Appreciating Every Moment

The weird thing about sports is that the better the season you have, the more it hurts when it ends.  When the Bears don’t even sniff the playoffs all year, it’s a mercy when college basketball starts and football drifts off into the background.  But when your team comes together and makes a run at the whole thing, you never want it to end.  That’s the position I was in when I stood in the upper deck of Citi Field last November and watched the Royals celebrate a championship that my Mets came one series away from claiming.  The knowledge that a season for the ages was over was the worst part.

Last night, I found myself in a similar predicament, but this time it feels much worse.  It’s not because the Tar Heels were the preseason #1 team in the country, predicted by many to win the title before the season even started.  It’s not even because an incredible season was at its end.  As I stared in disbelief after Villanova’s Kris Jenkins knocked down the biggest shot in college basketball history, it dawned on me that not only was this particular Carolina team never going to play together again, but that I hadn’t fully appreciated them until it was almost too late.

You hear all the time about a “championship window” that pro teams have, a few years when their stars are in their primes and a title is a realistic possibility.  In college, that window is constantly shifting.  You can’t just re-sign a guy after his four years is up.  You never get to enjoy him again.  In pro sports, you can be a Spurs fan and root for Tim Duncan for 20 years.  Wake Forest only got him for four.  The state of modern college athletics makes even four years a rarity, as more and more players at blue blooded programs are of the “one-and-done” variety.

At Carolina, that has happily not been the case.  I’m not naive enough to think that it’s because we have higher standards; on the contrary, top prospects probably see the wheels churning at the Kentucky freshman NBA factory or at Coach K’s gothic Olympic training facility and rightly figure that their best bet for lottery pick-hood is to spend a couple semesters there before moving on to richer pastures.  As a Carolina fan, I love it.  By and large, we get to see a freshman class come in and develop over three or four years into something greater than the sum of its parts.  Most freshmen play sparingly, biding their time behind incumbent starters until it is their time to shine.  Such was the case with Brice Johnson.  Excuse me, 1st Team All America Brice Johnson.  Brice played limited minutes behind the talented but frustrating James Michael McAdoo, but when McAdoo surprisingly made the leap to the NBA, Brice took over and left his own indelible mark on the program.

Marcus Paige took a different route to stardom, assuming the role of team leader as a freshman after Kendall Marshall left for the NBA.  Paige was a revelation, emerging as Mr. Clutch with a handful of game winning shots and a prolific output from the perimeter.  As his career went on, his numbers actually went down, in large part due to a series of lingering injuries that slowed his development.  Despite the cold spells, Marcus was always the one guy on the team that you trusted with the ball in his hands.

Fast forward to last night.  Carolina, down 10 with 5:30 to go, was staring a disappointing end to its season right in the eye.  For Marcus and Brice, the stakes were even higher: the end of their college careers and their time in a Carolina uniform.  Then they did what every Tar Heel that’s been paying attention expected them to do.  They fought like hell, and they pulled this team from the brink of failure to the cusp of a championship. After Joel Berry knocked a couple of free throws down, Brice, like he’s done all year, muscled his way to an offensive rebound and a putback score to cut the lead to six. On the next trip down he rose up and swatted a shot into the waiting arms of Isaiah Hicks.  Marcus then set Berry up beautifully for an open three that trimmed the lead to three.  After falling behind by six once again, Brice got another offensive rebound and found Marcus for a three.

After the Carolina D forced a turnover, Brice knocked down a short jumper to cut it to one.  Following a couple Nova free throws, Marcus got his own miss and put it back in.  It wasn’t a stretch to say that these two guys were willing Carolina to victory.  In that moment, I and every other Tar Heel believed we were going to win, because Marcus and Brice just wouldn’t let it end any other way.

Here’s where I had a confession that I’m kind of ashamed of.  As much as I felt like we would win at that time, and honestly I thought we would all game, I spent most of this season not believing in this team like I should have.  Roy Williams had a quote a few weeks ago that hit the nail on the head.  He said that this Carolina team was “the most criticized, least appreciated really good team I’ve ever had.”  I felt like he was talking to me when he said that, because for all my eternal optimism, I’d spent the bulk of this season wondering why everyone kept calling us the favorites.  I watched us blow leads to Texas, Notre Dame, and Duke, and just didn’t see the championship pedigree that many expected.  I constantly told my fellow Tar Heels, “I just don’t see it.  We’re not that much better than last year.”

Somewhere along the way I lost sight of why I love college basketball so much.  I blame the residual sting of being there to see the Mets lose the World Series, but honestly, the blame lies entirely with me.  The best part of Carolina basketball isn’t winning championships and hanging banners from the Smith Center rafters, it’s watching a group of kids arrive in Chapel Hill as unpolished lumps of clay, and watching them develop over a few years into a cohesive unit of great young men.  In the face of looming trouble with the NCAA that occurred long before they ever stepped foot on campus, this team exemplified that ideal better than any since the Hansbrough/Green/Lawson/Ellington group that won the title in ’09.  They brought pride to Chapel Hill in a time when pride was hard to come by.  And not just because they played great basketball.  Tune in to any postgame press conference and listen to Marcus Paige speak.  I can’t think of a Carolina athlete that was more eloquent and grounded than he was, whether in victory or defeat.  In the same year that Cam Newton somehow found support among many fans and media after his petulant non-press conference following his team’s Super Bowl loss, Marcus was a reminder of how a professional really conducts himself.

Brice was the same way, a great source for a quote or a laugh, a rare superstar that was also his team’s glue guy.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the team’s other senior that saw the floor, Joel James.  When Joel first arrived on campus, he seemed like all size, no skill, but the work he put in over his four years in Chapel Hill was incredible.  He transformed himself into a valuable big man off the bench through sheer effort, developing a post game replete with a beautiful turnaround jumper that always seemed to find its way in.  Like Brice and Theo Pinson, Joel’s goofy personality seemed to drive the fun spirit of this team.

I finally started to believe when we beat Duke in the rematch at Cameron.  It seemed that we turned a corner in that game, withstanding a late Blue Devil barrage to grit out a win in a hostile environment.  That momentum and intensity carried into the ACC Tournament.  When we annihilated Notre Dame and then beat Virginia to take the title, both times avenging prior losses, I finally saw what everyone had been saying all year, that this team was championship caliber.  I just wish I enjoyed the ride before that point like I should have, like seeing Joel Berry mature into a floor general in the grand Carolina tradition of Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, Ed Cota, Raymond Felton, and Ty Lawson.  Like enjoying the blossoming of Isaiah Hicks into an uber-athletic post nightmare, or the signs that Theo Pinson could become the next Jackie Manuel or Marcus Ginyard.  Even without Marcus, Brice, and Joel, this team is going to be fun next year, and it will be great to see guys like Isaiah, Theo, and Kenny Williams take on larger roles.  There’s no way I’ll make the same mistake of losing sight of what’s really important again.

