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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Petco Nights

A few impressions that remain from another late night in San Diego absorbed via the television in New York:

• The San Diego Padres of this century, no matter their episodic success, always come off as extras in a not particularly believable baseball movie. “Why couldn’t they use a real team? Padres? What the hell are those?” This current edition of Padres, who excelled on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, may grow into a roving band of West Coast marauders, but I stand by my sense that they don’t really exist.

• Steven Matz will be the subject of next week’s ABC Afterschool Special, “The Lefty Who Lost His Way,” set on Long Island, but filmed in Vancouver for budgetary reasons. He said that despite his sickly looking performances of late that he’s feeling fine, so I assume something is terribly wrong. Based on how he’s pitched, something is terribly wrong. Whether it’s physical, per se, or just, you know, something wrong…well, something’s wrong.

• Randy Jones was a welcome middle-innings guest on SNY. He’s doing better than he was a few months ago and doing better than Matz, by all indications. The Padres’ premiere lefty of days gone by is in possession of Jerry Koosman’s 1976 National League Cy Young Award, but we won’t hold that against him. Nor will we dwell on his Mickey Lolich Lite tenure as a Met in 1981 and 1982. Some guys pass through your premises, some guys have legacies somewhere else. Keep throwing that soft stuff, Mr. Jones, and getting ’em out San Diego way. You were a helluva pitcher. (Maybe have a word with our Steven if you can spare it.)

• Chris Flexen starts tonight for the Mets. Clean slate. Fill it with outs, young feller.

• We’ll be rockin’ in Rockville Centre Friday night at 7:00, talkin’ Piazza and all that good ’90s Mets stuff. Come on over to where I’ll be speaking of the ex-Padre and eternal Met. The place has books and wine and, for a spell, me. Would love to see you. Thanks.

Yoenis Alive

Perhaps the reason Yoenis Cespedes accessorizes like he’s part of a road work crew — highway-cone orange elbow and ankle pads outlined in traffic-redirecting neon yellow — is he likes driving his team toward victory. Just because he hadn’t done much of it lately didn’t mean he’d lost his taste for it.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time before he got behind the wheel of the Mets’ bus again. Perhaps it was being so relatively close to Oakland that has shifted him to another gear. Whatever it is that’s gotten Yo hitting like Yo, Yo is hitting like Yo. Two nights in California, two nights of Cespedes extra-base flair. Suddenly you notice him not just by all the stuff wrapped around his limbs or hanging from his neck. In case you’d forgotten, this fella can hit a bit. Can hit a lot when he’s hot.

Right now, he’s hot.

Tuesday night in San Diego, Cespedes’s sizzle was palpable. A homer to start the Mets’ scoring in the first. A double to tie the game in the fifth. A triple that untied it in the seventh, featuring a Padre error that allowed Yoenis to come all the way around as Mets have been doing delightfully regularly recently without bothering to hit balls that leave the park. The so-called Little League home run, the third the Mets have engineered with a little help from their foes since the All-Star break (and the only kind I ever managed in tee ball), put the Mets up, 6-4. That extra run would become more than a marine layer of icing on the cake in the ninth once Addison Reed came in to further diminish his trade value. Addison gave up an RBI double to Dusty Coleman, who I believe San Diego acquired from a random baseball-name generator, to cut the New York lead to 6-5. But that was all that would be given back. Reed got a save, Seth Lugo and the Mets got a win and Cespedes…

Where did Ces go? Not back to the loving embrace of Bob Melvin, not yet anyway. Terry Collins removed his re-emerging superstar after his home-to-home dash because Archie Bell & the Drells phoned in from Houston, Texas, to dedicate the “Tighten Up” to Yo’s quad. Cespedes looked great yet didn’t feel quite right, so, cycle possibility or no, better safe than sorry.

Not sorry Cespedes is a Met for a few more years, regardless of last month’s cold spell, the lower body parts marked fragile and the general sense that he’s marching (hopefully not limping) to his own drummer. Anything could go wrong physically at any time, one supposes, but plenty can go right competitively when Cespedes is all in one piece.

He’s a helluva piece to have.

Helluva time ahead at Turn of the Corkscrew, 110 N. Park Ave. in Rockville Centre, L.I., Friday night, 7 PM. I’ll reading from and discussing my book Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star. Copies will be for sale from the fine folks at this fine books & wine establishment, but admission, conversation and inscription will be gratis. If you’re in the vicinity, I do hope you’ll drop by.

If the Nickname Fits

Jacob deGrom might be confused when he arrives at his locker on August 25 and sees a different name over the number on the back of his road uniform. August 25 to 27, when the Mets are in Washington, is MLB Players Weekend, a three-day period when players can, in the name of fun or something like it, wear their nicknames on their jerseys. The Mets have several players who, should they be on the trip, have obvious choices. Noah Syndergaard would be THOR. Matt Harvey would be DARK KNIGHT. Zack Wheeler would be THEY DL ME TOO.

DeGrom? If he filed for one, it was probably JAKE or JdG or perhaps deGROMINATOR. Yet all will be rejected, whether Jacob is informed in advance or not, in favor of the people’s choice.

Fuckin’ A.

Or, as it will appear on fabric, FUCKIN A 48.

This assumes that whoever at MLB headquarters is responsible for nickname compilation was up late Monday night listening to the repeated satisfaction-laced exhortations of Mets fans like myself as deGrom threw his usual superb start in San Diego.

Jacob strikes out the side in the first?

Jacob throws a double play ball to escape the second?

Jacob leaves single runners on in the third and fourth?

Jacob retires seven in a row to get through six with a 4-0 lead?

Jacob strikes out the side in the seventh after surrendering a solo home run to Hunter Renfroe?

