Sometimes your ace, while perfectly worthy of New Yorker covers, is missing that little wrinkle from his fastball and can’t locate it anyway and he gets whacked around.
Sometimes an opponent who’s spent the year being an absolute tomato can manages to bewilder.
Sometimes your hitters connect with ball after ball after ball in ways that seem promising at first but wind up profoundly frustrating.
Sometimes Matt Kemp catches EVERYTHING THAT COMES WITHIN 50 FEET OF HIM.
Sometimes Freddie Freeman shows up and does Freddie Freeman things.
Don’t let it get you down. It’s just baseball, which can be beautiful and can be cruel and can also be baffling and exasperating. We weren’t going to win every game. In all likelihood we don’t need to win every game. Win series. Win series and we’ll take our chances.
It all starts tomorrow. It’s always all starting tomorrow.
Remember that weekend the Mets were vying for a Wild Card and the Minnesota Twins came into Citi Field with the worst record in baseball and you thought, “oh great, another one of those traps when the Mets inevitably play down to their competition,” and, sure enough, the Mets couldn’t score more than three runs in any of the three games, and they kept leaving runners on, and the Twins lived up to their Pesky Nats heritage, and the Mets had to keep reaching deep into their bullpen, and they were using as a starter in the middle of a playoff race somebody who’d never started in the major leagues before and he was out of the finale in the fifth, and there was more devastating injury news, and…
The Mets won all three games. Remember that.
You’re not used to it, but good things happen to the Mets. More precisely, the Mets make good things happen to themselves.
They took the schedule they were issued, they added to it dried cut grass and they made hay. They swept the allegedly dreadful Minnesota Twins three straight at home. I’m sure the former Washington Senators (original edition) have earned their worst record in baseball, but they looked perfectly professional to me. The Mets scored three, three and three runs against them in the three games and won, won and won again.
Somebody wearing a home uniform must have been doing something right. Lots of somebodies, as it turned out.
Admission to the postseason isn’t gained on the strength of one hot batter or one unbeatable pitcher. It takes a roster. In the Mets’ case, it takes an expanded roster. An organization that doesn’t celebrate Old Timers Day nonetheless dipped into its storied past and invited Lucas Duda and Juan Lagares to take bows before the crowd on Sunday. Back from incapacitating injuries, Lucas (starting first baseman until pinch-hit for in the sixth) and Juan (a defensive replacement in center in the ninth) made appearances not for ceremonial purposes, but to help the team for whom they technically still play win a game, sweep a series and near a playoff. Neither contributed anything tangible to the cause, but it was good to see them. Their active involvement was indicative of how everybody is doing his part.
Sunday afternoon, Gabriel Ynoa was the first Met you haven’t much thought about to step in and step up. I hadn’t thought about Ynoa since the previous Monday, when I couldn’t stand to think about Rafael Montero one inning longer. Twenty-four hours before Ynoa threw his first Sunday pitch, neither one of them was on my mental radar. I had Jacob deGrom to look forward to: a hat with a convincing replica of his hair on Saturday, his arm and whatever it could deliver on Sunday.
Scratch one of those. I’d gladly give up the giveaway cap to get back the shutdown arm I vaguely recall intersecting with the glory days of Duda and Lagares. That deal is not on the table. As I stood on my Long Island Railroad station’s westbound platform on Saturday and skimmed Twitter, I saw a reputable news source reporting deGrom was out for the season and headed for surgery. For about a half-a-second, I tried to comprehend what the gag was here. Then I remembered, oh yeah, deGrom — hadn’t pitched for a couple of weeks, hadn’t looked good for a couple of weeks before that, who was kidding who when they said he was going to pitch on Sunday?
Thus, Ynoa, and — don’tch’Ynoa — he was Twins-ready. Gabriel struck out eight of them in four-and-two-thirds innings, giving up only one run in the process and standing in line as the winning pitcher of record (if one can be presumptuous enough to contemplate such ephemera in a fifth inning) until he allowed a two-out single to Brian Dozier. A mere single to Dozier, he of the 41 homers, may be the moral equivalent of a third out, but not technically the same thing. Next up was lefty-swinging Logan Schafer, perhaps not the one Twin to have up when you’re having no more than a two-run lead, which is exactly what Ynoa was nursing on the mound. There was no reason to think the rookie righthander wouldn’t retire Schafer, but if you were Terry Collins, and you’d just gotten to two out in the fifth with Gabriel Ynoa filling in for Jacob deGrom, why push it?
Exit from Schafer City Mr. Ynoa, enter Josh Edgin, a lefty-versus-lefty reflex. Edgin had pitched the night before. Yours truly groaned at his appearance in the twelfth inning. Collins had run through six ostensibly better options before tapping Edgin. Edgin threw a scoreless twelfth and wound up the winning pitcher after Curtis Granderson made victors of us all. It was a good lesson: don’t doubt any Met in this September when the Mets’ September is very much and very rewardingly the sum of their parts.
Edgin entered Schafer City and could not in all good conscience recommend it on TripAdvisor. “Not a good scene for singles,” he was probably moved to comment after Logan dropped one into the outfield. With the left-leaning portion of our immediate concerns completed, we bid goodbye to Mr. Edgin and greeted Erik Goeddel. On Saturday, when my buddy Dan pointed out Goeddel was warming up, I groaned louder than I had at the sight of Edgin. Goeddel is to me what the Great Gazoo was on The Flintstones. Gazoo couldn’t be seen by most of Bedrock. Goeddel’s uselessness seemed until very recently to have escaped the notice of every Mets observer but myself. Every game he enters, our esteemed announcers are telling me what an absolutely outstanding job he’s done out of the bullpen. All I remember is five runs in a third of an inning. I don’t know which third of an inning or who scored the five runs. To invoke Bill Maher for the second consecutive month, I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.
As someone who values an actual fact, I’ll go with this one: Goeddel got out of the fifth. Not immediately — he threw a wild pitch, then walked Jorge Polanco (I’m typing names I’ve never typed before and won’t type again until who knows when; ain’t Interleague awesome?), but with Kennys Vargas up in a situation that could redefine this September with one bad pitch, Erik killed Kennys. Struck him out, at any rate. Inning and threat over.
It was a big enough moment in the course of the season to entrust to a reliever who doesn’t make me hallucinate little cartoon spacemen, but I’m not sure the manager had spectacular choices at his disposal. I wish there were an Addison Reedbot you could wind up and send out in every inning of every game to shut down opposing batters, but the Mets’ more dependable arms have been depended upon to excess of late. Twelve innings on Saturday night meant everybody could claim a Sunday afternoon hangover. The fifth was the inning to get out of in the fifth, but what of the sixth, the seventh and so on? Of those not used on Saturday, you had available Sean Gilmartin, Logan Verrett, Jim Henderson and Montero. “Oh boy,” as Buddy Holly once enthused. Of those deployed Saturday, Reed (two straight days already), Familia (ditto) and Robles (2 IP, 1 HR) were, if good sense ruled, off limits.
I could groan at Goeddel, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t the guy to go to in the fifth and to hang around in the sixth when he pitched another scoreless inning. Once he did his part, there were still three more innings and a minimum of nine more Twins to surgically separate from scoring. If the Mets had increased their lead by a few, you could go to your one of your rather-nots, but the Mets, as noted above, scored three runs in each game of the series. On Sunday, their three runs were registered by the third inning. That left the staff in an all-hands-on-deck state when a fair percentage of arms needed their rest.
More runs in the bottoms of innings seemed doable let alone desirable, but some days — and weekends — you deal with what you’re dealt. On Friday, the Mets went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. They won. On Saturday, the RISP total was 1-for-7. They won. Sunday, they were 1-for-the-first-1, when Michael Conforto singled home Alejandro De Aza from third and T.J. Rivera from second in the first inning, 1-for-8 the rest of the game. Rivera was responsible for the Mets’ third run with a solo homer in the third. He’s also emerged as Ynoa to the Lugo power when it comes to position players, if that formula translates. With less fuss than deGrom but just as many implications, Wilmer Flores didn’t play in this series. Wilmer hasn’t been medically written off for the rest of the season, but you gotta wonder. He still can’t swing, and an expanded roster that doesn’t include Flores taking on all lefty comers is by definition a depleted roster.
So when you’re asking yourself where the Mets would be without Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman and now Gabriel Ynoa, be sure to toss in a rhetorical query on behalf of T.J. Rivera, and do it in a pleasing Noo Yawk accent, or as we who grew up in these parts process it, no accent at all. When Rivera talks (or tawks), he sounds a lot like his Bronx forebear Ed Kranepool. When Rivera swings, he looks a lot like his jack-of-most-trades Edgardo Alfonzo.
