IN THE HEARTS and minds of Mets fans, every baseball season ends twice. There’s the moment when it’s officially over — mathematical elimination — and the moment when, in retrospect, we should’ve known it was. On paper, the 2021 Mets weren’t eliminated from postseason contention until Sept. 25, but that was just for the coroner’s report. According to FanGraphs, the Mets’ odds of making the playoffs on June 16 were 89%, leaving a mere 11% chance for the Mets to Mets away the season. It was more than sufficient.
By the time the Mets were done, they’d pulled off an ambitious achievement even by the lofty standards of a franchise renowned for its face-plants: They finished with a sub-.500 record despite leading the NL East for more than half the season, despite being among the most-bet-on clubs to win the World Series. The Mets have long specialized in doing things no team in the entirety of MLB’s expansion era has ever done, and in 2021, by golly, they did it again.
For much of the season, until deep into the summer, I was a snob about this particular Mets collapse. You call this a collapse? This isn’t even remotely our best work. You see, I’m sort of an expert on Mets collapses. You might even say I wrote the book on it. It’s called “So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets — The Best Worst Team in Sports,” and it came out before this season. A season that — just so you understand the gravity of the delusion here — I was certain would end in a World Series championship.
It did not. And because this is the Mets, it gets worse: The season could yet end with a World Series championship for the Atlanta Braves or the St. Louis Cardinals. The worst-case scenario was avoided, but suffice to say, the three most detestable franchises in baseball made it to the playoffs, again, and again, the Mets did not. As far back as April, I’d been getting texts, tweets, emails from friends and various other mean people in my life: When’s the sequel coming out? You could do a whole book about this season! You could call it “The MRI Came Back Clean.” Or maybe “We Did Our Due Diligence.”
Pish-posh. I’d crack my knuckles after a blown Edwin Diaz save and share the legend of a man named Armando Benitez.
What took me so long to realize something truly special was happening here? When precisely should we have known that this season would end like so many others? The light in my eyes went out on Sept. 13 at Citi Field, in the bottom of the first inning, when the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright decided to stage an impromptu revival of my lowest moment as a Mets fan by catching Jeff McNeil looking for yet another crushing three-pitch whiff. After the game, which the Cardinals won 7-0, Wainwright took out his salt shaker, stood over the open wound and started pouring: “I like nostalgia,” he told reporters. “I felt Mets fans in a bases-loaded situation wanted to see me throw two curveballs and a changeup … I gave the people what they wanted.” Sept. 13 also happened to be my birthday. I said no gifts, Adam Wainwright.
But really, the Mets were already toast by then. Another candidate is Aug. 29: One, two, three, four, Javy Baez declares a thumb war! The whole saga unfolded in 100% predictable fashion: a silly 24-hour hyperventilation cycle, followed by curtain calls from the Citi Field faithful within two weeks. Thumbs down ended with two thumbs up, in other words, so this isn’t the day, either.
Moving on: The 2021 Mets were an above-average team with a fragile lead in a weak division, and then on July 17, they lost the best pitcher on Earth (Jacob deGrom) and their most gifted everyday player (Francisco Lindor) in a span of 93 minutes, with a stretch that included 13 games against the Dodgers and the Giants, the NL’s two best teams, looming. The Mets went 2-11. Seven of the losses were by one run. By the time it was over, the Mets were five games under .500, third in the NL East, 7½ games behind the Braves, who’d won nine straight.
July 17. That was the day.
Except … this is the Mets, which means this was a trick question all along. Their season ended before it started. And as fate should have it, the precise moment is captured on film. March 10: Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News posts footage of the Mets completing a 27-out fielding drill by simulating a World Series victory celebration. They screamed and whooped, tossed their gloves, mobbed one another, the works. It was a visualization exercise, the kind that pro athletes do all the time. But you’re supposed to do visualization exercises quietly, in your head, not on camera, in unison, like Little Leaguers who hear an ice cream truck turn the corner.
“Just high expectations for the team,” McNeil told me before a game in Boston, by way of explanation. “And that’s where we want to be at the end of the year, so.” McNeil is a rational sort. He speaks in the language of expected slugging percentages. He doesn’t do karma. “Just an idea I think somebody had. I forgot who it was.”
(It was Tony Tarasco, the Mets’ new first-base coach. I feel duty-bound to point out that Tarasco was drafted by the Braves and came up through their farm system, and while he played for six other teams, including the Mets … once a Brave, always a Brave.)
“I didn’t partake — I forget where I was — but I remember what you’re talking about,” said catcher James McCann in mid-September. “Matter of fact, I hadn’t even thought about that until you brought it up. But I don’t think the players, as a team, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have done that.'”
This is how you know that McCann was new in town. He didn’t know yet. He was so naive then. Me? The first time I saw that video, I knew for certain that I would be trolled with it in October.
ON SEPT. 14, less than 24 hours after Wainwright had micturated all over their freshly dug grave, the Mets players were back out on the grass at Citi Field for pregame drills, and goodness, they sure were cheerful. Goofing around. Taking grounders at positions they don’t play. J.D. Davis and left fielder Dom Smith took turns seeing who could wing the ball the farthest into the black seats in center field. Davis went first, then laughed as Smith took a 15-foot running start.