Jacob leaves after eight innings, having given up only two runs, is in line for his eighth consecutive victory in eight starts, perseveres through nagging foot discomfort, remains in command throughout, asserts himself like few pitchers in the league and no other pitcher on the Mets?

Addison Reed nearly gives back what was a seemingly secure 5-2 lead, allowing another leadoff home run to Renfroe and getting very lucky when Jabari Blash comes within inches of Jabari-blasting a three-run shot to right that goes ever so slightly foul, before holding on for a 5-3 final over the pesky Padres?

MLB probably won’t need to ship the Mets an OH FOR CRISSAKE 43 jersey to hang in Reed’s locker come August 25. Chances are he’ll be traded by then.

Conforto On Deck

Willie Mays. Howard Johnson. Michael Conforto. The connective tissue? Besides having been New York Mets All-Stars? Each can be identified as an on-deck batter.

You don’t see On-Deck Batter listed as a position anywhere. Neither the 1973 nor 1976 Topps set included a graphic to indicate what an On-Deck Batter looked like. Nevertheless, every position player (give or take a Joe Hietpas) has been an on-deck batter, sort of how every airline passenger has been a departure gate denizen. It’s an element of the journey, hardly the destination.

For a few, though, the on-deck circle becomes an intrinsic part of their larger story. Willie Mays accomplished just about everything that could be accomplished on a baseball field, yet one of the most mentioned facts about him is a slice of evergreen trivia. It could be the most oft-asked “hey, betcha didn’t know this” baseball question of the past sixty-five years:

“Who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World?”

I learned the answer on the back of a baseball card when I was a kid. I hear it repeated during baseball broadcasts multiple times per season. It seems the person who took the longest to find out Mays was on deck when Thomson went deep was Mays, at least in terms of how long it should have taken. Willie (his voice rising to a squeal as it will) has said he had no idea the man batting in front of him had just walloped what was about to become the most famous home run in the annals of home runs. Willie, a rookie on October 3, 1951, was too lost in thought over how to handle Ralph Branca to have noticed Thomson had just made that task unnecessary.

“I was on deck,” Willie said several years ago, “and I was the last guy to get to home plate. I really didn’t realize that the game was over so quickly.”

Where’s Willie?

The game was over, but Willie was just getting started. Among the many achievements ahead of the 1951 National League Rookie of the Year were two seasons for the New York Giants — 1956 and 1957 — in which he’d hit at least 30 home runs and steal at least 30 bases. Thirty years after Mays did it for the second time, Howard Johnson would do it for the first of three times, making HoJo the first National Leaguer to renew his membership in the 30-30 club that frequently. Johnson did many splendid things in a Mets uniform between 1985 and 1993. But at the franchise’s most spellbinding moment, he simply stood by.

HoJo was to the Mets in the earliest hour of October 26, 1986, what Willie was to the Giants a few minutes before four o’clock in the afternoon on October 3, 1951. He was on deck with history about to be written. The swing that served as pen and ink wasn’t a long drive à la Thomson, but a ground ball trickling off the bat of Mookie Wilson. Got by Buckner. Rounding third was Knight. You know how that went. You may also know that had Bill scooped up Mookie’s grounder but lost the foot race to the bag, Ray in all likelihood would have stopped at third…and up next, with the responsibility of keeping the tenth inning of the Mets’ last gasp alive — whereas Thomson was up with one out, Wilson batted with two — would have been Howard Johnson.

HoJo hadn’t been in Game Six against Boston from the start the way Mays had been in Game Three against Brooklyn. The Johnson who called the shots on the ’86 Mets, Davey, didn’t call on the Johnson who was capable of belting them, Howard, until the bottom of the ninth, score knotted at three, Knight on second, Wilson on first, nobody out. Not much pressure there, huh? HoJo, who’d launched ten home runs in 220 at-bats that year (including the April clout off Todd Worrell that effectively eliminated the Cardinals from contention), was up in a classic bunting situation. Davey had Howard attempt one sacrifice before letting him swing away. A strikeout resulted, the Mets didn’t score and the game that began on October 25, 1986, approached might and went to extras.

Everything turned out OK, you might have heard. Sure, the Red Sox plated two in the top of the tenth, and Calvin Schiraldi recorded two quick outs in the bottom of the tenth, and the Mets were down to their final strike approximately a thousand times (or so it seemed), but Mookie did his thing, Ray took off from second, coach Buddy Harrelson escorted him around third, and Howard Johnson led the greeting party at home. HoJo had been in the on-deck circle as the Mets’ potential last hope. He could have been a Bobby or a Mookie. Instead, he became a Willie, which isn’t a bad thing for a HoJo or anybody to be. But unlike Willie Mays, who lagged behind everybody in celebratory sight despite his vantage point from the on-deck circle, Howard Johnson couldn’t have been quicker off the mark. Willie was the last New York Giant to greet Bobby Thomson upon the arrival of the most incredible, unbelievable, Amazin’ run in his franchise’s history? HoJo was the first New York Met to greet Ray Knight upon delivery of his. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the speed Howard would show the following season when he first stole thirty-plus bases.

There’s HoJo!

Like Willie Howard Mays, Howard Michael Johnson would be known for much more than a footnote to somebody else’s accomplishment. And like Willie and Howard, Michael Thomas Conforto looms as a ballplayer with a whole lot more in front of him besides an instant in an on-deck circle. Yet on Sunday, Conforto’s ultimate role was to be that guy who waits. Bobby Thomson wasn’t up at the Polo Grounds. Mookie Wilson wasn’t up at Shea Stadium. This time, it was Travis d’Arnaud up at Citi Field. The stakes, when compared to the game that decided the 1951 National League pennant or the one that staved off elimination in the 1986 World Series, couldn’t have been smaller. It was just one game in July between two teams — the Mets and the A’s — who were meeting only at the schedule’s behest. Neither opponent figured to be busy beyond October 1 no matter the outcome on July 23.

