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A Tidy Conclusion

OK, so Sunday’s 4-1 victory [1] over the Angels wasn’t the most memorable of ballgames — no crazed rollercoaster of lead changes, indelible highlights or controversies. But it was satisfying nonetheless: a trim, tidy baseball game, easy to admire if not necessarily one to commit to the top shelf of memory.

The Mets got a couple of big hits in long balls from J.D. Davis [2] and Pete Alonso [3] and a little help from the Angels’ defense in securing the win. The most interesting part for me, as the game unfolded, was the switch Taijuan Walker [4] figured out how to throw. Walker barely survived a difficult first inning, surrendering four hits and not eliciting a single swing-and-a-miss from the Anaheim hitters. But before the second he made a mechanical adjustment that kept him from tipping his pitches, and holy cats did it ever work after that — the swings and misses came in bushels after that, with Walker recording 10 strikeouts in all.

The other moment that will stick in memory was an irresistible one: With one out in the eighth, Mike Trout [5] came to the plate as the tying run. Buck Showalter [6] excused Seth Lugo [7] further duty and brought in Edwin Diaz [8]. Now, terabytes of pixels have been spilled about the modern game since Tony La Russa [9] made relief roles far more rigid* (and games far more turgid) as skipper of the A’s a couple of baseball generations ago. For a long stretch closers became cosseted creatures, used to working a lone inning under conditions that were the baseball equivalent of a semiconductor clean room. Should something go amiss, it wasn’t the fault of the closer but some violation of unwritten but deeply understood agreements about the closer’s working conditions — he was pitching in the wrong inning or had warmed up too much or warmed up not enough or had been spooked by inherited baserunners or one of 50,000 other things.

This bizarre orthodoxy has crumbled somewhat in recent years, and in the last week or so Showalter has been one of those chipping away at it, going back to the once not so strange idea that your closer should be facing the most dangerous enemy hitters at the game’s break point, rather than automatically being the ninth-inning caboose. Diaz arrived in the eighth against the Dodgers last week; on Sunday there he was in the eight to face Trout.

A closer who combines 100+ heat and a killer slider against the man who may be the best position player in history: How do you resist that confrontation? Even better, it turned out swimmingly for the Mets: Diaz alternated a slider and a fastball to get to 0-2, threw a slider low and outside to confound Trout’s approach, and then finished him with 99 MPH a bit upstairs. That’s been the way to get any hitter out for a century, and a reminder of just how hard baseball is, even for the likes of Mike Trout.

Diaz walked Anthony Rendon [10] before fanning Jared Walsh [11] to end the threat, then came back out for the ninth — which could have been flagged as a crime against closer rules. But he was unperturbed, striking out Matt Duffy [12], old friend Juan Lagares [13] and ancient nemesis Kurt Suzuki [14] to seal the victory. (If Trout was the marquee matchup, Diaz facing Suzuki was the one that made my soul curl up and blacken a little.)

Victory upon victory: The Mets are done with the West Coast, with their 5-5 record feeling like a grand accomplishment. They and we may now resume our more normal routines until September’s weirdo three-game set in Oakland, without baseball plodding into the post-midnight hours dragging us half-willingly along behind it.

* Shame on me if I ever miss a chance to blame something on Tony La Russa.