August 15, 2019 -RCT: Is Stage Set for Another Mets Miracle in 2019? Surge Feels Like 1969, 1973 & 2015 …Do You Believe?

By Joe Rini

And I thought Ed Kranepool was just being kind.

As the Mets Hall of Famer addressed the fans at the festivities honoring the 1969 champion Mets on June 29, he concluded his remarks by addressing the current Mets. “They can do it, like we did — you got to believe in yourself…Good luck. You have half a season. I wish you the best so that we can celebrate in October when you clinch the World Series and (we) come back when you’re still playing.”

Unfortunately, the 2019 Mets responded that day by dropping their seventh game in a row to the Braves by a score of 5-4, falling to a season high 10 games under .500, 13 games out of first place. By the end of that afternoon, 24-year old Pete Alonso seemed as likely to be playing in the World Series as his first base forbear, the 74-year old Kranepool.

Yet, perhaps, the Bronx-born, street smart Kranepool was planting seeds for another miracle. Seeds need a little time and nourishment to bloom and here six weeks later, the Mets are flourishing. Writing about the modest beginning of the 11 game win streak that catapulted the 1969 Mets, Ron Swoboda wrote in his newly published book, Here’s the Catch, “Something started that no one could’ve predicted,” and that something for these Mets was a 4-0 shutout of the Padres by Jacob deGrom and the bullpen on July 25 leaving the Mets at 47-55, 12 ½ games out of first with six teams and eight games between them and the second wildcard spot.

Zack Wheeler started on Friday July 26 in what many anticipated to be his final start as a Met with the July 31 trade deadline looming. I spoke to Jeff McNeil before the game about the atmosphere around the trade deadline and how to approach the final two months of the season and when he mentioned the team could still get hot and get back into the race, I thought he was being confidently hopeful if not realistic. But before the night was over, McNeil hit a three-run homer, adopted a puppy, Wheeler pitched into the sixth inning and the Mets won 6-3 over the Pirates.

The Mets swept the Pirates that weekend and more surprisingly, they acquired pitcher Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays. Suddenly, the Mets weren’t selling at the trade deadline. Wheeler was staying. Noah Syndergaard was staying. Todd Frazier was staying.

Credit Kranepool’s karma, McNeil’s puppy, a stabilized bullpen, stellar starting pitching, or clutch home runs, the Mets have amazingly reeled off 15 wins in 18 games (following Tuesday’s 5-3 defeat to Atlanta) and at 61-58, stand in the middle of the wildcard race with an outside chance at winning the Eastern Division of the National League.

In winning six of seven games on the last homestand against the Marlins and Nationals, the Mets received contributions from across the roster with Pete Alonso homering in four straight games while dramatic late-inning game-tying home runs were hit by veteran Todd Frazier (career number 208) and rookie Luis Guillorme (career number 1). Fan excitement was intense at Citi Field as seemingly every game was described as the “loudest” game ever at the stadium.

One of the key players on this run has been catcher Wilson Ramos, who sports a .333 average with runners in scoring position. Ramos cracked a three run homer in the Mets 5-0 triumph over the Marlins on August 6. Much maligned for his handling of the pitching staff earlier in the season, I asked Mickey Callaway after the game about Ramos’ progress in handling the staff.

“It’s about him building those relationships,” Callaway said. “He’s done a tremendous job…When you get to a new team, you get new pitchers. You have to earn their trust and he’s done that. He’s catching fantastic now. He’s preparing well. He’s doing a great job of understanding what our pitchers’ strengths are…they have enough knowledge of scouting report to attack weaknesses…and you can really expose hitters.”

With seven teams fighting for two wildcard spots, the Mets will need to keep winning to qualify for October baseball. While the Mets will lean on their starting pitching, they’ll also need the struggling Edwin Diaz to recover his 2018 form when he led the AL with 57 saves. Also, Jeff McNeil injured his hamstring trying to leg out a hit in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game and as the team and their fans hold their breath in the hope that the All-Star outfielder will not miss an extended period of time to injury, we’ll wonder whether Ed Kranepool’s words will turn out to be not only kindly, but prophetic.

