Tuesday, September 8, 2015

No Quarter

This, then, would be the series that we'd circled as the make-or-break point in the Mets season. It seems like, particularly for the past month, but really for a majority of the season, these three games between the Mets and Nationals at the beginning of crunch time, in September with the lights starting to really brighten, would tell us just how far the Mets had come. Certainly, the signs over the last month have been more than encouraging; after basically being the Nationals' bitches for the better part of three seasons, the Mets finally started to fight back, first by punching the Nationals in the teeth last month at Citi Field. This kick started the Mets on a furious run that saw them not just catch and pass the Nationals for 1st place, but also put the Nationals in a slumber and allowed the Mets to gain distance. Over the last week, things evened out a bit and so here we are, with the Mets coming into Washington ahead by 4 games.

The goal in another era might have been to not get swept and to not fall back into old habits. But these Mets are made of something different. Rather than play to not lose, the goal for these Mets is clearly to step on Washington's throat and bury them now. You only had to watch Monday afternoon's raucous affair to see this as truth.

I'd mentioned last week that the Nationals were clearly pinning everything on this series. They'd lined up their pitching just so, so that Max Scherzer was starting the opening game against Jon Niese, who's turned back into a bit of a weak link in the rotation. But early, it seemed apparent that neither pitcher was going to put forth a dominant, game-changing outing. Scherzer was all over the map in the 1st inning and was only fortunate to put away Murphy and Cespedes after Curtis Granderson started the game with a sun-aided double. Undaunted, the Mets charged right back after Scherzer in the 2nd, as Michael Conforto led off the inning with a Home Run, again to Left Field, and Kelly Johnson hit one of his own. In the 4th, Yoenis Cespedes hit the Mets 3rd HR off Scherzer and the Mets were off and running.

But, of course, Jon Niese had another Jon Niese outing. He was a pitch or two away from unraveling in the 3rd inning, but managed to get Bryce Harper to fly out. In the 4th, however, everything got away from him as it annoyingly seems to do. I try to be kind to Niese because it's not like he tries to perform this way, but I can't defend him after the 4th inning in this game. This was the biggest start of his life and he pitched like an asshole once again. As soon as Yunel Escobar's 10-foot ground ball didn't roll foul I knew he was screwed and of course it was Mr. Head & Shoulders, Wilson Ramos, that did him in. Niese got ahead of Ramos 0-2 and should have bounced his curve 10 feet in front of the plate. Instead, he got it over, Ramos reached out and hit it into the seats and just like that everything was horrible. To make matters worse, Niese responded by giving up two more long hits before mercifully being removed, at which point he proceeded to walk around the dugout screaming while his teammates ignored him. Nobody needs to hear it out of him. You want compassion? Pitch better.

Fortunately, Niese's teammates seem to grasp the concept of a big game and a 2-run deficit with 5 innings left to play seems to be no sweat. The paint hadn't even dried on Washington's 5 spot before Granderson doubled home Tejada in the 5th, and in the 6th, Cespedes doubled, rooked Scherzer into a balk and then scored on a Travis d'Arnaud sacrifice fly. Just like that, game tied, Niese off the hook.

In the 7th, then, the Mets finally got into the Nationals bullpen, which appears to possess the consistency of the bullpen of the 2008 Mets. Washington's bullpen has submarined them for weeks now, and there seems to be no palatable option in sight. I know the Mets have had their own issues in the bullpen, but Washington's got some next-level shit going on. Blake Treinen started the inning, gave up a hit, got an out, and was pulled for Felipe Rivero, because Matt Williams had to play matchups. Rivero predictably walked Curtis Granderson, the only guy he was in there to face. Williams then pulled Rivero for Casey Janssen, who gave up an RBI single to David Wright that put the Mets ahead. Williams again came out to remove Janssen and bring in Matt Thornton. Thornton got his guy, Daniel Murphy, out, but his fly ball was deep enough to score Granderson. By this point, 2 runs in the hole, Williams I guess just threw up his hands and left Thornton in to face Cespedes because what was the use? Though the situation was ripe for Cespedes to hit one into the Anacostia, he instead showed some temperance by just doubling to right, scoring Wright from first and allowing Wright to explode in the kind of celebration we haven't seen out of him since Shea Stadium. Thornton then got Conforto out to finally end the inning, but by that point the game had already been nuked.

Meanwhile, the Mets bullpen completely stonewalled Washington and allowed them nothing after the 4th, perhaps a further indictment of Niese. Carlos Torres put out the fire in the 4th and probably would have kept going had a balky groin or calf or whatever not acted up. No matter. Erik Goeddel came in and kept things clean. In the 6th, Harper came up with 2 outs and Dario Alvarez was summoned for his first outing of the season. I'm sure everyone had reason to be skeptical of this move seeing as how one guy is an MVP candidate and the other was a veteran of 4 Major League games, none of which were in 2015, but Alvarez kept throwing sliders and eventually struck out Harper, because that's just the way the game was going. Hansel Robles, who every so often comes out and just blows everyone away, did just that by pitching 2 perfect innings and striking out 4. And, of course, Jeurys Familia, who amazingly hadn't pitched since last Monday, came in and did his thing in the 9th and the Mets came away with a statement 8-5 victory in the first game of this series of massive importance. 

The Nationals have seen this happen enough times at this point that they were completely dazed by the 8th inning. You can tell a lot by body language and as this game progressed, the Mets dugout seemed more pep rally and the Nationals seemed tense and out of sorts. But then again, this is how it's been for weeks. The Nationals get ahead early and can't figure out a way to shorten the game. Once opposing teams figure that out, they'll keep trying harder and harder to come back. Against bad teams, you can mask it, but when the good teams come to town, eventually something has to give. This was the story of the Mets not long ago. Now, that shoe is on the other foot and the Mets are the beneficiary of someone else's issues. It's nice to feel that way for once.

No comments: