Just a Bit Outside

Alex Bregman stood at the plate, his team down three runs, two men already out, facing a 1-2 count against the best pitcher in the world. I don’t know what was going through his head at that moment, but here’s what he was not thinking: next close pitch I see, I’ll let it go. Everyone knows that; its the first thing they tell you in little league. Better to go down swinging than looking. Bregman couldn’t even be sure what the strike zone was: the first pitch of the at-bat, he’d taken a curve inches off the outside corner for a called strike.

Joe Buck was talking about Clayton Kershaw’s command, but Bregman couldn’t hear him. He just waited, waited, standing silently in the batter’s box as he tried to out-think the Dodgers’ ace. “He’s one out away from breathing easier,” Joe Buck said.

Kershaw wound. He fired. It was a changeup, coming in at 88, off the outside corner at the knees, a pitch you just can’t help but ground weakly back to the pitcher. Bregman knew this. He knew that it might be strike three. And he knew that if he reached base, Jose Altuve would follow. So his bat didn’t leave his shoulder.

Austin Barnes caught the ball, and the crowd gasped, the kind of purely involuntary group reaction you just can’t avoid when everything’s on the line. But Bill Miller didn’t move. The pitch was outside. The count was 2-2. And Barnes tossed the ball back to Kershaw.

Suddenly, Buck was worried. “Look at the pitch count for Kershaw, up to 90,” he said. “You get the sense that this is going to be it.” Bregman hit two foul balls. He took a fastball outside for ball three, and a ball in the dirt for ball four. Out came Dave Roberts, and in came Kenta Maeda. Six pitches later, Jose Altuve, at bat as the tying run, launched a ball down the left field line. It landed in the seats, foul. But the next one didn’t.


Shea Serrano published a charming piece this morning on The Ringer, entitled “A First-Time Baseball Fan’s Guide to the Craziest World Series Ever.” Serrano had never watched baseball, he said — never, until this series.

“Baseball (I’m told) is made up of 1,000,000 tiny moments that are all monumentally important,” he wrote. He described his favorite one of those moments, Brad Peacock’s throw to third in the top of the seventh off a Kike Hernández sac bunt, to nab Justin Turner after a leadoff double, as Brian McCann shouted “three!” in the background. “If I ever become a real and actual baseball fan,” he said, “it’s going to be because of little things like that.”

Bregman’s 1-2 take wasn’t exactly his highlight of the night. About three hours later, he drove a line drive to left that brought home Derek Fisher ahead of Andre Ethier’s throw, and the Astros won game five. With Justin Verlander ready to take the hill in game six, Bregman’s hit gave the Astros as good a chance as any to take home a World Series trophy.

But walk-offs just happen; they happen, then they’re over. They’re not like the other moments, much harder to see but so much more rewarding to appreciate; moments, like Peacock firing to third, or Bregman laying off a change-up a few inches outside, that keep echoing after they’re over, and leave signs of their presence long after the next batter has come to the plate. Alex Bregman could have taken a swing at the 1-2 pitch, that for all he knew might have ended his at-bat, but would have been better than going down looking. But he didn’t. And then, all those hours and innings later, he finally took that swing, this time not off the greatest starter in the world but maybe the best reliever, and won his team the game.

Which was more important? You tell me. Probably the walk-off. But this is why it’s impossible not to love baseball: even at the end of October, in a game 1400 miles from home, with the happiness or devastation of millions pending on the outcome (“This game will be heartbreaking for one of these teams,” Joe Buck noted at one point — correctly, in my view), we can look back, in a day, a week, or twenty years, and remember the time that Alex Bregman got the walk-off hit — but we can also remember the time, earlier that same game, he did nothing, and in the seemingly inconspicuous process, set the gears of baseball in motion, and ultimately set the stage for a dramatic, triumphant moment five innings later.

A million little moments, each and every one monumentally important, all coming together to present the final product: a baseball game, and an instant classic at that. And look: there’s another game tomorrow, and more quirky, nonsensical, beautiful moments to look forward to.