Still, the outcome on July 23 was very much in doubt in the home ninth, just as it was when those aforementioned October affairs had yet to go final. The A’s led, 3-2. The score had settled there partly via Rafael Montero’s dizzying ascension to the precipice of competence (seven professional innings pockmarked only by three solo Oakland homers; he also singled), partly because Michael Conforto continues to blaze. The Mets’ only 2017 All-Star has cranked up his credentials to become a perennial candidate since the break, batting .350 over the past ten games while dripping with extra-base power. Three doubles. Five home runs, including the one that put the Mets on the board in the third inning Sunday. Michael was 2-for-4, the only Met to succeed twice versus A’s starter Daniel Gossett.

Gossett went six. He was followed to the mound by Daniel Coulombe, who gave up nothing; Blake Treinen, who gave up nothing; and Santiago Casilla, who, with one out, allowed Saturday night’s object of affection, Wilmer Flores, to dunk a single into left-center. It was a wee bit of hope on a Sunday when the Mets didn’t play like they usually do on Sunday, so maybe they wouldn’t lose like they usually do on Sunday. A wee bit of hope, as we were reminded Saturday, can grow exponentially and quickly if nurtured correctly.

Faster-by-default Matt Reynolds pinch-ran for slow-footed Flores. Theoretically threatening Yoenis Cespedes pinch-hit for René Rivera. They were giving away Yoenis Cespedes compression sleeves Sunday, but the Mets weren’t putting Yoenis anywhere near the starting lineup. He probably needed a day to decompress. A dramatic ninth-inning appearance would suffice if Yo could shake off the doldrums and drum up the drama. This had been a better Sunday in New York than most for these Mets, but it wasn’t going to be that good. Yoenis flied to center.

The Mets had one more out with which to play. D’Arnaud, who’s been showing his own signs of life of late, was welcome to reassert his power locally. Travis has hit nine home runs this season. None of them has raised the Apple that the catcher once bruised badly enough to require it be bandaged. I wasn’t asking for Td’A to be summoned to HR, however. A home run would have been swell — hell, it would have won the Mets the game and swept the Mets the series — but I didn’t need that. I just needed Travis to get on base and for Matt to not get thrown out in the bargain.

I didn’t need more in that moment because Michael Conforto was on deck, and I was thinking, “If we can just get Conforto up here…”

I’m not sure what the conclusion of that conditional scenario was going to be. I’d hoped it would be stupendous. It might have been disappointing. It could have inspired Yoenis Cespedes Manager of the Decade Bob Melvin to direct Casilla to pitch around Conforto in order to take on Curtis Granderson, who’s recently been slumping almost as badly as Cespedes. With Conforto up, Granderson would have been the on-deck batter. With Granderson up, Jay Bruce would have been the on-deck batter. Had Granderson tied the game and brought Bruce up, Lucas Duda would have been the on-deck batter, which would have been the most superfluous notation at Citi Field since the last convenience fee charged to a ticket-buyer, because as we work our way down the lineup in this theoretical fashion, Bruce either wins the game in the ninth or we go to the tenth. You reach a point where the on-deck batter is no more than a creature of the circle that surrounds him.

But we were nowhere near that point with d’Arnaud up. It was Travis trying to keep it going and Conforto waiting. For the first time I could remember all season, I was more excited about the on-deck batter than I was about the actual batter. No offense to Travis. It’s a reflection on how much Michael has come on and how far Michael might go — and I mean that in a good way. On a roster where every other reasonably familiar face — Granderson, Bruce and Duda among them — is considered trade bait, Michael isn’t going anywhere, except to the outfield most days and to the plate on Sunday should Travis somehow get on. If we can just get Conforto up here…

We couldn’t. Travis popped out to end the game. The Mets lost. Oh well. Michael will be up again very soon, probably leading off tonight in San Diego. I can’t wait.

I also can’t wait for Varsity Letters at 7:30 this evening, when I’ll be discussing and reading from Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, on a bill with three fellow baseball authors. Please join Ron Kaplan, Jay Jaffe, Mark Feinsand and me at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. Admission is free. Books will be available. The Good Time Probability Index throbs with positive indicators.

This Team Has Good Bones

There’s something about these New York Mets, these New York Mets of 2015, 2016 and 2017 that doesn’t let you turn your back completely on them. If we were realtors, we’d marvel at their good bones. We’re Mets fans, so we figure that’s just asking for trouble and a visit from Ray Ramirez with that kind of talk, but I kind of believe the description fits. Somewhere inside the clutter, if you look past everything that’s in dire need of repair, the damn thing holds together. Good bones. Functioning heart. The soul of a contender if not the record to match.

Saturday, these Mets of 2015, 2016 and 2017, but technically just 2017 — the least appealing segment of the trio — staged a promotional night the right way. They gave a plethora of satisfaction and a modicum of hope to the last 39,629 through the turnstiles. You didn’t have to show up early. You just had to stay to the end.

The Mets did. They’re skilled at that. It was getting to the game ahead of the Thorbblehead rush that seemed to flummox them, particularly Zack Wheeler, who, if fate and ligaments had cooperated, would have already been the subject of a frenzied ceramic likeness giveaway. Instead, Wheeler slogs along in the flesh, pitching first innings like they are his last, trying to keep them going until eternity taps him on the shoulder and shows him to the shower. Wheeler threw approximately a hundred and nine pitches in the top of the first against Oakland Saturday night. It may have been fewer. It may have been more. It was definitely awful. The A’s scored four runs. The Mets sank from view.

But they didn’t entirely disappear. The Mets generally don’t. For a spell, they hit the ball hard without results. Then they collected base hits without runs. Meanwhile, Wheeler, after the first, stuck around for kicks until the fifth, allowing one more Athletic to score. It was both an intensely crummy outing and sneakily effective. Zack couldn’t win, but he did the next best thing. He kept the Mets from being certain they would lose.