July 30, 2019 – RCT: Deals, Donations, & Dogs at Trade Deadline for Mets … RCT Chats With McNeil & He Gets a Puppy

By Joe Rini

Jeff McNeil’s nickname may be the “squirrel” but unlike those feisty creatures that zig zig and then zig zag again as they crisscross in front of your car as you negotiate the roads of Rockland County, he was cool as a cat in the shade when we chatted on Friday July 26 in the Mets clubhouse…well, at least he until a found a puppy before game time.

McNeil has gone from a little known minor leaguer to NL All-Star and batting title contender in barely a year, yet he seemed to take everything in stride as we chatted before the Mets 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh. With his ability to go the other way and hit behind the runner, he’s a throwback in an era of exit velos yet when I asked him about it, he mentioned how he had to master these skills in college ball in order to get playing time.

The hard work continues at the major league level as McNeil mentioned the use of video, not so much as to study his own swing, but to learn how the opposing pitchers pitch in specific situations. For instance, if a team is going to shift the defense when he’s up, he may look for something off-speed that he can hit to the opposite field. The California native said division teams know each other well, so success “comes down to execution.”

Whereas many players might struggle at the plate when getting used to a new position at the major league level, McNeil has thrived despite being moved to the outfield this season. “I had played it in college. It wasn’t a lot to get used to,” he said although having played only eight games in the outfield in six minor seasons, the 26-year old is probably being a bit modest.

When I asked who’s been instrumental in his success so far, he mentioned Todd Frazier and quality control coach Luis Rojas. Rojas has also coached him at several levels of the minor leagues and helped him with the “mental approach” to the game, including how to handle failure.

Pete Alonso also mentioned to me in May how much Frazier had helped him this season and I had the opportunity to ask Frazier about it outside the Mets dugout after batting practice. He was flattered when I told him how both players had credited his role with their success and the Toms River native said he approaches them the way his father approached him as a young player. Interestingly, rather than dictate to the young players beforehand, if he sees them make a mistake, he’ll ask them, “What was your approach at the plate?” or “Describe your thought process” in a situation.

Later as the team took batting and fielding practice, the North Shore Animal League was on the field with rescued dogs looking for adoption. One of the dogs appeared to be an Alaskan Husky mixed breed, and McNeil enthusiastically video chatted his wife about adopting it. With Mickey Callaway good-naturedly needling McNeil that he’d adopt the dog because he didn’t need to get his wife’s permission and the adoption pending a visit by the McNeils on Saturday, the Mets outfielder slugged a three run homer in the Mets 6-3 win and after the game he joked, “Hitting a home run after holding a puppy, I think that gives me a little bargaining chip. My wife wants more homers, then we have to get a puppy.” Happily, the pup officially joined the McNeil family on Saturday.

Although McNeil said the team hopes to get back in the wildcard race, the Mets were expected to be sellers at the trade deadline. However, after a sweep of the Pirates this past weekend, GM Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets stunningly acquired All-Star pitcher Marcus Stroman from Toronto for two minor league pitching prospects on Sunday. With the 4:00 PM July 31 trade deadline tick tocking as we go to press, and Jason Vargas dealt to Philadelphia on Monday, questions swirl about whether Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, or Edwin Diaz will be dealt to replenish a farm system that’s dealt three former first round draft picks in the brief Van Wagenen era or whether the Mets will hold onto the veterans for a potential stretch run in 2019.

Finally, there was a ceremony in the pressroom before Friday’s game as Pete Alonso presented $50,000 donations to both the Wounded Warrior Project and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation after Major League Baseball presented him with his $1 million check for winning the Home Run Derby. Sharing the stage with WWP CEO Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington, Tunnel to Towers CEO Frank Siller, and beneficiaries of these foundations, Alonso spoke movingly of this nation’s military members and first responders, saying, “I have a very strong passion for those people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice every single day.”

July 11, 2019 – RCT: 1969 Mets Are Champions Forever … 41 Seaver Way Is New Address for Citi Field

By Joe Rini

After a week where nearly everything went wrong for the Mets, on the seventh day, they commemorated a year where everything went right.

After a devastating loss on Sunday June 23 in Chicago, subsequent disappointing play on the field and distractions off it, the Mets and their fans turned their attention to 1969 and paid tribute to the champion “Miracle” Mets, highlighted by the festivities on Saturday June 29 at Citi Field when 15 returning players were honored with a parade, keys to the city of New York, and a ceremony before the Mets – Braves game.