All this is not to say that losing that championship game, in that fashion, doesn’t matter, or doesn’t hurt.  I saw Austin Rivers bury a three to beat Carolina, I saw Aaron Rodgers find Randall Cobb on a 4th down bomb to end the Bears season, and I watched Eric Hosmer basically steal home to keep the World Series from going back to Kansas City.  Nothing compares to the shock and pain of Kris Jenkins drilling that shot at the buzzer, and I have a hard time believing that anything I see in the years to come will either.  I hope not, at least, because I don’t know if I can take something else like that.  As the Villanova faithful exploded in euphoria, all I could do was stare blankly at the court.

In all my time as a sports fan, I’ve never experienced an emotional high and low to such extremes, in such close proximity.  When we got the ball, down three, with 13 seconds and change left, all I could think was, “Get it to Marcus, he’ll find a way.”  I’ve watched that guy outduel T.J. Warren in an epic showdown with N.C. State.  I’ve seen him beat Louisville with an impossibly high-arcing, banked finger roll.  I saw him run Indiana, the Big 10 champs, off the floor in the first five minutes in the Sweet 16.  Marcus made a career of hitting big shots when they mattered most, and so when Brice got him the ball on the wing, I screamed as loud as I ever have, “SHOOT ITTTTTT!”  Marcus, ever the showman, somehow executed what might be the highest degree of difficulty three pointer that I’ve ever seen, contorting his body to avoid the defender, kicking his legs to keep his balance, and releasing the ball on the way down, yet somehow putting it right in the bottom of the net.

I was in the building when Marvin Williams tipped in the ball to beat Duke for the 2005 ACC outright regular season championship, and to this day that’s the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium.  To be honest, I can’t compare what happened after Marcus hit what should stand with Walter Davis’ 1974 Duke killer and Michael Jordan’s 1982 winner over Georgetown as the greatest shot in Tar Heel history, because I lost control of all my senses.  I told my wife today that I’m surprised I didn’t spontaneously combust on the spot.  Temporary insanity is the only way to describe it, delirium of the highest order.  I joined the rest of the Carolina faithful in flinging my seat cushion as far as I could, but I felt like I wasn’t even in control of my body when I did it.  I don’t know how loud it was, because the moment was even beyond that.  Even though I can’t describe it, I know I’ll  never forget it.

That’s what made the next 4.7 seconds so excruciating.  Imagine climbing to the top of the mountain, only to fall over the edge.  Finally getting the girl, only to be be left at the altar.  The only way to describe it is empty.  Terribly, impossibly empty.  I didn’t make a sound for a good 20 minutes from the moment the ball left Jenkins’ fingertips, because there was nothing to say to change what happened.  In one moment, the holy grail is at your fingertips, and in the next, you’re shriveling up into nothingness.  That’s the agony and ecstasy of sports all rolled into two heart-stopping moments.

Marcus’ shot, and this team, will live forever in Carolina lore, even though the banner that goes in the rafter will say National Runner-Up instead of National Champion.  Every time we look up, we’ll see it hanging there as a reminder of what this group accomplished, and if we shift our gaze a little, we’ll see the jerseys of Marcus and Brice hanging there with the rest of the Tar Heel greats, exactly where they belong.

The saving grace of watching that Mets World Series loss is that for the most part, the same team is coming back.  We can make a run at it again this year.  But for this particular Tar Heel team, this is the end of the line.  Next year will be a new kind of fun as guys step into new roles, but this particular group has played its last note, and that’s what hurts the most.  I wish it didn’t take me so long to appreciate them, but I know I’ll never let that happen again.  So for that, and many other things, I am and will remain thankful to this group of Tar Heels, who are rightfully underappreciated no more.

One

One more to go

for one of these

The ones standing in our way

We’ve been this far one time before

that one was a heartbreaker

Our number one

Nobody is tougher than this one

We yell out the name of this onnnnne

No one I’d rather have leading us

One incredible architect

Losses this season? Only one

One beautiful place to call home

Day one

Playoff win number one

One for the ages

Coach Rivera was the enemy in this one

One night we’d like to forget

We weren’t quite ready for this one

One defensive masterpiece

A somber one in Seattle

What a difference one year makes

One more over Seattle, just for good measure

Now, after one emphatic statement

we’ve come here for one final win

which would fulfill one lifelong dream

Bring this one home, Panthers.

My Sports Jeopardy Spectacular

Being a Jeopardy fan for over a decade now, I’ve been told countless times that I should try to get on the show. And my response would always be that I’m not on the level necessary to be on Jeopardy… but if they ever made a sports version of the show, I’d be perfect for it. Every time I said that, I honestly never thought it would actually happen. Now, of course, Sports Jeopardy is a thing… and I got to be on it!

I won’t go through all of the details about the process and all of that since Terrence did a great job of covering that in the post about his experience. But I’ll tell you that my timeline went like this: test in May (I was correct on 25 out of the 30 questions), audition in Atlanta in June, The Call in October, taping in November, airdate in December. As you can see, pretty quick in Jeopardy terms. This whole thing has come and gone within eight months! But now, time to get to the real reason I’m writing… my game!

So many people have asked me if I was nervous. I can say with 100% honesty that I wasn’t a single bit nervous at all… just anxiously excited and pumped. I had nothing to be scared or afraid of, so why would there be nerves? I was comfortable being there and I knew I belonged. I had dreamed that something like this would happen someday. And now that it was about to, I was so fired up for it. It also helped that I had some lucky Panthers socks on, graciously sent to me by their social media person for me to wear on the show. And speaking of the Panthers… moments before my game began taping, they played “Sweet Caroline” in the studio. Any of my fellow Panthers fans reading this will immediately recognize why that was so appropriate and brought a huge smile to my face… but for those of you that don’t know, that song is a celebrated tradition here after every home victory. As if I needed anything to make me more excited! Then, of course, the cameras start rolling… and there I am, doing my goofy version of the Usain Bolt pose. Now, there are two questions that people have bombarded me with regarding my intro: why didn’t I do the dab or the SuperCam? Well, I totally would have dabbed… but unfortunately, it didn’t blow up until a couple of weeks after my taping. Cam was doing it at that time, but honestly nobody really knew what it was… at least I sure didn’t. And then there’s the SuperCam. Long before I even flew out to Los Angeles, I had it set in my mind that I would only break out the SuperCam if I won. Everyone talks about how Cam has all these celebrations, but that one is easily my favorite… so because I love it so much, I only wanted to use it in victory.  Obviously, I didn’t come out on top in my game… so the SuperCam shall remain unused by me on a quiz/game show. Until, maybe, The Price Is Right… haha.