The Mets are doing it with Rivera and Conforto (who was a big part of the Mets’ plans in that distant epoch when Duda and Lagares nonchalantly roamed the earth); Ynoa and Goeddel; a perfect Josh Smoker in the seventh; and, because the best bet for closing isn’t always a closer, Jerry Blevins in the ninth. Blevins came on to bail out gopher-susceptible Fernando Salas in the eighth. Role-assignation be damned, Blevins stuck around for the ninth to protect what had dwindled to a one-run lead. Jerry the bleach-bottle blonde made certain we’d have more fun when he struck out John Jacob Jingleheimer Ryan Murphy, grounded out Joe Mauer (Rivera to Duda replacement James Loney for the not-so-simple 4-3) and K’d Dozier, who left New York toting the same gargantuan quantity of home runs with which he arrived.
The Mets you don’t think of fashioned a 3-2 victory after the more usual suspects notched the first two anti-Twin wins.
• Granderson, the hero of the middle match (his second homer landed a few rows in front of me and my hairy hat, capping one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences I’ve had in eight years of attending services at Citi Field) was rested.
• Jose Reyes (whose ancient HoZay!HoZay! entreaty arose organically on Saturday, though with the bases loaded in the eleventh, it came off more like davining than singing) was rested.
• Asdrubal Cabrera pinch-hit for Duda, then returned to resting.
• Yoenis Cespedes left the game in the seventh in deference to “nausea and dizziness,” symptoms familiar to any Mets fan this time of year in this type of race.
• Jay Bruce, who I swear hit the ball encouragingly hard three out of five at-bats on Saturday even if it was to absolutely no avail (“he’s due,” Dan and I kept reassuring each other not too many feet from Jay’s left shoulder), was kept from spreading whatever ails him to the box score.
The Mets on Sunday didn’t get a full game from any of the five guys who ostensibly top their lineup and they won. They held a lead of less than three runs entering the final two innings and they set up the eighth without their setup man and closed out the ninth without their closer. They had one of their aces extracted from their immediate not to mention going plans, replaced him with whichever body seemed warmest and they continued to survive and advance. Maybe it was the level of competition that facilitated this flexibility, but let’s not lay it on the 55-95 Twins. The visitors weren’t overwhelming, but nor were they noticeably inept. The Mets have built a self-replenishing contraption. They get by without Flores because of Rivera. They don’t perish without deGrom because of Ynoa. You hear Matz threw an encouraging bullpen but you don’t hold your breath and you don’t suffocate from anxiety because somehow somebody keeps stepping in and stepping up.
You don’t or didn’t think of so many Mets who’ve become so intrinsic to their rising fortunes, yet you find yourself in September thinking constantly about the Mets — the First Wild Card-holding Mets, that is, after Minnesota was swept three while the Cards and Jints did nothing but butt zero-sum heads at one another for four days. These Mets, 20-7 since they were dead and buried, grip your attention. They occasionally stir your tummy acids while making your head spin, but wouldn’t you rather feel the baseball version what Yo was feeling Sunday as opposed to total apathy?
The Mets won their eightieth game of 2016. From 2009 through 2014, the Mets never won more than 79. Eighty was never a goal, just a steppingstone to bigger and better objectives. We saw how that played out last year and we’re seeing something develop this year. These Mets keep on keeping on as we keep being reminded how nimble they can be when it comes to negotiating every step along the way.
I’ll accept the title of Fan Who Had Nothing to Do With the Outcome But Can Be Forgiven for Thinking He Did: a couple of seconds before the turning point of Saturday night’s marathon against the Twins, I looked up at the scoreboard and told my friend that “if this keeps up we’ll somehow be the last game on the MLB schedule.”
Nope, time to go home — and go home happy.
It was a late-developing thriller, though: for most of the night this was one of those close games that feels more sleepy than taut. Ervin Santana was dealing, changing speeds and leaving the Mets helpless at the plate; Seth Lugo was wild but managed to escape the jams he created, his night marred only by a curveball to Eddie Rosario that didn’t break and became a souvenir.
Nobody much minded — it was an absolutely perfect night for baseball, clear and comfortable. The 15,000 who arrived early enough to get their Jacob deGrom hair hats wore them proudly, even amid news that the man who’d inspired the giveaway would be pitching in front of the first zero fans for the rest of the 2016 season, felled by ulnar-nerve compression. (Oh, the maladies you learn about as a Mets fan.)
I was there in the company of kind friends gathered for a birthday outing, at the front of a section that contained a substantial minority of Twins rooters. Enemy fans are a fact of life in the online age, and a few fanbases — the Giants spring to mind — have become reliably irritating presences at Citi Field in recent years. The Twins fans, though, were excellent guests: heard from when something good happened for their side and otherwise conspicuous only by their gear. Chalk it up to a combination of Minnesota Nice and, well, rooting for a team destined to lose 100 games.
On our side, there was anxiety but also a steely-eyed sense that there was still a lot of baseball to be played. (We didn’t grasp just how much.) The crowd stirred when the Mets did, and really came to life when Yoenis Cespedes or Jay Bruce arrived at the plate. Our faith in Cespedes was rewarded, as he hit a soft liner over the infield to tie the game in the eighth; on the other hand, I’m worried about Bruce not just as a player but as a person, as he’s worn out his welcome to the point of getting a rough ride even on routine plays. He did hit a couple of balls on the nose, with buzzard’s luck; for his sake as well as ours I hope things turn for him posthaste.
The game ground on, with Jeurys Familia besting Joe Mauer in a nifty 11-pitch duel in the ninth before giving way to Hansel Robles, which can be an iffy proposition. Robles looked fine for one inning, but then surrendered a truly mammoth blast to Byron Buxton, one that hit the facing of the third deck above the Acela club. And while the Mets were now into the Parade of Unreliable Relievers, the Twins still had their closer.
Uh-oh, except Brandon Kintzler arrived in the 11th and discovered it was one of those dreadful nights for a pitcher when he’s brought a cocked thumb and pointed finger to an actual gunfight. Curtis Granderson lashed Kintzler’s second pitch into the left-field party deck; Bruce just missed ending the game with a drive to center; T.J. Rivera and Brandon Nimmo singled; Kevin Plawecki nearly won the game with a liner that hit Kintzler and became a stupendously unlucky out; Kintzler hit Matt Reynolds; and finally after all that up stepped Jose Reyes.
The Reyes AB was the flipside of Familia vs. Mauer: a nine-pitch marathon, but one that ended with Kintzler slipping a fastball onto the inside corner. Somehow he’d survived, on we went to the 12th, and I started telling my friends that yes, there was a 14th inning stretch.
Josh Edgin came in and did nothing wrong; Michael Tonkin came in and got Asdrubal Cabrera on a loud but inconsequential flyball, then coaxed a pop-up from Cespedes, then departed in favor of Ryan O’Rourke. I confess I looked past Granderson and started fretting about the 13th, not because I doubted Granderson but because an extra-inning homer to win the game seemed like an awful lot to ask of a man who’d just hit an extra-inning homer to tie it.
It wasn’t. Granderson worked the count full (getting the benefit of a couple of calls, if we’re being honest) and then hooked an offspeed pitch down the right-field line. It wasn’t a bolt like the one he’d hit an inning before, but a looping drive headed for the shortest porch in the park. Max Kepler tracked it to the wall and then watched it plop into Utleyville for the win.
For those keeping track at home, Granderson now has 28 home runs and just 51 RBIs; a future generation of fans will scan his 2016 numbers and assume they’ve found a typo. But then the 2016 Mets are baffling as a group, too: they’re second in the NL in homers but just 13th in runs. More interesting stats here if you’re so inclined.
To keep track of happier things, the Mets are now tied with the Giants for the first wild card, and that’s not really a tie because we have the tiebreaker for home field in the play-in game.
Yes, I said happier things. DeGrom is the latest young gun to be snatched away, leaving the Mets rotation as Syndergaard and Colon and Hold the Phone and the lineup as a grab bag of Plan Bs and Cs. We all know this, just like we know that if the Mets survive to the play-in game and make it to the NLDS they’ll be given approximately zero chance of getting any further.
But so what? This is a patchwork team that keeps sewing up holes and rips, and now somehow controls its own destiny with two weeks left to go. No 163rd game is ensured, but in mid-August who even thought we’d be having this conversation? Get to that 163rd game and you’re into the Land of Random Outcomes, where strange things happen so routinely that we ought to stop thinking of them as strange.
We’re playing with house money when we thought we’d be out on the street with empty pockets. May as well double down, right?
My preparations for watching Friday night’s game included slippers and finding the fake fur throw that my wife was horrified when I bought — TV-watching components that made their last appearance one chilly day in May. It’s the baseball circle of life — a young season that needed spring thawing before we discovered what it would be has grown up and become a stooped old season trying to make it into the autumn.
And we’re still not sure what kind of season it is. That’s subject to ongoing negotiations between us and the baseball gods.
