By Joe Rini
September has finally arrived for New York’s local baseball teams. The arrival of Suspense is yet to be announced.
The fortunes of the 2018 Mets and Yankees have split like a fork in the road with the Yankees soaring and the Mets sinking, yet in some ways the last two months for each team have been as suspenseful as watching the Yule Long burn on Christmas Eve on channel 11.
It’s been clear since school ended in June that the Mets season would end with the final out of the regular season on September 30 and that the Yankees would be in the playoffs. However, while the Mets play out the string to Game 162, the Yankees will need to thread the needle to play deep into October as they will in all likelihood host the crapshoot otherwise known as the one game Wildcard playoff round.
Looking at the half full glass, the Yankees are still firmly ensconced in the first wildcard spot and 35 games over .500 entering play on Wednesday. Yet the starting staff lacks a big time stopper at the top of the rotation with Luis Severino battling fatigue and CC Sabathia dealing with knee pain and Father Time. The return of the injured Aaron Judge and closer Aroldis Chapman is still unknown but hope is the return of Gary Sanchez and acquisition of Andrew McCutchen will boost the offense.
Masahiro Tanaka has mostly pitched like an ace but if the Yankees get past the Wildcard game, manager Aaron Boone will most likely have to navigate pitching match-ups with his deep bullpen (though possibly without Chapman) if his mostly middle rotation staff only gets midway through each playoff game.
In contrast, the Mets starting staff has pitched well although Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard will be watching the playoffs again, thus upending the preseason prognostications that the Mets would go as far as their starting pitching would take them.
One area (besides geography) the two local teams have in common is the emergence of two late season/late blooming prospects. Since debuting with the Mets on July 24 after the trade of Asdrubal Cabrera, 26-year old second baseman Jeff McNeil is batting .318, has had two four hit games, and impressed the fans with his solid fundamental play (eg. advancing runners, choking up on the bat).
Meanwhile, the Yankees acquired 27-year old first baseman Luke Voit prior to the July 31 trade deadline from the Cardinals, and in his first 19 games as a Bomber has hit seven homeruns, producing a slash line of .327/. 385/.678 in pinstripes, and made up for the offensive shortfall by the often injured Greg Bird.
It remains to be seen whether McNeil and Voit will become fixtures in the lineup for years to come or this generation’s versions of flashes like Mike (23 game hitting streak in 1975) Vail and Shane (10 homers in September 2000) Spencer, but they’re contributing in a big way at the moment.
The Mets know their season will end on September 30 while the only guarantee for the Yankees (barring a late season “miracle” and passing the Red Sox) for finishing in second place with 100 wins will be the one game playoff. If they win it, they could go to the World Series. If not, the dreams of seeing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in pinstripes start a month earlier than expected.
By Joe Rini
One team stands in between Jacob deGrom and the 2018 Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, it’s his own team.
Calling to mind the Cy Young Award winning seasons of Doc Gooden in 1985 and Tom Seaver in 1971, deGrom has pitched to a major league leading 1.71 ERA and allowed only 23 earned runs in his last 21 starts. Yet, whereas the earlier Mets aces were 20 game winners in their glory seasons, and despite deGrom’s statistical dominance, his won-loss record stands at modest 8-7 with five weeks to go in the season. If deGrom pitches at this pace for the rest of the season, will it be enough for the Cy Young voters to overlook a modest win total when his main competitor Max Scherzer already has 16 wins?
DeGrom’s season has been mind-boggling good and head shakingly strange. Besides lowering his ERA to 1.71 with Saturday’s complete game 3-1 victory over the Phillies in Philadelphia, deGrom struck out nine and surpassed 200 punch-outs for the third time. Yet somehow, through a combination of poor run support and shoddy late inning relief pitching, the Mets have managed to lose 14 of his 25 starts this season.
During a stretch that would elicit sympathy from Job, deGrom didn’t get credit for a victory in seven starts between April 21 and July 11 despite pitching seven innings or more and allowing one or fewer runs, which seems like a typographical error. On August 3, he allowed only two runs in eight innings against the Braves and drove in a run; unfortunately it was the only run the Mets scored and he lost 2-1. Forty ones years after the trade of Tom Seaver outraged Mets fans, there was a segment of fans mercifully rooting for a trade of their ace, if only to spare deGrom the further frustration of pitching so well and not being rewarded for it.