As far as the actual game… you can see right away which of us is the nine-time champ and which of us are the challengers. Not to give him the Trebek jinx, but Vinny truly is the Ken Jennings of Sports Jeopardy… he knows SO much, but he’s also an absolute BEAST on the signaling device. So the Jeopardy round was a bit rough, obviously. But there were two good things about it: Dan introduced me as “the pride of Raleigh, North Carolina”, AND I GOT TO DO AN EPIC MIC DROP FOR THE LAST CLUE OF THE ROUND (I know it’s not a mic but you get the point). Vinny may have been destroying me, but at least I got to have that awesome moment! Ken, I hope I made you proud. Thankfully, I finally got settled in with the signaling device in the Double Jeopardy round… and I ended up making things much more respectable. I’ll tell you what, though… it hurt to JUST miss out on getting a shot at that second Daily Double (and you can see it on my face after Vinny’s correct response). I grew up loving the Hornets, so of course I knew about the late “Tractor” Traylor. I’m not sure if I would’ve wagered everything since at that point I had managed to rack up a decent amount. Had it been earlier in the game, I would’ve done it without question. I guess none of that matters since I didn’t get to play the clue, but there you go. Then, the last clue of the round comes… and there I am with one more little mic drop. Hey… when you have no chance to win the game, you’re looking for anything to be excited about! But I was very happy to make that nice little rally, and Dan even complimented me on it multiple times. Final Jeopardy being about baseball was a bit unfortunate since that’s my weakest of the big four U.S. sports… but I felt like I gave a decent guess, anyway. My thought process was that the Diamondbacks haven’t been around for too terribly long and have had a fair amount of success, so I figured they had a pretty good shot of having a .500 all-time record. As it turns out, they’re .492 all-time… so as Dan said, I was close. The date ended up being the key in the clue, but I didn’t focus on that… and I don’t think of the Angels when I hear “expansion” since they’ve been around for so long. But I was pleased to finish in second, which is like winning when you’re playing Vinny… haha. And something else that makes me proud: I had no negs (incorrect responses on clues where you can ring in)! Not everyone can say that they’ve played Jeopardy (no matter what version) without getting a single neg, so I’m pleased to be able to make that claim.

It is comforting to realize that I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever about the outcome. I went up against a legend in the making… the odds were already highly against me. Had I been involved in a game where I had a chance to win and ended up losing by a close margin, it would have haunted me for the rest of my life. I never would have lived it down. So if I had to lose, I’m thankful that it happened in this fashion. And I am rooting so hard for Vinny to keep his run going… those of you in the Jeopardy community know how much I love to see long runs. But even more than that, I want Vinny to keep on winning because he’s just an awesome dude. I always say that he’s just like my friend Ben Ingram (winner of the 2014 Tournament of Champions)… amazingly talented, but he’ll never admit it and always tries to downplay it because he’s so humble. It was an honor to share the stage with him and be a part of Sports Jeopardy history (I’ll forever wear my VVL #19 badge with pride!). Keep on owning it, Vinny.

Without a doubt, this was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life… truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After all those years of dreaming that Sports Jeopardy would even exist, it finally did exist and I got to play it… on the same hallowed stage as all the past Jeopardy legends, no less (which was just as thrilling for a huge Jeopardy fan like myself!). And even better, I got an amazing trip out of it… the best trip I’ve ever taken. Heck, even the trip for my audition was a lot of fun! And the support I’ve received… wow. From people I know in person, to the Jeopardy community, to Twitter… the love I’ve been shown has been so overwhelming. It’s made me feel so wonderful… I had no idea I could possibly receive so much support in something. So I thank each and every one of you that’s supported me in this whole experience. I’m so blessed that I was able to fulfill such a huge dream.

Beyond the Rain

RainoutBall2

It rained all day today.  It was raining when I arrived back in Raleigh after flying back from attending Game 5 of the World Series last night, and it hasn’t stopped yet.  I don’t know if it ever will.  A part of me thinks the rain is there for a reason, that it’s a manifestation of how every Mets player and fan must feel after last night’s latest episode of gut-wrenching could-have-been.  A part of me wishes it had started raining somewhere in that fateful 9th inning, maybe right before Matt Harvey let Lorenzo Cain off the hook with a leadoff walk.  Anything to delay what followed.  But it didn’t rain then, and it is raining now.

It will probably rain tomorrow.  The wound is still too fresh, the imprint of what happened too deep to just spring back to normal like a flipped over pillow.  The memories are sharper in my mind than if I were watching them in HD from five feet away.  The sharp crack of Eric Hosmer’s bat as he smoked a ball to the left field wall and bring Cain home.  The crystal clear lack of sound in Citi Field where only seconds ago there was unbridled joy.  The collective gasp as Lucas Duda’s throw home sailed by Travis d’Arnaud to allow the tying run to score.

It will probably rain the next day.  How could it not, after over 40,000 people shared the simultaneous feeling of painful deja vu as the game went to extra innings?  The Mets longtime motto is, “Ya Gotta Believe,” but the Royals just suffocated that belief out of the entire building over the course of five games.  They turned a jubilant fanbase into the world’s largest group of headscratchers.  How could there be sunshine again when the football keeps getting pulled away from you?  Doesn’t the rain cloud follow Charlie Brown for a reason?

CharlieBrownRain

It will probably rain all week.  The Royals were a storm unto themselves, a torrent of speed and contact and aggression that the Mets’ best and strongest umbrellas could never handle for nine consecutive innings.  Matt Harvey, who had spent eight innings writing the most emphatic, permanent ink rebuttal to his detractors in the biggest possible spot was brave to a fault, George Clooney pushing ever onward into the Royals’ Perfect Storm.  He argued his way into pitching the 9th, and you all know the rest.

I don’t blame Harvey for pushing his way into taking the mound for the 9th, or Terry Collins for letting him continue.  I was one of the thousands shouting, “We want Harvey!” at the top of my lungs as the top of the inning was about to get underway.  I screamed deliriously when he dramatically ran from the dugout after his teammates took the field.  I assured myself and others, “It’s alright,” when he walked Cain.  And then I, like everyone else, was out of words when Hosmer cracked his double.  I’d seen it before.  I knew what was coming.  And just like Matt Harvey and Terry Collins and Jeurys Familia, I was powerless to stop it.

The Royals are World Champions, and boy do they deserve it.  An unorthodox juggernaut that beats you not with prodigious power or unhittable starting pitching, but with a bullpen of death and a lineup that never quits.  A bloop here, a seeing eye single there, and all of a sudden you’ve given up five runs without even allowing an extra base hit.  They are a remarkable unit from top to bottom, a team that came within a superhero Madison Bumgarner performance or three from hoisting the trophy last year.  They are stacked with homegrown prospects, power arms, and a perfect blend of youth and experience.  They actually sound almost like…

The sun will come out after all.  The Mets are the Royals of last year, an upstart team that wasn’t supposed to make it to the playoffs, let alone within a few innings of a World Series victory.  Where the Royals have homegrown stars like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Alex Gordon who have stuck through lean years to now enjoy the spoils of victory, the Mets have David Wright, Daniel Murphy, and Wilmer Flores, players that have never worn another team’s uniform.  Wade Davis came out of nowhere to become one of the game’s most dominant closers, just as Jeurys Familia did this year for the Mets.  Like pitcher James Shields, Yoenis Cespedes arrived as a trade deadline acquisition that helped propel his team through the stretch run.  Each team has a fanbase that has caught the fever, helping carry their new heroes to heights not seen in three decades.