Blue Moon of October

So, the Red Sox are sunk. This happened the other day, as I was following along, quietly hoping for a win but knowing strictly based on intuition that this wasn’t the kind of series for it. The Sox were the kind of team they always were; tough, gutsy, full of players you love to love. Just not, it would seem, a team meant for playoff greatness. Even when they seemed good, in hindsight it was always clear, at some subconscious level, that they weren’t good enough.

Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have lost in three straight, as seemed inevitable for that kind of team. What do the Diamondbacks have going for them? Sure, they’ve got Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez (my candidate for N.L. MVP!) anchoring the lineup and Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray and all kinds of successful roll players you tend to find on teams with 93 wins. But are they really a winning team? Were they the kind of team to go on a magical, improbable run, dethroning the presumptive pennant-winning Dodgers in the process? The answers are maybe, and certainly not. The Diamondbacks were good, but they weren’t special — and good doesn’t always cut it. Certainly not when the Dodgers rotation is involved, at any rate.

Meanwhile, the Cubs and the Nationals continue to jockey for a spot in the championship series; the Nationals having never won a playoff series, game five later today takes on a special emotional significance to those who can recall Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper in the dugout; that is to say, Mets fans. The Cubs on their own are an easy enough team to root for: their World Series win last season brought joy to a city that had been lacking for far too long, and their cohort of young, seemingly-affable talent, with elder statesmen thrown in every now and again to provide the balance that playoff teams so often display in abundance. The Cubs are a likable team; that much is hard to doubt. But they’re certainly not the team they were last year, as their trouble in dispatching the Nationals demonstrates: even against an ailing Stephen Strasburg, the Cubs mustered nothing. Whether that augurs well for game five, I couldn’t tell you. That’s baseball.

Likable as they are, though, the Cubs affability can’t help but diminish in the face of their tepid play: they’ve allowed the eternally loathsome and veritably mediocre Nationals to hang around in a series that should be long gone. The Nationals are like the Sox without the heart: they’ve got the talent, but there’s nothing special there: the nothing is emphatic. There’s no heart down in Washington, no zing, no fire: the Nationals are nothing more than a group of highly talented baseball players doing well because they’re good. I’ve been to two of their games in person; jostling for position on the train ride home was more exciting, and maybe louder. If the Nationals should win the series, and send the Cubs to an early and surely painful offseason (nobody likes an early exit after a big year; just ask Mets fans about that), I will momentarily reflect on the sad truth that they will no longer have never won a playoff series, and a prime line of mockery against their scant fanbase will be moot. Then I will look forward, and contentedly anticipate their demolition, a process I expect will be nothing more or less than absolute and systematic destruction, at the hands of the Dodgers. The bums, no longer in Brooklyn and far less special for it, aren’t exactly a Cinderella team themselves, but they’re good enough to win anyway. They’ve got the character of the Diamondbacks, and far more than that of the Nationals, and what’s more, they’re simply eons more talented.

And of course, having beaten the Red Sox, the Astros wait in Houston to start their championship series against the Yankees, who I worry can’t possibly lose even as I reassure myself can’t possibly win. The Yankees have all kinds of series, and can announce which type they’ll play at any time, in any manner: just as it is eminently possible that the Bums (used pejoratively) from the Bronx storm out to a lead in game one and never look back — in fact, I often lie awake late into the night, contemplating this fearful possibility — I can only too easily remember the 2012 ALCS, when the Yankees stormed in after a rollicking Division Series and lost to the Tigers in spectacularly unimpressive fashion. The Yankees teams were different, and the opponents even more so, but the fact remains: any and all possibilities remain in play.

That’s what happens in playoff baseball, when great hitters lose their touch, aces’ fingers betray their minds, and slick fielders develop a drag to their glove hand. Baseball in October brings out the best in some, the worst in others, and nothing in particular in most: where each of these will come from depends almost entirely on which particular October it is. In October 2017, there’s still half a month and change remaining: what happens, and which names will be remembered, and how, is entirely up to the players on the field, and the skippers in the dugout. That’s the magic of October, even when your team has gone home for an early winter break: it’s nothing more than a 30 day blitz, a high-speed hodge podge of news and development and analysis and “wow, you think so?” Because that’s baseball for you: anything can happen, and often, it does.