While deGrom’s dominance has made this season memorable, it’s also the classy way the righthander has held himself accountable and not pointed fingers at his teammates that has impressed people. His postgame comments after Saturday’s game were typical deGrom as he said, “I definitely wanted to go out there and pitch well. But every time I take the mound, I want to put up zeros. What other guys do is out of my control.”
With deGrom having about seven starts remaining this season, he’ll need his teammates to step up and help him earn as many wins as possible to bolster his case for the Cy Young Award, especially if Max Scherzer closes in on 20 wins. Since his record fell to 5-7 on August 3, deGrom has won his last three starts and his teammates have even given him some run support by scoring eight runs in two of the games.
People supporting deGrom winning the Cy Young point to 2010 when the statistically dominant Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners overcame a modest 13-12 to take home the prize in the American League that season. While there may not be a pennant race at Citi Field, deGrom is giving fans a reason to pay attention when he’s on the mound.
By Joseph Rini
With two months remaining in the 2018 season, a sentence with the words “pennant race” and “Mets” would seem to have the same relevance as a sale on 2013 desk calendars.
Yet, there are still 68 games for the Mets to play, many against teams fighting for a postseason berth. With that in mind, I asked manager Mickey Callaway at the postgame press conference after a virtually lifeless 9-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on a hot humid Sunday on July 8, what was the message to his team with one week to play before the All-Star break against two division rivals? One would think a team in the Mets position could’ve been tempted to mentally start their break a week early.
As with any other upcoming series, Callaway said the Mets had to be prepared to play and to put themselves in the best position to succeed. But he acknowledged, “We need to get some momentum going into the All-Star break…take a few days off, come back clicking on all cylinders…and hopefully we’ll have some of our other players back as well.”
Did the Mets generate what the first George Bush called “The Big Mo” during his first presidential campaign in 1980? Unfortunately, it was “no” for Bush in 1980 and “meh” at best for the Mets last week.
They split two four game series against the newly first place Phillies and the perennial first place Nationals. A 4-4 record over the course of a week is middling although an improvement compared to the preceding 11-30 stretch going back to late May. There were dramatic walk-off wins thanks to Wilmer Flores and Brandon Nimmo but the Mets could muster more than seven hits in a game only twice in eight games, they haven’t won a series since May, and Jacob deGrom pitched another eight shutout no-decision innings.
Will the Mets be clicking on all cylinders when the All-Star break ends with a series against the Yankees in the Bronx this weekend? Well, hopefully they’ll click enough cylinders to pull out a modest (maybe even less than modest) 31 wins in 68 games to at least equal last year’s meager 70 wins. A healthy Yoenis Cespedes over the next two months along with a healthy Noah Syndergaard and a not-traded deGrom will at least keep the Mets from fielding a spring training type roster in August and maybe even play respectably.
Is there a bright side? Well, George Bush found “The Big Mo” eight years after 1980 and was elected president in 1988 … hmm, by that reasoning, look out for the 2026 Mets.
By Joseph Rini
I have covered four major league baseball teams this season. All of them have been the New York Mets.
On Opening Day March 29, I covered the “2018 is going to be a great year and Mickey Callaway is some manager” Mets. The Mets do the pageantry of Opening Day like Macy’s does Thanksgiving Day parades and nine Mets runs crossed the plate without one ball going over the wall. Noah Syndergaard actually pitched six innings and Yoenis Cespedes ran about loosely and limberly. Prior to the game, GM Sandy Alderson said the Mets needed to improve by 20 games; after the 9-4 win over the Cardinals, they only needed 19 more.
On April 16, I covered the “how good is this but what the heck just happened, alright, it’s only one game” Mets.” The Mets hosted the Nationals after sweeping them a week earlier in our nation’s capital and aside from Bryce Harper hitting a homerun with a shattered bat, it was a virtual a laugher as Jacob deGrom took 12 strikeouts and a 6-1 lead into the eighth inning…and then it happened. The Nationals’ bats woke up, the Mets bullpen imploded and the Mets lost a stunner 8-6…no big deal, right? So they’re 12-3 instead of 13-2…it’s not like they were going finish 160-2, right?
On May 22, the spring weather was still murky and so were the Mets bats as I covered the “sure, they were slumping but they’ve won five of six and now they’ll be feasting on the Marlins” Mets. However, instead of a feast, the Mets dined on an equivalent of bread and water and fell quietly to the Marlins 5-1. With the loss, five games over .500 became four games over instead of six games over and soon thereafter .500 becomes a memory.