The sun actually shone all year.  Forget for a second the sting of falling just shot, and remember all of the amazing things this team accomplished.  From an 11-game April winning streak that vaulted the Mets into surprise contender status, to a road sweep of the Nationals that all but salted away the team’s first N.L. East Division championship in nine years, this season was like a fragrant breeze that blew away the lingering odor of past failures.

Each time it seemed like the sky was darkening, the Mets found a way to break through in incredible ways.  Captain David Wright went from having a minor injury to not knowing if he would ever play again.  He worked his ass off to come back, then belted an upper deck homer on the first pitch he saw upon his return.  Sports have rarely made me smile as broadly as when Wright mashed a first-inning home run in Game 3 of the World Series, then unleashed his trademark skip as he began his trot around the bases.

As Hallmark-worthy as Wright’s story was, though, it has nothing on the two most surreal and incredible happenings of this entire season.  The first we’ll call Wilmer Flores: Despair and Redemption, for the unprecedented happenings that the Mets’ young Venezuelan shortstop had to overcome in late July.  Flores found out that he had been traded while he was still playing in the game, which led to the unreal scene of him trying unsuccessfully to control his emotions in the field, because he thought he was leaving the only team he’d ever known.  As fate would have it, the trade fell through, and a couple nights later, Flores, in true Disney fashion, clubbed a walk-off homer deep into the Queens night to beat the Nationals.  The second we’ll call SuperMurph, as it is the tale of a good player who, overnight, metamorphosed into a superhuman slugger who beat the Dodgers in the deciding Game 5 pretty much by himself.  Murph went through the pitching version of Murderer’s Row, hitting homers off what are sure to be the top three vote-getters in this year’s National League Cy Young race, Clayton Kershaw (twice), Zach Greinke, and Jake Arrieta.  I can say with confidence that we will never see a story like Murph’s again.

Nothing was brighter in this Mets season than the pitching.  The return of franchise savior Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss an entire season; the growth of Jacob deGrom from Rookie of the Year to bonafide Cy Young candidate; the arrival of bazooka-armed starter Noah Syndergaard; the Babe Ruth-like debut of Long Island native and lifelong Mets fan Steven Matz.  These four comprise a starting rotation whose youth and ceiling is unmatched in baseball, not only now but possibly ever.

mets-pitching

The sun will shine next year.  Those four cornerstones of the franchise will be joined by Zack Wheeler, who, like Harvey, had a strong debut before undergoing Tommy John, to round out the most fearsome rotation in the majors.  The farm system is stocked with talent that can help replace the likely departure of Yoenis Cespedes and the (hopefully not) departure of Daniel Murphy.  Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud could become All Stars sooner rather than later.  Curtis Granderson is still under contract as the Mets best all-around position player.

The sun will shine for years to come.  The rain will never be completely gone, not after such a heartbreaking string of losses on the game’s biggest stage.  Losses like that puddle and stay with you forever, but that’s a good thing.  The Royals splashed right through them, and it made them work that much harder to make sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen again.  Now they’re on top of the baseball world.  The Mets are well ahead of schedule already, and if they can use this loss to fuel them going forward, Flushing will be sunny for the next half-decade.  So cheer up, Mets fans.  You have a team to be proud of, and next year will only be better.  Better bring your shades.

Heartbreak

It’s 1 in the morning and I’m sitting here eating a piece of chocolate cake like a high school girl that just got dumped for the head cheerleader.  All the same emotions are swirling about: bewilderment, anger, pain, disappointment.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have a flight to New York in the morning to see Game 5, and the small part of me that is still rational knows I need to get to bed, but the other 99% needs time to process this.  Something that seemed so good has gone so very bad.

Everything in October is magnified.  Hits mean more.  Taking the extra base is crucial.  Errors are catastrophic.  Baseball lends itself to the kind of epic lyricism usually reserved for the likes of Homer or Coleridge for just this reason.  Everything is important.  Heroes are made in an instant, and goats in less time than that.  Mets fans spent much of the night ready to celebrate a new couple of heroes, but instead ended it in unmitigated bitterness.

Michael Conforto of the Mets had a chance to go down in World Series lore forever.  While the stands of Citi Field were filled with a smorgasbord of costumes on this Halloween night, Conforto decided to dress as someone he’s very familiar with: his teammate Daniel Murphy.  Conforto’s Murphy impersonation included two solo homers, the first of which reached the upper deck, and the second of which looked eerily similar to a few of Murphy’s one-handed pokes from earlier this postseason.  If Clayton Kershaw was watching from home, he undoubtedly switched the channel in a cold sweat.  With the help of a wonderful start from fellow rookie Steven Matz, the headline seemed to write itself: Mets Rookies Lead Charge to Even Series.

Conforto Hero

What they don’t tell you is that sometimes fairy tales don’t come true.  The efforts of Conforto and Matz were undone by critical mental mistakes, all of which were made by veterans that should know better by this point in their careers.  The way I see it, there are four culprits.  I’ll preface my airing of grievances by saying that I really like all four of these guys, and with the possible exception of Tyler Clippard, we certainly wouldn’t be in the World Series without even one of them.

Let’s start with Clippard.  Despite having a lackluster last month or two of the season, Clippard still has the trust of Terry Collins to handle the 8th inning as the final bridge to Jeurys Familia.  Clippard entered the 8th this time in a pressure-packed situation.  Not only were the Mets clinging to a one-run lead, but he had to deal with the top of a Royals lineup that has turned late-game playoff deficits into their own personal batting clinic.  Clippard started strong by getting Alcides Escobar to ground back weakly to the mound, but he then committed the cardinal sin: he walked Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain in succession, a pair of errors made even more egregious by a) the fact that the Royals are nearly impossible to walk, b) he had Cain down 0-2 before losing him, and c) Kansas City is not a home run hitting team, meaning you should absolutely challenge them if you get behind in the count, since it’s unlikely they will hit one out of the ballpark.  Clippard exited the game having put the Mets in a difficult jam, all without forcing the Royals to earn anything with a base hit.

Next up is the man that put Clippard in to begin with, manager Terry Collins.  Collins has been nothing short of superb throughout this long season, handling his staff of young and possibly fragile arms with aplomb to keep them out of danger, then pushing all the right buttons as the team closed in on its first division title in nine years.  He’s pushed nearly all the right buttons, and will deserve every one of the Manager of the Year votes he gets in a couple of weeks.  This game was not his finest hour, though, because it seemed like he managed it as if it was just another game in July.  The rules are different when it’s the World Series and there is no tomorrow.  Collins managed without the urgency that this game demanded, and his decision to be reactive to the game’s rapidly changing outlook instead of proactive cost his team a likely 2-2 series tie.