The weekend’s festivities began on Thursday morning when the Mets and New York City officials publicly unveiled the new address of Citi Field as 41 Seaver Way in honor of the greatest Mets player of them all, Tom Seaver. The Mets Hall of Famer was represented by his daughters Sarah and Anne and their families since it was announced earlier this year that the 74-year old Seaver was retiring from public life because he was suffering from dementia.

The key to city ceremony attracted politicians from across the political spectrum including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Congressman Peter King. Along with the moon landing and Woodstock, the mayor recalled a time when, “A team from Queens won the hearts of not just the city, but the heart of America.” A former Brooklyn Dodger fan, Congressman King recalled to me that he (like my Dad and many others) embraced the Mets in 1962 after the Dodgers and Giants moved to California and he followed the 1969 World Series as a young attorney in Manhattan.

The genius of manager Gil Hodges was his melding of stars, platoon players, and role players into a championship team and after they received their keys to the city, I had a chance to speak with a cross section of former Mets, namely Bobby Pfeil, Jerry Koosman, and Art Shamsky, about their experiences.

“We were a team but Gil created that team. Everybody played,” Pfeil, a utility infielder, said to me. Recalling how Gil would ask him questions on the bench, Pfeil said, “I liked that he communicated with the guys who weren’t playing a lot…he made sure you were ready.” Pfeil was initially called up to the majors to replace Bud Harrelson for two weeks after spending eight  years in the minor leagues and when the two weeks were up, Pfeil recalled Hodges telling him, “‘They (the front office) don’t want you here but I do and you’ll be here the rest of the year.’ He appreciated me but I think he appreciated all of the players, but that made me feel special.”

Koosman was one of the stars of the 1969 team and won two World Series games on his way to 222 career wins. In talking about catcher Jerry Grote, Koosman said, “He was the best defensive catcher in the game. He did such a great job defensively, it was like him knocking in a couple of runs every game.” Laughing as he recalled Grote’s prowess at throwing out would be base stealers, “You better get your butt down (as a pitcher) because that ball was coming right by your head.”

“We had a good working relationship,” he said of Grote. Koosman recalled a game where he wanted to throw 10 change-ups and Grote called for 10 change-ups. “We were that close in our thinking.” Koosman pitched 16 complete games in 1969 plus a complete game victory in closing out the World Series so I had to ask if he’d like pitching today when starting pitchers may only go six innings. “No,” the 76-year old lefty laughed, “I’m too old now!”

In recalling the enthusiasm of the fans and the effect the Mets victory had on the city and the country during a time of turmoil, Art Shamsky, who hit an even .300 platooning in rightfield with Ron Swoboda, said, “I’ve had people over the years, people not even wanting an autograph, they just wanted to say thank you,” for how the 1969 helped them as Viet Nam veterans or through financial or health issues. “We made people feel better and you can’t ask for anything more as a professional athlete or a person.”

Amidst the cheers and happy recollections, there was a twinge of sadness at Seaver’s forced absence and the passing of many beloved members of that historic team, including manager Gil Hodges and players like Tug McGraw, Donn Clendenon, and Ed Charles (all of whom had family members take part in the ceremony). Fifty years may have stooped some of the shoulders or slowed the steps of the 1969 champions at Citi Field on Saturday but for their accomplishments a half century ago, they will forever stand tall and proud in sports history.

June 20, 2019 – RCT: Swoboda’s More Than Just a Guy or a Catch … RCT Chats With Ron About 1969 Mets & Book “Here’s the Catch”

By Joe Rini

To Ron Swoboda, “just a guy,” baseball’s parlance for an average player, made his iconic catch in the 9th inning of pivotal Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. While Swoboda’s career statistics might support the just a guy designation, Ron Swoboda the man is anything but average and this week I had the privilege of interviewing Ron about his baseball career and his newly published memoir, “Here’s the Catch.”

Being just a guy isn’t derogatory and along with stars like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Cleon Jones, Ron said manager Gil Hodges, “Figured out how to make it work with his platooning” of players and bring a championship to Shea Stadium.

“Here’s the Catch” is a book with funny moments (eg. colorful uncles who worked at the morgue and his Chinese step-grandfather “Uncle Arthur”), poignant moments (eg. portraying the humanity of his friend Joe Foy, mostly remembered as a disappointing Met but whose career and life were derailed by substance abuse) but most impressive is Ron’s honesty, humility, and gratitude. Ron shares his World Series triumph along with his struggles in the field that saw him lead the league in errors.

