Sep 23

Mets Magic? To Be Determined

Greetings on the day after the latest Mets’ miracle. There have been times in my coverage of the Mets – which began in 2006 (and since 1998 overall of New York baseball) – where I have been called a curmudgeon, which is not entirely untrue.

I try to take more of a down-the-middle approach in my emotional perspective of the team. I don’t get too high or too low, and believe I’ve fulfilled my responsibility if there’s a balance between those who like my stuff and those who hate me.

COLLINS: Will he be smiling in a week? (AP)

COLLINS: Will he be smiling in a week? (AP)

There are times, I admit, when I take the hatred as a compliment.

Either way, after the Asdrubal Cabrera’s game-winner last night, the bottom line is the Mets remain tied with San Francisco and hold a slim lead over the Cardinals for the wild-card. Cabrera’s moment in Mets’ history is contingent on how this all plays out.

Will it be a Super Nova or a star that forever burns bright, like the ball that got by Bill Buckner?

It’s just stardust if the Mets fade and don’t make it; it’s special if they go on to win the World Series. The moment loses luster if they don’t run the table.

Can we agree this business of the Mets’ schedule giving them an advantage is nonsense if they don’t capitalize? Let’s face it, without Cabrera last night, and what Jose Reyes did shortly before, they would have lost four straight home games to sub-.500 teams.

The remaining schedule is largely irrelevant because: 1) those teams would love nothing more than to put it to these uppity New Yorkers; 2) those players are competing for 2017 jobs; 3) September call-ups add an unknown element to the stew; and, 4) after this weekend the last six games are on the road.

For those who insist the schedule means something, if the beginning of this week didn’t convince you, try this, if the Mets don’t make the playoffs, the biggest statistic working against them is that 26 of their 72 losses (36 percent) have been against sub-.500 Atlanta (10), Colorado (6), Philadelphia (5) and Arizona (5).

They lost another six to Miami, whom they play three games next week on the road.

Perhaps the Mets were due to win last night. Sometimes the odds work in their favor. But, was it magic? I wouldn’t go that far.

After all, there have been several times this season when it would have been easy to conclude they turned it around.

After a sluggish start, they closed April by winning 11 of 12 games, but limped through May with seven losses against cupcakes Atlanta, San Diego and Colorado.

They lost five games in June to the Braves and were swept in a three-game series in Washington to finish that month only four games over .500. The Mets appeared to turn it around with a four-game sweep of the Cubs in July, but gave up that momentum by losing three of four at home to the Nationals heading into the break.

You’ll recall manager Terry Collins saying it was “essential we play well,” in the stretch entering the break and coming out for the second half. They entered the break six games over .500 but ended July only four games over.

The Mets nose-dived to two games under in mid-August before Bartolo Colon stopped the hemorrhaging by beating the Giants in San Francisco. They went 9-2 to close August to give their season alive.

Unquestionably, the Mets have been snakebit with injuries to their young, vaunted rotation. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler are all gone. But, for all their bad luck, they’ve been kept afloat by Colon, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and tonight’s spot starter Gabriel Ynoa, and the bullpen duo of Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia. Today we learned Saturday’s starter, Noah Syndergaard, will be scratched in favor of Sean Gilmartin because of a strep throat.

No doubt, the baseball Gods are toying with Collins.

Bad luck offset by good? Perhaps. But, Lugo has been brought down a peg and Reed and Familia have taken their lumps.

Wilmer Flores helped carry the team for a while, but hasn’t played in over a week because of a bad wrist (Collins took the hit for that by saying he should have used a pinch-runner). The Jay Bruce trade did not work out, but was offset by the resurgence of power from Curtis Granderson.

Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes spent time on the disabled list, but came off smoking. Cespedes is now mired in a slump, although he came through with a big hit last night.

Matt Reynolds, James Loney, Brandon Nimmo, Rene Rivera, Reyes and T.J. Rivera have either come up from the minors or were rescued off the scrap team to produce big moments. However, Michael Conforto was sent down and this season has been a bust for him.

A lot has gone wrong for the Mets – I didn’t even get to the injuries of David Wright, Neil Walker and Lucas Duda – but the flip side is a lot went right to put them where they are today.

Was last night magic? I don’t think so. It was a magical moment but means nothing if not sustainable.

For every reason why I could write them off, there are reasons I can give why they are still alive. Through it all, like they were last season, resiliency is their greatest attribute.

They are alive with nine games remaining, and considering all that has gone, maybe that’s their magic for this year.