The Mets held up their end, shutting out the Twins behind Bartolo Colon, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia. Colon was … well, what can you say at this point except that he was Colon? His so-simple-no-one-else-can-do-it strategy of variants on a fastball muffled Minnesota in happily familiar fashion, though the old master looked like he had a little extra pep in his step, whether it was bearing down to erase Jorge Polanco and a Twins’ threat in the third or combining with an also sprier-than-normal James Loney for a nifty out on Eduardo Escobar in the seventh. Colon was an afterthought at the beginning of the year, a seat-filler for Zack Wheeler; now Wheeler’s at the doctor with too many of the other whippersnappers, and Bartolo has a shot at winning 15 games. Amazin’, one might say.
Still, the game had a queasy Objects in Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear feeling — it was only 2-0 at the 7th-inning stretch, with the Mets ahead courtesy of back-to-back bolts by Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera. Yoenis Cespedes chipped in an insurance run and Reed was briskly efficient at going about his 8th inning duties, but 3-0’s not the stuff of invincibility, even with Familia on the mound.
And, indeed, Familia’s location was off. Happily, he righted himself, the plays went the Mets’ way instead of against them, and the game was won. But I still had the feeling we’d escaped. And I still refused to be lulled by strength of schedule. The Twins are having a lost season, but beware such teams. Earlier this week, I was in the back of an Uber in San Francisco when Ryan Schimpf of the lowly Padres’ wrecked a Giants victory. The car was at a light next to a bar with a big front window, and I got to look from Gameday on my phone to the pantomime playing out in the window: the little figures on the TV, the fans’ hands going to their heads in agony, the heads going down in despair.
Look elsewhere and you’ll see the Royals just got beheaded by the going-nowhere A’s, all but finishing Kansas City’s dreams of repeating as champs. The Cubs are safe this year, but whisper “Victor Diaz and Craig Brazell” into one of their fans’ ears — and then run. And how many of our pennant chases ended with ambushes by seemingly quiescent Marlins? Note that those Marlins’ descendants remain on our schedule, standing between us and October glory.
Or at least a shot at October glory — like all sports fans, we’re dishonest bargainers at this time of year, negotiating shamelessly with the baseball gods.
Just let my team salvage this wreck of a season and have something to play for down the stretch. OK, done.
Just give us that second wild card and we’ll see what our pitching can do. It’s currently yours by two games and fivethirtyeight.com (now one-stop shopping for stressing out about both baseball and the real world) likes your chances.
Um, it sure would be great to be the home team for the play-in game. Oh, I see. Greedy much? You’re a game out, so far from impossible.
You know, a 163rd game is a treat, but we really want a series. Just to see what might happen. Now you’re getting ahead of yourself, no?
And a trip back to the NLCS! Wouldn’t that be fun, to see if we can do it again? The baseball gods are sure it would be.
And repeating as league champs, well, it would validate everything. Last year wouldn’t be a fluke! [drums fingers on desk patiently]
And if we could just win the pennant, well, maybe this time there wouldn’t be quick-pitching and errors at second and wild heaves home and getting talked into an inning too many and then we’d be WORLD CHAMPS! Oh boy. Are you finished?
Yes, of course. Sorry! It’s just that … well, that would be so amazing. We’d never ask for anything again. And advisedly so.
Though, of course, back-to-back titles has to be about the best feeling a fan can have… All right, that’s it — get out. What will be will be.
What to do with a 1-0 loss? Throw stuff? Suck it up? Shrug? There are no wrong answers. It is the baseball epitome of close but no cigar.
I’m not sure of the appeal of cigars, but one run sure sounded good on Wednesday. One Met run, that is. There was one National run, and it sounded, if you’ll excuse the expression, devastating. Wilson Ramos hit a solo home run off Fernando Salas in the seventh inning in Washington and it felt like we had just gotten our ash kicked beyond the point of surgical repair. All that was required of the Mets in their subsequent two innings of batting was a single run to change the tenor of the late afternoon, but some days a molehill is a mountain.
One-nothing doesn’t imply insurmountability in the long term. In 1986, the Mets lost each of their postseason Game Ones by that score and it didn’t stop them from taking both best-of-sevens. For that matter, their last regular-season setback was of the 1-0 variety, Ron Darling not quite beating Montreal’s Bob Sebra. (It dropped the Mets’ mark to 103-54; if you couldn’t shrug that one off, baseball might not have been the game for you.) On the final day of the 1973 schedule, the Sunday when it was conceivable five teams could finish tied for first, the Mets dropped the opener of their doubleheader at Wrigley Field, 1-0. Jon Matlack pitched great, nicked for one lousy run in the eighth inning while otherwise striking out nine and going the distance. Alas, the Mets couldn’t push one lousy run across against Rick Reuschel and Bob Locker, and there went as crucial a late-September game as you could imagine.
In the nightcap, the Mets won, 9-2, and the next day, Makeup Monday, if you will, they eliminated everybody who was still standing to clinch the division title. The only impact from the previous day’s 1-0 defeat was that it survived in allegory form to be retold reassuringly during a somewhat similar September more than four decades into the future.
Thanks to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool, we know the Mets have lost 118 regular-season games by a score of 1-0. Comparatively, they’ve won 131 games in the same fashion, the most recent of them June 25 in Atlanta. For a team better known historically for its pitching than hitting, it makes sense we’d be more successful than not in this particular subgenre of results. You’d like to think if you give a Seaver, a Gooden, a Gsellman one run that they could make it stand up.
OK, maybe not Robert Gsellman, but then again, the rookie held the Mets aloft for five-and-two-thirds innings, aided by a pair of strike-’em-out/throw-’em-out double plays (René Rivera with the gun twice) plus one conventional 4-6-3 twin-killing. The Mets gave Robert nothing. Or Tanner Roark, Blake Treinen and Mark Melancon gave the Mets nothing. You can look at it from both sides, though you rarely do when you can’t believe your team couldn’t score one freaking run in nine innings. To some degree, however, you enter cap-tipping territory when you partake of the wrong end of a 1-0 game.
Or helmet-throwing. Again, there are no wrong answers.
For a franchise that has existed in its current guise only twelve seasons, the Nationals have demonstrated an unhappy talent for winning 1-0 games from the Mets. Wednesday’s was their fifth, as many as their Expo forebears notched across 36 campaigns. The one-nothing whitewashing that stands out as most aggravating is the first, which was tossed at Shea Stadium on May 15, 2008, while Gary, Keith and Ron broadcast from the Upper Deck and I stifled my screams on Field Level. Mike Pelfrey, who hadn’t pitched too many games of his life to that point, was pitching the game of his life. Big Pelf went seven-and-two-thirds, blemished not at all until Wilson Ramos prototype Jesus Flores doubled, Willie Harris (aaauuuggghhh!!!) bunted and Felipe Lopez sank a sac fly from one-run range in the eighth. The Mets made Jason Bergmann and his extraneous ‘n’ look like Jon Matlack for seven innings, striking out nine times, and then did so little against Luis Ayala in the eighth that they apparently jotted a note to themselves to “Go get Luis Ayala for the stretch drive should we be in one this year and find ourselves incredibly desperate for relief pitching.”
Come the ninth, the Mets were coming on as if they planned to assert themselves once and for all in what had been the wheels-spinning aftermath of the 2007 devastation. Carlos Beltran singled. Ryan Church didn’t, so Beltran stole second while Carlos Delgado batted and took third on Flores’s errant throw. Now this was more like it: one Carlos on third with one out, the other at the plate prepared to cut overgrown tattoo parlor pole Jon Rauch down to size.
Delgado lined to first. One out. Beltran was caught off third. Nationals first baseman Aaron Boone (aaauuuggghhh!!!) threw to Ryan Zimmerman. Two out. Added to what Church didn’t do a batter earlier, three out.
Now that was a one-nothing loss to throw things at because the ending was so, well, aaauuuggghhh!!! (Four months later, Pelfrey and the Mets would lose 1-0 to the Nats again, in Washington. Score a couple of runs in each of those games, and there are playoffs at Shea before it is torn down, I just now realized…aaauuu…ah, whaddaya gonna do?) The game in which Mr. Roark was no Mets fan’s fantasy took a different trajectory. Its missed opportunity arose as early as possible, in the top of the first. Jose Reyes singled. Asdrubal Cabrera singled. Yoenis Cespedes popped out, but Ramos whiffed on a passed ball and Curtis Granderson recovered from a one-and-two count to walk and load the bases.
Jay Bruce was up for the next three pitches and back on the bench seconds after the third pitch. Two out. The offensive hero of Tuesday night, T.J. Rivera, fouled out to Bryce Harper on a ball Harper had to dive, slide and not slam into the right field sidewall in order to hold onto. Three out.
Everything about that inning told me we were probably screwed, starting with the setup of Reyes and Cabrera getting on base. Seriously. It was one of those “this should be great, but it won’t be” sensations I’m sometimes overcome by. A younger version of myself would have salivated over having exactly the guy up who I want up in that situation. Of course I want Cespedes up with two on and nobody out.