In recalling his iconic catch (literally a leap into baseball immortality), Ron describes it in his memoir as “white space where time, thought, and sound disappear.” Yet, it was the result of a lot of hard work.

Speaking of his quest to become a better rightfielder, Ron said he hated being taken out for late-inning defense. “I wanted to be out there,” despite the difficulty of picking up balls in Shea Stadium’s three tier background.

He continued, “I figured out something as an outfielder that I didn’t as a hitter,” so he had Mets coach Eddie Yost hit fungoes to him for 10-15 minutes before every game.

“I didn’t take flyballs, as such…they were line drives, ground balls, left or right, over my head, in front of me.”

“It was a practice I invented myself…I played it at speed. I went after the ball. If I had to dive, I dove, so you play it like a game and I played it with intensity.”

As for the catch itself, “I worked so darn hard at connecting with the ball with Eddie Yost hitting thousands of balls to me.”

“You’re in the World Series. Man, you’re in a different realm of baseball where everything is more intense and your focus is something you can’t believe. When that happens and you’re off and I ran 3-4 strides and having to make a decision to lay out for this thing.”

“In that memory that you can construct in your mind, it goes just kind of quiet, and it’s just a series of still shots and you’re not aware of anything until that thing comes down in your web and you realize it’s not going anywhere.”

He said it was as though the crowd took a deep breath at his leap before an explosion of cheers. “It was pretty amazing. I experienced it in that one moment, in that mad dash to get it.”

The Mets will be honoring Ron and his teammates on the weekend of June 28-30 at Citi Field. He sees his former teammates Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Art Shamsky and he’s looking forward to reconnecting with his former teammates that he sees less frequently.

Of course, there’s a twinge of bittersweetness with the passing of former teammates/friends like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles, and the absence of Tom Seaver due to his battle with dementia.

Speaking of Seaver, “He was good right out of the box as good as he was 2-3 years down the road. Looking back, you saw Hall of Fame stuff, Hall of Fame confidence, Hall of Fame attitude and intelligence. You saw it all Day One. There wasn’t a break-in period for Tom Seaver. He showed up and he was Tom Seaver.”

He spoke regretfully of his failure to always get along with Hodges. Blaming himself for sometimes chafing under authority, Ron said, “Gil wanted you to act like a grown-up and be the best baseball player you could be and help the team win. I could do some of those things some of the time but not all of those things all of the time. Gil was as decent a man who walked the planet.” Years after Hodges’ death, he learned that Hodges and his father both served on the island of Tinian in March 1945 during World War II. “Maybe it would have opened the door to a better relationship. I don’t know.”

Speaking of the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebrations and the effect the 1969 team had on Mets fans, he said, “It thrills me that stuff we were doing as players still sticks in people’s minds as a fun part of their youth…what a privilege to feel this job you worked was doing things that illuminated people’s lives in a little bit of a good way.

Ron Swoboda will be in the New York area for about a week around the 50th Anniversary festivities and with book signings. I highly recommend “Here’s the Catch” as it captures the spirit of the Miracle Mets and the drama of 1960s and 1970s American cultural history.

June 8, 2019 – NY Sports Day: The (Almost) Greatest Knicks Comeback You (Probably) Never Heard Of

By Joe Rini

The difference between being a sports immortal and a footnote can be as slim as a couple of foul shots.

As the 2019 NBA finals winds towards, hopefully, an exciting conclusion, I’m reminded of a dramatic New York Knicks playoff team. No, not that one. And no, not that one either.

Two decades before Willis Reed limped down the MSG runway to Game 7 of the 1970 finals and nearly a half century before Larry Johnson’s 4-point play, there was the 1950-1951 Knicks in the pre-shot clock Middle Ages era of the NBA.

The Knicks, only in the fifth year of existence for them and the league, finished third in the six team Eastern Division and found themselves in the NBA finals for the first time against the Rochester Royals. For you basketball genealogists, the Royals kept moving westward over the next 30 years to Cincinnati to Kansas City and ultimately became today’s Sacramento Kings.