So, onward we go, on to tense nights and tired eyes and glasses half full, left forgotten on the window sill as the game continues into its fourth hour and it feels wrong to get up and fill your water. It’s the National pastime in October, showcased at its finest: it’s playoff baseball. Buckle up and let the best team win. Just let the Yankees lose first.


Going to the End of the Line

Editor’s note: I originally wrote this for Faith and Fear in Flushing, the best darn Mets blog there is. A few days having passed, here’s my report from Philadelphia on the final day of the 2017 Mets’ season, in all their abysmal glory.


“Philly, coming up! Twenty minutes to Philly!” called the conductor from behind me as he barged through the car, snatching up seat tags as he went. So I marked my place in my Hunter S. Thompson collection, packed it up in my bag, and started getting ready to watch the Mets season end.

I still wasn’t sure how it would feel. 2017 had been a season of mixed emotions, of deep ties and bitter disappointment. When it started, I was closer to my team than ever: for the first time, I made the pilgrimage down to Spring Training. I saw Jose Reyes smash extra-base hits; Matt Harvey pitch like he didn’t during the regular season, which is to say well; I got to watch the Mets bullpen up close (literally, from the front row down the left field line); and I saw Lucas Duda smash a three-run homer off Adam Wainwright. I also — and I’m one of few people who can say this — saw Tim Tebow in a Mets uniform, and watched him face off against Max Scherzer. Even if you don’t remember it, you can probably guess how that went.

Then came Opening Day, where I was as invested as I’d ever been; a promising start, that had me salivating over a division title; some Terry Collins bullpen blunders, and a slide into mediocrity that seemed never to end, but only to vary slightly in grade. But still, this was my team. Even as we shed talent for minor league relievers, I dutifully learned their names. As starting pitchers came and went (Milone, Pill, Wilk, Flexen), I kept track of their accomplishments. My interest waned every so slightly in mid-Summer, as it always does when I’m essentially isolated for eight weeks, but it was back in full force as August came to an end, even as we stood no chance in hell of achieving anything worth writing home about.

And now, here I was, pulling into a train station in Philadelphia to watch the end of a season that seemed like it hadn’t really started. I certainly didn’t know how I would feel when it was over.

I had to find my way to Citizens Bank Park first, which should have been easy. You could say it was, in that I followed the directions and they led me to the ballpark; but the trip wasn’t exactly efficient. I spent enough time waiting on the platforms for my two trains to decide that if train service in Philly was this slow, I would avoid the city like the plague — as if I needed another reason. But I made it to the park, and climbed off an escalator and out of the subway station to find a bright blue sky, with only the slightest hint of Fall in the breeze reminding me that this wasn’t just any other game in June.

A family with two young children ambled on behind me as I walked toward the park. Maybe the kids saw me; maybe it was just their attitude. “Boo, Mets!” they were chanting. “Go, Phillies!”

It was Closing Day for them too, I thought to myself. Almost certainly, they weren’t old enough to realize; much more likely, they’d scratch their heads one night in early January and ask, “Why isn’t there any baseball?”

“There’s no baseball in Winter,” one of their parents would reply, and they would laugh and move on, because you can do that when you’re young.

I scanned my ticket, and accepted the 2018 Phillies schedule that an usher handed it to me. I gave it a perfunctory scan as I made my way to my seat, and found the 19 NYM squares, which were the only games on the page that I cared about. Well, besides the one in front of me; all technicalities aside, and despite what Twitter was telling me, it wasn’t 2018 yet.


Citizens Bank Park, I decided as I looked around before first pitch, was nicer than I’d expected. I’d been anticipating a droll, heartless ballpark befitting the Phillies, but this place was just pleasant. The red brick construction in the outfield, with retired numbers painted in red, gave the place a kind of rustic charm, and the flowers and ivy on the outfield wall added the color that some ballparks are missing. The enormous outline of the Liberty Bell complemented the park’s aesthetic, as did the light towers rising above the upper deck, painted an almost rusted reddish-brown. I’m still not quite sure what they evoked — it wasn’t the golden age of Ebbets Field, but it was something like that.