Look, nobody likes the Intensity Police. Nobody needs to be flipping tables in the clubhouse or cussing out teammates, but couldn’t they at least perform some fury? Some disappointment? Here I was, a grown man with two kids, just a dopey fan, and I’d been in a funk all day. People’s jobs were on the line. Manager Luis Rojas, who they’d professed to love, was about to get fired because they couldn’t hit. Right fielder Michael Conforto, who cracked two home runs as a rookie in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series and in a just universe would retire a Met, might be playing somewhere else next season. This was bad, fellas.
This Mets team is not lazy. They love to play, and they love to win. Lord knows they have flaws, but a lack of hustle isn’t one of them. They played 66 one-run games, and their extra-inning record was 11-7. For three seasons now, a hallmark of this team has been battling to the last out, sacrificing your nasal cavity to get on base and tearing off the jersey of the hero who wins it. Following a walk-off victory in May, not one but two Mets, Pete Alonso and pitcher David Peterson, fell on their faces trying to hurdle the dugout rail. One of the reasons those boos so offended Baez, in particular, is because it’s not like Lindor wasn’t trying. This isn’t about effort. It’s about temperament. The 2021 Mets just didn’t have a mean streak. They’re a bunch of swell guys who got along great and had a blast playing baseball. Some nerve, right?
It’s heartbreaking to love a team that’s just not good enough, which is why Mets fans feel more gutted than usual this time of year. We don’t expect rings, obviously. A fun ride that gives us some laughs and thrills and groans — that’ll do just fine. Chaos surrounded this team, but on the field and in the clubhouse, they were easy breezy, lemon squeezy.
If anything, this group of Mets liked one another too much. Folks in sports tend to speak about leadership in facile ways. Winning clubhouses don’t have one leader; they have three or four, each of whom leads in their own style. The Mets’ clubhouse is filled with leaders, but temperamentally they’re all like-minded. Alonso is positivity incarnate. Brandon Nimmo is the happiest man ever to wear a Mets uniform. Lindor had a huge smile even while cutting me off to end an interview. (“Brother,” he said, with a gentle hand on my shoulder, “I gotta go.”) Everyone loves Dom Smith, and Dom Smith loves everyone. Marcus Stroman, an absolute warrior, a student of pitching, a superb athlete and the MVP of this Mets season, will block you on Twitter if you bring any bad vibes into his feed. (Please don’t block me, Stro, I love u.) It was a sealed cocoon of optimism and self-belief, and they had such faith that chemistry equals winning that at times they didn’t seem to notice their season was slipping away.
As the 2021 Mets crumbled on the field, fans were feasting on a new 30 for 30 series about the 1986 world champion Mets, “Once Upon a Time in Queens,” and at times I felt like I was watching a four-hour MRI on the spinal column of the current Mets. Who is the Keith Hernandez in this bunch? Where is the Gary Carter?
“I think that’s probably the one guy we might’ve been missing this year, is the [guy who says] ‘OK, that’s enough, it’s time to get down to business,'” reliever Aaron Loup told me. “Because we all know everybody’s trying, and you always get the rah-rah, ‘next game, you got this’ stuff. But at some point you need, ‘OK, enough. It’s time to go, now.'” In the delicate balance of clubhouse construction, guys like Loup, who played in the 2020 World Series with Tampa Bay, who loves Busch Light so much he’s got the T-shirt to prove it, are as indispensable as the Keiths and Garys. His season out of the bullpen was downright deGromian — 0.95 ERA over 65 appearances. This is about what the Mets were missing, not what they had.
“We don’t really have one guy who’s getting after people,” McNeil told me. “Maybe it’s something we do need.” Is it essential to win? Maybe, maybe not, he said. He hasn’t won anything yet. He knows this much: “I’ve never really had that on the Mets. Three or four years, I’ve never really had that.”
In 2019, under hitting coach Chili Davis, the Mets’ offense was among their best in franchise history. Alonso dumped 53 home runs from the sky, an MLB rookie record. Four other Mets topped 20. All but one are still on the team. Heading into 2021, the knock on the Mets was pitching depth behind deGrom, and their defense behind the pitching. Scoring runs, though — that wasn’t going to be a problem.
And so, of course, scoring runs turned out to be a huge problem. In the season’s first month, the potent Mets topped five runs just three times. Lindor batted .182 with one home run and three RBIs. Then on May 1, after the Mets’ offense briefly busted out, a new character entered the stage: Donnie Stevenson, a mysterious hitting instructor whom Alonso, and then Conforto, and then Nimmo, credited with fixing the Mets issues at the plate.
Donnie Stevenson, you see, did not exist.