The Knicks were looking at a 3 games to none deficit before victories in Game 4, 5, and 6 had them on the precipice of a historic comeback more than 50 years before the Red Sox made history against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

They were “thisclose” to being a team all underdogs could look to when championship prospects were at their dimmest. They were “thisclose” to having their names – Zaslofsky, Clifton, Boryla, McGuire, and Gallatin – especially emblazoned in New York sports lore like Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley, and Barnett.

But they lost Game Seven 79-75.

Down by 14 at one point, up by two with two minutes to go, and tied in the final minute, Bob Davies sank two foul shots for the Royals in the closing minute and ultimately Rochester prevailed. No monuments to the 1950-1951 Knicks.

If there’s an amusing footnote to this Knicks team becoming a sports footnote, it’s in reading the contemporary account of Game Seven in the New York Times. Not so much as the account of the game (though oddly, the phrase, “against seemingly insurmountable handicaps” was the closest the article came to saying the Knicks had been down 3-0 in the series) but the placing on page 1 of the sports page is surprising to the 2019 reader. It was either buried or there was a whole lot going on.

The top headline reported the Brooklyn Dodgers beating the New York Giants 7-3 and the Yankees topping the Senators 8-7 in the first week of the baseball season.

The bottom headline was split between Repertoire winning the Wood Memorial and Penn winning the Childs Cup in a crew competition. A crew competition was a bigger story than the NBA finals. I know the NBA was decades away from being the sports entertainment behemoth it is today but I doubt the patrons of my family’s luncheonette in Brooklyn or most anywhere else in Brooklyn were in suspense about the fortunes of Penn, Columbia, et al in crew. Even an account of the Palermo International Tennis Tournament was above the Knicks story. Would the Knicks story have made the headline if they had won? I don’t know the answer but at least the Knicks story was above Fordham’s 10-1 victory over NYU in baseball.

May 30, 2019 – RCT: Alonso Lives the Dream and Chats With the RCT … Callaway and Brass Juggling the Roster

By Joe Rini

The temperatures are rising but at least one polar bear is thriving in the New York City heat. Christened the “Polar Bear” by his teammates, Pete Alonso, the 6 foot 3, 245-pound power hitting first baseman, hasn’t shown any stage fright since debuting on the New York baseball stage this season and we chatted prior to Friday’s game, a 9-8 loss to the Tigers.

With 17 homeruns and 39 RBI by Memorial Day and a penchant for late inning power-hitting heroics, the “Polar Bear” has been anything but cuddly to opposing pitchers—but he’s lived up to the hype and quickly become a fan favorite. It was after Alonso had finished batting practice that he walked among the fans on the field behind the batting practice cage signing baseballs and posing for selfies that we had a chance to chat outside the Mets dugout.

I asked if he was surprised by his early season success, and Alonso admitted that he didn’t feel like he was exceeding expectations, but he spoke in terms of gratitude seeing his success as a “coming into fruition” and “justifying the hard work” he’s employed over the years.

Alonso was quick to share the credit for his current status as a favorite for Rookie of the Year. He cited his “countless coaches” over the years and the support system provided by his parents and his fiancé. “She’s been my rock,” he said.

Perhaps contrary to what some Mets might feel about Robinson Cano or Todd Frazier and their struggles early this season, Alonso particularly cited their influence on him among the “amazing guys on this team.” Guys like Cano and Frazier have been very “welcoming,” he said, describing them as an “open book” when it comes to sharing their experiences, whether it’s facing that night’s pitcher or other baseball experiences they’ve gone through multiple times.

With 11 of his 17 homers coming after the seventh inning, Alonso said, “I just want to win,” and described himself as an “extremely competitive” person who wants to be “clutch for his teammates.” In those late inning situations, Alonso said, “I don’t want one at bat to carry over to the next at bat,” whether he’s been 3 for 3 or 0 for 3. “Live in the moment,” he said.

The personable and accessible Alonso has the potential to become the face of the franchise, much like David Wright was for a decade. And if he continues to hit like he has, it’ll happen faster than the triple digit “exit velo” of some of his homeruns.

With the flurry of roster moves lately and what seems to be a steady stream of relief pitchers shuttling between Triple-A Syracuse and Citi Field, I asked manager Mickey Callaway at Friday’s pregame press conference about the challenge of maintaining a sense of cohesion and leadership on the team in such an environment.

