with runners abandoned on base and the .158 batters who left them to wither — seem somehow at odds with the concept of winning.
When the Mets look good, we are reminded why the overriding question entering 2016 was “World Series or bust?” Ah, April hubris. There is so much space in between World Series and bust. The Mets are occupying the upper echelon of the squishy middle. They’d be in some sort of playoff if the season ended today (it doesn’t; it only feels like it has). They wouldn’t automatically be in the playoff we’d want, the one where they naturally go on to capture the little bit of reward they missed out on in 2015. Reward doesn’t come so easily for our Mets, though to be fair, twenty-nine other teams’ fans would swear the same circumstance befalls the objects of their affection.
Perhaps the Mets’ dead-arm/strained-quad period will cease when play resumes Friday night, setting up the second “half,” or 46.7%, as an invigorating sprint to the finish. Or perhaps things will lurch forward with bursts of joy punctuated by potholes of angst and it won’t seem long at all before I’m writing pieces in, say, 2022 swearing that 2016 wasn’t all bad — seriously, Cespedes had a monster first half and Colon homered and Familia had that streak and Thor was amazing, and that was just before the All-Star break.
I’m lousy at pretending to know what comes next, let alone knowing what comes next or insisting what should come next (agendas make me allergic). Steve Winwood would categorize me as a roll-with-it type of fan. When the Mets win, I’m going to express excitement. When the Mets lose, my irkedness won’t be particularly well-concealed. Perspective I can always sprinkle in on the other side of the semi-colons. I suppose I could use a break, too, but what I’ll want by 7:10 tonight is another Mets game I can react to accordingly. Like you, gentle reader, I shall just have to wait a few days.
• I was a guest on WFAN’s Talking Baseball With Ed Randall Sunday morning. The hook was my book, Amazin’ Again. We spoke primarily about the 2015 Mets, with jaunts into the present club’s situation. I even took listener calls, including one from a bright fellow referring to himself as “Jeff from Maryland”. The spot developed quickly, so I didn’t have a chance to let you know about it in advance, and unfortunately the station didn’t post audio from the program on its site. But, quite frankly, there’s no chance that, as a no-time caller/long-time listener, I’m going to let the opportunity to say “I was a guest on WFAN” slip by without making note of it here. My thanks to Ed for having me on and my thanks to those who did hear it for telling me they liked it.
• We’re a week past the annual commemoration of the July 4-5, 1985, game in Atlanta, but after 31 years, what’s a week? I recall a couple of moments from the marathon that ended at 3:55 in the morning for Vice Sports here.
• If it’s All-Star break time, it’s midseason roundup time for the guys at On The Sportslines. I join them at the 6:00 mark here and sound relatively optimistic about our Mets, so you know this program was taped before the Nationals series really kicked in and kicked us.
• New Jerseyans! Mark Monday night, August 8, 7 PM, on your calendar for my rescheduled first appearance in the Garden State. I’m coming to Little City Books in Hoboken to discuss Amazin’ Again and related Met matters. The original date had to be postponed because — no kidding — an adjacent establishment plans to challenge the record for most guitars played at once. It’s hard enough for one voice to be heard above the din most nights as is. Anyway, if you’re in the neighborhood (or care to be), I hope to see you there. And, yes, it is an off night on the schedule.
• As long as I’ve brought it up, thank you to everybody who has bought and/or read my book on how the 2015 New York Mets brought the magic back to Queens. If you haven’t, well, of course I urge you to buy/read it, but I wanted to get in a plug for those who have already done the Wright thing. Your actions are most appreciated.
Whether you’re seeking a copy of Amazin’ Again or, if you’ve got that one covered, you’re looking for something else to enhance your life, I’d recommend supporting the folks that have supported my efforts. If it’s convenient for you, please consider directing your business toward one of the following fine establishments:
• Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan. (An entire National Pastime experience.)
• Foley’s in Manhattan. (For your baseball-immersed drinking and dining pleasure.)
• Turn of the Corkscrew in Rockville Centre. (Books and wine.)
• WORD in Greenpoint.
• Little City in Hoboken.
• My sister’s and brother-in-law’s eBay shop (specializing in signed copies of my book).
I’ve got one word for Daniel Murphy, and it’s not because he’s the brother of either of my parents, because he’s not. The word is “Uncle.”
I’ll say it again: Uncle, as in stop it, stop it, stop it. I give.
You’re the man. You never should have been allowed to escape to Washington. You should’ve been paid by your longtime employer. We should have accepted your infield foibles and baserunning miscalculations and whatever else it was we didn’t find net-positive about you and instead handed you a bat and asked you to live up to your offensive potential for us.
Is this hindsight? Hell yes, it’s hindsight. As humans, we are imbued with the ability to sort through recent evidence and come to revised conclusions. Only idiot radio hosts with names like Mad Dog would bark that people can’t change their minds when compelled.
After Saturday night’s game, in which Murph went his usual 9-for-9 with fifty runs batted in against whoever the Mets threw at him, I am compelled to admit thinking that, ah, we’re better off with Neil Walker was December wisdom that doesn’t quite click in July.
Neil Walker’s a good, solid second baseman who is a perfectly serviceable hitter, sometimes a very productive one. But we can stop kidding ourselves that he is an overall upgrade over the Daniel Murphy who exists right now, essentially the same Daniel Murphy who swallowed two postseason series whole last October. At this stage of 2016, taking Walker over Murphy is like choosing the respectable court-appointed lawyer who looked good in a suit over Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Murphy’s methods as a Met may have been as unorthodox as Vincent Gambini’s in defending Ralph Macchio and friend in Alabama, but who drove off with the pennant and Marisa Tomei as the closing credits rolled?
To be clear, I prefer Walker in the categories of glove and savvy, and I have no complaints about him in a vacuum. I also, potential seriousness of quad injury notwithstanding, fully understand that the opportunity to re-sign the indispensable Yoenis Cespedes developed because whatever it would have cost to have retained Murphy was off the books. And I do look forward not that far down the road to the Dilson Herrera era eventually taking hold at second base. Even in the midst of a playoff chase ably aided by Cabrera to Walker to Loney, the thought of Rosario to Herrera to Smith is tantalizing.
But, c’mon. Look at what Murph is doing to everybody, never mind to us. Actually, look at what he’s doing to us, never mind what he’s doing to everybody. He’s in the worst possible National League East uniform from a competitive standpoint, one he is contracted to wear nineteen times annually against the Mets. He has seven more dates in 2016, including today, to do damage to us on behalf of the National pitching staff. Max Scherzer didn’t need that much support on Saturday. Murph provided a surfeit anyway, as he does for every one of his hurlers when the Mets are the opponent.
I dunno. Maybe if Murphy didn’t have the Mets to wreak vengeance or whatever is fueling him upon, he’d be merely outstanding, not otherworldly. Maybe Murph as a hypothetical Met this year wouldn’t be all that different from what Murph as a Met was most years. Then again, Murph was a helluva Met against the Dodgers and Cubs when we really needed him. Less so against the Royals, of course, but as long as we’re surveying small sample sizes, it’s hard not to weight his nine mammoth performances a little heavier than his five less glittering ones. Cespedes was a detriment in the World Series, too, and we surely embraced his return.