I AM GOING TO HAVE AN INTERLUDE NOW.
On August 14, 1985, the Mets trailed the Phillies, 2-0, going to the bottom of the ninth at Shea. They had been as hot as they’d been at any time since 1969, winning 30 of 37, including their previous nine. I was 22 and almost always believed the Mets would, never mind could, come back. It was that kind of season and I was that kind of fan.
Howard Johnson led off and drew a walk from Kevin Gross, who was going for the shutout (good lord, I miss starters pitching in the ninth). Davey Johnson enlisted Rusty Staub to pinch-hit for Rafael Santana (good lord, I also miss having a pinch-hitter deluxe batting in the ninth). Rusty walked. Rick Aguilera pinch-ran for Rusty because the only thing you’d ask Staub to do in the last year of his star-spangled career, if you could help it, was pinch-hit. Clint Hurdle was going to pinch-hit for Roger McDowell, who had replaced Darling in the eighth and given up the second Phillie run in the ninth to Gross (see — some pitchers could pitch and hit late in games). Righty Gross was pulled in favor of lefty Don Carman. Lefty Hurdle was pulled in favor of righty Ron Gardenhire. So much chess!
Gardenhire, who was a fine manager but mostly let me down as a player, bunted. Carman, whose name is the one I hear when I listen in my mind to Harry Kalas doing Phillies games, threw the ball past first baseman Mike Schmidt (not a misprint; Schmitty played some first). The error placed Gardy on second, Aggie on third and HoJo across the plate. These Mets who we knew on a nickname basis were within one. Veteran Tom Paciorek, obtained to be sort of a righthanded Rusty, pinch-hit for rookie Lenny Dykstra. More righty-lefty stuff. Paciorek was intentionally passed to load the bases. There was nobody out. The Mets, according to 22-year-old me, could not lose.
Wally Backman, who maybe deserved more respect as a manager but was definitely deservedly revered as a player, faced a tough assignment in Carman. The Mets had recently given up on Kelvin Chapman, who had been getting the starts at second against lefties, the ones in which Wally clearly didn’t excel (a situation that led to the acquisition of Tim Teufel in the ensuing offseason). Wally was a switch-hitter, but not to great effect. For 1985, he is listed as having batted .324 as a lefty, .122 as a righty. With no better option at hand, southpaw Carman got righty-swinging Wally to ground to third baseman Rick Schu, who threw home to Ozzie Virgil, who, instead of calling his aunt, forced Aguilera.
That was OK, though. Keith Hernandez was up next. Keith Hernandez, for all you kids out there, was everything in the summer of 1985. During the 30-7 stretch alluded to above, Keith had slashed .382/.449/.583 and had grilled forty of those “ribeye steaks” he so favors. Bases still loaded, only one out, the Mets trailing by Twiggyesque run. Of course I salivated over having exactly the guy up who I wanted up in that situation. Of course I wanted Hernandez up.
The Mets could not lose, yet they did. After “seven pitches and four minutes,” as the Times put it, Keith grounded to second baseman Juan Samuel. Samuel flipped to shortstop Tom Foley for one out, and Foley relayed to Schmidt for the second out. The game was over. The Mets lost by one run. It was frustrating, but not devastating, since it was the middle of August and the Mets remained in first place. “You’ve carried us for a month, Mex, can’t do it every night,” is how Hernandez remembered his teammates patting him on the back afterwards in his 1985 diary If At First…
That 2-1 loss didn’t sting nearly as badly in the moment as, say, the 1-0 loss at Shea to Washington in 2008 (or, to be honest, that 1-0 loss in Montreal after everything was clinched in 1986, which somehow still annoys me), yet it’s stayed with me for 31 years because it taught me that even though you have up exactly the guy who you can’t imagine not carrying you, sometimes the guy can only lift so much. If Keith Hernandez at the peak of his clutchness couldn’t deliver on demand, how could I expect anybody else to do so every single time?
I AM DONE WITH MY INTERLUDE NOW.
Cespedes didn’t come through against Roark. Neither did the formerly Red white elephant in the room, Bruce, who needs a pat on his back, a rub on his shoulders, a kick in his decidedly unsmoldering ash, something. I prescribe a little faith and a ton of encouragement. I’m predicting my prescription will be ignored. Somehow I don’t think giving up and heaping abuse is the answer where a struggling human being we wish to succeed is concerned. The ol’ “he can’t be this bad” song from the Bay days is playing in my head. That was an extended mix went on for three years. We need a change of tune for two weeks. Jay’s due. Let’s hope. Or let’s see De Aza. Or Conforto. Or Nimmo. Or Tom Paciorek, who wasn’t much of an answer in 1985, but did more down the stretch than Bruce has thus far in 2016.
The one guy who’s worrying me more than Jay Bruce is Wilmer Flores, because he’s not playing at all (an option that sounds pretty good where Bruce has been concerned). Wilmer’s not having been pinch-run for in Atlanta not only potentially cost the Mets a critical run, it has definitely cost them a Wilmer. We were told his neck was bothering him after his collision with A.J. Obnoxious. It turns out his wrist is a bigger deal. He wasn’t available to swing a bat in the Nationals series. That’s an absence you begin to notice, no matter how many times SNY replays T.J. Rivera’s homer. Injuries are what have us in a three-way tug-of-pacificity at present. If we were a little healthier, yesterday’s 1-0 loss would have damaged our charge at first place, not a Wild Card. But we’ve got who we’ve got and we’ve got to go from there.
To bring this thing semi-circle, I’m brought back once more to 2008, to the part where we survived the 1-0 losses to Washington and were hanging in there in the last week of the season. The top of our order was sublime: Reyes, Beltran, Wright, Delgado twice, with Beltran fifth otherwise and an innocent rookie who’d never hurt us named Daniel Murphy batting second. Then the bottom dropped out. Those were the days and nights marked by Ramon Martinez at second, Robinson Cancel catching, whoever wherever else. Sometimes it worked. Often enough it didn’t. Despite a midseason surge (40-19) that elevated crazy ’08 above the wreckage of despicable ’07, the division and the Wild Card both got away. Even with extra bodies in September, we always seemed short of players.
Currently, the top half of the Met order is imposing: Revived Reyes, Capable Cabrera, Scary Cespedes, Evergreen Granderson. It goes a long way toward explaining the 17-7 record in effect since August 20. After them, though, I feel the earth disappear under my feet. It’s a mosh pit of moving parts five through eight. The bench strength is stretched to fill the starting lineup. The second wave of projected starters need to be plugged into a wall outlet. Losing Flores for any length of time much past the four games he’s already missed isn’t a torpedo, but all these voids become contiguous, latching onto one another and forming a season-swallowing sinkhole. In the second half of 2008, Tatis, Easley, Maine, Wagner…before you knew it, yeesh.
We don’t know “yeesh” yet and we don’t have to. Because we are by necessity at least a little bit a Cardinal and Giant blog these days, it is my pleasure to repeat what you already know, that each Met competitor lost Wednesday, so it’s still SFG and NYM in the playoffs that don’t start today, with the STL Redbirds flying a touch below radar. Half-games are wild in the Wild Card race. A St. Louis win tonight at San Francisco ties all three teams with a 77-69 record and sixteen left to play. If you’re a chaos theory fan, the kind who reserved your salivation in 1973 for everybody finishing 80-82, that’s your preferred temporary outcome. If you’re a Mets fan, I’m not sure. A pox on both their houses is instinctively appealing, but I think I just want somebody to get swept and go away. Three to make two hasn’t worked in the NBA since 1981, and it won’t work on October 5.
That’s a ways off. Let’s concentrate on scoring more runs than the last-place Twins this weekend. The Twins used to be the Washington Senators. The Washington Nationals used to be the Expos. Anybody can beat anybody. Take no games for granted.
Why am I telling you this? Somebody tell the Mets.
I’ve invested so much of my life into loving baseball that it would have been a shame to have completely given up the game, but as Jerry Blevins prepared to face Daniel Murphy in the bottom of the tenth inning Tuesday night with two out, a runner on first and the Mets up by one, I realized that if things went astoundingly awry (and it wouldn’t be that astounding, considering the identity of the antagonist), I might have to overhaul everything I’d previously held dear. If Murphy did to Blevins what Murphy does to all Mets pitchers, and the Nationals completed in the tenth what they nearly finished in the ninth, how could I continue to love baseball? I couldn’t even fathom liking it.
I went through a similar washing my hands of the whole thing at the conclusion of the last three-way Wild Card race in which the Mets vigorously competed. That was eighteen years ago. The Mets’ vigor vanished at the worst possible juncture. They dropped their final five games and failed to capture the only at-large playoff spot then available. I was so disgusted by the outcome of the 1998 season that I swore I would no longer have anything to do with either that team or their sport ever again.