It started when Collins left Matz in to start the 6th inning.  Matz had been brilliant through four innings, keeping the Royals’ hitters off balance in a way that we haven’t yet seen in this series.  His curveball was biting, and the vast majority of his pitches hit their target on the corners.  That changed in the 5th though, as Matz gave up three hits and a run to let the Royals get within one.  Collins let the rookie continue into the 6th, but after a Ben Zobrist double and Lorenzo Cain single to drive him home (and once again get K.C. within a run), Collins gave Matz the hook in favor of Jon Niese. Though Niese and Bartolo Colon were able to extricate themselves from the inning without giving up another run, the damage had already been done as the Mets lead was cut in half.

Collins made an even more crucial error by bringing in Clippard in the 8th.  One option could have been to leave Addison Reed, who looked good in his appearance in the 7th, in to bridge the gap to Familia.  The other, better option was to bring Familia in to start the inning.  The Mets phenomenal closer had already shown on multiple occasions that he could get a six-out save, most recently against the Dodgers in the NLCS, but Collins waited to bring him in until Clippard had put two men on.  Perhaps the reason Collins didn’t use Familia right away was his inexplicable use of the closer in the 9th inning of last night’s runaway game, a spot that I’m still scratching my head over.    The Mets led by six, but Collins brought in the Mets best bullpen weapon.  Although Familia retired the side in order, it allowed the Royals a first-hand look at what they’d be dealing with in the future, plus it logged unnecessary pitches on Familia’s arm, especially in a spot where he might be needed the next two days.  Contrast Collins with Ned Yost, and you’ll find the difference in the game.  Yost yanked starter Chris Young early, not only because he had a man on base and a chance to even the game, but because it was obvious Young didn’t have his good stuff after throwing over 50 pitches in relief on Tuesday night.  Yost then brought lights-out closer Wade Davis into the game to start the 8th, leaving no doubt that he intended to protect a two-run lead with nothing but his best guy.

Familia, to his credit, did his job when he came in.  He got postseason RBI machine Eric Hosmer to chop a weak grounder towards Daniel Murphy at second base.  Murphy charged the ball but whiffed it as he stretched with his glove, letting the ball roll towards the outfield as Zobrist barreled home to tie the game.  Look, Murphy should have his own line of comic books after the feats he has pulled off this postseason, and the Mets would still be sightseeing in L.A. if he didn’t transform into the new Mr. October.  His glove, despite many spectacular plays, has always been one of the Mets biggest question marks, and this time it bit them at the worst time possible.  Murph’s bat has disappeared for the most part during the series, so to see his glove abandon him also was doubly disappointing.  K.C. didn’t stop there, plating two more runs to go ahead before Murphy made a smooth play to turn a double play, but it was too little, too late by that point.

Murph Error

The final goat of the game is the Mets’ heralded trade deadline acquisition, Yoenis Cespedes.  The Dominican outfielder exploded onto the New York scene like a supernova of strength and speed, turning the light-hitting Mets lineup into an overnight juggernaut.  But the postseason hasn’t allowed him to find the same success, as ace pitchers are wearing him out with a steady diet of high fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt.  Slumps happen though, and although it can be killer to experience one during the most important time of year, the way Cespedes ended the game would have made a Little League manager irate.  After lining a sharp single to right field off Davis, Cespedes, representing the all-important tying run, got doubled off of first after a jammed Lucas Duda liner nestled into the glove of third baseman Mike Moustakas, ending the game and pushing the Mets to the brink.

The great part about a seven-game series is that there is time to, if not erase mistakes, to make up for them.  Clippard, Collins, Murphy, and Cespedes will take the field tomorrow with a chance for redemption.  Though the Royals now have a commanding 3-1 series lead, they still have a long way to go to be crowned champs, as they’ll have to beat one of the Mets vaunted trio of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard in the next three games.  Since deGrom got knocked out of Game 2, it seems the Mets have adjusted their approach from the mound.  Syndergaard and Matz did a great job of giving the Mets a chance to win, and I would expect Harvey and deGrom, both of whose mental fortitude matches their prodigious talents, to learn a thing or two not only from their own difficult experience against this Royals lineup, but from the success of their brothers in arms in Games 3 and 4.

There’s still time to find a hero to save the season.  Conforto will get his chance to add to tonight’s performance.  Murphy will be motivated to atone for his fielding mistake and uncharacteristically cold bat.  Collins should learn from tonight’s mistakes, and Cespedes is simply too good a hitter to continue to struggle.  The Mets get to face a grieving Edinson Volquez tomorrow night, and with a win against him, they would send the series back to Kansas City and get another shot at Johnny Cueto, the same Cueto who followed up the playoffs’ most dreadful start of the year against Toronto with the playoffs’ best start of the year against the Mets.  It’s impossible to tell which Cueto might show up, but do you really want to bet on deGrom having two bad outings in a row?  Me neither.  Waiting in Game 7 is the tall drink of Norse mythology that (literally) put the Royals on their ass only yesterday.  The Royals are in the driver’s seat, to be sure, but they’re going to have to beat a great pitcher again at some point if they want their first championship in 30 years.  Put away the cake and open your heart, Mets fans, because this series is far from over.  It all starts with tomorrow night.

Flipping the Script

After blowing a 9th-inning Game 1 lead and getting battered around in Game 2, it would be easy for the Mets and their fans to hang their heads and say, “Well, it’s been a good ride.”  What took place tonight, though, was the total antithesis of a team that has mailed it in.  From Noah Syndergaard’s first pitch, a head-high smoke bomb that sent the equipment manager into the clubhouse to get Alcides Escobar a new pair of underwear, the message was clear: we’re not going anywhere.

Escobar

It’s amazing what playing at home can do to change a team’s fortunes.  Both the Royals and the Mets have been blessed with incredible home crowds that have helped lift the home team up in tough spots and make life exceedingly difficult and uncomfortable for the opposition.  It’s just easier to play in a place that you’ve played 81 games (plus the playoffs) in this year, where you can wake up in your own bed and drive to the stadium.  The crowd is behind you, you’ve got the quintessential New Yorker, Billy Joel, singing The Star Spangled Banner, and all-time great Mike Piazza is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.  How could you not be ready to fight?

The Royals are known for their ability to fight, but it was the Mets that came out swinging in this game, and they never let up.  David Wright blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the first that was positively Piazza-like to give the home team a 2-1 edge, then he made two outstanding plays in the field to help limit what could have been an even bigger Royals inning than it already was.  Curtis Granderson hit a two-run laser beam of his own, and after struggling through three runs and six hits in the first two innings, Noah Syndergaard, excuse me, rookie Noah Syndergaard (it’s so easy to forget that), showed the poise of an eight-year veteran as he twisted the Royals in knots with a smart variety of pitches that made the Major League’s most aggressive lineup appear dazed and confused.  The Royals got six hits in the first two innings, and in the final seven, they got one, and that one didn’t even leave the infield.