Callaway cited the need for communication with the players and having the right guys in the clubhouse. “I think some of these guys going back and forth to Syracuse understand that’s going to happen. You have options, you’re a young kid…that’s how you build a roster,” Callaway said. He also mentioned having these types of conversations with individuals during spring training and they have embraced and accepted their roles.

“Do they get upset when they are sent down?” Callaway asked. “Absolutely…but they stay focused when they go down there,” he said, adding that they put themselves in position to contribute when they return, specifically citing reliever Drew Gagnon. “He did an unbelievable job of staying ready and now this opportunity presented itself and he’s been throwing the ball well.”

May 27, 2019 – NY Sports Day: Winning Is Fun But How About Some Agita?

By Joe Rini

As Vince Lombardi didn’t say, winning isn’t everything, it’s actually kind of boring.

The Yankees with the Baby Bombers or whatever else you want to call the collection of castaways that Brian Cashman skillfully pickpocketed from unsuspecting teams’ farm systems like Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, or Domingo German have been incredibly impressive in overcoming injuries and vaulting into first place in the AL East. It’ll be very exciting to watch them in the playoffs in October, especially when all the Big Boy Bombers are back and maybe Madison Bumgarner (or dare we dream, Matt Scherzer) is on the mound. But right now, it’s getting a little boring. Thankfully, they lost on Sunday to the Royals to keep us awake.

The Mets on the other hand, they’ll get your blood flowing.

A week ago, Mickey Callaway almost became Mickey Went Away after the Mets were swept by the barely thriving Miami Marlins. In perhaps the most dispiriting weekend by a visiting sports team in Miami since the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the Jets, there were more mental and physical errors than runs for the Mets as the Marlins swept a team for the first time since September 2017 in taking the games 8-6, 2-0, and 3-0.

Yet, on the day he was expected to fired, Callaway was upstaged by a hole in the ground.

GM Brodie Van Wagenene announced a week ago that Yoenis Cespedes suffered a fractured right ankle in a “violent fall” in a non-baseball activity at his ranch on Saturday. The press was told he had injured himself by stepping into a hole and and they even asked if a horse was involved (no, according to Van Wagenen). Considering Van Wagenen was formerly Cespedes’ agent, if the Mets try to void any of his contract for this non-baseball activity, they could have a real Yoenis Mess-pedes situation on their hands.

But just when fans of the Amazins may have wanted to look away, they took four straight from the Nationals in dramatic fashion and just when they wanted to jump back on the bandwagon, the Mets scored eight runs with Noah Syndergaard on the mound against the lowly Tigers (winless in nine games) and somehow managed to lose 9-8. But two wins later, the Mets are back at .500 and flying high, well at least flying to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers. Mickey Callaway’s job is safe for now unless they lose another three in a row, and then the Jim Riggelman or Joe Girardi or Wally Backman or Terry Collins watch will begin again.

The Yankees look to be a nice relaxing team to root for in 2019 but if you’re off caffeine and need a dose of angst, anxiety, or agita to rev up your fandom, there’s the team in Flushing.

May 9, 2019 – RCT: Mets in Need of a Spark at the Plate … Darling’s Diagnosis and Kranepool’s Surgery

By Joe Rini

The Mets have had outstanding pitching and hitting performances in 2019…unfortunately, not often in the same game.

The once formidable looking offense that compensated for spotty pitching performances in the early going of the season has been playing hard to get in the last two weeks after playing the over-eager suitor during the first two dozen games of the season. The Amazins lost eight of eleven and played a dreary brand of baseball in barely scoring two runs a game amidst mounting strikeouts and dwindling batting averages before breaking out for seven runs in Tuesday’s 7-6 victory over the Padres in San Diego.

Pick your worn down sleeve cliche to describe it: water seeking its level…the law of averages…every team goes through slumps…or could it be another fatally flawed team 2019 edition?

Call it coincidence, but little has seemed to go right since Jacob Rhame buzzed Rhys Hoskins in the ninth inning of the 9-0 blowout of the Phillies at Citi Field on April 23. Perhaps it did not wake up the Phillies as people feared but the Mets bats subsequently went aslumber. Since their 13-10 record put them a game up in first place, the offense not named Jeff McNeil or Pete Alonso shriveled and the Mets record fell to 17-19.