My retirement from the game lasted about a day. But I meant it when I said it in ’98 and I meant it when I thought it in the tenth inning Tuesday. Here were the Mets, not more than a half-hour removed from the cusp of a highly satisfying victory over the Nationals. Noah Syndergaard had been his lately typical extraordinary self: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 10 SO and only 1 SB. Thor controlled the tops of innings, while his teammates did just enough in the bottom of two of them to stake him to a 3-1 lead. After 99 exquisite pitches, the ball was handed to Addison Reed and Reed registered his team-record 36th hold, whatever that is.
All that remained was one of the great more-or-less automatics that baseball has to offer, a Jeurys Familia ninth inning. He hiccups and we jump, but have you gotten antsy to the point of clinically anxious over Familia during the Mets’ charge into Wild Card territory? I mean really anxious? In his eleven appearances since spit got real and the season turned serious, he’d thrown ten-and-a-third innings, scattered four hits, allowed a lone walk and struck out fourteen. Saves are about as dopey as holds, but Jeurys had gathered eight of those to up his season total to 48, substantially more than any Met before him.
Despite decade upon decade of watching the Mets and their closers and the ninth-leads assigned to their particular skill sets, I was relaxed, confident and anticipating the best.
You’d think I’d know better by now.
Murphy led off the ninth for the Nats. That was at least a little unsettling. Every time the Mets play Washington, another way to say he kills us is formulated and expressed. On Tuesday, it was a comparison to Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer with whom I’m fairly certain Daniel Murphy had previously never in life had been compared. In 1965, according to Elias, Brock hit safely in each of the seventeen games he played against his shall we say alma matter from the year prior. Lou became a Cardinal in 1964 after the Cubs dealt him in what has long been referred to as one of the best/worst trades in baseball history. Your characterization of Brock-for-Ernie Broglio depends on which side of the Missouri-Illinois border you sit. In any event, long before Sweet Lou blazed a trail of stolen bases to Cooperstown, that seventeen-game performance represented a record for revenge.
Guess who tied Brock’s vengeful mark Monday and shattered it Tuesday. To paraphrase what was said in Brooklyn of another Cardinal legend, here comes that Dan again. Murphy versus the Mets in 2016 has been legendary since May. Or poison. Take your pick. He had doubled against Syndergaard in the sixth but didn’t score, which in itself could have counted as a win for Thor. Overall through eight, three at-bats, no lasting damage. Yet here we were in the ninth, with the modern-day incarnation of Stan Musial presenting the first obstacle to Familia and, maybe, the unmovable object in the path of our happiness. Get by Murph (as we called him when we were young and innocent) and we’d be fine.
Getting by Murph suggests trying to weave in and out of traffic in the Midtown Tunnel. It’s all you can do to stay in your lane with everything whooshing by. Familia gripped the wheel as tightly as he could. He threw seven pitches. Two were balls. Three were fouled off. I seem to recall Sandy Alderson wanting Murphy to adjust his approach so he would hunt and peck and take and attack and I don’t remember what anymore at the plate. Somewhere along the line while growing into a feared power hitter and a fixture on the terror watch list, Daniel got good at all of that, too. No plate appearance ends until Murphy is ready to end it. So far in September, he’s getting on base at a .469 clip.
No wonder, then, Murphy connected fair on the seventh pitch he saw from Familia and did something with it. He grounded it sharply up the middle to a spot that a second baseman like Murph probably wouldn’t get to, but a second baseman like T.J. Rivera could and did, diving, smothering, grabbing and throwing as quickly as he could. Rivera, a Tuesday starter so Kelly Johnson’s batteries don’t run down and Wilmer Flores’s neck might continue to heal (I’m wondering if Wilmer’s lingering discomfort from his contact with A.J. Pierzynski’s shin guards Saturday night will be Turner Field’s final legacy unto us), made a terrific play, but not terrific enough. Murphy beat it out for an infield single.
The hit raised Murphy’s average against the Mets in 2016 to .417. Musial hit .468 against the Mets in 1962, Brock .468 versus the Cubs in 1965. So it’s not like Murph is that great.
Bryce Harper is the National whose name is supposed to be in the same conversation with baseball immortals. He hasn’t been as nearly as valuable a player to Washington this year as his New York-import teammate, but you still have to go after him like he’s the reigning MVP. Familia got two quick strikes on Harper, then a ball, then a grounder that required shortstop-turned-third baseman Jose Reyes to charge — which he didn’t do fluidly; pick up — which he did hurriedly; and fire — which he did wildly. Jose’s throw sailed past James Loney, who stretched to no avail as the ball landed in the stands. Murphy was on third. Harper, hustling just as Jonathan Papelbon lovingly taught him, was on second. Nobody was out.
Familia was having his worst money inning in a month. If your closer has no more than one of those every thirty days, you’re probably doing all right. Alas, this was no time to count our blessings. Anthony Rendon, who slew a far less tough customer the night before, came up and grounded a ball past a diving Reyes to score Murphy and send Harper to third.
One-run game. And nobody out. And Wilson Ramos, who owns the portion of the Mets pitching staff Murphy hasn’t already bought up, grounding to Rivera, another difficultly placed ball on which there was no play. Harper scores. Rendon moves to second. Wilmer Difo goes to first to run for Ramos.
Tie game. And still nobody out. Familia didn’t excel, but he didn’t do badly. He gave up balls on the ground that hit their spots, one of which flummoxed his third baseman. But a jam is a jam and Jeurys was up to his jelly in this one. Ryan Zimmerman, the syndicated-for-Washington version of David Wright (it’s like when you stay in a motel for the first time as a kid and are puzzled why all the NBC shows you know air on Channel 8), was up to either bunt compliantly or swing away heroically. The bunting didn’t work, and neither did the swinging. Zimmerman lined out to Loney softly, allowing Familia and me to breathe slightly. Then came pinch-hitter Clint Robinson, who isn’t Frank Robinson, though I always assume he is based on some fleetingly big hit he got against us last year.
C. Robby didn’t go all Frank or Brooks on our asses, thankfully. He lined to Rivera in just a confusing enough manner — T.J. plucked it inches above the dirt — to instigate a double play, with pinch-runner Difo caught off first after Rendon rushed back to second. Irrelevant of how it happened, three outs had been secured after two runs had been scored.
The tie that was a horror show moments before was now a lucky-stars-thanked situation. Yay, we get to play some more, starting with taking on Mark Melancon, the top-notch closer the Pirates traded in an effort to confound their fans regarding their contention intentions. Melancon is headed to the playoffs. The Pirates almost aren’t. Whether the Mets were aimed truly in that direction would depend, at least for a half-inning, on how well they handled Papelbon’s successor.
Jay Bruce, whose name has been mostly absent from Met pennant race accounts, led off and grounded out. Rivera, whose name was all over the bottom of the ninth in the field and had imprinted itself upon the box score with two hits and two ribbies in regulation, batted second. As he came up, I found myself sorting through his brief MLB career to date and wondering, “Has he homered yet? I don’t think he has…has he?”
I can now answer definitively that he has. The rookie from Lehman High School showed Melancon the Bronx the best way possible, via the left field grandstand. That’s where T.J. (or “T.” as his friends call him) deposited the Washington closer’s two-strike delivery for his first major league home run. The Mets were ahead again, 4-3.
That’s where it stood in the bottom of the tenth, an inning entrusted for three batters to Fernando Salas, who has been a nifty pickup. The only helpful thing Salas hasn’t done for us is go back to the beginning of his career and train as a starter, because we could really use an extra one of those this month, but bloggers can’t be choosers. Salas’s first batter, Chris Heisey — as in that ditty of yore, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamz Chris Heisey — struck out. Trea Turner, who sources have finally confirmed for me isn’t Michael Taylor, popped out to Asdrubal Cabrera. All Salas had to do from there was take care of Jayson Werth.
Like Jeff Francoeur, Jayson Werth is mysteriously still a thing, and the thing named Jayson Werth singled to left. The de facto closer had done two-thirds of his job. Fernando still had one batter to get.
He wasn’t going to get him. Maybe if he was the actual closer, yes, he’d stay in. But Salas on the edge of the ensuing encounter did not receive the benefit of the doubt that a fully pedigreed saves artist would. He was removed in deference to a desired matchup.
Daniel Murphy, meet your match in Jerry Blevins.
Or was it going to be Blevins meeting his match? That wasn’t the idea behind Terry Collins’s decision to stride to the mound rather than let it ride. Blevins versus Murphy loomed as a mismatch in the pitcher’s favor: ten at-bats, one hit when Murph was a Met. But that was before Dani-El left his home planet of Krypton and became SuperNat.