Now, the Phillies were taking the field, and I focused on Chris Pivetta, their starting pitcher. His ERA was 6.26: just the kind of guy, I thought, who would, if history was any guide, completely and inexplicably shut us down. Nori Aoki, the guy who, as I’ve come to describe him, is a better James Loney than James Loney ever was, struck out, but Phillip Evans took a pitch in the gut and jogged down to first. After Brandon Nimmo, smiling down on the crowd from the scoreboard, popped up to short, up came Dominic Smith.

The two fans behind me, Phillies lifers the both of them, had been offering running commentary during the first few at-bats, which I was now hearing clearly for the first time. “Guy’s batting .201,” one of them said.

“Mario Mendoza,” replied the other, not deigning to add any qualifiers or clarifications, probably assuming that everyone would just understand him, which of course I did.

These fans spent most of the game learning about what had gone on with the Mets all season, and occasionally, stabbing me in the heart. “Did David Wright play a game all season?” one of them asked, out of the blue, as Matt Reynolds (“No relation to Mark Reynolds, I can tell you”) batted in the top of the second.

“No, I don’t think so,” said the other. I wanted to turn back, and tell him he was right, but then he continued with “he’s like Chase Utley,” and I didn’t have to hear where the comparison was going to decide that this fan wasn’t deserving of my insight.

There wasn’t much to see, throughout the first few innings, unless you were the kind of person enthralled by Mets minutia, so I was occupied. There was Gavin Cecchini (“Ketchini,” the Phillies PA guy pronounced it, as opposed to Czechini), who hit a softball-style slap single in the top of the second, after making a slick diving pickup in the first (“you gotta give that to him,” said one of the guys behind me, “wow”). Cecchini was having a day on the last day of the season, as players will tend to do the moment it becomes completely unhelpful. There was Rhys Hoskins, perhaps the Rookie of the Last Few Months, who earned the loudest applause I’d heard so far when he strode to the plate in the bottom of the first. Hoskins had hit 18 home runs in less than half a season, but his batting average had steadily declined from above .300 to .259 by day’s end. I listened to the cheering, and thought back to Ike Davis, and smiled. Then I thought even further back, to Mike Jacobs, and almost laughed at what Phillies fans were setting themselves up for.

And then, of course, there was Noah Syndergaard, pitching beyond the first inning for the first time since April. Watching Thor’s warmups, I started to get nervous; maybe it had just been a while, but he didn’t look quite the same. His motion looked shorter, less natural. Then Cesar Hernandez stepped in, and Thor started him off with a fastball at 99 MPH, and I stopped worrying. An inning later, Syndergaard ended the second with a fastball with inhuman movement that painted the inside corner at the knees at 101 MPH, and I leaned back in my seat, satisfied that if nothing else, we had something to look forward to.


When I checked the news on Twitter after Thor ended his sparkling two innings, I saw that the inevitable had become official. Terry Collins was on his way out of the manager’s office (and headed for a front office job, but you have to think he’ll do far less damage from up there). Thus, what I’d already been looking forward to became the story of the game: each action Terry took had the potential to be his last in a Mets uniform.

After Thor left, Chris Flexen navigated the bottom of the third. He started the fourth, but you got the sense that he was tiring: he gave up a leadoff double, then with one out, walked Nick Williams (who?) to bring up Maikel Franco. Flexen had already thrown more pitches than a normal relief outing. I looked toward the Mets dugout. There was no sign of movement. I’d seen this movie before, and I knew the ending.

It was hardly even Flexen’s fault. But after Dan Warthen visited the mound in what would become his last move as pitching coach, things took a turn. There was a single up the middle, a sac bunt that Dom threw away, and then a slow grounder to first that Dom fielded perfectly, and flipped to Flexen. Flexen, unfortunately, was nowhere near first base. His face as he caught a flip he couldn’t possibly have anticipated, displayed close-up on the video board, was as succinct a summation of the Mets season as I’d seen. Then there was another RBI single, a clean hit this time.