He was the fictional creation of a goofball clubhouse, and for a few days, he kept everyone smiling, until the Mets’ bats faltered, and the Mets’ impatient new owner fired Davis, and suddenly Stevenson wasn’t so funny anymore. Alonso said he wept when he learned of Davis’ firing. Davis worried aloud that Lindor’s slow start cost him his job; Lindor didn’t disagree. Davis was replaced with minor league hitting coordinator Hugh Quattlebaum, whose splendidly Metsy name conjured memories of J.J. Putz, and whose data-driven approach was a wild pendulum swing from what Davis had been preaching. For the rest of the season, most of the lineup looked lost. As spring turned to summer, and the runs still weren’t coming, the Mets’ stubborn self-belief started to seem like self-delusion. For the season, they finished 27th in runs and 29th — next to last in baseball — in hits. That’s not an aberration. That’s just lousy.
“I guess you have to take a look at: has this group won games?” Conforto said in a quiet voice before a game at Fenway Park, where the Mets got trucked twice and surrendered a humiliating Little League home run. “Over the past three, four years, we haven’t won a whole lot of games, not enough to make it to the next level, and that’s something that you just have to be honest about.”
The easy breezy vibe goes for deGrom, too, at least when he’s not pitching. Getting up in grilles is not his style. When healthy, he has a perma-smirk, as though amused by the foibles of normal humans. That smirk vanished in the second half as the setbacks piled up, replaced by a scowl.
“This is getting really old,” he all but spat at one point. During a terse early-August update on his condition, he shifted into past-tense mode (“I feel like I was having the best season of my career”). A few weeks later, Alderson let slip that contrary to what the Mets had disclosed at the time, one of deGrom’s many MRIs from this summer did not, in fact, come back clean. It showed a minor UCL sprain in his elbow, and yes, technically, Alderson noted, a “sprain” is a “tear.” Jacob deGrom, in other words, had a torn elbow ligament. But everything was fine now!
“I know what was said,” deGrom later told reporters, visibly seething, “but my ligament is perfectly fine. I wouldn’t be throwing if I had a compromised ligament.”
It was hard to tell whom deGrom was more mad at, us for constantly pecking at him, or Alderson for sticking him with another mess to clean up. It was clumsy, needless.
“At times you do wish it would just be baseball,” Conforto said before a late-September game at Fenway Park. Conforto was a rookie with the Mets in 2015, so he’s seen some things, but 2021 seemed to break him. “You wish you could just come to the park and just focus on what’s going on on the field.”
“Look at all the successful teams,” J.D. Davis told me a few days earlier. “You look at the Dodgers. You look at Boston. The Yankees. We’ve gone through, what? Three managers, three GMs, two owners now in some three years, four years? The craziness is — yeah, sometimes we talk about it. Of course we do.”
He laughs in that mordant Metsy way.
“I mean, it’s hard not to. We’re just like, ‘All right, I guess that’s what happened today.'”
THE AUDITORIUM AT Citi Field where Mets executives conduct news conferences, upstairs from the Gil Hodges Gate, overlooking the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, is one of the few rooms at the ballpark that isn’t named for anyone. Given the agenda of the day, this was probably for the best. It wasn’t worth the risk of being forced to alert reporters that the funeral for the 2021 Mets would be conducted at 5:30 p.m. in the Hernandez Auditorium.
Alderson is as admired as Mets executives get, which is perhaps a backward compliment, but the truth is he’d be a legend in any front office. He built the Oakland A’s dynasty of the late 1980s. He’s always been the steady baseball man who pulls the Mets back from the abyss, whether it’s Bernie Madoff or the Wilpons, and the reason the Mets have such a likeable and talented core is he assembled it. Oakland’s current executive VP of baseball operations, Billy Beane, whom the Mets drafted out of high school, reportedly worships him, which might offer hope that Alderson can succeed at luring him. This is his final mission: shepherd the franchise again into a safe pasture. He has always been a reluctant custodian for the Mets, so perhaps he deserves that context before we enumerate the humiliating personnel disasters, one after another, that he has presided over since returning to the Mets last September.
First, there was manager Mickey Callaway, who lasted two feckless seasons and whose lewd behavior toward women was an open secret at previous stops. Then there was Jared Porter, whom Alderson hired in December 2020. Porter lasted a month before he, too, got fired for a pattern of unwanted sexual advances. Alderson replaced Porter with Porter’s deputy, 44-year-old Zack Scott, who was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated at 4 a.m. following a charity event at Cohen’s house. And now Cohen has entrusted Alderson to get it right on his fourth try.
Then there’s the attempted hire that fell through: Trevor Bauer, the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner, who Alderson and the Mets believed they’d landed in free agency back in March, until he chose the Dodgers at the last minute. The horrifying accusations against Bauer were still months away, but even after Callaway and Porter, Alderson blew through the existing red flags about Bauer. “There were lots of questions about Trevor Bauer that we tried to answer, and … I think the process we went through was a good one,” Alderson said when I asked if Mets brass had come away with lessons from that experience. “We had lots of feedback, including from our own employees, male and female. So, that’s an unfortunate situation. And the good news is it didn’t happen on our watch.”
The good news is it didn’t happen on our watch. This isn’t even one of those cases where a front office is saying all the right things and now it’s a matter of holding them to account. They’re not saying all the right things. He offered no regrets. No reflection on why the warning signs were ignored, no reason to believe they’ll be heeded in the future. If Alderson thinks any good news came out of the Mets’ Bauer pursuit, that is very bad news.
One after another, current Mets lined up in the season’s final week to say that, despite it all, they’d love to return to New York next year. Baez called these Mets “a special group” and said he’d gladly play with Lindor forever. Stroman, who is from New York and seems to thrive here, said he’d gladly play with Baez forever. Athletes always say this sort of thing at this time of year, but the Mets seemed to be going out of their way to italicize their words.
Alderson, though, kept hinting at major changes to the roster. Asked if he still believes that this Mets core can compete for a World Series, he pointedly did not say yes. “Well, it depends on how you define our core of young players,” he began, “and I think that that core is eroding.” Conforto and Noah Syndergaard, he noted, are already free agents. “I’m not sure that we have the core of players that would allow us to reach that level.”
As for Javy Baez’s future in New York, Alderson’s reply plays very differently on paper than it did in the room. On paper, here’s what he said: “Is it possible? Yes. Is it realistic? Maybe.” The transcript, though, is missing Alderson’s almost comically pregnant pauses before each one-word answer. Put it this way: I went in thinking Baez would be back, and I left forlorn. It almost got worse as Alderson went on. “But to say, ‘No, there’s absolutely no way that Javy Baez can be part of the Mets next year,’ no, I wouldn’t be prepared to say that at this point.”
What could major changes mean? McNeil and Smith were prime under-performers in 2021, but they’re also cheap and under team control; deployed wisely — 400 well-curated plate appearances, versus 700 — they can play crucial bench roles. Aside from Stroman, the entire 2021 Mets rotation is already under contract for 2022. The bullpen was a strength all year, so that’d be a peculiar place to dynamite. Mets fans are bracing for heartbreak when it comes to Conforto, and by all appearances, so is he. But if Conforto decides to return, too, then what exactly will be different in 2022?
A healthy deGrom changes everything.
THE RARE SIBERIAN tiger only emerges from his den once a day, in the late afternoon, to get some sun, stretch out his long tensile legs, and shag flies in center field. He might kibitz with a friend on another team, or take grounders at shortstop, but he will make sure to keep on his side of the invisible barrier between the infield grass and the dirt in front of the home dugout, a safe distance from the caravan of onlookers with their cameras and notebooks.
In order to return to his lair, though, he must cross through the dugout, and there are but two dugout gates, so depending on which one he heads for, the caravan will drift in that direction, measuring his gait. Is he slowing? Is he speeding up? He won’t stop. To stop is to die. He might answer a question or two as he glides by. He might say six words combined.
He’s wily, though. Once I watched him amble down the third-base line toward reporters only to skip over a low fence in left field and scamper away back into his den, grinning as he ghosted them. Another time, I witnessed a beat writer try to slow him down. “Can I ask you a question, Jake?” “Nope,” deGrom replied without breaking stride. “Please?” the writer pleaded, but deGrom just shook his head extra hard, like a kid refusing his vegetables.
Between 2018, when deGrom won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young awards, and the beginning of 2021, the Mets had a losing record in games in which he started. It was our Metsiest stat for three solid years: somehow the best pitcher on Earth made us worse. In the first half of 2021, though, deGrom was so historically unhittable that even the Mets couldn’t find a way to waste it. On July 7, when deGrom threw his last pitch of the season, he was 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA, the Mets were 46-38 and wielding a 4½-game NL East lead. His average fastball velocity was 99.2, a number that made me giggle in awe this summer and now makes me wince. He was chosen to start the All-Star Game for the NL, but he opted to rest, and then never came back. A healthy deGrom wouldn’t merely have tacked on five or six second-half wins, like some garden-variety ace. He spares your bullpen, relieves your relievers, a crucial boost in a baseball age when many starters max out at five innings. He gives his teammates that rare sensation of participating in living history. Your senses get heightened. Your focus narrows. You’ll do anything not to be the guy who screws it up.
Would the Mets have made the playoffs if deGrom hadn’t gotten hurt? You’re damn right they would’ve.
For the first three months of the season, deGrom wasn’t just the best pitcher on Earth, he was also the Mets best hitter. This is only a slight exaggeration: He batted .364 this year. Deep into June, he’d driven in more runs than he’d allowed. Of course, because these are the Mets, he twinged a lat muscle in late April. That led to his first IL trip of the season. But then he came right back and gave up two runs — two — over his next seven starts. I was at Citi Field on June 16, when he struck out eight of the first nine Cubs he faced, and for the first and only time in my life, I was certain we were about to witness a no-hitter. Then he didn’t come out for the fourth inning, and my heart sank. A month later, his season was over, and the Mets were just another team that couldn’t buy a hit.
“If we’ve just lost three games in a row and it’s Jake’s turn to pitch, you knew the stopper was in,” Loup told me. “He’s there. He’s coming to save the day.” Davis called it “more than a punch to the gut.” The margin for error was gone. “We needed to be at full strength when we were playing L.A., San Francisco,” McNeil said. “Yeah, it was tough. That was the biggest trip of the year.”