Water under the Triborough. Murph is a National. It’s a National disaster every time he bats against us. Even if it made every bit of sense to include him out of Met plans as they evolved in the offseason, it doesn’t seem so sound in the reality of the season that followed. I can almost hear one of Bob Newhart’s classic one-sided telephone conversations trying to explain how the whole thing has unfolded.
“What’s that? You let the guy hitting .349 and slugging .593 go? And he’s leading what? Oh, the league. How much of his hitting is at your expense? I see…most of it. Well, you must have had a very qualified replacement in mind…uh-huh…he’s hitting .259 and slugging more than a hundred-fifty points less. No, I guess that isn’t as good. What about his defense? His defense is fine…but, no, I suppose there is no defending balls that fly way over the fence.”
By the by, I was at Saturday night’s Murphfest, in which the Mets fell to the Nats, 6-1. Scherzer was unhittable, Murphy was unstoppable, yet — except for a two-out, bottom of the ninth downpour — I had a wonderful time. Two-thirds of last fall may have been covered by Daniel Murphy’s NLDS and NLCS pounding, but all of 2015 at Citi Field was defined in my scorebook by the presence of one man, and that gent, like Murph, is also back in full Flushing force this weekend.
Skid has returned! You know, Skid Rowe, the Mets fan from California who maintained a life’s dream of moving to New York for 81 home games and then actually did it. He wound up at Citi Field for 88 home games as it turned out, because Skid discovered seven prizes of the unforeseen autumnal variety at the bottom of his enormous case of Cracker Jack. I hadn’t seen him since the World Series. Nobody in New York had. Every baseball season necessarily ends, and when ’15 ended, Skid headed west.
You can only keep a determined Mets fan on the wrong side of the country for so long. Skid attended fantasy camp this past January, and this is the weekend when they hold their reunion in Queens. The campers line up on the field before Sunday’s game, play each other on Monday when nobody else is around. Skid being Skid, he decided to put together his own reunion ahead of the sanctioned version. On Saturday, he reserved a block of seats in the Hyundai (formerly Champions, formerly Ebbets) Club for the friends and friends of friends he made through his adventure last year. Stephanie and I were privileged to be in Skid’s thoughts and then in his gang for this occasion. Joining him and some other excellent folks for nine innings, regardless of a little rain and an overload of Murphy and Scherzer, represented a singular highlight for me within the current season. He’s one of those people who lights up a ballpark on a dreary night, which is no easily estimable talent. I thank Skid again for making 2015 extra memorable and 2016 that much better.
You probably didn’t need this reminder, but here it is anyway: baseball will make you look dumb.
Like maybe in the afterglow of Thursday night’s thrilling comeback against the Nats (deliciously complete with hirsute heel Jayson Werth shooting his own team in the collective foot) you found yourself thinking that it was really too bad the Mets were hurtling towards the All-Star break. Why, hadn’t they just trounced the Cubs and taken a series from the Marlins and weren’t they obviously now on their way to shocking the Nats? Sure, it was only one game, but with the Mets hitting in bushels and frustrated Nats jefe Mike Rizzo screaming at umps anything seemed possible. Why, if Noah Syndergaard‘s Norse hammer of an arm could just get the forces of good past Stephen Strasburg….
Maybe the needle came off the record when Clint Robinson roped a Syndergaard pitch into the stands for a two-run homer. But unwelcome though that development was, it was only 2-0.
Maybe that cringeworthy sound came when Daniel Murphy did his nightly damage to our cause to make it 3-0. Or perhaps you got through that because after Thursday night what’s three runs between division rivals?
Except then you saw Yoenis Cespedes turn into Juan Lagares, followed in unhappily short order by the sight of everyone standing around Syndergaard. Fine, Noah repeated about half a dozen times, while Terry Collins peered up at him and conducted an agitated interrogation. Fine, Noah kept saying, though the look on his face had gone from annoyance to grudging acceptance. He was done, and the patter of applause that accompanied his exit sounded tentative and beseeching.
The Mets actually hung around, with Seth Lugo and Jerry Blevins doing heroic bullpen work and Asdrubal Cabrera simultaneously sparing us the indignity of a no-hitter and getting us on the board with a home run. Brandon Nimmo and Rene Rivera ground out long at-bats in the seventh, ensuring Strasburg’s exit, and Wilmer Flores greeted Shawn Kelley with a double in the eighth, followed by a Jose Reyes infield single that Murph surrounded and rolled over but couldn’t convert.
It was first and third with nobody out and Citi Field becoming a cauldron of sound. Except Curtis Granderson got sawed off by Oliver Perez and lifted a little pop to the infield, and behind him in the order was Lagares instead of Cespedes, with Blake Treinen brought into the game.
I can’t fault Reyes for not running with Lagares at the plate. He knew it was critically important to take second, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that there was a reason he didn’t try it. Perhaps it was the wet track, or bits of rust still on the wheels — having wondered just a couple of days ago if Reyes was really ready for big-league duty, I’m not now going to turn around and accuse him of being derelict in that duty.
Whatever the case, Reyes didn’t run and Lagares slapped a perfect double-play ball that effectively snuffed out the Mets’ hopes.
And on to the butcher’s bill of postgame diagnoses. Cespedes was felled by his balky quad, an injury he said would take four to five days to heal. Syndergaard’s malady was harder to diagnose. It wasn’t the elbow, as we’re always going to fear until the day it is, but something the Mets called “arm fatigue.” That sounded worrisomely vague, but after the game Syndergaard basically shrugged: he explained that he’d lost the life on his pitches, something he chalked up to an empty tank at the midpoint of his first full season.
And, of course, all this came after the news that Matt Harvey‘s season is over, a victim of impending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome that will demand four months’ recovery time. Four months’ recovery time and the removal of a rib, which is something I can’t really get past. We’ve become blase about Tommy John surgery, which is a mistake, but from what I’ve read this is a riskier undertaking, with a much lower success rate.
So if you’re keeping track at home, over twelve hours or so the Mets lost a) last year’s ace; b) their best hitter; c) a chance to see two All-Stars in blue and orange; d) whatever fragile confidence you’d built up in Syndergaard’s health; and oh yeah e) a game in the standings.
With two more yet to play against the Nats.
You know what? We’ve changed our minds. Everybody’s tired, so perhaps the All-Star break could come two days early.
Speaking of breaks, I’m off to England for 10 days. Be nice to Mr. Prince and get some wins, willya?
We were excited in August of 2013. Reasonably excited, anyway. The Mets were 13½ games out of first place and 10 behind in the Wild Card stakes when the month began, so I wouldn’t oversell the euphoria angle. Yet as fans of teams that are not contending will, we readily embraced the chance to meet two enthusiastically hyped prospects face-to-face.
On August 6, with David Wright sidelined, we were introduced to a youngster we’d heard could play some third, maybe some other infield, definitely could hit — Wilmer Flores. Eleven days later, two other kids were reported on their way. One was Bentley Buck, whose in-utero progress was the subject of much Metsopotamian speculation that summer in light of his father’s seemingly endlessly pending paternity leave. As soon as John Buck got the sign that Bentley had been the green light by mom Brooke, the Mets called up a minor league catcher to take his place.