Syndergaard’s opponent, Yordano Ventura, either didn’t utilize, or just didn’t possess, the same variety of pitches that his counterpart did, and it proved to be his undoing.  It seemed that every at-bat started with two fastballs, then Ventura tried to finish each batter with a low curve.  The Mets quickly got wise to that, though, and ironically it was Syndergaard that first unlocked the secret, poking a two-strike curve to right field just before Curtis Granderson hit his dinger to give the Mets a 4-3 lead, one that this time, they wouldn’t relinquish.  Syndergaard’s hit seemed to rattle Ventura, as he struggled to find the plate early in the count after that.  Following a Game 2 that saw Johnny Cueto induce weak contact time and again by keeping the Mets off balance and behind in the count, it was just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Mets bats.

Wright, the MVP of this game, didn’t rest on his laurels after his first inning heroics, breaking the game open with a bases loaded liner to center that scored two in what would become a four-run Mets 6th.  Nearly every Met got in on the action.  Lucas Duda hit his third opposite field single of the series, burning the Royals for continuing to employ the shift on him.  Travis d’Arnaud ripped a double to left.  Yoenis Cespedes finally got a hit, on an at-bat that saw him lay off breaking balls off the plate for the first time this series.  This game was the complete opposite of Game 5 against the Dodgers, where Daniel Murphy put the Mets on his back and single-handedly carried them to victory.  In this one, Murphy was just about the only one to have a bad day at the plate.

Wright

Syndergaard showed the heart of a champion in the top half of that sixth inning, and manager Terry Collins made a decision that shows why his players love him, leaving Thor to work out of his own bases loaded jam with two outs in the inning despite having just gone over 100 pitches.  Syndergaard responded with the biggest out in his young career, inducing a weak grounder to Wilmer Flores off the bat of Alex Rios.  Speaking of Wilmer, he didn’t have a big night at the plate, but in the field he was a veritable maestro, showing great range and his typical cannon of an arm to pick up some big outs with men on base.  As for Syndergaard, he lived up to his superhero namesake by doing the impossible: getting the Royals to swing and miss.  Even the runs the Royals scored early were manufactured; after Ben Zobrist’s long double in the first (which followed two questionable calls by the home plate umpire, either of which would have seen Zobrist strike out looking), the boys from K.C. hardly hit a ball hard all night.

Syndergaard

Interestingly, the fundamentally sound Royals team that always seemed in control in the first two games showed their first chink in the armor tonight.  Ventura failed to cover first on a routine ground ball to the right side, resulting in an infield single for Michael Conforto.  Reliever Franklin Morales seemed to short circuit on a Curtis Granderson chopper back to the mound later in the inning, botching a potential double play by looking to the runner at third, looking home, looking back to third, then frantically turning towards second and firing the ball into the ground eight feet wide of the bag, all in the span of about one second.  He looked like a Fembot after being exposed to an Austin Powers striptease.  Alex Gordon got thrown out at third with no outs.  It was a rare night of bad decisions for the Royals, one that you wouldn’t expect them to repeat going forward, though who knows?  The rabid crowd and F-you attitude of Syndergaard no doubt contributed to the Royals off night.

In addition to getting the crucial win tonight, the Mets also set themselves up well for tomorrow’s game.  Thanks to Ventura getting yanked after only 3.1 innings, Ned Yost used nearly his entire bullpen.  Morales was a mess.  Usually unhittable Kelvin Herrera was once again flummoxed by the Mets, a storyline that could prove critical as the series moves on.  The Mets bullpen wasn’t taxed to nearly the same degree.  Combine that with Royals Game 4 starter Chris Young essentially pitching on short rest after his 50+ pitch relief stint in Game 1, and you have all the ingredients for a possible 2-2 series after tomorrow night.

With this win, the Mets have made this more than just a Royals coronation.  With Syndergaard’s first pitch message to Escobar, he gave the teams a reason to dislike each other.  Anyone thinking the Royals were going to run right through this series after their opening home wins needs to reconsider that stance.  David Wright hasn’t waited his whole career to get to the World Series just to take his consolation trophy and go home.  The hometown crowd won’t accept anything less than a championship.  And the young pitchers won’t back down from anyone.  In the postgame press conference, Syndergaard laid down the gauntlet.  “If they have a problem with me throwing inside, they can meet me 60′ 6″ away.  I got no problem with that.”  Buckle your seat belts boys and girls.  Now it’s personal.  Now it’s a series.

When the Dam Breaks

If Game 1 of this World Series had all the craziness, Game 2 was where things settled down, and for the Royals, that was most definitely a good thing.  Much of the game yesterday from the 10th inning on felt like the Mets desperately trying to plug the dam as it sprang leak after leak.  The Royals seemed to have baserunners every inning, but couldn’t find a way to put the game away, until finally a bases loaded no-out jam, capped by Eric Hosmer’s sac fly, proved too much.

Tonight the dam broke.  The Royals relentless approach wears on you over the course of one trip through the lineup, let alone an entire game, let alone an entire series.  They don’t stop attacking, and that philosophy eventually broke down one of the best pitchers in the game, Jacob deGrom.  deGrom had looked good on his first trip through the order, but you could see signs of trouble when the Royals loaded the bases in the fourth.  The Mets got out of that one to retain a 1-0 lead, but the tidal wave hit in the 5th.  What’s so striking is that the Royals, despite being uber-aggressive, just don’t swing and miss.  And this against deGrom, a guy who routinely tallies double-digit strikeouts.  Like fellow fireballer Matt Harvey last night, deGrom managed only two punchouts, and neither of those were on swings and misses.

It all seems to start with ALCS MVP Alcides Escobar.  This guy routinely falls behind in the count (except when he mashes the first pitch, which is often), and then hits frozen ropes with two strikes.  It’s uncanny.  Eric Hosmer is a sleeping giant, someone who can’t buy a hit with the bases empty, but then awakens to become Ted Williams with ducks on the pond.  Mike Moustakas seems to find green grass every time he makes contact, and Salvador Perez can’t stop ripping balls down the third base line.

Much has been made about how the Royals capitalize on every mistake, but that’s only part of the story.  They jump on bad pitches, sure, but they also make solid contact on pitches on the edge of (or even outside) the zone.  Each successive hit pushes the pitcher farther from his comfort zone, and you could just see the wheels turning in deGrom’s head as the Royals singled him to death in the 5th.  He had no answer for the barrage of contact, and the game just got away in the blink of an eye.

On the other side of the ledger, Johnny Cueto rarely threw anything over the meat of the plate, and the few times he did, the Mets couldn’t capitalize.  Several times early the Mets got ahead in the count, but could never make solid contact.  Their only two hits of the night came on Lucas Duda squib shots.  When they failed to push more than one run across in the 4th, that was pretty much all she wrote.  Trailing the Royals after six innings is a death sentence, and the Mets lineup just seems dispirited right now.  Coming home should help cure some of those ills, but Game 3 starter Yordano Ventura can light up the radar gun, and the Mets could learn a thing or two from the Royals and their two-strike approach to hitting.  One need only look to the rare Eric Hosmer error last night to see that good things can happen when you put the ball in play.