Sean Manaea, meanwhile, appeared to have a 5-0 lead in hand as he started the sixth, yet the Mets, who you could make out in the light rain if you squinted, grew more and more evident. Five zeroes? Sure. Six? Oh, we don’t do six. Or at least we didn’t on Saturday. In the sixth, we cycled. It was a pot luck supper of base hits. Wilmer brought a double. Jay made a homer. Jose whipped up another triple. Travis showed off his specialty, the RBI single. Right there that was three runs. Soon, there’d be a fourth, serenaded by a chant spurred on by a successful replay challenge: “SAFE! SAFE! SAFE!” You didn’t need the crew in Chelsea to tell you the home team wasn’t OUT! OUT! OUT! of it. The prize the Mets couldn’t get anywhere near — as if they were the 15,001st to arrive at Citi Field — was suddenly within their grasp.

They were down, 5-4.
They had three more innings.
They were playing the A’s.

And they had their secret weapon: relief pitching that you could’ve sworn was lousy. An inning from Josh Smoker. Two from Josh Edgin. One from Hansel “Josh” Robles. No Joshing: they gave us four scoreless frames, which allowed the Mets a legitimate chance to tie things up, an opportunity acted upon in the eighth by Lucas Duda, pinch-hitter deluxe on a night that Wilmer Flores was removed from mothballs to serve as second baseman, Asdrubal Cabrera (without rancor, as best as could be deduced) became the Mets’ 163rd third baseman ever and T.J. Rivera…where did we put him? Oh yeah, that was T.J. playing first. Duda drove in d’Arnaud in the eighth. D’Arnaud had three hits. Duda was pinch-run for by Steven Matz. That kind of night.

The kind of night during which my companion in Excelsior — I had no intention of being at this game, but circumstances and logistics landed me there three minutes ahead of first pitch — kept trying to convince me that this team wasn’t done. He didn’t mean not done against Oakland on Saturday. He meant not done against everybody in 2017. He told me at critical junctures of 2015 and 2016 that they weren’t done. I didn’t quite believe him then. I don’t nearly believe him now. Nevertheless, it was 5-5 in the ninth and Simon Castro was on for the A’s. I watched him throw a warmup pitch. I wasn’t impressed.

Cabrera was my pick to pick Castro apart. First start at third base, another night to flip his bat and raise his arms…but that was an old script. Cespedes? That would certainly say something to those concerned he left his heart in Alameda County and his mojo god knows where, but Yoenis grew less and less likely to get a big hit the later the game got. Asdrubal and Yoenis each made an out, leading to (assuming Steve Henderson was unavailable) Wilmer Flores as humankind’s last great hope to win the game on one magical swing.

Wilmer had done that before, my companion reminded me, as if I needed the nudge. Wilmer Flores might as well approach every one of his late-and-close at-bats tugging at the wordmark on his jersey. He is the walking, talking, swinging, stinging embodiment of Tears of Joy™, one of the Citi’s most humble and lovable characters, a veritable Shoeshine Boy who, whenever there is a call for help, emerges as Underdog! Wilmer could make forays into the sciences, the arts, public policy, anything you name, and the first question he’d be asked is how it compares to that home run he hit against the Nationals two nights after he was weeping on the field over being traded, which he wasn’t. Flores’s Flushing calling card is made of such sturdy stock that nobody ever mentions he took called strike three to end the 2015 World Series. Carlos Beltran might go into the Hall of Fame…might go into the Hall of Fame as a Met…and he will never not be reminded in Metsian circles that he took a strike three to end a postseason series. Different strokes for different folks — and not all Met folks are certified Met folk heroes.

Wilmer Flores is assuredly that, and his legend grew on Saturday night, July 22, 2017, when he lined a Simon Castro pitch over the left field fence for a game-winning homer not exactly like the one from July 31, 2015, but close enough to exhilarate 39,629 skeptics, 15,000 of whom thought they’d be leaving the park with nothing better than a bobblehead, none of whom (save for my companion) sensed they’d get to take home a 6-5 walkoff win boxed inside a stirring comeback from five runs down. Prof. Flores, in the parallel universe in which he takes up laboratory work, had just found a cure for chronic doubt. As he accepted his Nobel, he was asked how it compared to that time he beat the Nationals.

In 2015, the Mets’ signature drive — the one signed off on by Wilmer between joyous teardrops — encompassed 31 wins in 42 games. In 2016, the push that steamrolled our summer of angst was 27-12. All we’ve got right now is 4-0, which is an excellent mark for four games and rather irrelevant in the scheme of 45-50, ten games behind anything that matters, and eight days from the likelihood that assorted 2017/2016/2015 Mets will become former Mets. The encouraging voices of our more optimistic angels aside, there are too many miles of bad road behind us and too steep an incline ahead of us to take seriously the last few smooth kilometers. It’s an infinitesimal sample size and it’s been traversed at the expense of the so-so Cardinals and the dismal A’s. Plus, the next game is at home on a Sunday afternoon and Rafael Montero is pitching it. Rafael Nadal could be pitching it on a clay court and Sunday afternoon at Citi Field would still be Sunday afternoon at Citi Field, a combination of time and place that is combustible enough to blow up in the Mets’ faces practically without exception. Prof. Flores needs to develop a scientific explanation for what’s up with that.

The other six days of the week, the Mets seem capable of producing really uplifting wins. That’s what makes it a shame that they insist on losing as often as they do.