For the duration of the second half, the Mets teased us with the possibility that deGrom might return before the end of the season, even though we could read a calendar and do the math. This was also bigger than a playoff race. In a matter of weeks, deGrom had gone from a likely three-time Cy Young winner to a 33-year-old power pitcher coming off a (very small) UCL tear who can opt out of his already-below-market deal after the 2022 season, and who may be wondering if this franchise will ever get its act together.
For a highly visible superstar who’s played in New York going on nine years, deGrom is something of a cipher even to Mets fans. He doesn’t do extended interviews, or Pepsi commercials. He grew up in a part of central Florida so rural that it’s considered country even for central Florida. He enjoyed wrestling baby gators with his buddies and going to keggers with giant bonfires. Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine once described him to me as a “free spirit,” which is maybe not the phrase most people would associate with deGrom, but when you watch him prowl around the outfield, you see that tiger itching to be a tiger again and losing his mind that he can’t.
“Jake is always moving around,” Conforto told me. “It’s kind of who he is.” All Mets fans know the origin story that deGrom is a converted shortstop, which is why he was such a late bloomer as a pitcher, but the truth is he’s never really stopped wanting to be a shortstop. Shortstops get to play every day. For a guy like that, being injured is excruciating. “It’s boring. It’s tedious,” Conforto said, who spent a long stretch of contract year on the IR himself with a hamstring pull. “You’ve got all this time where you’re not getting ready to play a game. It’s not a great place to be, and Jake’s definitely bored.” Said McCann: “I think when he goes nine innings and throws a shutout, he’s super bored.” DeGrom is a world-class athlete, and world-class athletes need competition like the rest of us need air.
Now imagine going without it for two years.
IT WAS COLD and damp at Citi Field, a lousy night for baseball, and some-20,000 scattered fans in attendance for a meaningless late September game against the then-last-place Miami Marlins were on their feet, going bananas. This is how it works when you’re a Mets fan: The moment after we get eliminated from the playoffs, we begin casting around for reasons to get delusional all over again about next year. So much about 2022 seems in flux right now. Alderson said it himself: the core is eroding. The fan base is as gutted as I’ve ever seen it because we all know there must be consequences this time. We’ve reached the limits of chemistry.
It was going to take a doozy, in other words, to restore our unearned faith this time. Like clockwork, the Mets delivered: the Return of Thor.
Once upon a time, it was Syndergaard, and not deGrom, who was destined to become the two-time Cy Young winner of the Mets rotation. That both of them have turned out to be as gifted as advertised, and the Mets still haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2015, might turn out to be the real crime of a decade that began with Madoff fleecing the franchise. For Syndergaard, it’s been a much bumpier road. He’s been mesmerizing, he’s been infuriating. But mostly he’s been hurt. He’s been so bored the past two years he launched a book club through his Instagram feed.
Thor and deGrom have been clubhouse neighbors since they came up together in the mid-2010s, and we learned to distinguish them by their flowing manes: Syndergaard was Norse god blond, deGrom was backwoods brown. Thor still has the locks. DeGrom got serious once he started racking up Cy Youngs. DeGrom has turned out to be the one chasing the ghost of Tom Seaver, but among Mets fans Thor will always have our heart. His legend began during the 2015 World Series, when the Royals objected to him going up and in on their hitters, and he responded by informing them they could “meet me 60 feet 6 inches away.” He loved antagonizing Jeff Wilpon, and we loved him for it.
On Sept. 28, in the next breath after announcing via Zoom that deGrom would be shut down for the season, Rojas informed the assembled media that Syndergaard would start the second game of that night’s doubleheader. He’d pitch one, and only one, inning. Given Rojas’ expressed rationale for shutting down deGrom (“there’s no sense” bringing him back now), the logic of bringing back Syndergaard for a single inning was hard to square. The human factor, though, was obvious. Syndergaard is a free agent. He has spent most of his career in the Mets organization, and more than any current Met, he has hurled himself into the experience of being a New Yorker. He and deGrom belong in the same clubhouse and, for years, Mets fans have been bracing for him to ditch us for a more competent franchise. Instead, he’s the one hoping we’ll give him one more shot.
Sending him out to pitch that night, in other words, was a needless act of kindness, no matter how Mets management described it. This might be his last chance to pitch in New York. If he’s going to audition for a job next year, might as well let him do it in front of the home crowd, let him feel that love one more time. The day before, a Mets fan on Twitter chastised Cohen for not coming down harder on this team, and every now and then, the wizard behind the curtain responds. “At this point in the season,” Cohen wrote, “can you think of something to say that will matter. I’m thinking forward.” And so now here we were, thinking forward.
Just after 7 p.m., for the first time in two years, Syndergaard took the mound to the sound of “Carmina Burana” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and, dear reader, I got chills. This is what it’s all about for us — moments like this, when the return of our guy, our Thor, somehow means more to us than a title ever could.