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Sep 23

Three Mets’ Storylines: Doctor, We Have A Pulse

Just when you think the Mets are dead and buried, they do something to justify how they’ve been historically characterized – Amazing. They do something to pull us closer to them; to steal our emotions after we’ve said “never again.”

CABRERA: Pulls us back. (AP)

CABRERA: Pulls us back. (AP)

On the heels of an excruciatingly draining loss the previous night when Yoenis Cespedes’ was denied a game-winning home run, the Mets twice climbed out of the abyss to pick up their beleaguered bullpen to beat Philadelphia, 9-8, in 11 innings.

Like cockroaches and Keith Richards, the Mets refuse to be killed. Down two in the ninth, Jose Reyes tied it with a one-out, two-run drive off Jeanmar Gomez.

The Mets later fell behind by two again in the 11th inning against closer Jeurys Familia, but they quickly responded in the bottom of the inning against Philadelphia reliever Edubray Ramos when Michael Conforto walked, Reyes singled and Asdrubal Cabrera hit a homer that might have saved the Mets’ season.

If the Mets go on to go far in the playoffs, or even win the World Series, it will be a defining moment in their season.

“We always keep our head up,” Cabrera said. “We’re pushing all the time. … As soon as I hit it I knew it would be out.”

All season the Mets lived and died with the home run. It was how they are defined. They thrived on the long ball tonight with three more – Curtis Granderson hit a two-run homer in the second – that brought them again to the emotional top.

How long they will sustain it is anybody’s guess.

Undoubtedly, the comeback was tonight’s main storyline, with the others being the bullpen and Seth Lugo’s rough start.

BULLPEN TAKES BEATING: How the Mets navigated the last two innings has been their strength all season. You could even make an argument the Addison Reed-Familia duo has been the most valuable aspect of their team.

It hasn’t been that way this week, as their late-inning bullpen has been torched for 17 runs after the seventh inning in the last four games.

Five of those runs were charged to Reed, who uncharacteristically gave up a three-run homer to Maikel Franco in the eighth inning. Three more were against Familia.

There are few – if any – Mets who have done their jobs this year better than Reed and Familia. Tonight the long ball saved them.

LUGO HAS ROUGH START: Eventually, reality would catch up with Lugo. It did when the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and Cameron Rupp hit back-to-back homers on consecutive pitches to open the fifth.

Lugo had given the Mets at least six innings in four of his last six starts, but Thursday gave us three runs on four hits and two walks in five innings. Normally pitch efficient, Lugo threw 87 tonight.

Even so, with the news Steven Matz is likely done for the year, should the Mets reach the NL Division Series, he’ll be their No. 3 starter.

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Sep 12

Backman Out; Was Never Going To Get Chance

Mets GM Sandy Alderson said Wally Backman, the one time, popular pepper pot second baseman of the 1986 champion Mets, is out as Triple-A Las Vegas’ manager.

Just like that, he’s out.

Alderson said Backman left on his own, but does anybody really believe that?

BACKMAN: Inevitable happens. (MLB.com)

BACKMAN: Inevitable happens. (MLB.com)

“Wally has decided to move on,” Alderson told The New York Post. “He’s got other opportunities, presumably including possible major league coaching or managing.”

That’s nonsense. The minor league season just ended and the major league season is still going on. There are no current openings. If Backman had another job lined up, he would have said so.

When somebody desperately wants to manage in the major leagues, he doesn’t resign from a Triple-A job without something lined up. Instead, he just posted a mild tweet saying he resigned and thanked Mets’ fans for their support. He posted nothing about Alderson.

Reportedly, Backman was on the verge of being named bench coach for the 2012 season, but something happened at the last minute and the job went to Tim Teufel.

In 2004, Backman was hired to manage the Arizona Diamondbacks but was fired four days later after The New York Times reported he had been arrested twice and was under financial duress.

Amazingly, the Diamondbacks failed to do a background check.

Baseball is noted for giving second chances, but Backman has never gotten another opportunity to manage on the major league level. Instead, he found sanctuary with the Mets, the team he energized in 1986.

SNY analyst Keith Hernandez called Backman, “a dear friend and a great teammate.”

Backman managed Las Vegas for five seasons and guided them to a 70-74 record this year. Although Las Vegas had three winning seasons prior to this year, Backman never was enamored by Alderson, who was very complimentary in The Post.

“I thought he did a fine job for us,” Alderson said. “We had many players come through Las Vegas and graduate to the major league level and establish themselves in New York.

“He was part of that development process. In addition, other than this year, the teams were very competitive and successful on a won-loss basis. He did a good job for us.”