Travis d’Arnaud came attached to a much fuller scouting report than Bentley. The rookie receiver was the prime prospect obtained from Toronto the previous winter for reigning Cy Young Award winner and local legend R.A. Dickey. Well, he and pitcher Noah Syndergaard were the acquirees generating the most heat in December 2012, but Syndergaard was considered a bit of a ways off, and the Mets had nurtured a gaping hole at catcher since the twilight of Paul Lo Duca. Thus, the more immediate excitement surrounded d’Arnaud. Buck, thrown into the same trade, was a catching stopgap. Nobody else had been much of answer. D’Arnaud was rated anywhere between the sixth- and twenty-third best prospect in the majors heading into 2013. We were finally going to get a glimpse at him that August. In his first game, on August 17, he batted sixth, one spot behind Flores, who had made his debut on his own 22nd birthday. Travis was 24.
Here was a fraction of our future, inserted into the present. We’d heard their names. We were vaguely familiar with their skill sets. Now, primarily because there were no better experienced alternatives blocking their paths, we were going to meet the Mets who would someday, we hoped, make second halves of seasons less a tryout camp and more a field of dreams. We dream on the prospects who make it to the starting line. We dream they will lead us into the middle of pennant races and to the ends of Octobers.
It’s not as if we haven’t already seen Wilmer and Travis in autumn, but Thursday night, less than three years removed from the Saturday in San Diego when d’Arnaud dipped his first toe into the majors and Flores’s feet got just a little wetter, I was overcome by the sense that what we were wishing and hoping for in August 2013 was really happening in July 2016. To be fair, I was overcome by a lot of senses last night, as it was one of the more sensory-overloaded games (and pregames) in Citi Field history, but the contributions of d’Arnaud and Flores in particular stood out for me.
Perhaps it is a stretch to call these Mets their team now. Neither player is that outsized a figure, and they are certainly not alone in keeping the Mets charging toward the top of their division (currently three games out) and in possession of the league’s first Wild Card slot. But they are as much at the heart of their club’s effort to repeat as World Series participants as anybody right now. They each made indelible impressions in 2015. They seem even more vital in 2016.
The Mets are rolling, as opposed to rolling over. This will come as news to anybody who booked a plot at Pinelawn for their chances and then took the next week off. They’ve risen from dead and buried as June was expiring to alive and undeniably well a week or so into July. They stand nine games above .500, matching their high-water mark of 2016. They subdued the undeniable Cubs, they reeled in all but one of the malodorous Marlins and they’ve taken the first of four games from the rival Nationals, a series opener that looked to be going, going, gone fairly early.
Bartolo Colon encountered the rare turbulence he couldn’t tame in the fourth, allowing three home runs in a four-batter span. Bart was singed by Bryce Harper, Clint Robinson and Anthony Rendon, dropping the Mets down, 4-1, on a scoreboard that was seeing far too much action along its top line.
Ah, but that’s what they make bottom lines for. The Mets began crooked-numbering their row when d’Arnaud — probably due a promotion in the order (though maybe don’t fix what’s not broken) — went Apple-deep from the eight-hole with one out. Travis’s season has been sliced three ways: sour in April; out-of-stock for two inactive months; baking to the point of sizzling since returning from the DL a couple of weeks ago. D’Arnaud, as a catcher, already has plenty to do in determining his team’s success. Add on to him a personality that, from the stands and on the couch, appears more Velcro than Teflon in the self-assignation of responsibility, and you have a guy who is going to attempt to carry the Mets whether it’s good for him or not. At the moment, it’s very good for the lot of us.
Travis, a conscientious enough teammate to have removed a carefully chosen number from his uniform and gift it to a wayward colleague who admitted an emotional attachment to it, had edged the Mets to within swatting distance of the pesky Nats. As he circled the bases, the only numerals that probably mattered to Td’A were the 4 for the visitors and the 2 for the home team. Two batters later, the fellow who took Travis’s 7 (and ultimately gave him a fancy wristwatch in return) followed the catcher’s example and went yard. Jose Reyes hit his first Met home run since 2011. I suppose everything is Jose’s first something around here since 2011.
On the Tole-Rey-tion Scale, used to measure my continuing reaction to having Jose around these days, I must confess I felt my arms raise instinctively above my head when I saw his homer land in the carbonation corner, but I wouldn’t describe myself as overly bubbly about it. There was none of the sing-to-myself musical accompaniment that was standard for all of Jose-Jose-Jose’s achievements from 2006 forward. It will take time. If it doesn’t come and I never hum, so be it.
But I didn’t mind that he’d brought us to 4-3. And I really liked the sight of Curtis Granderson lighting up in the second spot, where he appears reborn. He continued the pounding of Lucas Giolito with a ringing double (almost all doubles ring), lured him into a balk and dashed home on Yoenis Cespedes’s ringing double (see?) to tie the game at four. Giolito was now the one going, going, gone, replaced after a base on balls to Neil Walker by professional mirage Oliver Perez. Because there’s always a tinge of I can’t believe what I just saw when Ollie — who still hasn’t accepted that demotion to Buffalo — enters a game, it was fitting for the Mets to conjure another illusion and execute a double steal. Cespedes was safe at third. Walker was safe at second. It was stranger to see than Jose rocketing one to the erstwhile porch, maybe even stranger than seeing Jose at all. That sort of baserunning derring-do has probably occurred since the former and since-restored No. 7 bolted for Miami, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Jose and Argenis Reyes were the last tandem of Mets to try it and succeed.
Colon remained in the game, which is usually outstanding, because Colon is the one pitcher on the planet you’d trust to withstand an alien invasion in one inning and shut down the galactic interlopers over the next four. Alas, Colon did not compute last night. He gave up a single to Ollie, another single, a fielder’s choice grounder and then got entangled in Daniel Murphy’s ongoing revenge thread, peppered with a soupçon of screwage by inconsistent interpretation of contemporary second-base sliding rules. Jayson Werth made a 2016-style illegal slide into Walker, but that was overlooked as part of a replay review festival that placed Murphy on first and sent Perez across the plate. The Nats had the lead again, 5-4. Two batters later, Wilson Ramos — Washington’s Giancarlo Stanton (unless that’s Murphy) — singled in another, making it 6-4. Colon’s imperturbability didn’t last the fifth.
The Mets’ bench, however, lurked in the bottom of the frame. After Asdrubal Cabrera and Brandon Nimmo singled off Ollie (who himself would later double), and d’Arnaud struck out, Terry Collins was able to deploy reserve first baseman Wilmer Flores, more recently identified as starting third baseman Wilmer Flores. Flores was raking in the latter role, but now Collins has flexibility and he opted to flex Reyes in at third, James Loney in at first and Flores out of the lineup. The timing was, I grant you, a little ragged, but in the hours leading up to Thursday night’s game, I wasn’t bothered. I trusted that, if needed, Flores would be at the ready.
I thought he was needed in the fourth, actually, during that same plate appearance when the double steal unfolded. With Ollie the lefty on, I imagined Terry as Casey Stengel, not waiting a moment longer than necessary to go for the jugular. He had Flores, and everyone considered Flores’s bat the hottest in the county. Six hits, including two home runs, on Sunday. Two home runs on Wednesday. Not starting on Thursday, but perfectly positioned to pinch-hit for lefthanded Loney and then play first in his stead. Loney, it was said on TV, had decent numbers against Perez. But this is Wilmer we’re talking about. If Casey were managing, we might not hear ourselves talking because Casey generally held the floor like Chris Murphy amid a filibuster, but he probably would have told somebody to “get Florsheim up”. As one plainspoken quote I’ve seen attributed to the Ol’ Perfesser put it, “Do you want me to manage to lose?”