None of the stubborn statistical imbalance that results from their inability to win at least as many as they lose detracts from the experience embedded in a win like Saturday’s. We watched them not give in down 0-5; we watched them battle — not Art Howe “we battled” but actually battle — until it was 5-5; and we watched them prevail at the very end of regulation, everybody on the field jumping around, everybody in the stands jumping around, nobody pausing to wonder what all the fuss was about. Besides, you wouldn’t have heard yourself think such cynical thoughts if you were trundling down the Citi Field staircases Saturday night, for a severe case of Shea Stadium-style euphoria had broken out on the ramps that had just been emotionally installed. You should have heard the beautiful a capella sounds. “LET’S GO METS!” “WIL-MER-FLO-RES!” “Y’KNOW, WE’RE NOT CLINCIALLY DEAD YET!”

The last one was just in my head. But you could hear it if you listened closely.

With Apologies to Joe Piscopo

“Let’s take a look!”

The big story — Mets 2017.
Exciting. Thrilling. Awesome!
Not very often.

Ten-game homestand.
Two straight wins!
Three straight losses.
Three more wins!

Tough opponent?
Not really!

Steven Matz?
Five innings.
Terry Collins?
Seen enough.

Michael Conforto — home run!

T.J. Rivera — home run?
Not really.
Oakand A’s?
Oakland E’s!

One out, two on, T.J. up, A’s lead…
One hit, one more out, three runs in, Mets lead!

Lucas Duda?
Lucky bounce.
Ryon Healy?
Not so lucky.
Get well, Ryon Healy!

Yoenis Cespedes?
“I Love New York!”
I Love Oakland more!
“I Love Bob Melvin lots!”

¿Yo qué?
Misinterpreted, Yo says through a translator.
Terry Collins?
“I Love Bob Melvin, too!”

Addison Reed?
Needs a rest.
Dan Iassogna?
Needs to be arrested.

Jerry Blevins?
Five outs!
Blevins’s arm?
Still on!
Trade value?
We’ll see!

Winning pitcher?
Hansel Robles!
The right direction, for a change!

Next up?
Thor bobblehead, first fifteen-thousand.
Line up?

Back to you, Brian.

Longevity Has Its Rewards

Todd Hundley was at Thursday’s Mets game. He suited up and strapped it on in the bottom of the second when Lucas Duda added him to his pass list. Duda hit a home run that admitted one Hundley. Lucas’s blast evoked from the past the catcher who still owns half of the Mets’ single-season home run record and, until Duda touched home plate, could claim half of seventh place on the Mets’ all-time power rankings. Now Duda is alone in seventh with 125 Met homers, one ahead of Hundley’s 124 in eighth.

I doubt Todd — who Bobby Valentine thought stayed up and out too late c. 1997 — is losing sleep over losing his place. Whatever Hundley is up to fourteen years into his retirement from baseball, I very much doubt it hinges on whether he has more, as many or fewer home runs in a Mets uniform than Lucas Duda.

Yet because Duda went deep off Lance Lynn on Thursday afternoon at Citi Field, we were given a moment to pause and recall Todd Hundley as a Met who hit a lot of home runs in his time: 41 in 1996, 30 in 1997, one as a pinch-hitter to win a searing game in Houston in September of 1998 when it was becoming apparent Todd Hundley’s time as a Met was ending, but oh, what a homer, and oh, what a game. Mike Piazza, Hundley’s successor and then some, had tied it in the ninth, and the two catchers combined to keep the Mets afloat in ultimately doomed pursuit of a Wild Card. But we didn’t know it was doomed; we just knew we’d won, 4-3, in eleven innings. We didn’t know Hundley had just hit the last of 124 home runs as a Met. We wouldn’t have guessed Todd would fade from the common Met narrative fairly quickly and need somebody to come along nineteen years later to resurrect his memory for a couple of minutes. By making decisive contact with a pitch from Lynn, Lucas Duda made contact with the baseball spirit of Todd Hundley, conducting a veritable horsehide séance in broad daylight.

This will happen when players stick around on your team a while. Duda is in his eighth season as a Met. Only one of them has been wholly uninterrupted by injury or demotion, but they’ve added up. They’ve added up so much that when you looked up on Thursday, you realized only six Mets ever have hit more home runs than Lucas. To a degree, it speaks to a certain power deficiency in the construction of the New York Mets franchise, but it also says Lucas has been here long enough to leave a deep dent on our impressions and in our record book. Maybe he’ll be gone soon, which is the way it goes, but until then, I like the way it stays. I like that a guy who’s been here long enough to quietly belt 125 homers unintentionally evokes a guy who was here long enough to loudly belt 124 homers. Take THAT, mercenary tendencies!

I like even more that a guy who could win us a game in walkoff fashion early in his third season in the big leagues just won us a game in walkoff fashion in the second half of his fifteenth…and that he never did it for us in between…and that the ways he did it on opposite ends of his career contained commonalities.

Jose Reyes was a Met for nine seasons once and has been a Met in their two most recent. He has more hits as a Met than anybody not named David Wright. Only two of those 1,441 safeties directly won games. The first came on April 13, 2005, on a ball that couldn’t quite find a clean path out of the Shea Stadium infield. The opposing pitcher got a glove on it. So did the opposing shortstop. The opposing second baseman corralled it, but too many hands stirred the pot on this stew. While young Jose was scampering to first, the Mets’ runner from second scored to give the Mets a 1-0 win in eleven innings.

The opposing team was the Houston Astros, then of the National League. The opposing pitcher was Wheeler…ex-Met Dan Wheeler. Among those he succeeded to the mound were Astro starter Roger Clemens and Astro reliever John Franco. Clemens would never pitch again at Shea, Franco would pitch there the next night, then never again. Clemens had gone seven until he was pinch-hit for by Jose Vizcaino, the Met who was obtained for Anthony Young after the Mets finished last in 1993 and the Yankee who bested Turk Wendell once the Mets had finally made it to the World Series in 2000.