The heart of the lineup has hardly caused palpitations in the opposition lately; for instance, Michael Conforto and Wilson Ramos have seen their .300 plus averages drop to .254 and .227, respectively. Brandon Nimmo’s hitless streak of zero for late April and early May (aka 28 at bats) dropped his average below the proverbial interstate to .196 while Todd Frazier has struggled to a .146 average since his return from the IL.

With a .262 batting average entering play on May 8, Robinson Cano has not performed as expected. Whether the cause of his slump goes to the cold weather (optimistically, it will get warmer), adjusting to a new league (optimistically, he’ll adjust in time), a couple of unfortunate hit by pitches on the hand (optimistically, he’ll heal) or his age (uh oh, he’s 36 and not getting younger), Mets need Cano to perform close to his career slash line of .304/.354/.492.

Acquiring Cano at age 36 with five years left on his contract, the Mets were hoping he had at least two or three solid seasons remaining before age slowed him down. If Father Time is already creeping on Cano, the next five years will seem like a century to the people writing the payroll checks. Perhaps his 4 for 5 performance against the Padres on Tuesday is a good omen for Cano and the Mets.

On the positive side, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have pitched better recently. Syndergaard became the first Mets pitcher to homer for his team’s lone run while pitching a complete game 1-0 shutout over the Reds on May 2 at Citi Field. deGrom has gone seven innings in each of his last two starts, allowing only two runs, yet only had a loss and a no-decision to show for it because the Mets were shutout each game.

On a more serious note, the trials and travails of the 2019 Mets were put in proper perspective with the health news surrounding Mets icons Ron Darling and Ed Kranepool. Darling, who underwent surgery to remove a mass on his chest, announced on May 6 that he’s been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The 58 year-old former pitcher said in a statement that his doctors “are optimistic that the cancer is treatable” and he hoped to return to the Mets broadcast booth in the next month or so.

One day after Darling’s announcement, the 74 year-old Kranepool underwent his long awaited kidney transplant surgery. It’s hoped “Steady Eddie” will be able to join his former teammates when the 1969 Mets are honored at Citi Field in late June. Best wishes for a full and speedy to Ron and Ed.

April 25, 2019 – RCT: Mets Surviving Despite Slow Start by Pitchers … Whew, deGrom’s MRI Is Clean

By Joe Rini

The bridge closer to Edwin Diaz has often resembled a minefield for Mickey Callaway’s Mets during the first few weeks of 2019.

Six innings of shutout ball by Jacob deGrom followed by scoreless relief from Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia, and Diaz on Opening Day appeared to provide the roadmap to victories this season. Unfortunately, in the weeks since the 2-0 Opening Day win over the Washington Nationals, the pitching staff has often made the trip through nine innings as excruciating as a GPS that continually squeaks “recalculating.” Starters not going deep into games, relievers not able to throw strikes or keep the opposition off the board has squandered some of the offense’s early productivity.

Pitching was expected to be the team’s strength but 23 games into the season, the Mets staff sits 14th in team ERA and WHIP among National League teams. Fortunately, a rebound by the offense powered by fast starts by Michael Conforto and newcomers Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil have the Amazins in first place at 13-10, one game ahead of the Phillies in the competitive National League East.

A starting staff anchored by deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Zack Wheeler and a bullpen bolstered by the additions of Diaz and Familia to close out the eighth and ninth innings looked to be the formula for success but that formula at times seems to be as elusive as the formula to Coca Cola.

Jacob deGrom reminded fans that he is actually not super-human with two consecutive sub-par outings—but news this past Friday that the Mets ace experienced elbow soreness and would go on the injured list and undergo an MRI on Saturday subsequently produced more twists and turns and ups and downs than a Simone Biles gymnastic floor routine.

Fears that deGrom would ultimately need surgery were replaced by the incongruous reports of deGrom throwing in the outfield in St. Louis before Saturday’s game and the Mets saying he wouldn’t necessarily need an MRI and would pitch at Citi Field on Friday April 26, which of course, produced an outcry among fans and media to get the MRI just to be safe. The Mets ace eventually had the MRI on Monday, which came back clean. His reward will be trying to keep reigning NL MVP and Derek Jeter cast-off Christian Yelich from adding to his NL leading home run total on Friday when the Mets play the Brewers.