Wilmer would have to wait to be talked about in earnest in Thursday’s game, because Terry declined to speak Stengelese. Collins stuck with Loney. Loney struck out. Threat curtailed in the fourth.
The fourth gave way to the fifth. Colon had given way to Jerry Blevins. When Blevins walked his only batter, he in turn gave way to Hansel Robles. When Collins pulled a double-switch to bring him in, he removed Loney, whose last out ended the fourth, and substituted Flores at first. Thus, despite not deploying his most lethal weapon against Perez with two on in one inning, Terry wound up doing exactly that in the next.
It took only one pitch to prove Collins a genius and Flores a star. Even if you don’t want to go that far in your assessment, everything worked splendidly. Flores launched his sixth homer in five games, a three-run Queensquake that shook the Flushing night, and the Mets led Perez and the Nationals, 7-6. The homer drew comparisons to Wilmer’s signature shot from last year, the July 31 twelfth-inning torpedo that sank the very same opponent. Though nothing will ever supplant the midnight ride off Felipe Rivero as a franchise turning point, this one was somehow more impressive to me. That home run cast Flores as Cinderella, our distressed damsel who barely maintained his shoe, or in his case his shirt. This year, with Wright sidelined again, Wilmer has transformed into the Mets’ handsome prince, our beau ideal. Who do you want up as the go-ahead run versus your fiercest foe? Besides Ces-derella, I mean?
Right now, I wouldn’t take anybody before I’d call for Wilmer Flores.
If we were writing fairy tale sequels, Flores’s destruction of Perez would have made for another happy walkoff ending. In reality, though it was still the fifth and, boy, were there still miles to go after Wilmer went deep.
• The Mets would collect an essential fourth homer, from Asdrubal Cabrera, to make it 8-6 in the bottom of the sixth.
• They’d absorb another blow from Murphy — Washington’s Giancarlo Stanton (or wait, was that Ramos?) — to make it 8-7 in top of the seventh.
• They’d see Reyes get on base and attempt to steal the next one, only to turn himself around and get himself thrown out diving back into first for the second out of the bottom of seventh.
• They’d compensate for Jose’s rust-covered mishap when the Grandersonian revival continued — Curtis single, Yo walk, Walker single with Grandy speeding all the way home to raise the Mets’ lead to 9-7.
• They’d benefit from more perfect relief out of Addison Reed, who bailed out Antonio Bastardo in the seventh and mowed down the Nationals in the eighth.
• And, finally (as if there could be anything final about a game that took 3:39, encompassed 27 hits, 16 runs and a Citi Field record eight homers), Jeurys Familia was able to quell the Nats on a beautiful 6-4-3 double play, started by a diving/flipping Asdrubal Cabrera who cut down Jayson Werth at second.
That was one out. The relay from Walker to Flores was too late to get Murphy (who couldn’t be gotten for a qualifying offer and now can never be gotten at all), but inconsistent sliding-rule interpretation on this occasion tilted in the Mets’ favor. In the ninth, unlike in the fifth, it was recognized that Werth made an illegal slide — more blatantly Utleyesque than the one from innings before — and the one out by Cabrera’s glove was multiplied to two by officials in Chelsea. Werth, who can thank his rambunctious buddy Chase for upending the rulebook, had inadvertently caused Murphy to be marked down as thrown out and, at last, the game was…
Oh crap, the game wasn’t over. Those were only the first two outs of the top of the ninth. Familia still had to take care of Harper, who you don’t need to be BTO to know is business not easily taken care of. Somewhere back in time in this game Harper had not only homered but literally quieted his detractors. He literally made a “shush” gesture toward the partisan crowd. This guy, huh?
Your closer is facing Bryce Harper, you understand your game is by no means over. Then again, if your slugger is facing Jeurys Familia, you understand your game is on life support.
Jeurys struck out Harper. The Mets had prevailed, 9-7. The stars of the game were plentiful, but the Mets couldn’t have arrived where they did and where they have without those twinkling lights from what three years ago appeared to be a distant constellation. These Mets of ours are, in July of 2016, constituted of many contributors, but they are surely, to a significant extent, the Mets of Travis d’Arnaud and Wilmer Flores.
By August of 2013, if we were looking for a headline act, it would not have been inaccurate to say our team had become the Mets of Matt Harvey. Harvey had been, the summer before, that first legitimate sign of emerging luminescence for a Mets club that had been stumbling around in the dark for far too long. Matt came up in July 2012, showed a right arm equal to its hype and, in less than a year, was as great a pitcher as any in the game of baseball.
When August 2013 ended, the arm was on the shelf, slated for Tommy John surgery. We didn’t see it again until April 2015. It was about as good as new, give or take a flourish. The persona that initially attracted us when we were fans of a perpetually wallowing ballclub and Harvey represented solely unalloyed hope didn’t always mesh with our tastes or expectations in the wake of his return, but he was back and we were better sooner than we could have fathomed when we had lost him for an entire season. Matt Harvey was undeniably one of those who led us to the doorstep of the promised land last year.
And now, as we cheer for our baseball entity of choice to bulldoze that damn door, we will be once more ensconced within a Harveyless state. Matt has been diagnosed with symptoms associated with thoracic outlet syndrome. Layman’s translation (since I’d be Googling details like the rest of you): no more Harvey Days in 2016. There was the possibility of a nerve block injection, another medical term whose ramifications I can only pretend to understand, but while Sandy Alderson initially indicated it could provide a temporary fix, he didn’t make it sound like a feasible medical version of just rub some dirt on it. Sooner or later, Harvey was gonna need surgery and today we learn it will occur soonest. It’s a different operation from TJS and he can come back, but not for a while, not this year.
The Harvey Days of recent vintage haven’t been what they used to be. They were something special almost out of the gate. Before there was Flores at third or d’Arnaud behind the plate, there was Matt on the mound in 2012 and 2013. The youth movement that helped elevate the relentlessly mediocre Mets of 2009-2014 into the relatively monstrous Mets of 2015-Present was spearheaded by Harvey. He debuted first. Familia came along a couple of months later; Juan Lagares, Flores and d’Arnaud the year after; Jacob deGrom the year after that. They shared space with holdovers, placeholders and genuine veteran stalwarts, but each was, at the instant of his debut, that guy we counted on to move us a little closer to where wanted to go. The process looks foggy when it’s in progress, clearer with hindsight. It’s not linear, but it is satisfying when you have something to show for it, which we do, thanks to how all the Mets commenced to coalesce last year.
As for this year, while we apply our hoping instincts to Harvey’s health, we depend on those who are here, however they got here, and keep an eye open for whoever can help fill his void. Maybe some assistance will eventually come from Zack Wheeler, who rose to the Met roster in 2013, somewhere between Familia and Flores, but fell out of the picture with an elbow injury after deGrom debuted and before Syndergaard broke in. Alderson didn’t sound too optimistic about the velocity of Zack’s recovery. Maybe August. Maybe not. Nothing sounded too optimistic in the wake of the Harvey news on Thursday afternoon, but then the Mets went out to play the Nationals as scheduled. They fell behind them twice, yet surged and then stayed in front of them right to the busy end.
You keep rooting in this game. Sometimes you really do get what you want.
Was Wednesday afternoon’s matinee a perfect baseball game?