Round and round this sort of stuff goes if you dig just a little into a relevant box score, and the box score of April 13, 2005, became relevant when Jose Reyes stepped to the plate on July 20, 2017, one plot of real estate east of Shea Stadium a dozen years later. It was another tie game, 2-2, in the ninth. As far as we know, nobody who pitched for the Cardinals Thursday will resonate down the halls of time the way Clemens and Franco do, but we only know as far as we can throw ourselves when it comes to looking ahead. Looking behind, we can throw ourselves back with confidence. Looking behind, we have context.

Jose brought context to the party on Thursday like Lucas brought Todd. Jose came up in a potential walkoff situation, just like in 2005. In 2005, he’d not yet walked off a win for the Mets. In 2017, he’d not walked off a win for the Mets since 2005. He wasn’t on hand from 2012 through 2015, but he had other opportunities through 2011 and since 2016. The singularity of his RBI from April 13, 2005, had lingered in my Mets consciousness. I knew he was due.

He was due and he did. As in 2005, he needed some aiding and abetting by out-of-town fielders. When Jose was 21, it was pitcher Dan Wheeler, shortstop Adam Everett and second baseman Chris Burke (who that June would break up Pedro Martinez’s no-hitter back when securing one of those was our most urgent nightly cause). With Jose now at 34, the opposing defense that broke down consisted of Matt Carpenter, who did his job just fine, actually, and pitcher Trevor Rosenthal, who didn’t. The play — Reyes grounding sharply down the first base line; Carpenter snagging the ball and preparing to shovel it from foul territory; Rosenthal distracted by dandelions until rushing the bag too late to beat a speeding/diving Jose; Yoenis Cespedes scoring unimpeded from third on the other side of the field; and teammates remembering to grab ample supplies of sunflower seeds for the ritual celebratory shower — is fresh in memory. So is the delight intrinsic in a Flushing midweek afternoon walkoff that emanates from any Met batter in any Met ballpark, though especially someone who, give or take a lengthy hiatus, has been around here forever.

That it had nothing to do with a playoff push has nothing to do with anything. A wonderful win is a wonderful win. We don’t need papal dispensation to revel in it.

Jose’s been hot lately, batting .371 in his past twenty games. You wouldn’t lose your sense of perspective, slip him an Omar Minaya-style blank contract and invite him to fill in the terms based on these few torrid weeks, but he’s been hot enough to remind us a good player with some mileage doesn’t generally freeze into a state of unmeltable frozen tundra overnight. What he did against the Cardinals was simple enough — he got his bat on the ball and sent it toward a first baseman who had to make a play behind the bag. This Amed Rosario from another age lit up the Statcast meter with what it identified as Reyes’s fastest sprint rate of 2017, 29.3 feet per second. Sounds quick. Looked quicker.

“I’m going to hustle all the time,” Jose said after the game (conveniently ignoring those occasions when he taps the ball weakly and gives up in disgust). “My body feels so good.” Mets legend is built on veteran speedsters cranking their venerable legs and creating ninety feet of havoc. Mookie Wilson, he of another ground ball to another first baseman, played his final game in the majors in 1991, twelve years before Jose Reyes played his first. Jose Reyes achieved his first Mets walkoff RBI in 2005, twelve years before collecting his second.

Wilson and Reyes aren’t the only entities in our world known to whoosh by. Look! It’s time! And it’s gonna beat the first baseman to the bag!

The runner Jose drove in from second the first instance he was on the swinging end of a walkoff — the carrier of the only Mets’ score on a night when Willie Randolph started Kaz Ishii, Kaz Matsui and Eric Valent — was no Yoenis Cespedes. He was Victor Diaz. Young Victor Diaz was a high-hoper in early 2005, almost on the level of young Jose Reyes and young David Wright in our anticipatory estimation. We were introduced to Victor Diaz the previous September. He greeted us powerfully, launching a three-run homer that tied the Cubs in the ninth, snatching from Chicago critical ground in their playoff quest. Craig Brazell finished the Shea heist a couple of innings later with the winning homer. Nobody much dwelled on Craig’s future. Everybody was psyched for Victor’s.

Diaz was going to be the next Ramirez (Manny, not Neil). He wasn’t even the next Manny Alexander, but we didn’t know that in September 2004 or April 2005. We just knew we’d seen him hit, now we’d seen him score, and soon we’d see him…well, not very much. The Mets traded him in August 2006 for Mike Nickeas, who didn’t make it to the Mets until September 2010, the same week as Lucas Duda. Duda, until further notice, is still here. Nickeas, like Diaz and the ball Duda hit Thursday, is long gone. Mike was part of the R.A. Dickey deal that was supposed to become the Travis d’Arnaud deal before it morphed into the Noah Syndergaard deal. Noah at the moment is a heavily promoted bobblehead model who plays catch with Matt Harvey, speaking of supposed-to-be’s.

More to unpack there than is necessary, though you are welcome to sort the contents as you wish. Being a fan of a team for a considerable period of time will allow you to do that. Having been a Mets fan since I was old enough to be a fan of anything, when I see a reason to invoke Victor Diaz, I take it and I note that in Jose Reyes’s rookie year of 2003, the Mets traded off as many veterans as they could. With little wistfulness, we said goodbye in July to Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Armando Benitez, Graeme Lloyd and Rey Sanchez. Alomar was on his way to the Hall of Fame, but Shea Stadium represented only a rocky Robbie detour. Armando was a major contributor to postseason qualification and a stubborn detractor from postseason success. Burnitz got good after leaving the Mets a couple of times. Lloyd and Sanchez were just passing/stumbling through. In 2003, an underrated horror show in the Met annals of disgust, the team was going nowhere with them. They could go, we trusted, somewhere with whoever we got back for the lot of them.