Out came Terry. On the scoreboard, his expression was in plain view: he looked not so much like a deer in the headlights, as a deer uncertain what headlights are, but vaguely aware that they’re nothing good. As Terry waited for Kevin McGowan, I thought about the situation. Here was Terry Collins, in the last game of his Mets managerial career, standing on the mound in the middle of an inning that had gone to hell, making a pitching change four batters too late. And as I took this incredibly representative situation in, I couldn’t help but smile again.


A little while after McGowan had put the inning to bed, I got up for some food. I came back to my seat with Cracker Jacks and lemonade; some of the last I’d have of each, I figured, until late March. I didn’t miss any action — the Mets, it would turn out, didn’t have a hit after the fifth — but I returned in time for the seventh-inning stretch.

Out came the Phanatic, accompanied by a host of female Phillies employees, dancing to “We Are Family.” But this wasn’t just any game. This was Fan Appreciation Day, and something special was happening.

“Stop the music!” said the PA announcer. “To thank you for your support, the Phanatic would like to give the shirt off his back to one lucky fan…”

He undid his jersey, and, finding himself wearing nothing but green fur, launched into some nudity-based slapstick. I’m no Phanatic devotee, but it was harmless, and, indeed, funny; just the thing for Closing Day, when juvenility and innocence make one last stand against the forces of maturation and civility. The Phanatic shuffled off the field, covering whatever he had.

“If we were in New York right now,” one of the guys behind me said, “on the last day of the season, Mr. Met comes out and gives everyone the finger.”

The Mets, it seemed, were determined to carry out Mr. Met’s work: they were intent on giving the finger to every fan they had. After they went down 1-2-3 in the seventh, I attempted to strike a bargain.

“Two more shots,” I thought to myself. “Let’s just score one. Let’s get a run, make the season a few batters longer.”

Rafael Montero made his way through the bottom of the seventh, but in the eighth, we went down without a whimper. Montero came back out for the bottom of the eighth and walked the leadoff man. Pinch-hitting, Ty Kelly, of former Las Vegas fame, popped out, but Montero walked Cesar Hernandez. I looked towards the Mets dugout. No one moved.

“There’s no way this goes well,” I muttered.

A ground-rule double, an RBI groundout, a walk, and an inside-the-park home run that looked like it may have cleared the fence but no one bothered to check later, Terry Collins was back out at the mound, making a pitching change sane people everywhere had known he should have made four batters earlier. Terry’s earlier maneuver, I supposed, hadn’t been the last move of his Mets career: this was. But really, how much difference was there?


All too soon, the ninth came along, and we were down to our last three outs of the season. It was Amed, Plawecki, and Cecchini.

Amed, the shortstop of the future we’re all counting on, smacked a line drive. J. P. Crawford snagged it out of the air. One out.

Up came Kevin Plawecki, pinch-hitting for Jamie Callahan. The last time Thor had made a legitimate start, Plawecki had pitched the final innings; now, here he was, helping out the Norse god in a different way. Plawecki, the former first-round pick…Plawecki, once a solid minor-league hitter…could he pull something off?

It was his signature move, a slow three-hopper to short. Crawford threw him out. Two down.

Now, Cecchini (“Ketchini”). Once a prospect; now, a kid with a weird swing and an only slightly less weird future. He can field — can he hit? We’ll find out. Well, not today, because he hit another ball right to Crawford, and just like that, the season was over.

I made my way up the steps to the concourse, but stopped at the top and looked back. The Phillies were already shaking hands and slapping backs; the Mets, meanwhile, were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, it struck me that they weren’t coming out. They were in hostile territory and had just been demolished.

I turned away from the field and left. It was getting colder: there was a chill in the air that couldn’t have been there moments before. On the way out of the stadium, I saw a family of Mets fans, a son maybe eight or nine years old. He was wearing a graphic David Wright t-shirt, decorated with a big number five, but also David’s face, and outlines of his swing. I started to smile, and then I realized that the kid had no idea whether his hero would ever play again. I didn’t either. Suddenly, the air felt even colder.