Syndergaard threw 10 pitches, nine for strikes. He was under a strict no-breaking-ball rule, but his fastball hit 96. He struck out two, retired the side in order and strode off the mound to the ecstatic cheers of every Mets fan here at Citi Field, at home, wherever they were, all of us thinking the same sad, silly, Metsy thought: It’s happening again.
Los Angeles Dodgers thwarted by ‘crazy’ wind as San Francisco Giants take Game 3 thanks to Evan Longoria HR
LOS ANGELES — Off the bat, nine innings into a game surprisingly devoid of action, it seemed as if an entire ballpark believed Gavin Lux had tied the score with his Los Angeles Dodgers down to their final out.
With none on, two outs and the Dodgers trailing by a run, Lux unleashed his best swing on an up-and-away, 99 mph fastball from the young, electric Camilo Doval and produced a 107 mph line drive with a 22-degree launch angle — a batted ball with an expected batting average of .890, the type that resulted in a home run about half the time this season.
But wind gusts that hovered around 15 mph for the most of this Monday night knocked the baseball down as it traveled into the deeper parts of Dodger Stadium’s center field. The Giants held on by a 1-0 score and took a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five National League Division Series, pushing one of the most talented teams in Dodgers history to the brink of elimination.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts referenced Lux’s drive and another from Chris Taylor in the sixth — 372 feet, 107 mph — as the type that would have resulted in home runs “any other night.”
“Those two balls right there — it would’ve been a different outcome,” Roberts said. “But those were the elements both teams had to play with, and that’s baseball.”
Strong winds, whipping around the outfield, began about an hour before the first pitch, blowing so hard that both foul poles swayed throughout the night. Max Scherzer, who ultimately struck out 10 batters in seven innings of one-run ball, noticeably lost his balance midway through facing leadoff hitter Tommy La Stella and later said the wind was “pushing me towards home plate.”
Longoria couldn’t recall ever stepping out of the batter’s box so often, out of fear that he might get knocked over. His decisive solo homer to lead off the fifth — on an 0-2, 96 mph fastball that caught too much of the strike zone — became the only extra-base hit of the night, even though it registered as one of 13 batted balls that traveled at least 100 mph.
Longoria’s left his bat at 110 mph.
“I was thinking — if that ball didn’t go out tonight,” Longoria said, “I might just cash it in.”
Instead, Longoria, four days removed from his 36th birthday, produced the run that put the 107-win Giants one victory away from eliminating the 106-win Dodgers and propelling them into the NL Championship Series. In hopes of doing so, the Giants will begin Game 4 with Anthony DeSclafani, who allowed 22 runs in 27 innings against the Dodgers this season. Roberts said his team remained undecided but stated repeatedly that “everything’s on the table,” including, one would assume, starting Walker Buehler on three days’ rest.
The Dodgers produced nine of the 13 100-plus-mph batted balls in Game 3, and seven of them resulted in outs. Two of those came off the bat of Mookie Betts, one of which was a scorching line drive with two outs and the tying run on base in the seventh inning — another out thanks to a leaping catch by Crawford, a significantly more mobile shortstop in his age-34 season.
Crawford, a central figure for the Giants over these last 10 years, was playing in his 79th game at Dodger Stadium and couldn’t recall conditions like these in any other game.
“I hardly even remember a light breeze here most nights,” Crawford said. “The wind was definitely pretty crazy tonight, and it was a factor in the game for sure.”
The Giants received 14 outs from Alex Wood, a clubhouse favorite for the Dodgers who helped them win last year’s World Series, then got another five outs from Tyler Rogers. After Jake McGee escaped trouble in the seventh, Kapler turned to Doval, the 24-year-old right-hander who hasn’t allowed a run since coming back up from the minor leagues near the middle of August.
Doval breezed through the first five hitters. Then came Lux, pinch-hitting in the pitchers’ spot. He got a second straight fastball with the count at 1-0, drove it to center and stretched his left arm in the direction of the Dodgers’ dugout in anticipation of a celebration. Steven Duggar raced to the warning track, momentarily lost his footing as he began to make a sudden move forward, then secured the catch on the edge of the dirt.
Lux stood near first base with his mouth ajar, unable to believe the baseball had stayed in the park.
“I couldn’t believe it didn’t go,” Longoria said. “Guess it was just our night.”
Most epic NLDS matchup ever? Answering the big questions about Giants-Dodgers
Which team is better: the San Francisco Giants or the Los Angeles Dodgers? If you’ve followed our MLB Power Rankings, you’ve seen them flip back and forth, just about all season long, between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in all of baseball.
The argument for the Dodgers? They’re the defending World Series champions and are positively loaded with star power!
The Giants? They held off L.A. and won the division!
Whichever side you’re on, though, we’re about to find out the answer — at least as far as 2021 is concerned — as the two National League West powerhouses meet up in the NL Division Series after the Dodgers beat the Cardinals in a walk-off on Wednesday night. As we get set for a series that will leave the victor as the favorite to win the pennant, ESPN baseball experts Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown break down what this matchup means and what each team needs to do to win — and give their picks for who will come out on top.
A 107-win team vs. a 106-win team — is this the most epic NLDS matchup ever?