The most we got out of anybody received in those five separate fire sale transactions was Victor Diaz, whose Met career came up 110 home runs shy of where Lucas Duda’s is now. There were a few hot minutes, but not a lot more — yet way more than we got out of the rest of that summer’s ineffectual haul. That’ll happen. It doesn’t mean a sell-off shouldn’t be tried again in the days ahead. It doesn’t mean we cling to everybody old because it’s so hard to come up with anybody new. But it also means FDA-certified magic beans aren’t included in every transaction. Even the best prospect we’ve ever received as modern midyear sellers, Wheeler (Zack, not Dan, exchanged for Carlos Beltran in 2011), hasn’t grown into the towering beanstalk we’d anticipated.

I had been thinking of Victor Diaz in this realm in the last few days, and when Jose Reyes brought home Cespedes as he once brought home Diaz, I thought of him again. I don’t mind that kind of thinking. Longevity has its rewards.

My thanks to Darren Meenan and Brian Erni for having me on the 30th episode of Orange & Blue Thing Thursday night to discuss Piazza (I batted in front of Curtis Granderson, which doesn’t happen every day). A replay of the show is viewable here. Audio downloads are available via Soundcloud and iTunes. I recommend those since you can listen without seeing my thumb repeatedly blocking my face as I forget how to hold an iPad.

Monday night, I hope you’ll join me and several of my fellow baseball authors at Varsity Letters in Manhattan. A week from tonight, July 28, I’ll be bringing Mike (the book, not the icon) to Rockville Centre’s beautiful Turn of the Corkscrew. Find out more here.

It's Not Other People's Years Either

Trevor Rosenthal’s been a pitcher for nine professional seasons. (I’d throw in college and high school, but turns out he’s a converted shortstop.) I’m not sure how many times that means he’s practiced covering first, but let’s just say it’s a lot. After all PFP — that’s pitcher’s fielding practice — is part of the grind in pregame workouts and spring training.

It’s much-loathed, but that’s the point — the deadening repetition is designed to excise the decision-making part of the brain from the equation. The ball is hit to the right side and the pitcher breaks for first, ready to either take the throw at the bag or back up the play. You do it until it becomes muscle memory.

But even muscle memory can stumble. That’s what happened to Rosenthal today, at the worst possible time imaginable — if you’re a Cardinal or a Cardinals fan, that is. If you’re not, well, hope you enjoyed an unexpected and thoroughly delightful present.

But let’s back up a bit, to the stuff that happened before all that.

I wrote last night about being adrift in the agate type of a lost season, but that’s not to say nothing in these remaining games will matter. The next great Mets story will build on lessons learned by young players during overlooked games on hot summer afternoons like this one — players such as Seth Lugo.

Lugo has a chance to become the Bartolo Colon of curveballs someday — not because his curve is terrific (though it is) but because he uses it the way Colon uses his fastball. By adjusting the spin and the break Lugo can make his curve serve as a range of pitches, even before adding location as a variable. That was the plan today, and he and Rene Rivera executed it beautifully — Lugo didn’t allow a hit until the fifth or a run until the sixth, when Tommy Pham drove home Matt Carpenter to tie things at 1-1.

Things got untied when Erik Goeddel served up a homer to Pham in relief, then tied again when Wilmer Flores hit a Brett Cecil curveball not up to Lugo’s standards for a pinch-hit homer. And that set the stage for the ninth, and Jose Reyes slapping a ball over the first-base bag with the winning run on third and two out.

Carpenter, properly playing back, made a nice snag and his momentum carried him across the foul line. He stopped himself, whirled to look back and wound up pacing first-base ump back Alfonso Marquez into fair territory — one step, then two, and then it was time to throw to Rosenthal and send the game to extra innings.

But Rosenthal wasn’t there. He’d been caught spectating, just long enough so he had no chance at Reyes. After his second step Carpenter brought his hand up, a product of his own muscle memory. But there was no one to throw to, and nothing Carpenter could do except watch the game go down the drain and then make his way — with his emotional temperature now matching that of the stadium — into the clubhouse.

Fundies, Keith would have squawked if it hadn’t been one of his days off. (And he probably would have added a whole lot after that, for all you kids out there and on general principles.) In Keith’s absence, though, old pal Tim McCarver’s commentary for the Cards will provide an apt summation — as well as a reminder that it’s not the Cardinals’ year either.

“Oh boy,” McCarver mutters as Reyes skids across the bag and the game is lost. That seems to be it, but a moment later, overcome, he yelps that “he didn’t COVER!” He stews for a few moments, then cries out that “you gotta get over there!” Another pause to contemplate the wretchedness of modern-day life and then Tim turns mournfully reflective: “a hesitation by Rosenthal and there goes the game.”

And then, finally, a last muttered syllable: “Man.”

Heads-up: Greg’s talking Piazza in two locations and two media for your listening pleasure! Tonight at 6 pm, tune in to The 7 Line’s show, Orange and Blue Thing. Then Monday night brings Varsity Letters, also featuring our pal Jay Jaffe, Ron Kaplan and Mark Feinsand. Details here.

Winning > Losing

No, I’m not being cute. Too tired for that. I’m acknowledging that we’ve reached a familiar point in the progression of a lost season, though this familiar point isn’t the big reveal.

The big reveal is that the games you’re watching are expository bric-a-brac, part of the lead-in to the real story, which you just realized isn’t being written this year. You’re in the Smudge, skimming the agate type, watching the stuff folks want to fast-forward through to get to the point where the action starts. Only there isn’t a fast-forward button. You just gotta wait.

That’s the big reveal, and it’s behind us. This is what comes after. And this is the point that always arrives as part of that falling action: the night when you stop fighting and just let baseball be baseball. You watch (when you aren’t doing something else) and cheer when things go well (though sadly that’s a little muted) and groan when things go badly (though that’s a little muted too, which you think is a kindness until you realize that actually it’s the saddest part).