If the Mets are going to be competitive over the long haul of 2019, they will need Syndergaard to start pitching like the Syndergaard of 2018 and for Jason Vargas not to pitch like the Vargas of 2018. The 6-foot-6 righty has fallen short by allowing at least four runs in four of his five starts while Vargas has lasted a combined five innings in his last two starts to go along with a 9.58 ERA. Vargas’ struggles and the lack of pitching depth at the Triple-A level has led to speculation that the Mets may sign free agent pitcher Gio Gonzalez but the former Nationals starter could also be an attractive target to the Brewers and Red Sox.

Similarly, Jeurys Familia’s struggles with his control. Nine walks in 10.2 innings has wreaked havoc with navigations through the eighth inning so he’s another important player who needs to find his groove. Perhaps his one inning of clean relief in Monday’s 5-1 victory versus Philadelphia is a sign of better times for the former Mets closer.

On a positive note, Zack Wheeler has improved in his last three starts, highlighted by seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts (to go along with hitting a home run, doubling, and knocking in three runs) in Tuesday’s 9-0 zipping of the Phillies. Likewise, Steven Matz rebounded from a disastrous outing in the City of Brotherly Love on April 16, and limited the same Phillies to one run in six innings in Monday’s 5-1 victory.

The current homestand will continue through the weekend against the aforementioned Brewers with the Reds visiting for four games next week before the Mets begin a road trip in Milwaukee on May 3.

April 11, 2019 – RCT: Brodie Era Begins for Mets, Streak Ends for deGrom

By Joe Rini

It’s a new season and a new era for the Mets.

With the start of the 2019 season, the Brodie Van Wagenen era officially begins. If the style of former GM Sandy Alderson could be likened to the new school principal bringing order to the school hallways and discipline in the classrooms, Brodie’s persona is more of the inspirational life coach who’ll get you to hit the gym, believe in yourself, and start your own business.

In contrast to Alderson, Brodie appears to be a more visible presence, at least early in the season. Prior to Sunday’s game, a 12-9 defeat at the hands of the Nationals, Brodie, in a sports jacket turned up at the collar, and Mets owner Fred Wilpon, in a windbreaker, chatted with each other and the players during batting practice, and afterwards he even greeted fans near the field. After batting practice on Sunday, I had a chance to chat with the new GM behind homeplate as he strided to the Mets clubhouse.

Having chatted with Brodie about organizing the front office at the BBWAA Dinner in January, I asked how he was handling the day to day of the regular season, and he brightly said it’s been fun and when I asked if he’s thinking about moves he can make, he answered that he’s more focused on supporting the players by providing them with the resources they need to succeed, whether its proper nutrition or proper mental preparation. The new Mets GM exudes an infectious optimism and fans hope it translates into wins.

When he took on the GM’s role, Brodie said prized prospect Pete Alonso could be the starting first baseman in contrast to teams that have held back rookies to gain an extra year of contract control. Alonso was subsequently in the opening day lineup and has delivered with five homeruns, 14 RBI, a .385 average, and boundless energy in the early going.

Two players the Mets are counting in 2019 are pitcher Zack Wheeler and outfielder Brandon Nimmo and both have started slowly. I asked manager Mickey Callaway prior to Wheeler’s start on Sunday about the impact of his expanded workload in 2018, and he said, “getting those innings under his belt was probably the most productive thing” for Wheeler and the team had a plan for rest and ramping up for him in the offseason. Callaway said Wheeler “understands what made him successful last year…and if he gets ahead at an elite rate with that great stuff,” he’ll be able to throw a lot of innings in 2019.

Callaway expressed confidence in Nimmo on Sunday despite starting 2 for 26 and the manager’s confidence was rewarded as the outfielder subsequently hit safely in three of his next seven at bats. I asked Nimmo on Sunday about his recent hand injury after being hit by a pitch and pointing to his knuckles, he said, “I dodged a bullet.”

Finally, after opening the season with 14 scoreless innings, Mets ace Jacob deGrom allowed six runs in four innings in Minnesota’s 14-8 trouncing of the Mets on Tuesday, thus ending his record-tying streak of 26 quality starts. The Mets Cy Young award winner will share the record with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, though it should be noted, the term “quality start” did not exist in Gibson’s era, and if you told the ultra competitive Gibson that three runs in six innings was a quality start, he might’ve knocked you down with a pitch under your chin.