Probably not — if you have to ask you have your own answer — but it was sure an enjoyable one, with a spectacular performance from Jacob deGrom, signs of professional life from Jose Reyes, a terrific day from Wilmer Flores, and a heckuva dragon to slay in a suddenly scarily revitalized Giancarlo Stanton.
Flores wound up starting at third, with Reyes shifted to short, because Asdrubal Cabrera was a late scratch with a family illness he’d had to attend to. And Flores came out on a mission to show he shouldn’t be on the bench.
I’m a fan of Terry Collins‘s — I think he’s a great teacher of young players, a terrific motivator in the clubhouse, and I admire that he’s changed at an age far past when most of us are capable of change. Remember how Terry was going to be a disaster because he was so high-strung and had alienated the Angels and Astros? If anything, the complaints about him in New York have been that he’s been too laid back dealing with players. He knew he couldn’t manage players the way he had, consciously set out to do things differently, and stuck to it.
A preamble like that is a good sign that a “but” is coming, of course, and here it is: I think Terry overvalues veterans in the lineup and that’s hurt the development of young players who need playing time above all else.
I think Michael Conforto would have been just fine if he’d kept playing every day, but Terry insisted on sitting him against lefties, based on a) a need to get Juan Lagares at-bats and b) the idea that Conforto, solely because he’s a young left-handed hitter, couldn’t hit lefties. The first point is certainly defensible and part of the tough job of a manager; a look at Conforto’s .274 line against lefties in the minors over 180 plate appearances should establish that the second point is fiction. In May Conforto got repeatedly yanked out of the lineup against lefties; denied regular playing time he got understandably anxious and started lunging at balls, was unlucky enough to roll into some lousy BABIP, and suddenly we had a Just So Story about confidence, a nebulous wrist injury and a trip to Vegas.
(By the way, I’m indebted for the above to Joe Sheehan, whose newletter I highly recommend for thoughts about baseball that will challenge you to reassess what you think and what you think you know.)
Wilmer Flores was the protagonist of a wonderful story last year, putting together a pretty good season despite treatment that came uncomfortably close to professional abuse from his ballclub. This year he found himself on the bench, and was on the disabled list with a .255 average when David Wright‘s neck betrayed him and his season ended.
With Wright down, Flores started on May 29 and went 1 for 10; since then, he’s hitting .313 with six homers and 19 RBI. Collins likes to talk about guys doing better when they hear footsteps, but I think that’s another Just So Story. The much simpler answer, and the one that strikes me as the likelier answer, is Flores has played well because he’s been allowed to play every day.
Which he now won’t be able to do, never mind his two-homer heroics and nifty plays in the field.
It’s far from clear to me that Reyes has any business starting over Flores — his only incontestable advantage in that matchup is speed. Yet that seems to be Terry Collins’s working assumption, and I think it’s a bad one.
The Mets owe Reyes nothing — it’s the other way around, given that they’ve tossed him a professional and personal lifeline. The competition here shouldn’t be between Wilmer Flores and the memory of what Jose Reyes was during Obama’s first term; it should be between Wilmer Flores and a 33-year-old with reduced speed who’s playing out of position and making the league minimum. But I fear we won’t get that, because Wilmer Flores is Wilmer Flores and Jose Reyes is a Proven Veteran™.
But back to the game. It really was fun!
Can we agree that Stanton is terrifying? Change him out of horrid Marlins motley and into classical garb and he’d make an excellent Ares or a clean-shaven Hercules — heck, he already looks like a statue, with his stone face and his dark eyes like cold glass. The man does terrible things to baseballs — his two homers off deGrom were both line drives that he essentially hit only with his arms, whipping them into distant regions with such velocity that the outfielders barely budged. The scouting report on Stanton ought to be the same as a previous generation’s for Hank Aaron: hope nobody’s on base when he hits one.
With the more-than-forgiveable exception of Stanton, though, deGrom was on point, outfoxing the Marlins with strategic use of his change-up (like the beauty that got Christian Yelich in the third) and coaxing double plays when he needed them. We got Flores’s heroics, and a couple of balls over third from Reyes that once might have been triples when he had another gear but were perfectly welcome doubles without that gear, and a nice game from Curtis Granderson, playing in obvious discomfort as evidenced by the aftermath of his sliding grab to rob Marcell Ozuna in the sixth.
Stanton wasn’t the last out of the game — that distinction went to Ichiro Suzuki, who came up as the tying run but hit into a double play. But the game’s climax, for me, was the ninth-inning confrontation between Stanton and Jeurys Familia.
Stanton deserves every superlative you can dream up, but Familia’s pretty damn good too. He went after Stanton with his usual weapon in the usual spot, that sinker on the knee that drops down towards the ankle. You knew he was going to do it and I knew he was going to do it and Stanton knew he was going to do it, but much like Mariano Rivera and his cutter it didn’t matter — that pitch was only going to fail if the execution faltered.
Still, it’s Stanton. That pitch alone wasn’t going to get him out, the way it carved up the Cubs. So Familia paired it with a slider on the other side of the plate, dropping into the dirt. Stanton knew he was going to do that, too — the key was when. Familia got Stanton to foul off a sinker on 1-2 and then went to the slider, which Stanton let go for ball two. Then back to that sinker, which Stanton fouled off once and then again, his mind and body getting more fixated on neutralizing it even as he knew another slider was lurking out there.
It came on the eighth pitch, skipping into the dirt in front of home plate, and Stanton lunged for it — lunged for it and missed. Wonderful.
I came home from Closing Day today, still a little miffed that Jose Reyes pulled himself from the game the second he got to first. I didn’t mind the protecting of his .337 average. But he couldn’t have stayed on the bag another minute? Who pinch-runs for Jose Reyes if he’s not injured?
Teddy Ballgame, it is emphasized in some quarters, would not have sat himself when he was going for .400 in 1941. Fine. He wins the sportsmanship award from 70 years ago. Nevertheless, I looked forward to finding out if .337 would be enough to win a batting crown here in the present of 2011. Ryan Braun came into tonight batting .335 and could still steal this thing. Everybody else was worried about Wild Card races — the Cardinals having made up so much ground on the Braves, while the Rays are perhaps on the verge of taking down the Red Sox — but this was the one I was focused on.
Yet as I will when I go to day games, especially when I went the night before, I drifted off on the couch after Braun’s first at-bat, which was an out. Maybe I did more than drift off, because it feels like I was asleep for the longest time, during which I had the strangest dream.
First, Braun went 0-for-4 to finish .332. Reyes indeed won the batting title, the first any Met ever got. It should have been a bigger deal. It wasn’t. The choreography of exiting in the first inning seemed to be what got people’s attention. Next, he filed for free agency. The Mets didn’t make him an offer. Suddenly he was a Florida Marlin, the worst thing you can be. No, actually, they were called the Miami Marlins in my dream. They weren’t wearing teal anymore. They had a new stadium and a bunch of other free agents to go with Jose and that young slugger who kills the Mets, Mike Stanton. Except Mike Stanton was now Giancarlo Stanton.
I found myself at Citi Field in what I guess was the next season. Jose came up to bat for the Marlins. I stood and applauded. Not many did. Nobody had a memory. In my dream, it really bothered me. I couldn’t get used to him not being a Met. I couldn’t stand that the weird Marlin uniform he was wearing (black and orange and maybe two or three other colors) was all anybody saw. In my dream, Sandy Alderson said something about sending him a box of chocolates instead of possibly negotiating a contract. I think it was supposed to be a joke. I didn’t get it.