So, what was the problem?

Backman has a reputation as a loose cannon that irritated the button-down Alderson. There always seemed to be friction between them, and Alderson has a reputation for holding a grudge.

There are reports of Backman defying Alderson by not batting Brandon Nimmo leadoff and – heaven forbid – or starting Michael Conforto against left-handed pitchers.

On the major league level, Terry Collins said he would, but never followed through on hitting Conforto against lefties. Backman was also critical of how Conforto was used by the Mets. Come to think of it, who hasn’t been critical of the way the Mets are using Conforto.

The Mets’ current outfield situation, in large part made by their eagerness to placate Yoenis Cespedes, is currently a mess. There are no plans for what to do with Conforto – whom Collins said in April was destined to be the Mets’ No. 3 hitter for the next decade – and Nimmo.

There is actually a chance they won’t have either Cespedes or Jay Bruce in 2017.

Collins was hired to replace Jerry Manuel in 2011 and had four losing seasons. There were opportunities to hire Backman then, but Collins survived, getting the benefit of the doubt by numerous injuries and ownership’s financial problems.

The thinking was the Mets couldn’t fire Collins because he hadn’t been given a representative team. It wouldn’t be fair. However, everything fell into place and the Mets reached the World Series in 2015. And, with the Mets serious wild-card contenders this year, Collins’ job seems secure.

Part of the success of last year was because of the performances of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud, players who did well under Backman.

The Mets could have promoted Backman to bench coach after last year to replace Bob Geren, who left for the Dodgers. However, when the job went to Dick Scott, it became clear there was no place for him on the major league level despite Jeff Wilpon’s initial gesture of support when they hired him.

With the friction between Backman and the Mets this year, it was only a matter of time before today happened. Do you still don’t think there isn’t animosity between Backman and the Mets? On SNY during the game, Backman wasn’t mentioned until the seventh inning of a blowout, and ended its Baseball Tonight broadcast with basically a throw-away line. It was the last item, but should have been the first.

Don’t think the Mets didn’t have anything to do with that? It sure looks like the Mets wanted to bury this. Makes you wonder why they didn’t wait until 3 in morning Eastern time – the Mets were on the West Coast at the time – like they did when they axed Willie Randolph.

The bottom line is the Mets didn’t want Backman. That’s too bad, and I hope some team takes a chance on him.

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Sep 06

Three Mets’ Storylines: Cespedes Primetime Player

When you’re a star, you come through in big moments. You live for them, and that’s what Yoenis Cespedes does for the Mets.

They Mets got Cespedes, and will likely break the bank for him, for nights like Tuesday when he slugged and threw the Mets into a vital crunch-time victory.

CESPEDES: Has a flair for dramatic. (AP)

CESPEDES: Has a flair for dramatic. (AP)

“When you’re a star, that’s what they do,” manager Terry Collins said. “That’s what Ces does. That’s why he’s here. That’s why he gets paid.”

Of his 70 RBI, seven have given the Mets the lead for good, including his two-run homer to dead center in the seventh inning of their 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

“When the team is down, I know I have to focus,” Cespedes told SNY.

As I’ve written several times, extending his current three-year, $75-million contract could hamstring the Mets financially in other areas, but there’s no denying this guy is a primetime player. Cespedes carried the Mets last year into the World Series, and he’s doing the same this summer. Five of his 28 homers have tied a game, while eight put the Mets in the lead.

As if that isn’t enough, Cespedes threw out Brandon Phillips at second to end the eighth.

There’s no other descriptor other than clutch.

Cespedes was one of four Mets’ homers, giving them 189 for the season. Curtis Granderson, Jose Reyes and Alejandro De Aza (he hit their 11th pinch-hit homer of the season) crushed the others.

Clearly, Cespedes was the storyline tonight. The others were Rafael Montero and newly acquired reliever Fernando Salas.

MONTERO OFF: Probably the best thing one could say about the performance of the Montero is it could have been worse.

The problem of command that has been an anchor to Montero dragged him down again.

Montero walked four in 4.1 innings. The killer was the walking Zack Cozart in the third as he scored ahead of Adam Duvall’s home run that tied the game.

The two walks Montero gave up in the first two innings, as well as the six in his first start, didn’t hurt him. But, you can only dance out of trouble for so long. Wildness would eventually catch up, and that’s what happened to Montero.

Throwing 79 pitches in less than five innings is the kind of stuff that has always hindered Montero, and is the obstacle keeping him out of the major leagues.