There’s still some drama ahead, of course. There will be trades and moaning about trades and call-ups and stupid small-sample-size arguments about call-ups and a few exciting finishes. But it’s all lowercase from now until sometime next spring.

And so our world has shrunk to this: winning > losing. Simple as that.

So. Jacob deGrom was good, as he has been for a long stretch that’s been a balm for weary Mets souls. The Mets whacked Mike Leake around but good, the kind of outburst that often follows fallow periods of woe and is simultaneously pleasing and annoying, because when it happens it looks so easy and we have to remind ourselves that it’s anything but. We got a reminder that the Cardinals aren’t good, then one that the Mets aren’t good — they commenced to play stupid defensively, forcing deGrom from the game before his usual seven innings were recorded. At that point the game became more interesting though less entertaining, but Addison Reed put down the uprising (during which you could feel the appraisals in distant front offices) and the Mets had won.

They won. That will suffice for now. It’s no longer particularly important, but it feels better to watch.

Disabuse Your Illusion

And the summer went so quickly this year.
—Joe Raposo, “There Used To Be A Ballpark

Michael Wacha was on the verge of a complete game shutout, 24/27ths of the way there Tuesday night. Having observed him and his opposition in varying degrees of action and inaction for eight innings, I calculated as nil the chance the spirit of Steve Henderson would inhabit the batters he was about to face. Thus, I rooted for Wacha to, as Eric Carmen would have advised, go all the way. You see so few complete game shutouts these days that we are compelled to identify them by their full name, à la “single-admission doubleheader”. There was a time when shutouts were assumed to be complete games. Wacha suddenly going nine innings without getting relief help or giving up a run wasn’t going to stem the tide of bullpen by force of habit, but it did seem like a blow struck for baseball like it oughta be. Or used ta be. Or, at the very least, something you hardly see anymore.

That Wacha was approaching his and every starting pitcher’s goal at the expense of the Mets barely bothered me. In 2016, it would have been a problem. In 2015, it would have been a major inconvenience. But it’s not 2016 and it’s not 2015. It’s some year when the Mets are not quite in late July and they’re nowhere near a playoff race. That lingering sense that one solid hot streak might propel them into contention vanished in advance of the ninth inning Tuesday night. Maybe it disappeared Monday. Maybe it evaporated Sunday. Probably it never existed at all this year. A pair of wins out of the All-Star gate breathed a gasp or two of life into the delusional illusion that maybe…maybe the Mets could pick up ground, maybe a few injuries would heal, maybe the best trades made would be the ones that never were, maybe I should check how the Rockies are doing, seeing as how if we win and they lose, we’ll be only…

But, nah. That’s over. That’s done. Those are instincts attached to previous seasons, perhaps seasons to come, surely not this one. This one is done except for games and stuff. The stuff will take care of itself. The games get played regardless of circumstances. The Mets’ circumstances are a little unfamiliar after two summers spent legitimately chasing fall. They’re not even in sync with the pre-2015 standards of a team not expected to go anywhere, so you relished the baby steps toward progress when you encountered them. 2015’s immediate predecessors produced a trail strewn with banana peels. That was OK, though. We were used to slipping. Learning to get up and figuring out how to avoid further hazards was part of the process, we were pretty sure.

In 2017, the only forward Met motion involves days on the calendar. Days until the non-waiver trade deadline. Days until the most obvious of callups. Days until the waiver trade deadline. Days until the rest of the callups. Days until it’s all over. Otherwise, the days loom as hollow as the leftover chocolate Easter bunny you probably shouldn’t have taken a bite of all these months later. No chewy center. No delicious caramel filling. Just innings of space and a taste that is decidedly off.

For a night, the void the Mets have left in their aspirations’ wake was taken up by Wacha and the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter (4-for-5, 2 2B) whacked everything in sight. Wacha mowed down every Met in his field of vision. They should have been Ralph’s guests on Kiner’s Korner. That’s how much Carpenter and Wacha starred in Tuesday’s game. Rafael Montero pitched for the Mets for six innings, constructing one of his better outings. Of course the bar he cleared was so low that somebody would have to have created a slew of coal miner jobs in order to dig it up. The defense behind Rafael aggressively expressed its support for open borders. No ball hit by a Cardinal batter would be stopped from going wherever it liked. Yet even had his fielders built a beautiful wall, Montero still would have been outpitched by Wacha and whupped up on by Carpenter.

The Mets fell behind by a run in the first, then four in the second, then the score stayed in place until one of Montero’s successors — does it really matter who? — gave up a fifth run. It was unearned, having been manufactured via another Met miscue. Lucas Duda didn’t catch a foul pop. He also didn’t intensify demand for a Lucas Duda trade on the open market.

Eventually, Wacha got to the ninth, gave up a leadoff single to Michael Conforto and allowed Conforto to reach second on a wild pitch, yet Mike Matheny let him be. Go ahead, his manager said sans trip to the mound: go the route, go the distance, go all the way; it’s your game, kid. So it was. The next three Mets were retired, preventing Conforto from crossing the plate. When Wacha struck out Jay Bruce for his 27th out and the Mets hadn’t scored a run, I felt my right hand curl involuntarily into a fist. It was for light pumping, not bashing in anything. I was generically satisfied a starting pitcher had completed an old-fashioned three-hit shutout. That it was unfortunately achieved against the Mets didn’t faze me. I’m a few too many losses past the point of fazing with this team.

A better night of baseball than this one is coming Monday to the Varsity Letters series in Manhattan, where I’ll be one of the authors reading from and talking about his work, in my case, Piazza: Catcher Slugger, Icon, Star. The event takes place at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. Details are here. I hope to see you there.