As my mind raced back to 1998, it made a pit stop in 2012 to refuel my leaded-memory tank with visions of another extra-inning game at Nationals Park. This was June 5 four years ago, four short days removed from one of the most joyous nights in Mets history. Baseball being baseball, there was little time to rest, reflect and relax after Johan Santana’s no-hitter. More games keep coming. The one on the Fifth turned in great part on shoddy infield play. Jordany Valdespin, not really a shortstop, had been moved to shortstop in the eighth. This was the harsh post-Reyes era that didn’t fully cease until Cabrera came along. JV made an error on the first chance he saw in the tenth. A couple of batters later, another E-6. There’d be some back-and-forth with the Nats until the Mets ultimately lost in twelve. It was worse than what befell Familia artistically, though there was less to lose. It was June. It was 2012. The Mets, despite a brief uptick in first-half fortunes highlighted by Nohan, were going nowhere.
These Mets of ours right now, the September 2016 Mets, have been on the road to somewhere. It’s been one of the most scintillating trips I can remember. To have it turned around by a few balls that couldn’t quite be handled in the bottom of the ninth, then to get it back on a ball that flew off an August callup’s bat in the top of tenth, only to consider what Murphy might do in the bottom of the tenth given all he’d been doing since he donned his red cape…
If this went wrong, I could not continue to tolerate baseball. I mean I would, but I was dreading the unshakable fealty I would demonstrate in the hopes that it was just one loss, there are still seventeen to play, the Cardinals and Giants are still right there. You know — all those things we tell ourselves when a season goes to hell for a third or fourth or final time.
Blevins got two strikes on Murphy. It can’t possibly be this easy. Then followed three balls. Why does it have to be this hard? Finally, a curve that curved beautifully, away from Daniel, who swung through it an instant before it landed in René Rivera’s mitt for the third out of a 4-3 Mets win. When René dug the ball out, he may have noticed continued sole possession of the second Wild Card attached to it. St. Louis would win a bit later, but San Francisco would lose in the wee West Coast hours, leaving us a half-game from each of them in either direction as the sun rose Wednesday.
That’s absolutely critical, but somehow not quite as emotionally significant as this not having become that game we’d always remember losing. We may even remember winning it for a while. That’s probably dependent on what happens this afternoon and this weekend and clear through to October 2 and perhaps beyond.
For now, gee, it’s a wonderful game.
Terry Collins could have removed Rafael Montero at several junctures of his outing against the Washington Nationals Monday night, which speaks to what seems to be Terry’s managing philosophy: a preference to do nothing versus an inclination to do something. Montero wasn’t in the game very long by conventional measures (though it felt like hours). When you’re around for only one-and-two-thirds innings, you wouldn’t think there are multiple inflection points.
Montero was the epitome of Didn’t Have It from jump at Nationals Park. It doesn’t reflect well on the former phenom, but it happens, particularly to a No. 5 starter who was in nobody’s plans until a few weeks ago, and who displayed, at best, flashes of adequacy until Monday. Monday he had problems with the strike zone, both when he was missing it and finding it.
Still, the young pitcher (not quite 26, even after all these years) persevered across a nightmarish first inning. He was fooling nobody, retiring nobody, yet escaped with merely two runs surrendered. The Mets were down only 2-1. What a break in the midst of this improbable playoff spurt. Gabriel Ynoa was fully warmed and we could start almost fresh in the second. “Cut your losses” was never a more apt phrase from which to take heed. The gods were smiling upon us.
Collins told the gods to wipe that smirk off their faces. Despite Montero showing next to nothing, and despite the perfect exit opportunity presenting itself when the pitcher’s spot came up in the top of the second with two on and two out and a Shriners convention worth of pinch-hitters milling in the dugout, Collins did what he tends to do in these situations.
Nothing. He let Montero bat. Montero struck out. Then he came out to pitch the top of the second, and the gods told us to go screw ourselves. Rafael was hit hard and often. Opposing starter Mat Latos homered to lead off. After generating two outs in the air, Daniel Murphy doubled (Daniel Murphy is the reincarnation of Turner Field). An intentional walk to Bryce Harper was issued because you can’t let Bryce Harper beat you…not when Anthony Rendon can. And he did, with a three-run bomb that ended Montero’s night and, presumably, his tenure as a Met starting pitcher, at least for what’s left of 2016.
Sixty pitches, fourteen batters, six runs, five outs. It began badly, it kept getting worse. What was Collins waiting for?
Terry didn’t offer much of an explanation afterwards beyond he hoped the kid would find a way out of whatever was plaguing him, a concept that played better in the first several Septembers of Collins’s managerial stay here than it does in this one. If a, say, Chris Schwinden went “splat” on the mound, it would be frustrating, but it would also be 2011. Nothing was doing anyway. Monday night, the Mets were attempting to push the Cardinals further behind them and the pull the Giants significantly closer to them. That was the idea. It didn’t quite work out.
The Cardinals lost. The Giants lost. The baseball gods took a modicum of pity on us after Terry rejected their assistance in what became an 8-1 blowout. He could’ve removed Montero at 2-1, or 3-1. He could’ve summoned Ynoa. Ynoa would have…well, we don’t know’a. Gabriel walked the first batter he saw when he finally got the call after Rendon’s homer, pitched a spotless third, then gave up a couple of runs in the fourth. There’s a saying that the most popular person in any NFL city is the second-string quarterback. New York’s a baseball town, and we love whoever Terry Collins doesn’t use when we want him used. That guy can never do any wrong.
Collins can do wrong, and he did Monday night. There’s no pretending his faith in Montero wasn’t misplaced. Dents appear in every manager’s armor. Terry’s suit needs to be taken to the silversmith to have Monday’s crease taken out.
This is generally what Terry does. He does nothing if at all possible. If that sounds like an insult, it is not intended as such. There is something to be said sometimes, perhaps ofttimes, for leaving things be. Maybe not when your emergencyesque starter is melting down. Maybe not when the potential tying run is being carried by someone who just took his molasses pill. Maybe not at lots of moments when keen foresight or legitimate hindsight suggests otherwise.
But probably more than we realize. Dancing with them what brung ya lends an air of stability to a chaotic endeavor. It’s an easier sell competing for the postseason than it is trying to hold on to fourth place, but the Mets have gotten this far this year with Terry doing a little more nothing than we might like. They got very far last year on the strength of trusting his players long enough for it to pay off. The itchy telephone fingers that would have exchanged Jacob deGrom for Noah Syndergaard in Game Five of the 2015 NLDS could not be blamed for going through tube after tube of Lanacane. But Terry stuck with deGrom, despite the trouble he was courting early at Dodger Stadium, and not too many innings later, the Mets were in the NLCS.
That’s an extreme anecdotal example, but it seemed typical of Terry. Now and then, panic is advisable. Probably not too often, however, not when you’re responsible for the emotional care and feeding of 25 professionals who are more talented than we can imagine yet likely more insecure than they let on. It’s a combustible mix in any clubhouse and a major league manager has to be a master chemist. Mix and match lineups. Mix and match personalities. Mix and match the philosophical with the strategic with the tactical. Mix and match a merry-go-round of outfielders who have bobbed up and down all season long. Mix and match the struggling starter who might give you sufficient length and maybe momentum if he can just get out of the second with the fresh long reliever who might rescue you just in time when the starter seemingly obviously can’t.
Every move that isn’t made but doesn’t go wrong generally goes uncommented upon; it’s just business as usual. The moves that aren’t made that blow up by dint of their not being made are the fodder that feeds our “I knew it!” instinct. So are the moves that implode. Enough goes awry in the course of 162 games to make simultaneous cases against doing nothing, doing something, doing anything. All of it can and will make a manager look bad on occasion, especially the occasion of a September when everything is magnified.
It’s difficult to not turn every misstep into a recall referendum on managerial competence, just as it’s easy to not notice when things are rolling along as we like. We blame the manager because we can imagine we’d make the right move. His job is more accessible than seeing ourselves throwing the right pitch or laying off the wrong pitch. I couldn’t get out Anthony Rendon. I couldn’t get out Mat Latos. I could tell Dan Warthen to get on the horn to Ricky Bones and send Gabriel Ynoa in from the bullpen. In theory, I could. In theory, we all could.
We’re fans. We’re entitled to our opinions. We’re better off informing them as much as we can before we release them into the atmosphere. My opinion is Terry should have taken Montero out after the first inning, whether his spot in the order came up in the second or not. My opinion is also that the starting pitcher depth chart is in tatters and sooner or later it was gonna show (it showed on a night that the Mets scored one lone run off Latos and three relievers, so maybe we’re going nuts over naught). Hopefully deGrom returns eventually, and in the interim somebody else can throw five effective innings. There are myriad options on the roster, none of them optimal. All are better than Montero at this point, but even Terry acknowledged that tacitly after Monday night’s game.
You can’t always do nothing, no matter how appealing that sounds.
The Mets won their 67th game ever at Turner Field on Sunday, or as reliable sources continue to insist, “They never won there; even if you present me with a list of occasionally stirring Met victories in that ballpark, I refuse to acknowledge it.” Mets fans who prefer misery as company (and there are a few) shall forever dwell mentally in Mr. Kenny Rogers’ neighborhood, where unfriendly postal carrier Angel Hernandez is regularly misdelivering the mail, and the local public works department won’t send a crew out to fix that pothole-size strike zone on Maddux Lane no matter how many petitions we sign, and can’t somebody do something about that offensive music they keep playing while encouraging everybody to partake in that equally offensive hand gesture?