“He’s working hard to stay out of the middle of the plate and he’s missing,” Collins said. “That’s what gets him in trouble. But, I’m very impressed with his arm.”

SALAS LEADS BULLPEN: The Mets have been looking for a seventh-inning stopper for their bullpen all season.

Hansel Robles spit the bit, but perhaps Salas could fit the bill. The Mets picked up Salas in a waiver deal, Aug. 31, from the Angels in exchange for minor league pitcher Erik Manoah.

Robles was sensational from June 21 to August, going 5-0 with a 1.29 ERA. However, he had a meltdown on the mound at Yankee Stadium, Aug. 3, when Mark Teixeira rattled his cage. Since then, he’s given up 15 earned runs in his last 16 innings.

Salas was the fifth of seven Mets’ pitchers – the September call-ups issue must eventually be addressed – and put the Reds down in order in the seventh.

Josh Edgin, Gabriel Ynoa, Josh Smoker, Salas, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia – who registered his 46th save – followed Montero, just the way Collins drew it up.

Sort of.

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Sep 01

Three Mets’ Storylines: Something Not Right With DeGrom

Evidently, those three extra days of rest didn’t help Jacob deGrom or the Mets. Also not helpful to the Mets was the image of deGrom heading up the tunnel to the clubhouse and motioning trainer Ray Ramirez to follow him.

Uh oh, what else could go wrong?

“That’s news to me,” manager Terry Collins said when asked about deGrom motioning to the trainer. “What you just informed me of is very troubling to me. … Jacob deGrom is a huge piece for us.”

DE GROM: Not right. (AP)

DE GROM: Not right. (AP)

How could the manager not know, unless, of course, deGrom wanted to talk to somebody else? Even so, television replays clearly showed Ramirez followed deGrom down the tunnel.

“Everything is fine,” insisted deGrom. “I just wanted to talk to Ray. I felt out of sync out there, but nothing is wrong.”

Collins pushed deGrom back three days when it was concluded fatigue was the factor for why he was torched for 13 runs on 25 hits in his previous two starts.

DeGrom – now 7-8 with a 3.04 ERA– appeared to overcome a strained lat muscle early this season, but red flags were raised with his previous two starts and his velocity dropping to 91 mph., in Thursday night’s 6-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.

However, it’s more than just fatigue or a drop of velocity. DeGrom still lives on the outer half of the plate and won’t challenge hitters inside. Could it be a lack of confidence in his fastball?

Collins initially planned to push deGrom back until Friday against Washington, but those plans changed when Steven Matz was sidelined with a rotator cuff impingement. So, deGrom moved up a day and gave up three runs on six hits and a season-high four walks in five innings.

It wasn’t a good line, and neither were the 102 pitches he threw in that span. High pitch counts have been a persistent problem all season for deGrom, Matz and Noah Syndergaard.

“His command is not what it has been,” Collins said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

When a pitcher’s command leaves him, it is usually because of fatigue, injury or mechanics. DeGrom said it was the last option.

“It’s mechanics,” deGrom said. “I can’t throw the ball where I want to.”

The Mets began the season with a highly-regarded rotation of Matt Harvey, deGrom, Matz, Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon, who was to move to the rotation in July in favor of Zack Wheeler. That rotation was supposed to return the Mets to the World Series, but injuries cost them Harvey, Matz and Wheeler for the season; a bone spur in his elbow hampered Syndergaard; and deGrom was bothered by the strained lat muscle.

The Mets had won nine of their previous 11 games before tonight to climb back into the race. Returning to the playoffs is contingent on a lot of factors, with deGrom’s health now at the top of the list.

Regardless of what Collins said, things will be anxious for the Mets until deGrom pitches again.

Tonight’s other storylines were the return of Michael Conforto and the rise of another Met Killer.

CONFORTO RETURNS: Conforto was part of the Mets call-ups from Triple-A Las Vegas, where he hit .493 (33-for-67) with six homers and 13 RBI in 17 games.

Conforto reached base in his first three plate appearances on an opposite-field double, when he was plunked on the calf and when Christian Yelich dropped his fly ball in left center.

That he hit the ball hard to the opposite field on the error was a good sign.

MET KILLER: The Mets have been tortured by the likes of Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Pat Burrell, Giancarlo Stanton, and, of course, Daniel Murphy.

You can add Yelich, who drove in four runs on three hits, including a homer. He also made a diving catch of a sinking line drive hit by deGrom with the bases loaded that could have saved three runs.

Yelich has hit four homers against the Mets this year, including three in this series.

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