With the Royals holding serve at home against the Mets’ top two arms, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of Noah Syndergaard.  He throws harder than even deGrom, but I don’t think there’s any way to just blow these Royals hitters away.  He needs to induce weak contact by keeping the ball down and away from the middle of the plate.  And the Mets’ hitters need to find their stride, and fast.  Yoenis Cespedes seems like he’s trying to hit the ball back to Cuba.  The entire team is taking good pitches and lunging at bad ones.  The World Series isn’t out of reach, but a loss in Game 3 would all but end things.  Tomorrow’s day off couldn’t come at a better time.  It’s too late to plug up the leaks, but it’s not too late to strike back with a tidal wave of our own.

Setting the Tone for Greatness

Game 1 of the World Series had it all and then some.  The Royals started the fireworks with a leadoff inside-the-park home run by Alcides Escobar.  The game featured great defensive plays, phenomenal baserunning, amazing (and exhausting) bullpen work, an astonishing Buckneresque error by one of the game’s best fielders, innumerable classic battles at the plate, a random power outage that delayed the game in the 4th inning, and multiple chances for both teams to put it away before Eric Hosmer redeemed himself with a 14th inning sac fly.

As a Mets fan, it would be easy to be discouraged by this marathon loss.  The team had a 3-1 lead with Matt Harvey on the mound going into the bottom of the 6th, then a 4-3 lead with near-unhittable closer Jeurys Familia attempting to close it out in the 9th.  Harvey is nearly unbeatable when the team scores three or more runs for him, and Familia is nearly unbeatable all the time.  Playoff baseball isn’t like the regular season, though, and things that worked over the long haul of the season can go haywire when the pressure ratchets up to its most intense.  The Royals lived up to their never-say-die reputation as they erased both deficits with the clutchest of hits, and they seemed to have more control when the game went to extras, threatening multiple times before finally pushing home the winning run.

This isn’t to say that everything we thought we knew about these teams is wrong.  The Royals were as free-swinging as the scouting reports foretold, and the pressure they put on the Mets pitchers was evident.  Harvey nearly abandoned his fastball in the early innings because of the Royals aggressive approach before finding a steady groove.  The Royals pen was also as good as advertised, as six relievers combined to surrender only one unearned run in eight innings of work.  The Mets relievers, with one notable exception of a pitch, were also up to the task, as they gave up two runs, one earned, in over seven innings of work.  The Mets tenacity at the plate also shone through, as Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares, especially, worked the count and came up with huge hits after fighting off tough pitches.

I haven’t written a thing this entire postseason, mostly because I didn’t want to jinx this magical run, or overthink something that I’ve been enjoying so much.  But what’s the point of having a sports blog if you’re not going to write now?  I want to be able to look back years from now and remember how I felt during each game.  This has been the best baseball season I’ve ever followed, and the most likeable Mets team of my lifetime.  We have electric young arms in Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, and Familia; a lineup that perfectly blends veterans like Granderson and Wright with up-and-comers d’Arnaud and Conforto; power from Cespedes and Duda; situational speed when we need it, such as when Lagares stole second to set up the go-ahead run in the 8th, or twice when the Mets went 1st to 3rd on a single to right; and, oh yeah, only the most terrifying postseason hitter since, well, ever, in the form of the newly minted superhero known as Daniel Murphy.

This team hasn’t given up all year, not during the first half when the offense couldn’t support the superb pitching staff, and not during the stretch run in September when the ghosts of collapses past could have reared their ugly heads once again.  We outlasted the best team money could buy, the Dodgers, and their two-headed Cy Young monster of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.  We didn’t let an 0-7 regular season record against the Cubs make one iota of difference as we confirmed the lifelong postseason fears of their entire fanbase in a four-game sweep.  And we won’t give up now against a tenacious Royals club that has been here before.  We’ve been through adversity all year, from Wright’s evolving laundry list of injuries that he fought back from, to Wilmer Flores’ surreal “trade that wasn’t” that he punctuated with a walk-off homer a couple nights later.  Harvey has overcome the Scott Boras-fueled public relations disaster that was his supposed innings cap to become a postseason rock, and the team as a whole has rallied around the devastating injury to Ruben Tejada, as perpetrated by long-time Mets tormentor Chase Utley, to become stronger and more resolved in their quest for a championship.

Any comparison between these two clubs always pointed out how closely matched they are, and all Game 1 did was reinforce that.  Yes the Royals got an inspirational come-from-behind win, and they’ll surely use that to fuel them going forward.  But there’s no reason for the Mets to hang their heads, not with our ace, Jacob deGrom, going tomorrow night against what has recently been a less-than-vintage Johnny Cueto.  We won’t hang our heads because we had our own stable of heroes tonight, even if we fell just short of a victory.  Curtis Granderson continued his revelatory season with a huge go-ahead home run and a game-saving catch in right field.  Juan Lagares had the at-bat of the season, coming in cold off the bench to fight off Royals flamethrower Kelvin Herrera’s best stuff before lining a single to center field, then stealing second against rocket-armed catcher Salvador Perez before scoring the run that looked like it might be the winner.  Jonathan Niese, a forgotten man among the headline-grabbing whippersnappers on the staff, threw two huge scoreless innings to extend the game.  Addison Reed showed that he can be the setup man the Mets need with a 1-2-3 outing in the 7th.  And Terry Collins pushed all the right buttons, coaxing his bullpen through that relentless Royals order over and over.

The Royals may have gotten Game 1, but the only thing I know for certain is that this is going to be an all-time great series.  It’s going six or seven, you can believe that.  The Mets aren’t going away, and I’d bet my life that Jacob deGrom comes out strong tomorrow.  Both bullpens were severely taxed, which places even more importance on the starters, and that means advantage Mets in Game 2.  Projected Game 4 Royals starter Chris Young pitched tremendously, earning the win with three hitless innings, but he also threw over 50 pitches, which could throw the entire rotation into flux.  For the Royals, none of that matters tonight, as they got one of the greatest wins in franchise history, in one of the greatest postseason games in baseball history.  Their lineup will never stop putting pressure on the Mets, and their bullpen will be sharp no matter how many pitches they throw.  This series is going to be a dogfight, and even though we came out on the short end of this one, I feel good about what’s to come.  See you tomorrow night.

The Mets Should Trade Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey was drafted by the Mets with the hope that he could become the next great young pitcher.  From the time he was drafted in 2010 through when he finally made his Major League debut nearly two years later, this was the hope of every Mets fan.  Despite his complaints about being in the minors longer then other college drafted pitchers, the Mets, who were going nowhere, wanted to keep him in AAA until his consistency and control were improved.  After those two years in the minors, the Mets finally bit the bullet and brought up Harvey as injuries and bad pitching were ruling the Mets that year.