Ruben Tejada was the Mets’ shortstop in my dream. I found myself resenting the kid, which is too bad, because I really like him as a second baseman and still hold out hope that when the Mets do re-sign Reyes — they’re not gonna let him go, no way — Ruben will be Jose’s double play partner for years to come. David will be at third and Ike, once he’s over the mysterious injury he sustained in Colorado and the valley fever, will be at first. I don’t know what they’ll do with Daniel Murphy. He’s always getting hurt and, besides, he’s not really a second baseman. Maybe we could trade him to some American League team that could use him as a designated hitter and get bullpen help. Maybe somebody would take Manny Acosta as long as I’m dreaming.
Anyway, Reyes is a Marlin, and I keep showing up at Citi Field to applaud him even if nobody else does. This goes on for a season and then he’s a Blue Jay. I guess the Marlins had another fire sale. They kept Stanton and apparently nobody else. Reyes was in the other league and the Mets continued to suck. Tejada wasn’t that great a shortstop, it turned out. They couldn’t replace Jose. They even tried Omar Quintanilla, one of those names I think I saw in a box score once. It’s weird how stuff like that infiltrates your dreams.
Next thing I know, the Mets are really good. Reyes is a Rockie (traded for Troy Tulowitzki, who I wouldn’t mind never seeing at Citi Field again after what he did to us in April) and looks bored. I’m not sure what one thing had to do with the other, but I told you it was a strange dream. I’m at a game where we’re playing Colorado and think that it’s too bad he’s not the player he was when he was competing for the batting title for us, but time marches on and maybe I’m finally over him.
Here’s where it really gets bizarre. In the dream, Reyes is wearing a Brooklyn Cyclones uniform. Or was it a Binghamton uniform? Either way, he’s sort of back with the Mets. He’s older. He kind of looks like himself but not quite — you know, like the difference between Izzy when he came up and Izzy when he came back this year. They’re saying Jose’s going to be a Met again for real. They’re holding a press conference and he’s saying how happy he is to be home, but it doesn’t feel exactly like a homecoming. Somebody keeps interrupting to mention Reyes wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t thrown his wife into a glass door in Hawaii — Hawaii? — and he’s a bad guy and the Mets shouldn’t sign him. Then somebody else says he’s served his suspension, and the Mets could use him maybe.
He’s not the shortstop in my dream. He’s the third baseman. David Wright has a bandage on his neck and a beard. He doesn’t play anymore but he hangs around. Jose has a beard, too. Terry Collins is still the manager. Both he and David say nice things about Jose, though they, too, sort of reprimand his behavior. So does Alderson. Jose’s back but he’s not back. He’s wearing No. 7, except even that isn’t simple. He had to get it back from a catcher with an odd-looking last name that begins with a lower-case letter. The catcher switches to 18 in tribute to, get this, Peyton Manning.
Finally, after I don’t know how many years in the dream, Jose steps up to bat against the “Miami” Marlins. He gets a nice hand — a nicer hand than he got when he returned as a Marlin — but on TV it sounds a little more tentative than I would have imagined prior to this business about him being arrested in Hawaii, which even in this whole surreal scenario I can’t truly fathom. Gary and Ron (Keith isn’t there) take very measured tones. In the moment it takes me to absorb that my favorite player is a Met again and that it’s not the unalloyed restoration I had hoped for, because what he did was as bad as everybody was suggesting, he strikes out. In the rest of the game, he doesn’t get on base and the only fielding he does at third is take a throw from the catcher wearing 18 with the lower-case letter on a stolen base from one of the Marlins.
I also think I saw Ichiro Suzuki in the visitors’ dugout and Curtis Granderson in right field for the Mets. James Loney was on first base for us, the guy from the Dodgers; I don’t know what happened to Ike. And on TV they were saying something about who was on the All-Star team. Jose wasn’t. It was like all Cubs plus Daniel Murphy, except Murphy was a National and lost the starting spot at second by only 88 votes (yeah, right, Daniel Murphy an All-Star second baseman — I suppose Terry Collins is managing). The Mets had three All-Stars, or one more than we did this year when it was Reyes and Beltran before we traded him to the Giants. One of them was the minor league pitching prospect Familia, and don’t ask me why his name appeared in my subconscious. The other two were spelled funny. Yoendegaard something or somebody? I have no idea who they were or what they represented. Oh — Beltran was an All-Star again, but for the Yankees, for crissake.
The only part of the whole thing that felt real was Mike…I mean Giancarlo Stanton homering twice for the Marlins, one on a searing line drive above a bunch of seats Citi Field doesn’t actually have (there was a blue fence in front of the black wall), one on an absolute bomb where nobody except maybe Scott Hairston hits them. The Marlins won, ending a Mets winning streak in which they’d scored a ton of runs before Reyes reappeared, the implication being nothing in your dreams is ever quite or even close to how you want it.
Then I woke up. What did Braun do in his second at-bat?
It happens sometimes: life, that amorphous bundle of stuff, refuses to conform itself to the rhythms of 7:10 and 1:10 and 4:10. I thought I had my July 4th parceled out so three hours were reserved for the Mets game, but I hadn’t been paying attention to which day was which.
I’ve got a mental list of about 50,000 favorite things about baseball. Near the top you’ll find how the game stays rewarding at many different levels of engagement. You can watch in “lean-forward” mode, scrutinizing every pitch and trying to think along with the pitcher and the catcher against the hitters, in hopes of cracking the code and predicting victory or defeat. Or you can watch in lazy “lean-back” mode, letting the game be a companion as you do errands, read magazines, or just loll on the couch. (You might even nod off and miss an inning or four.) They’re very different experiences, both far better than an afternoon or evening featuring no baseball.
Then there’s the phenomenon of the game that happens without you, which is an odd mix — at least for me — of philosophy and superstition.
When I had to check out of Independence Day’s Mets-Marlins tilt, it didn’t seem like much of a tragedy.
First, I’d watched the Mets and every other team take the field in ridiculous MLB-mandated clown suits. I’m all for supporting our troops — we’ve collectively failed, as we collectively fail at so many things these days, at ensuring returning veterans get educational and job opportunities for their service and support for dealing with physical and mental injuries suffered during that service. But it’s beyond me why supporting that worthy goal means baseball teams should look like your TV’s on the fritz. The Stars-N-Stripes uniforms looked objectively terrible, like some intern went on Photoshop, slid team colors vaguely in the direction of red and blue, flung a cut-rate cap into the mix and logged off.
A suggestion for MLB: quit half-assing the aesthetics. How about putting each team in a uniform inspired by a military unit from its state? Here’s the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. Design a July 4th Mets uniform inspired by that insignia and those colors. Or do something else — if my two-minute idea is already better than what MLB does, I’m sure smarter people could come up with something really compelling. What we’re getting now is an unholy mess.
(Before we charge on into Matt Harvey, did anyone catch the Nats and Brewers playing at 11 a.m.? The Brewers were caught batting out of order, which means Ryan Braun‘s single became an out charged to Jonathan Lucroy, who’d been the scheduled batter, and credited to catcher Wilson Ramos, who’d had nothing to do with anything. Lucroy then came up the second time through the order and lined out on the first pitch he saw. Which meant that, yes, Jonathan Lucroy was 0 for 2 in the box score after seeing one pitch in real life. It’s an unfair game.)