It was past 10:00 by the time I got to my Metro stop, and finally got above ground. Now, it was genuinely cold. As I started on my way back to my apartment, stepping on dead leaves as I walked, I pulled my winter hat out of my pocket and put it on. The top half of my body was clad in orange and blue, but the hat was a departure: it was emblazoned, with the red, blue, and gray of the New York Rangers.

The season was over, and there was only one thing to do. When I got back to my apartment, I opened up my computer and checked my calendars. It all fit. So I texted my girlfriend.

“Hey,” I said. “You want to go to Opening Day next season?”

“Obviously,” she said.

And with that, I started my offseason by looking forward to the end of it, even after a 70-92 season that was the worst since I was barely five feet tall. The Mets come and go as the schedule decrees, but they never truly leave us. This same team that had me smiling in the midst of an absolutely embarrassing 11-0 loss will be back in 2018, and hell, maybe we’ll even be better. But whether we are or not, to me it hardly matters. Old seasons end and new ones start, but Mets baseball continues, no matter what kind of season it is. And come March 2018, whether we’re set for 61 wins or 101, I’ll be there to see it. Closing Day? What Closing Day? There was a ballgame today. And soon enough, there will be another one tomorrow.


As Long As We Can

As Jose Reyes batted with two men on in the top of the eleventh, you could hear a small but determined group of Mets fans doing the “Jose” chant in the background, like we were back at Shea in 2006. Well, if you were watching, you could hear it. In that sense, most people probably couldn’t.

The chant was only background noise, anyway; as Reyes batted, Gary and Keith were discussing how the Phillies would manage their bullpen to the next two batters. It was Asdrubal, a switch-hitter but a raker against lefties, and then Nimmo, who hits righties like he plays the game, which is to say well.

“The problem is,” said Gary, “If you go to a righty against Cabrera, then you have no lefty against Nimmo.”

Reyes was still hitting, for a while anyway; then, he struck out, and Cabrera came up. There was no movement from the Phillies’ dugout; Pete Mackanin was sticking with the lefty. Cabrera, said a graphic SNY’s crew flashed on the screen, was batting .382 against righties; only Nolan Arenado was better. And then, while I was mulling this over in my head, Asdrubal launched a ball to left, and the game took on a different tone.

This wasn’t 2017. This couldn’t be. Mets were circling the bases, and balls that should have been caught were leaving the yard. Pete Mackanin had gambled and lost; out he came, to make a pitching change one batter too late.

“I would have brought in the righty,” Keith said.


There are games like this, every once in a while in a September that’s otherwise gone to waste, when you see flashes of what could have been.

After Cabrera, Brandon Nimmo walked, and hustled his way down to first. He could have started for us all year…hell, one of these years, maybe he will. Phillip Evans had a hit, and Nori Aoki walked…in different years, either or both of them could have been Jose Valentin or Damian Easley, those inexpressibly valuable pieces who quietly contribute on the way to a successful season. Kevin Plawecki had a hit in the 11th…he was, we tend to forget, a first round draft pick.

And then, of course, there was Familia, who seemed to have forgotten that he wasn’t having this kind of year. Everything was working. Pitching to Odubel Herrera, he got the strikeout looking on what I swore was the same pitch he’d thrown to Dexter Fowler, almost two years ago, to secure the National League pennant. Then he induced a Maikel Franco groundout, and struck out Cameron Rupp on the kind of slider we haven’t seen in years to end it.

This could have been a game the 2015 Mets won on the way to their improbable division title, if you didn’t look closely. But it couldn’t, because Amed doubled and Nimmo tripled and Asdrubal Cabrera had four hits and Kevin Plawecki had two. It wasn’t the 90-72 2015 Mets out there, and it definitely wasn’t the 70-91 2017 Mets; maybe it was the World-Series winning Mets of the future. Meanwhile, Gary and Keith were doing their thing, going on about how tired they were and who was going to drive them home tonight, and as they wound down the bottom of the eleventh, I realized that it was one more night on SNY with the boys, and that we only had one more, and suddenly, as I watched our guys wrap up another win, I didn’t really care what our record was.