This past Monday, June 22, I covered the “did this really happen after that great start Mets.” Syndergaard and Cespedes hadn’t played in a month, Dominic Smith was in leftfield and was that really Kevin Plawecki at first base. At first pitch, the Mets were losers of 18 of their last 22 and by last pitch, a laborious three hours and 27 minutes later, they were losers of 19 of their last 23 as the Pirates held on for a 6-4 victory.
It’s been an odd season for these four Mets teams. It’s as though baseball season became the equivalent of cherry blossom season – really beautiful for two weeks followed by sudden fading and ultimately a bare tree for the rest of the year.
Oh well, half a season to go and hopefully I’ll get to cover and the fans will get to see the “at least they’re playing decently again” Mets.
By Joe Rini
Perseverance, hardwork, and attitude matter. They certainly mattered for Mets pitcher Seth Lugo.
The odds of a 34th round draft pick making the major leagues can sometimes seem as daunting as a 34-year old accountant making the major leagues. Only one player selected in round 34 of the 2011 draft has made the major leagues and that is Seth Lugo. Prior to Sunday’s game between the Mets and Tampa Bay Rays, a 9-0 Mets defeat, I had a chance to chat with Lugo about his journey to the majors.
As we chatted along the dugout railing, the Louisiana native said (in an accent reminiscent of Ron Guidry) he didn’t realize the odds were against him. “I didn’t think of myself as a 34th round pick. I figured if I’m on the team, I have a chance.” To find the perseverance to make the majors, Lugo proudly cited the work ethic he learned from his father, a cable installer for 33 years who now works for rocket maker, SpaceX.
I asked how he was able to stand out among more highly drafted prospects, especially when a team may have more invested in a higher pick, Lugo acknowledged not being a “flashy” pitcher but he added, “Consistency stands out.”
Lugo, a graduate of Centenary (LA) College, also cited the influence of Mike Diaz and Jason Stephens, the head coach and pitching coach at Centenary. Diaz impressed upon him the mental aspect of the game and the importance of “How to carry myself…being a leader.”
Lugo was especially grateful for Stephens’ impact on him. Stephens imparted to Lugo how to pitch on a professional level; for example, the importance of changing speeds and pitching up and down in the strike zone. Under Stephens’ tutelage, Lugo fastball increased from 84 mph to 94 mph between his sophomore and senior years.
The righthander debuted with the Mets down the stretch of the 2016 season as he and Robert Gsellman helped pitch the Mets to the Wildcard game. Since then, he’s employed the same work ethic to stay in the majors, working on his curveball and command, and transitioning to the bullpen in 2018.
We talked about his conditioning routine, which differs for starters and relievers. Whereas starters have a set routine between starts, Lugo said he has to be ready everyday as a reliever; therefore, weightlifting (without overdoing it) is emphasized while running is a lesser part of his conditioning than if he was starting. When pressed into the rotation on May 31 after 20 relief appearances, Lugo admitted being “completely gassed” after four shutout innings against the Cubs.
I asked him about the importance of proper pitching mechanics, and Lugo said sometimes mechanics can be corrected between innings and other times it can take a month. Recalling his most recent start against the Pirates, Lugo said his curveball “wasn’t sharp” and his fastball “had no life” in the first two innings; however, after chatting with catcher Devin Mesoraco and pitching coach Dave Eiland between innings, he began to drop his back foot slightly in his delivery to better results.
Lugo also mentioned that the team emphasizes, “positive visualization” as part of the mental aspect of pitching. “It’s human nature…negative thoughts can lead to negative results.”
Unfortunately, negative results have been a nagging companion to the Mets for much of 2017. Yet, Lugo has been one of the few bright spots for the Mets as he has pitched well out of the bullpen and in spot starts. Can he take comfort in performing well while the team struggles…not really. “Nothing is worse than losing,” he said. “I want to win… if I throw well, I’m still down if we lose.”
I asked how he felt about people who say pitchers are coddled and he acknowledged thinking about it. Displaying the competitiveness that saw him close games on Fridays, play centerfield on Saturdays, and throw 140 pitches in a college game on Sundays, he said he would’ve loved to have pitched in the era of complete games, but he acknowledged pitchers throw harder nowadays and injuries are a concern.
Lugo continues to work hard and perseverance seems to come natural to a player who said he has always seemed to have “moved up from the bottom.” Yet he takes nothing for granted. “Today could be my last day,” he said but added about baseball, “Everyday you can always do something that no one has done before.”