Turner Field was a town built on perceptions as much as it was the home of the Braves for twenty years. The perceptions it ingrained in most of us veered to the permanently horrible side of the street, thus the common shorthand, “house of horrors”. Can’t argue with perceptions. You can throw the occasional counterintuitive fact at them, but as we’ve seen in this political season, facts that don’t match preconceived narratives tend to be chewed up without ever being fully digested.
Pleasant to speak of Turner Field in the past tense, though. The Braves still have home games scheduled and the building will be retrofitted for other purposes, but it’s dead to us, providing a rare episode of wish fulfillment. True, the request was filed before the turn of the current century, but these things have to go through channels, and I don’t mean TBS, yet another former home of the Braves.
The visitors departed departing Turner Field 10-3 winners, taking two of three in their unlikely quest to secure a playoff berth. They are in sole possession of the second National League Wild Card, while Turner Field remains in soul-possession of Satan. The Mets shoved the Braves into the officially eliminated pile, which was an incidental benefit of their romp. The real prize was pushing themselves past the Cardinals and continuing to shadow the Giants.
Despite flubbing the ballgame aspect of Shea Goodbye, the Mets have proven adept at final farewells to other people’s ballparks. They’re on a six-game winning streak where definitive au revoirs are concerned, making the most of their parting encounters at the Ted, Joe Robbie (2011), the renovated version of the original Yankee Stadium (2008), RFK (2007), circular Busch Stadium (2005) and the Big O (2004). Unlike the subsequent last roundups, Olympic Stadium probably deserves an asterisk since it wasn’t officially announced that the Expos were vamoosing to Washington when the Mets played them for the last time in Montreal, but the bilingual writing was on the wall.
When the Mets kissed off Turner predecessor Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the second Sunday of September 1996, they did it in style as well, defeating the defending world champions, 6-2. Mark Clark bested Greg Maddux, with each of their records revising to 13-11. The headline from that September 8 contest was Todd Hundley blasting his 40th homer of the year, setting a new Met single-season standard (Darryl Strawberry twice hit 39) and tying Roy Campanella for the catchers’ power plateau six days before establishing a new mark at Shea. The 9/8/96 memory that stays with me most two decades hence is a conversation between Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen. Murph marveled at how many different streets in Atlanta carry the name Peachtree. Cohen commenced quoting the contemporary Presidents of the United States of America song, “Peaches.”
“Millions of peaches, peaches for me,” Gary impishly told Bob. “Millions of peaches, peaches for free.”
“Yes, Georgia is certainly famous for its wonderful peaches,” or something like that was Bob’s response before the next pitch was thrown.
1996 was a long season. 2016, however, has become quite peachy. Seth Lugo’s seven innings of six-hit ball was as sweet and juicy as could have been asked. Yoenis Cespedes crushed the cream out of a bases-loaded pitch from Brave starter Williams Perez to catapult the Mets to a 5-0 lead that made Lugo’s path down Atlanta’s many similarly dubbed thoroughfares a veritable walk in the soon-to-be-vacated park. Cespedes declined to embellish his hitting with insights afterwards. A Mets spokesman told waiting reporters, “His bat will do his talking.”
When asked to clarify, Yoenis’s lumber elaborated, through an interpreter, “OH YEAH!!!!”
Cespedes’s third-inning grand slam gave him the thirty-first 30+ HR season in Mets history, the first since Lucas Duda delivered his thirtieth on the final day of 2014, the first by a righthanded batter since David Wright in 2008, the first by someone whose default position is left field since Cliff Floyd in 2005. Those seasons all took place during the Turner Field era, when nothing good ever happened to the Mets, except for when it did. Like yesterday and this month.
That’s what I was thinking in the 10th inning, with the Mets trying everything in their bag of tricks to keep the Braves from winning the game and kicking them — let’s hope temporarily — out of the second wild-card spot. I’m not sure I’m emotionally tall enough to ride this attraction.
In the early going, Saturday night’s game looked like it would be another blissful stop on the Mets’ suddenly magical journey. In the first, with one out and a runner on first, the Braves pulled off the remarkable feat of inducing three consecutive double-play balls and converting them into two enemy runs. They made errors, they didn’t challenge when they had a case, they did everything but dip the game in gilt and hand it over.
Unfortunately, they weren’t feeling so generous after that. Former Met farmhand John Gant pitched well despite being treated shabbily by his teammates, and Bartolo Colon was imperturbable as always but not untouchable.
Still, all seemed well: in the fifth, with the score tied at 2-2, Yoenis Cespedes connected. At the moment of contact I wasn’t sure the ball was out, but my opinion was less important than Cespy’s. He went into a classic slugger’s Cadillac trot as the ball sailed into the night, promising happy endings and a Sunday bounce in our stride.
But then it always feels that way during a walk-on-water winning streak, up to the moment everything changes.
Matt Kemp retied the game with a bolt into the stands that Cespedes barely bothered looking at, and then it was a battle of the bullpens, with first blink determining the winner.
Not to kick the hornets’ nest, but Terry Collins detractors have what strikes me as evidence for the prosecution: with two outs in the eighth and a bench population to rival that of a small village, Terry left the go-ahead run dependent on the less-than-winged heels of Wilmer Flores. Terry’s decision to pinch-hit T.J. Rivera for Friday night hero Kelly Johnson came up aces, as the minor-league batting champ stroked a single, but Wilmer was rounding third like a mammoth in a tar pit and A.J. Pierzynski was waiting at home with the ball and uh-oh. The list of Mets who would have been safe … well, let’s just say it’s long. Wilmer was not safe, not in the sense of scoring a run and not in the sense of avoiding bouncing his head off Pierzynski’s leg. Tie game, still.
The game ground on. Hansel Robles found his way past Kemp; Jerry Blevins was blameless; on the other hand, the Cardinals had won and the Giants were winning. In the tenth, Erik Goeddel came in and I felt something I hadn’t experienced in a week or so: doubt.
It’s probably unfair to observe that Goeddel looks a bit like Aaron Heilman. It may also be untrue, and I’m just projecting. Goeddel gave up a sharp single to Dansby Swanson, a Brave I’d hoped wouldn’t start breaking our hearts until 2017, followed that with a hit-the-Bull-level wild pitch, then surrendered a single to Pierzynski, who threw up his arms in celebration.
The veteran was the one who was overeager; Swanson’s just a kid but he obeyed his third-base coach and didn’t test Cespedes’s arm. Goeddel, to his mild credit, fanned Tyler Flowers, then departed in favor of Josh Smoker, who pitched with Ty Kelly summoned from the outfield to play whatever the position of awkward extra guy is called. (How about Awkward Extra Guy?)
Ender Inciarte has an ill-omened name, as my blog partner noted on Twitter. Ender’s also got game. This is where I got to worrying not just about the Mets, but also about myself and my ability to endure more thrills and chills.
But Smoker coaxed a pop-up from Ender and my goodness, it looked like the Mets were going to get out of it. Hooray the Mets! We’re resilient, courageous, indefatigable, unstoppable, unbeatable! Perhaps Jay Bruce would be the hero — he’s got to be one of these days, right? Or maybe James Loney would prove a trifle faster than the departed, hopefully not concussed Wilmer. Or who knows, Rivera or Kelly might…
Except Adonis Garcia — whom you may remember from this melancholy affair — rapped a single through the suddenly (and perfectly sensibly) less-crowded infield, and that was that. It was cruel, in a way that Inciarte beating out a ground ball or hitting a sac fly or dropping a ball over the infield frankly wouldn’t have been. But then you had to figure Turner Field had one more set of ghostly chains to rattle before its unlamented end. Let’s just hope it’s the not-so-old rattletrap’s last thing that goes bump in our night.
And if you don’t believe in ghosts, well, baseball’s cruel whatever the venue. If you didn’t know that before, you know it now. Like all of us, you’ll forget it during the next charmed-life winning streak. That’s OK — you’ll be reminded.
Addison Reed looked tired. Travis d’Arnaud looked lost. Asdrubal Cabrera looked determined. Jeurys Familia at first looked vulnerable, then unbeatable. Eric Campbell looked happy to be there. Josh Smoker looked ecstatic to be there.
It’s not enough for me to watch the players on my team play ball. I now find myself thinking along with them, or thinking along with what I think they’re thinking, as if I’ve developed Extra Metsory Perception. That’s how locked in I am to these Mets and this playoff chase.
I can’t read minds, and analysis of facial expressions amounts to no more than a wild guess, but I have to do something to help/not hurt the cause. My contribution is thinking hard about what should happen next in the course of a game, but not prematurely concluding what will happen, because then I’d be ruining what could happen next. Surely I don’t say out loud too much about what I’d prefer to happen, lest it change what will happen.