Gonzalez: Put it this way: I can’t imagine how there could possibly be a better one. Start with the fact that this is one of the most historic rivalries in baseball history, featuring two teams that had previously never faced off in the postseason, then think about how it all ended — with the Dodgers surging down the stretch, fighting fervently to chase down their ninth consecutive division title, and the Giants refusing to cede. The Dodgers went 43-13 after the start of August, yet they made up only two games on the Giants. Wild.
Keown: This question is too limiting. Purely from a record standpoint, this would be the most epic World Series matchup ever in the 162-game era — not even in the Fall Classic have both opponents exceeded 105 wins in the same season. It’s a testament to the talents of these two teams and the futility of many others. Add in the divisional rivalry and the tight matchups this season (10-9 Giants) and the only problem with this series is that we don’t get to see it play out over seven games.
Is this the best rivalry in baseball right now?
Keown: I can only assume you mean besides Dodgers-Padres? (Ah, memories.) Right now, there’s nothing that compares to this one. There are the historical and geographic aspects of the rivalry, sure, but there’s something more elemental at work: The Giants have been crafted, at least in part, by two people (president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler) who also helped to devise the roster-building philosophy that has led to the Dodgers’ recent run of dominance. And they’ve done it in San Francisco very quickly and very similarly, with an emphasis on depth and versatility. These two teams have been so evenly matched this season, with so many fantastic games, that (again) we deserve a seven-game series. Which reminds me: Is there still a dent in the ground in front of the Dodgers’ dugout where Dave Roberts spiked his cap after Darin Ruf‘s (non)check swing?
Gonzalez: Ah, yes, the check swing. Crazy how the division might have been decided by that call, or Sheldon Neuse not stretching on a close play at second base, or Mike Tauchman robbing Albert Pujols of a walk-off home run. Heading into the final regular-season series between these two teams, the Dodgers and Giants had not only split their first 16 games against each other but the combined score was 68-68. The Giants wound up taking two of three, but we deserve more of these games. The only thing that might have kept this from being the best rivalry going was that it became a slow burn. We anticipated that the NL West would come down to Dodgers-Padres, and it seems as if most of America didn’t concede to the Giants being at that level until the regular season concluded.
The Giants will win the series if … ?
Gonzalez: Kris Bryant gets hot again. The Giants’ offense isn’t reliant on one player, of course. Far from it. But Brandon Belt‘s absence leaves a major power void in this lineup. And Bryant is especially capable of filling it. Since the start of September, he’s batting only .245/.353/.347. But he can turn it on quickly. And he’ll need to against a Dodgers pitching staff with an abundance of power right-handed arms.
Keown: I’m tempted to write something facile like, If they continue to be one game better than the Dodgers, but a five-game series is not the same as a 162-game season. To win three of the next five, the Giants need their starting pitchers to go postseason deep — five to six innings — in each game. The bullpen has been phenomenal, and the cometlike emergence of 22-year-old closer Camilo Doval gives them another inning of depth, but it will limit the early- to middle-inning variables if Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb and Anthony DeSclafani (presumably) can work their way through the Dodgers’ lineup three times each. It will also indicate an ability to keep the Dodgers from rolling out four- and five-run innings, a particular specialty of theirs. However: Even this prediction is squishy because the Giants have won games so many different ways, and with so many different contributions (and contributors), that it feels pointless to get too granular about any of it.
The Dodgers will win the series if …?
Gonzalez: Kenley Jansen closes the door. Given how closely matched these two teams have been, it might truly be that simple. The biggest ripple effect of Clayton Kershaw‘s injury might be that Julio Urias will remain a traditional starting pitcher in the postseason — he’ll take the ball in Game 2 — and Roberts won’t have the flexibility to use him in that hybrid bullpen role he has thrived in during prior Octobers. Urias, if you remember, recorded the last out of the World Series last year, not Jansen. Now, though, the ninth inning will belong to Jansen. He has had a very good year — 2.22 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 30.9 strikeout percentage — but two of his five blown saves came against the Giants.
Keown: It’s equally difficult to be reductive on this side, but Max Muncy‘s elbow injury throws a big bright light on Cody Bellinger. He has been one of the worst offensive players in baseball, and he seems particularly susceptible to swings of confidence. Muncy’s injury leaves Corey Seager as the Dodgers’ only marquee left-handed bat against the Giants’ three right-handed starters (presumably Gausman, Webb and DeSclafani.) Granted, the Dodgers’ offense is good enough at the top and deep enough at the bottom to withstand an injury, even one this major. But Bellinger and his subterranean 45 OPS+ might end up playing first base, which also serves to degrade L.A.’s outfield defense while adding another pitcher-level hitter to the order. Another option at first: Pujols, whose range is roughly his wingspan and who stands a chance of becoming the first player in an NLDS to hit into a 7-4-3 ground ball double play.
Is the winner of this LDS going to the World Series?