BY JOE RINI
A season like no other Mets season, with its formidable start followed by an epic slide, took a sudden sad turn on Tuesday, June 26 when General Manager Sandy Alderson announced he was taking a medical leave of absence to undergo treatment for a recurrence of cancer. In his absence, the Mets announced that his duties would be split among Assistant General Manager John Ricco and special assistant’s Omar Minaya and J.P. Ricciardi, both former general managers.
With the Mets coming into the season with a new manager and high expectations, Alderson had come under increasing pressure in recent weeks as the team’s hot start deteriorated into a 5-18 June and an overall 32-45 record that was barely above last place. Facing criticism for the under-performing veteran team he constructed along with few highly-rated prospects in the minor league system, the 70-year-old Alderson, who was originally treated for cancer during the 2015 offseason, said he was informed of the cancer’s return in late April and had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments since then.
Alderson’s return to full general managing duties appears unlikely at this point. Prior to the Mets game on Tuesday, a 4-3, 10-inning win over the Pirates, Alderson alluded to his tenuous job security in discussing his health by stating, “With respect to the future, I would say two things: One is, notwithstanding the good prognosis, my health is an uncertainty going forward and secondly, if I were to look at it on the merits, I’m not sure coming back is warranted.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, Alderson took responsibility for the team’s disappointing play, but also expressed confidence in Ricco, Minaya and Ricciardi. “I’m sure, [they] will take a hard look at where we are, maybe take a fresh look at where we are. And I have every confidence that they will serve the franchise well over the next few months through the end of the season,” he said.
Alderson was a highly regarded baseball executive baseball executive when the Mets hired him in October 2010, with a resume that included a World Championship as general manager of the Oakland A’s in 1989 and helping to pioneer the use of sabermetrics in player evaluations to go along with a law degree and a tour of duty in the Viet Nam War as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Like any general manager, Alderson had his hits and misses. Trades such as dealing 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto yielded Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud while his 2015 trade deadline acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes provided key pieces to the 2015 pennant winning club. On the flip side, signing Cespedes and David Wright to multi-year deals hasn’t worked out as planned although both deals were generally applauded at the time they were made. While the disappointing 2017 and 2018 seasons may tarnish Alderson’s record as Mets GM somewhat, the Mets won the 2015 NL pennant under his regime, and for a team that only has five pennants since 1962, that isn’t a minor accomplishment.
Alderson’s diagnosis definitely puts the state of the 2018 Mets in proper perspective. Perhaps voicing the grit that served him well as a marine, a cancer survivor, and through a nearly 40-year career as a baseball executive, Alderson said, “None of us writes his or her script…this isn’t Disney World. We have to deal with life as it presents itself, and I’m OK with that.”
Thank you, Sandy Alderson, and we wish you swift and complete recovery.
By Joe Rini
Given the early extremes of optimism and pessimism for the 2018 Mets, perhaps it’s appropriate that writer Brian Wright has authored the recently published, “Mets in 10s: Best and Worst of an Amazin’ History.” It’s a collection of lists and stories of Mets history that covers championships and collapses, the player heroes and busts, and the wonderful and the weird moments that have rewarded and pained their fans for half a century. Brian and I spoke on June 10 about his book and shared our experiences about rooting for them.
Brian is a first-time author and life-long Mets fan who has also written for Bleacher Report, the Washington Examiner, and The Sports Daily. Although Brian’s family is from the New York area, he was raised in northern Virginia while his father served in the Navy and worked at the Pentagon. Distance from New York didn’t deter Brian from adopting the Mets as his team as he recalled wearing out videos highlighting the Mets 25th Anniversary and the 1986 championship team as a youngster in the early 1990s.
As for the genesis of the book, Brian cited Chase Utley’s infamous slide that broke Ruben Tejada’s leg in Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS. “Amidst my rage after the play,” Brian said he began to think about where Utley ranked among all-time Mets “villains.” This lead him to thinking about who were the Top 10 Mets villains which in turn lead to him thinking about other “Top 10s” in Mets history.
Stating that writing a book about the Mets was always something he thought about, Brian said, “I wanted to have an entire history of the Mets that wasn’t chronological…a different way of looking at the history” of them. There are 30 chapters in the book and Brian said the publisher had the good idea of categorizing them under eight parts, such as, “On the Mound,” “Anguish,” and “Noteworthy Games.”
When I asked what chapters were the most difficult to write, Brian’s answer captured the extremes of rooting for the Mets. While “Single-Game Pitching Performances” was difficult to write because the Mets history of stellar starting pitching yielded many candidates, “Busts” was also difficult because he had to merge draft picks who never made it with free agents who failed to perform in a Mets uniform.