This is how I behave in September when it’s really September. This is 1999-, 1985-, 1973-level behavior. This is, at heart, who I really am as a Mets fan, a layer of me I’d sort of forgotten existed. This surpasses whatever I was thinking/doing last September, a relative cakewalk once the 2015 Mets flipped the switch and script in August. There’s no cakewalk now. The cake is up the road a piece. A brisk pace and a discernible route are advised if cake is truly desired.
Do you see what I’m doing? I’m tempering my words and expectations, because if I get too carried away (like this isn’t carried away?), I might disturb some grand baseball plan.
Let the Mets do that. They’ve performed a phenomenal act of disruption these past three weeks, emerging from almost-certain demise to clutch a valuable Wild Card. The latest evidence was provided Friday night when they came back from a 4-0 deficit to defeat Julio Teheran’s Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, 6-4. Both Teheran and Turner traditionally bewitch, bother and bewilder our Mets (though Turner’s rep, we have learned, is a little out of code). My credo since the resurrection of 2016 is Win Every Series. Two out of three, three out of four. Sweeps strike me as gravy. You sop it up on your roll and savor every drop, but you don’t plan to make a meal out of it. No, your meat and potatoes in September is series win after series win.
Hence, I, in my benevolence, could allow a loss to Teheran, who’d allowed the Mets one hit over nine innings the last time we saw him in New York and no runs for a very long time anywhere. Lose to Teheran, you still have two games to win. Not impossible to beat the Braves when they don’t have their ace going. Not possible to beat everybody every day and every night. It will be all right if we don’t prevail.
But we did, either because I tempered my words and expectations once Teheran commenced to mowing down Mets and Robert Gsellman wasn’t quite as baffling as he’d been previously, or because the Mets are playing very well regardless of my mental machinations.
They also have good aim. I don’t think it was a coincidence that 4-0 became 4-2 shortly after Yoenis Cespedes’s sixth-inning liner grazed Teheran’s elbow before confounding Atlanta’s middle infield. We arrived in that uncomfortable moment where you want to be a human being and root for the athlete to keep competing and you’re a fan of the team he’s not on and you’re hoping that he’s not hurt, but, you know, maybe go in the clubhouse and put some ice on it, Julio. As it happened, Teheran stayed in the game and, whether he was officially affected by it or not, gave up a two-run homer to Curtis Granderson.
When that baby cleared the right field fence, I snapped out of my ridiculous “it’s OK if they lose tonight” posture, because I remembered these Mets are capable of overcoming four-run deficits, same as they were capable of overcoming five-and-a-half game-deficits. Besides, it wasn’t four runs anymore. It was just two. You can trust these Mets to reduce two to zero and then go ahead by at least one. Elbowing Julio out of the ballyard was the vital first step.
The first post-Granderson step was a stumble. Jim Henderson was directed to hold the fort. He was trampled. We may be at that point where Henderson must be Parnelled, nudged aside in the mixing and matching of relievers. Jim worked hard to return from injury and has some key outs to his credit, but if we’re gonna default to the hot hands on offense, I don’t see how we rely on arms that don’t consistently rise to room temperature to give them every possible chance. (Assessment subject to change, because what the hell do I know?) Henderson put two Braves on and gave way to Josh Smoker, and he’s, well, Smokin’ hot. Josh faced two hitters who have bruised the Mets badly, A.J. Pierzynski and Ender Inciarte. The first guy he struck out, the second guy he grounded into a nifty 3-6-3 double play. No wonder he emoted so effusively. Calm enough to throw into a big spot, excitable enough to appreciate his accomplishment. You gotta believe we love lefties who are like that amid pressure-cooked Septembers.
Six outs remained in which to make something happen. Our fort was held. Now to storm theirs. Alejandro De Aza, who used to walk down the street and hear people say, “There goes the greatest sub-.200 hitter who ever lived,” but is lately batting a robust .204, started the top of the eighth with a base on balls. De Aza, who was batting for Hansel Robles, who had succeed Smoker, is often walking if he’s not hitting. Sure, his batting average has wallowed all year, but surely his on-base percentage must be in the stratosphere.
It’s .293. That’s not extraordinary. Maybe it was less characteristic than it seemed that De Aza accepted a walk from Mauricio Cabrera and the Mets got the leadoff man on. The point is he was on. Alejandro can run, as can Jose Reyes, which is a good skill to have when you aggressively bounce a pitch up the middle, as Jose did. Balls up the middle used to automatically mean base hit, but these days, with shifts, shadings and loads of video, you’re guaranteed of nothing. Both runners here were fast. The shortstop, who I’m still surprised isn’t Andrelton Simmons, seemed conscious of their speed. Dansby Swanson appeared poised to attempt to turn two. Instead, he turned none, letting an admittedly tricky ball clank off his person. The Mets had two on and nobody out.
Cabrera, who you’d trust with your life if not your hair, walked. Cespedes, who you’d trust with the bases loaded and nobody out if you weren’t worried it was one enormous setup (tempered in-game expectations and all that), walloped a mighty helpful fly ball to deep right. It went for a sacrifice fly. De Aza had no trouble scoring and Reyes took care to scoot to third. Cabrera and his cranky knee tagged, too, which should earn Asdrubal a best supporting actor nomination. He drew the throw that let Reyes arrive at third unaccosted. Heady stuff from the man with the dyed blonde head.
Granderson, who you trusted for five months to not muss up his RBI total but is suddenly driving in runs on demand, dunked a single into left. In came Reyes to tie the game. Over to third darted Cabrera, knee and all. That guys comes to play. As does Granderson. As does everybody on this team, even the fellas who don’t always or often succeed.
Kelly Johnson came on to pinch-hit, which is logical in the sense that he wasn’t in the starting lineup, but I swear I’ve so adjusted my view of the Mets that sometimes I forget who’s already in the game and who’s coming off the bench. This isn’t inattentiveness so much as my judgment that on the Mets, nobody’s a scrub, nobody’s a fill-in, nobody’s part-time, nobody’s full-time, there are no “B” lineups at all. Everybody’s an element of the whole. You know who’s getting it done for the Mets? The Mets, that’s who.
Johnson’s one of those Mets, we are delighted to report, and he did what he’s been doing from whatever role he is assigned. He doubled to right to drive home Asdrubal and put the Mets up, 5-4. The game the Mets were permitted to lose was now one they led, albeit by not enough for sheer comfort. Therefore, they were required to tack on some more runs. With Kelly on second and Grandy on third, the Braves opted to walk Jay Bruce (sound tactic, but have they scouted him since he left Cincinnati?) and pitch to T.J. Rivera, except Rivera was pinch-hit for by Michael Conforto, and Michael Conforto Mauricio Cabrera hit with a pitch. Our MC won that rap battle. Granderson trotted in to make it, 6-4.
The bases were still loaded, there was still only one out and one more hit would have broken this affair wide open. D’Arnaud was up next and, like Bruce, he’s still struggling as a 2016 Met. The Mets have as many outfielders as the 7 Line Army has acolytes, so you can almost overlook Jay’s difficulties. Travis’s travails are a little more troubling. He’s going to be in there more often than not. He appears out of it at the plate most at-bats. This time up, he struck out. So did De Aza, but De Aza was on his second go-round in the eighth, so he can be excused.
A two-run lead is better than a two-run deficit. The Mets’ back end was summoned. I got a little antsy at the sight of Reed, who has pitched so much and so well. Would have Fernando Salas, a little hotter and a little fresher, been a better bet? I don’t dabble all that much in bullpen management, but Reed made me nervous. I wished it was 9-4. I settled for 6-4. It stayed 6-4 on Reed’s watch, despite his giving up a hit. It took some swift defense around the first base bag to keep the score in place. It took Eric Campbell.
Yes, Soup is on again. He’s been chilling in the shadows for several days since his unlikely callup from Las Vegas. The Mets called everybody up once the Triple-A season ended. It would have been impolite to leave Eric behind. After the copious pinch-hitting and pitching changes, somebody needed to play first. Soup played it with aplomb. Good for him. Great for us.
The top of the order — Reyes, Cabrera, Cespedes — was up in the ninth. It went down suspiciously quickly and quietly. Really could have used those extra runs in the eighth. Then again, we have Jeurys Familia. Shouldn’t he be able to maintain a two-run lead over a three-out span?
He should. Despite a double, a productive groundout and a walk, he did. Familia’s probably also tired, but he perked up at just the right junctures. Freddie Freeman, for instance, struck out instead of tying the game. So did Tyler Flowers (if not Madame). I had each of them in my “they’re gonna ruin everything” pool in my head. I also had Familia in my “nah, he’s gonna be fine” pool. So I broke even once Jeurys nailed down his 48th save and the Mets won their sixth in a row and the Wild Card race stayed exactly where it was.
I’m in a little deeper, but that’s what happens in Septembers like these.