Anyway, Harvey took the hill for the Mets, looked good in the first and then stuff started happening. As has happened in a number of his 2016 starts, Harvey’s pitches were missing that little bit of finish that would make sliders dip across the margins of the strike zone and make fastballs wiggle in it. A bunch of those pitches got hit. So too did some better pitches that the Marlins happened to place fair — something we thought was dandy when it befell Jon Lester but were less amused by yesterday. And there were some things that could have gone Harvey’s way but didn’t: in the second, it looked like Mets would escape down just 1-0 after Chris Johnson was tagged out trying to advance to second. But the umps ruled — correctly — that Johnson had made it there safely. Three more hits, two more runs and a bunch more pitches followed.
Harvey made his own bad luck in the fourth. With the bases loaded and one out, Martin Prado hit a one-hop grounder that Harvey fielded on the mound. A simple throw to Travis d’Arnaud, waiting with his foot on home plate, a relay to the sure-handed James Loney at first, and the inning would be over with the Mets down a not-insurmountable 3-0. Harvey spiked the ball into the dirt wide of d’Arnaud, then gave up a two-run single to Christian Yelich. 6-0 Marlins, exit Harvey attended by a whole lot of boos.
By that point I was prepping for the dinner I’d failed to account for schedule-wise. I heard Josh Lewin burbling outside of the shower (he was on At Bat, not seated on my toilet — that would have been strange for both of us) and emerged to find nothing substantive had changed. D’Arnaud hit a homer, followed by Curtis Granderson doing the same, but those seemed cosmetic and I headed out the door for dinner with my wife and her father-in-law having written this one off.
Between the appetizer and the main course, news gleaned from a surreptitious phone peek: it was 6-4.
More news a bit later from MLB In Lap: it was 6-4 but the Mets had runners on second and third with nobody out. That’s when the Mets have been least dangerous this year, but two things: a) you should read this nifty FanGraphs piece I keep failing to find a place for; and b) it feels like the worm’s turned over the last several days, as that piece suggested it might.
And indeed, a glance lapward as dinner ended showed that somehow it was 6-6. Amazin’!
Here’s where the philosophy/superstition arrives. Despite being a generally rational human being in an age of science, I find it hard not to believe that the universe — or at least the baseball part of it — is governed by laws about karma and right practice. I’d gone AWOL on the Mets when it was 6-2 and in my absence they’d tied the game. Clearly, if I reappeared as a fan I would be punished for dereliction of duty.
We went home and turned on the set.
After d’Arnaud got aboard on an infield hit, I knew Terry Collins would do two things, neither of which I approved of: a) he would give up a precious out by bunting; and b) he would not run for d’Arnaud because it was theoretically possible that Rene Rivera would get injured in the 512th inning. And so it was: Juan Lagares bunted d’Arnaud over, Granderson flied out, Neil Walker did what his name suggests (walking, not kneiling) and up stepped Yoenis Cespedes.
And well, ker-blam, up the gap on Fernando Rodney, shorn of his goatee by the Marlins and shorn of his skyward arrow by the Mets, at least for a day. So much for superstition and decrying 19th century strategy.
Enter Jeurys Familia and bring on some nail-biting. Perhaps feeling invulnerable after escaping my karmic comeuppance, I offered a semi-prediction with Johnson at the plate, one out and Familia’s pitch count in the 20s.
“This isn’t the guy who scares me in a situation like this,” I said. “Johnson’s a .248 hitter who’s already got three hits on the day. The guy who scares me is the .300 hitter who’s oh for five.”
Two pitches later, Johnson hit a perfect double-play ball to Asdrubal Cabrera. It’s nice to be right once in a while, even if you feel like you don’t deserve it.
It doesn’t take a Richard Henry Lee galloping down to the House of Burgesses and back (stopping off in Stratford long enough to refresh the missus) to deliver a resolution that declares unequivoca-LEE that the four-game series the New York Mets just completed against the Chicago Cubs is and ought to be considered among the most glorious quartets of contests ever brought forth on this continent, or at least Flushing.
So help me Wilmer.
As great series go, this was about as good it gets. The mood beforehand was morose. The incoming opposition was assumed omnipotent. What could possibly go right?
Everything. Every little thing the Mets did at Citi Field in sweeping the four games winding down the season’s first half and leading up to this Fourth of July was magic. Two nailbiters; two blowouts; a dozen homers; thirty-two runs overall; and fourteen runs in the finale, fueled by twenty-two hits that included six in six at-bats from one third baseman whose jersey every July seems to tell us all we need to know.
At the end of last July, Wilmer Flores famously tugged at the “Mets” on his shirt as he crossed home plate in the twelfth inning so as to inform us what team he was about to spiritually lead on an uncharted adventure into autumn. At the beginning of this July, it was the number on his uniform top that accurately transmitted the weekend’s vital 411.
Wilmer wears 4.
The Mets just swept 4.
And what a 4 they were.
Seats that had never been touched were reached on Thursday. Players that had been barely seen became stars on Friday. Leads teetering on the brink of dissolution remained resolute on Saturday. And hits that just kept on coming just kept on coming and coming some more on Sunday, especially from Flores, he who homered and singled in the second, singled in the fourth, homered in the fifth, singled in the seventh and — batting against a catcher, which will happen when you’re poised for a sixth plate appearance — singled in the eighth.
Six hits in one game tied a Mets record, originally forged by the revered Edgardo Alfonzo in 1999. Like Wilmer, Fonzie hailed from Venezuela and got shifted around the infield quite a bit in his Mets career. Unlike Fonzie, Wilmer rarely receives the benefit of the doubt. Once Edgardo proved he could hit, a spot — some years at third, others at second — was found for him. The only place Wilmer ever seems guaranteed of having is in our hearts.
The diamond has proven a more tenuous setting for Flores. He was more or less the regular shortstop in 2015, but the Mets got amnesia and then Asdrubal. Lately Wilmer’s the stopgap third baseman, filling in for one sidelined franchise legend while seatwarming for another. That Jose Reyes (all not-so-ancillary issues aside) has never played third in the majors doesn’t seem to faze those who assign players their positions. Perhaps Reyes will be professionally reborn at David Wright’s corner. Perhaps Flores, on the heels of 6-for-6, will look pretty good by comparison.
He looked incomparable at the plate Sunday. So did the Mets as an entity. The 22 hits tied another team record: most in a home game, first set on September 20, 1981, which was no random affair. It was the third win of a three-game sweep of first-place St. Louis in the “second season” of that torn-asunder strike year. The Mets failed to hit with runners on for much of the day, which explains why a 22-hit attack produced only a 7-6 victory. Ah, but the twenty-second hit excavated from that Sunday at Shea is what made for the happiest of recaps, with Mookie Wilson ending the game via walkoff home run against future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter.
Sweeping the Cardinals moved the Mets to within two-and-a-half games of first place with two weeks to go as New York improbably insinuated itself into a mini-pennant race. The particulars of what turned into a false alarm (the Mets fell out of contention almost as quickly as they’d catapulted into it) are broadly forgotten, but the emotions were timeless. Mookie, then 25, called it “the most exciting game of my life”. The fans, deprived of a semblance of September stimulation for so long, were on board with his sentiment. There was no Mr. Met Dash or sponsored postgame festivity, yet, as Bob Murphy described the euphoria over Channel 9, when he was still doing TV, “The crowd is just staying here. They don’t want to go home. It’s unbelievable!”