Gonzalez: The Brewers were my pick to win the World Series, but then Devin Williams, one of their two most important relievers, broke his hand punching a wall. And one reliever usually doesn’t make that big a difference, but it should, given how good the Dodgers and Giants are. In short — yes, the winner of this series is going to the World Series — assuming the team doesn’t completely exhaust its pitching just to survive what should be a remarkably close LDS.
Keown: Without question. What’s wild about these two teams is how they’ve been forced to play playoff baseball for nearly half a season. How do you win 106 games and finish second? How do you win 107 and be pushed to the final day? One way is by treating nearly every game like Game 7 — or, in the unfortunate reality of our current discussion, Game 5 — and along the way finding out exactly what works and what doesn’t. For this season at least, these two teams have nailed down the formula.
Prediction time! Who ya got and why?
Gonzalez: I predict that the series will be decided in the 15th inning of Game 5. And given how this matchup has played out, I predict that whatever prediction one makes is bound to look foolish in hindsight.
Keown: Giants in five, mostly because betting against them this season, while popular, has proved to be both foolish and unfulfilling. They win, whatever way they can, and scoff at your predictions.
Boston Red Sox advance to ALCS behind Kiké Hernandez, Rule 5 draft pick-turned-bullpen ace Garrett Whitlock
BOSTON — As the Red Sox clinched their spot in the American League Championship Series, they rode the backs of two players who entered the season wanting to prove their worth.
Kiké Hernandez entered 2021 wanting to demonstrate that he could be an everyday player in the major leagues after his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers typecast him into a utility man role. Reliever Garrett Whitlock hoped to establish himself as a major leaguer after the Yankees left him off the 40-man roster and Boston selected him in the Rule 5 draft. On Monday night, both players proved crucial to Boston’s walk-off 6-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that cemented the Red Sox’s spot in the ALCS.
“I mean, here we are surprising everybody but ourselves,” Hernandez said. “We knew in spring training we had the team to make it this far and here we are.”
Early on Monday night, it looked like the Red Sox might cruise to the ALCS after scoring five runs in the third inning.
While the Rays slowly chipped away at the lead throughout the night, eventually tying the game in the eighth inning, Boston displayed the resilience that made it the team that led the majors in comeback wins during the regular season, pulling off the walk-off win to reach the ALCS in a season when few expected the Red Sox to be playing this deep into the postseason.
Boston scored the winning run on a walk-off sacrifice fly from Hernandez after Christian Vazquez singled on a ground ball before being moved over to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Christian Arroyo. An infield single by Travis Shaw set up Hernandez, who played a crucial role in sparking the offense in Games 2 and 3 to help propel the Red Sox to the ALCS.
“I was just talking to myself,” Hernandez said. “You’re about to win this game, so you need to work on slowing everything down and slowing your breathing down and slowing the game down and starting early and making sure that you see the pitch, and you’re not just swinging at your shoes for no reasons for trying to be a hero.”
The loss went to reliever J.P. Feyereisen, the eighth pitcher of the night for Tampa Bay, while Whitlock recorded the victory after pitching two innings, allowing no hits and no runs. Whitlock came in after reliever Ryan Brasier blew the save for Boston, allowing two runs to Tampa Bay in the eighth inning on an RBI double for Kevin Kiermaier and an RBI single for Randy Arozarena.
To stop the bleeding, Boston turned to Whitlock. Hernandez said people around the team called Whitlock their secret weapon for most of the season.
“It’s not secret anymore,” Hernandez said. “Garrett Whitlock is legit. That is an electric arm with three-plus pitches at his age with his experience coming into this year. It’s not every day that a Rule 5 pick gets to close out a wild-card game and then wins a game that wins not just a division series, but a playoff series.”
Whitlock arrived in Boston as an unheralded Rule 5 draft pick. While most Rule 5 picks fail to make any impact on a team, the Red Sox’s front office felt optimistic about the reliever, whom it scooped up from the Yankees organization. After some Boston scouts watched videos on Instagram of Whitlock’s offseason bullpen sessions, the team decided to take a chance on the 25-year-old righty.
The gamble paid off, with Whitlock posting a 1.96 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP in 46 games, shaping up to be the best version of the prototypical reliever in the modern game: a versatile pitcher who can come in and be a bullpen Swiss Army knife by throwing multiple innings or closing games and getting hitters out in a variety of ways. Whitlock said a turning point came in Chicago in September, when he gave up a walk-off home run to Leury Garcia.
“I was sitting in the bathroom and Kiké Hernandez came up and like I was down on myself,” Whitlock said. “Kiké came up and he was just like, ‘Hey man, you’ve been huge for us all year. You’re going to continue to be huge for us.’ Once he said that, that gave me a lot of confidence to go.”
Cora said that the success of Whitlock is emblematic of the approach the Red Sox take with scouting.
“Instagram gets a shoutout,” Cora said. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen. But it was amazing. It was a great day. I’m very proud of everybody.”
Ultimately, Cora said the team won because the Red Sox executed on the fundamentals, a strength of both Hernandez and Whitlock.
“Kiké put the ball in the air, old-school baseball right there,” Cora said. “Fundamental baseball, and we won the ALDS playing good fundamental baseball.”
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