Brian didn’t claim to be “the authority” on these lists and said he’d like the book “to spark debate and not end them.” In fact, even as he looks back on his list of best Southpaw Starters, he wonders whether he would change Sid Fernandez’s ranking and rate him above Bob Ojeda. He decided to rank Ojeda above “El Sid” in the book because Ojeda was the “most important pitcher on the best team in Mets history” yet he noted Sid ranked among Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Clayton Kershaw with regard to fewest hits allowed per nine innings.
As we looked back at some of the trials of rooting for the Mets, Brian said, “You run the gamut of emotions with the Mets…They can warm your heart in one instance and break your heart in the next one over the course of an at bat.” Yet he laughed as he recalled telling friends of his who root for the Nationals after the Mets dropped the opener to the Yankees 3-1 this past Friday, “I just can’t do this anymore.” Did this mean he was giving up on the Mets entirely his friends asked. “Just for tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow,” he replied in typical Mets fan fashion.
Mets in 10s is well researched and very informative without being a bland retelling of facts (even the most avid fans will say, “I didn’t know that.”). It’s well written, light-hearted yet an honest retelling of Mets history. It’s an enjoyable read. Keep it in mind if you’re looking for a last-minute Fathers Day gift or a book to read while relaxing on the beach this summer.
By Joe Rini
With MLB commissioner Robert Manfred keen on speeding the pace of play from the current three hours plus per game, perhaps the Mets could be forgiven if they’ve thought about stopping games after seven innings, especially when ace Jacob deGrom hands the ball off to the bullpen.
Six times this season, Mickey Callaway has asked the bullpen to get six outs or fewer to secure a win for the Mets and deGrom. However, in four of the six games, rather than fanning batters, the late inning firemen have fanned the flames of frustration in failing to hold the lead for deGrom, most recently this past Memorial Day when the Braves defeated the Mets 4-3 in the opening game of a day-night doubleheader as Charlie Culberson hit a walk-off two run homer in the ninth inning off Seth Lugo in Atlanta.
Like the father of a newborn with a stained shirt, deGrom is wearing the hiccups of the bullpen on his won and loss record as his 4-0 record could easily be 8-0 to go along with a sharp 1.52 earned run average.
The Mets middling 26-26 record following their 11-1 burst out of the 2018 starting blocks combined with the rising fortunes of the Braves and Phillies has lead people to wonder if the Mets should deal deGrom for multiple prospects that can replenish a mostly barren farm system. Such a move would be jarring considering this would imply the Mets “window of opportunity” that began with the 2015 NL pennant and a 2016 wildcard berth after years of rebuilding would seemingly have closed quicker than Justify’s stretch run at the Kentucky Derby.
As many have noted, the contending team with the need and resources to acquire deGrom would be the New York Yankees though the probability of the crosstown rivals completing such a deal are about as likely as the Mets re-signing Matt Harvey to a Clayton Kershaw-like $200 million contract in the offseason.
Speaking of the Yankees, I asked manager Mickey Callaway prior to the Mets 5-1 defeat to the Marlins on May 22nd, to what extent, if any, the Mets felt any additional pressure or distractions considering their struggles coincided with a Yankee resurgence that included winning 17 of 18 games.
Callaway replied, “I haven’t felt any pressure…I try not to pay attention to what they are doing. When we go and play them, I’ll know exactly what kind of team they are…so that we can try to go out there and beat them.” Callaway added, “We just have to worry about the things we can control here.”
The challenge of playing well with significant players on the disabled list has become a steep obstacle for the Mets in recent days. In addition to playing without Todd Frazier and Yoenis Cespedes for most of May and Juan Lagares being deemed out for the season, Wilmer Flores and AJ Ramos were added to the disabled list over the weekend. However, more significantly, the starting rotation was struck twice in one day as hours after Noah Syndergaard was placed on the 10 day DL with a strained ligament in his right index finger, Steven Matz left Tuesday’s game against the Braves after three innings with pain in his middle index finger.
To help bolster the injury-depleted outfield, the Mets signed veteran Jose Bautista to a one-year deal on May 22 after his release by the Braves. Meeting with the press to announce the move, GM Sandy Alderson said, “We had been looking at the possibility of a right-handed bat in the outfield that could spell our other outfielders and give us some offensive potential against a left-handed pitcher.” While Bautista is hardly the player who hit 54 home runs for the Blue Jays in 2010, the 37-year old has six hits in his first 15 at bats with the Mets.