You gotta believe nobody was in a rush to exit baseball nirvana, which is where we and our team currently reside after sweeping four from the Cubs. I don’t know if these four wins over Joe Maddon’s projected world champions (based on zero percent of October precincts reporting) will send us roaring into the second half on a runway of momentum, or if this was yet another of those spurts that will be answered with a spritz of 2016 reality, the kind that has thus far doused every encouraging burst of energy with a dose of lethargy. I also don’t much care after bearing witness to these four games, each and every one of them a beauty on its own terms. The Wild Card is still up for grabs and the division isn’t down the tubes. That’s all the context I need on this holiday Monday.
Sunday we had Flores and his six hits. We had Syndergaard and his untroubled seven innings. We had the Mets chasing Lester in the second after posting eight runs. We had Granderson, Rivera and Johnson each chipping in a homer, making it five Met bombs bursting in air on the day, matching the Citi Field team record established two whole nights earlier. We had basically every Met, compression-sleeved and otherwise, doing something marvelous to create the 14-3 punctuation that punted Chicago from the premises. We had four wins in a row against the Cubs in one series for the first time since, oh yeah, the 2015 NLCS, but also four wins in a row against the Cubs in one regular-season series for the first time since the Mets administered reprisal for 1984’s not-ready-for-prime-time shortfall by sweeping the defending divisional kings out of Queens in June of 1985. Those Sutcliffe-Sandberg Cubs were reeling when they dropped by Flushing and, soon after losing four of four to the rival Mets, dropped off the map for the rest of ’85. The Shea PA blasted “The Night Chicago Died” for emphasis when it was over. It was glorious.
As was this series, when the Mets went on a tear…a tear of joy.
Say, a friend of mine has a neat idea to commemorate a piece of Citi Field history. Check it out here and, if so inclined, please lend your support to the effort.
When the 2016 Mets trudged home to Citi Field earlier this week, it sure looked like they’d ceded the divisional race on June 29, dragged down by injuries, bad luck, lack of clutchness and Daniel Murphy, to name but a few maladies.
Later today, somehow, they’ll trust a four-game sweep of the big bad Chicago Cubs to Noah Syndergaard.
Baseball is designed to break your heart, as Bart Giamatti warned us all those years ago. But it’s also designed to make you look stupid, whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. This isn’t a bug but a feature: if you tell a half-year story in three-hour chapters, you’re certain to get lost in the plot’s twists and turns.
Still, good luck keeping perspective. We’re storytelling monkeys, an adaptation that helped us find patterns when leopards were picking off our ancestors who picked fruit at dusk but now mostly causes us to believe in conspiracies and fail to calculate odds. And look, it’s a lot more fun to listen to the story that’s unfolding now than it is to clap your hands over your ears and insist the real tale’s still unknowable. Try intoning that “the odds are against this meaning anything in October” right after the conclusion of a Braveheart-style comeback in early May. If you don’t get beer thrown on you, you’ll find yourself with no one to talk to on the 7 train. And with reason.
The same thing is true, in miniature, of individual games. Last night, as Bartolo Colon drifted serenely on and off the pitcher’s mound and Jake Arrieta stalked around in a huff, I found myself thinking that while watching a game we’re forever assembling, disassembling and reassembling it in our heads based on what seems fated to happen. (To be fair, this may be a side effect of recapping.)
Sometimes these stories-in-progress are pretty easy calls: if the Mets give up 10 in the first, you’ve probably got an embarrassing farce that will grind on interminably. If they score 10 in the first, substitute “merry” for “embarrassing” and “amble along amusingly” for “grind on interminably.”
But a lot of the time you don’t know — and so you keep trying scenarios on for size and running the risk of making a fool of yourself.
Here’s last night’s likely story, revised as events shifted or threatened to:
1) Romp, with Fireworks: So declared after Neil Walker followed Brandon Nimmo‘s opening walk with a high drive that clanged off the facing of the top deck of Citi Field’s Sponsored Soft-Drink Demarcated Region. This narrative picked up speed after Yoenis Cespedes followed with a double and the Mets kept ratcheting Arrieta’s pitch count higher.
2) Grim Reminder That One Does Not Waste Runs: Swam into view after Cespedes — who’d arrived at second before Arrieta recorded an out — failed to score. Making Arrieta throw 35 pitches in the first was good; failing to convert a gimme third run was not. It was only 2-0, and those were the Cubs out there.
3) ‘I Told You’ Shrug of Despair: Proposed story filed in the top of the fourth, when the Cubs began things with a Kris Bryant single and an Anthony Rizzo shot over Cespedes’s head that let the excess of Cub fans in the stands find their voice. Now it was 2-2 and anything — Gutty Mets Win, Evil Cubs Take Revenge, Death March to Inning Twenty — seemed possible.
4) We’re Unlucky Except When We’re Lucky: In the bottom of the fourth Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Alejandro De Aza forgot to screw up and Travis d’Arnaud stepped up with two out and two on. He hit a sad little pop fly, one that sounded like it might have broken his bat and drifted over the infield. Javier Baez almost made a barehanded, back-to-the-infield, over-the-shoulder catch, but that’s hard to do. The perfectly placed ball fell in, and because there were two out both runners scored. 4-2 Mets, somehow.
5) Offensive Ineptitude > Occasional Luck: Bottom of the Mets’ fifth, Nimmo single, Walker single, three straight outs. It would be dumb to have Cespedes bunt, of course, but still. What the hell, stupid Mets? If we lose this game 5-4 that inning is really gonna hurt.
6) What the Hell, Stupid Mets? (Reprise): Juan Lagares came back just to hit into a double play with runners on the corners and one out? Ridiculous!
7) Middle Relief Is Our Soft Underbelly: Enter Erik Goeddel, exit baseball struck by Ben Zobrist. 4-3 Mets, enter Jerry Blevins … who walks Jason Heyward. Enter Addison Reed, and oh man this is the same Addison Reed who sometimes looks great and sometimes throws an eye-high bait pitch down the middle at 92, and that’s Bryant at the plate and OH GOD NOW A WILD PITCH SENT HEYWARD TO SECOND AUGGHH I DON’T WANT TO LOOK.
8) Addison Reed Is a Goddamn Gunslinger, I Tell Ya: Oh, he struck Bryant out and did that thing where he sticks his hat back on his head and moseys (mosies?) off the hill into the dugout like a boss. You and me, we’re temporarily cool, Addison Reed.
9) That Was Fun, But Now I Need to Author a Screed About Bullpen Management: Rizzo’s leading off the Cub eighth in a one-run game. Shouldn’t Jeurys Familia be in here instead of facing the bottom of the order in the ninth? Terry Collins is so stupid. Wait, except relievers take comfort from clearly delineated roles and that’s not Terry’s fault and honestly the guy in the other dugout’s the innovator. Baseball is so stupid.
10) Have You Already Forgotten That Addison Reed Is a Goddamn Gunslinger?: Struck out the side. I’m the one who’s so stupid.
11) Jeurys Familia Is God, Maaaan: No sweat, Mets win. A crisp, exciting game in which the Mets wore down Arrieta and then hung on, and Bartolo’s Zen and Loney started that nifty double play blah blah blah blah.
12) Get Out the Brooms, We Can Sweep the Cubs This Is Awesome!!!!: Well yeah. Unless we don’t and it isn’t. In which case a new narrative awaits.