Since his promotion to the majors, to Mets fans Harvey was the bulldog type pitcher who never wanted the ball taken from him in any situation, and for this reason, the Mets thought they had their next ace.  Mets fans flocked to see his home starts in a way that hadn’t been seen since the days of Doc Gooden in the ’80s.  Harvey picked up in 2013 where he left off in 2012, pitching quality, if not dominating, outings every time out, and any time he was on the mound the Mets were considered a favorite to win the game.  Harvey’s 2013 season was so good that he became the first Met to start for the National League in the All Star Game since Doc Gooden did in 1988.

Despite Harvey’s great 2013, the season came to an early end when it was announced in late August, after a start where Harvey was hit hard, that he had a torn UCL.  For baseball fans this is a known precursor to Tommy John surgery, a procedure which requires a minimum one year recovery timeline, and that’s if the rehab goes perfectly.  Harvey delayed the surgery for nearly 5-6 weeks in the hopes that he could cure the injury with just rehab, but eventually decided on surgery in October.  A lost 2014 season seemed certain.

During his rehab Harvey always seemed to try to go one step ahead of what the doctors and the Mets wanted him to.  He wanted to start throwing sooner, take his first bullpen sooner, however the Mets, knowing that his future health was important going into 2015 and beyond, kept him on schedule with his rehab, forcing an unhappy Harvey to wait.  Harvey had even come out and said that he expected to start games for the Mets in September of 2014, which the Mets, who were out of the playoff hunt, quickly squashed.  Mets fan, though they loved his optimism and wanted him to get back on the mound, knew it was in everybody’s interest that he wait until 2015, when the games would actually mean something.

As 2015 spring training began, the Mets took their time with Harvey, easing his action back into spring games.  There was some talk about if there would be an imposed innings limit on Harvey for the season, similar to how the Nationals bungled Stephen Strasburg after his similar Tommy John surgery a few years prior.  The Nationals were expected to contend for years to come for the World Series and thought that his long term health was more important then managing his starts, and with that in mind, shut down their number one pitcher in September before the playoffs. The Nationals then bombed out in 5 games to the Cardinals in the NLDS, leaving Nationals fans to forever wonder to this day what would have happened if Strasburg had pitched.

Despite all of this, during the season there was talk of trying to limit Harvey’s innings.  Any time the Mets came up with a plan early in the season, whether it was to skip one of Harvey’s starts or going to a six-man rotation to help limit the innings of all the starters, all you heard was complaints from Harvey saying he wants the ball every fifth day, not every sixth or seventh.  When he was getting pulled after six or seven innings with a low pitch count, pictures from the dugout told the story of Harvey not being happy and wanting the next inning.  Mets fans, for the most part, loved this attitude.

Eventually Harvey had a start skipped in Colorado, which, given Coors Field’s reputation as a pitcher’s nightmare, is not all that bad of a place to have a start skipped.  The Mets and their fans expected to probably have one more of Harvey’s starts skipped, and then it was time to hopefully roll again towards the month that begins with “O”.  On a side note, it has to be said: Mets and SNY, please stop airing these dopey commercials promoting playoff tickets and going to fleece towel night that you can bring for the cold October postseason games.  Please stop it.  Mets fans everywhere have been through a torture that you obviously don’t understand or care about.  Promote the playoffs if and when there are playoffs to promote.

After five months through the season, five months where things were going better than Mets fans could have hoped, both with the team and with Harvey’s return from injury, Harvey’s agent Scott Boras made noise this past week saying there was a hard cap of 180 innings for Harvey and he would be “shut down” once that number was reached.  Boras is probably the most universally hated man in baseball, as a fan of any team groans when the name “Scott Boras” is brought up in regards to him representing one of their team’s players.

Boras’ words caused a stir from Mets fans, with the blindsided Mets having no idea how to respond.  The assumption among the public is that the Mets did not know of any of this, because if they did, how come their wasn’t a mysterious DL stint in June or July for Harvey for “arm fatigue” and then returning 15-20 days later after a few missed starts, so that he could pitch September without any worry about this innings limit?

Harvey had a chance to quiet his agent’s talk when he spoke to the media over the weekend in Miami, but he did nothing to quiet the rumors, despite his complaining during the season of having starts skipped or going to a six-man rotation.  In a self-penned letter written and released Sunday, he now claims he will pitch in the playoffs and this superficial innings limit that no one seemed to know about until this week only applied to the regular season.  Mets fans will probably never know who is lying here, whether it be the Mets, Harvey, Boras, or the doctor that performed Harvey’s Tommy John surgery, James Andrews.  The disappointing thing about this is that it could have all been done behind closed doors, but by making it public, Boras raised the always high Defcon panic level for Mets fans and front office personnel for no good reason. Ultimately the decision comes down to Harvey, and if he doesn’t pitch he will go down as a quitter on his team, and miss what might be his only chance in his career to pitch postseason baseball.

The Mets have team control for Harvey for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons before he becomes a free agent.  I believe that no matter what happens the rest of this season- whether he pitches or doesn’t, and whether the team makes or doesn’t make the playoffs- the team should trade Matt Harvey.  Logic would dictate that Harvey would have the most value now after the 2015 season, as there are three years left on his contract, however I feel that the most value would be after a hopefully healthy 2016 season.  Being three years removed from surgery and having two full years of post-surgery pitching would ease qualms about teams trading for him.  The Mets also have to access the possibility of resigning Harvey after the 2018 season.  With the penny-pincher Wilpons still in the owner’s box and Scott Boras in the other corner, it seems unlikely.  And with other young players looking for contracts in a few years, something will have to give. However if a golden trade offer opens up to the Mets this upcoming offseason, the Mets would be foolish to not listen and be open to this trade. Instead of a pennant race in 2016, Harvey could enjoy three potential seasons in second division club, I wonder how Harvey would enjoy this possibility.

Also, at this point, would anything that Harvey or Boras do next surprise you?  There’s no denying the guy’s talent level, so it would go down as a major bombshell if the Mets ever traded away their Dark Knight, but a trade would undoubtedly net either some top prospects or even an All Star or two.  The team could very well find its next Matt Harvey, and maybe that player would have the heart to match the talent and become a fan favorite like Harvey was as recently as a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately, from this Mets fan’s perspective, the damage has already been done.

There is No Next Year

The summer-long baseball high I’ve been on hit a snag a couple of days ago, when a story came out that there are conflicting opinions on what to do with Matt Harvey, he of the recently Tommy John’ed arm.  The conflict comes from a supposed innings limit that is intended to keep Harvey’s surgically repaired throwing arm healthy now and in the future, as this is his first year back from the procedure.  The Mets have an opinion, various doctors have an opinion, and Harvey’s agent Scott Boras has his opinion.

It’s no surprise that most of the opinions (though not, it seems, that of the Mets) seem to be advocating shutting Harvey down in the near future, which would keep him out of a heated pennant race and possible playoff appearance.  What’s unknown at this time is Harvey’s opinion, but we can tell that he doesn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects from pitching (to this point) a full season.  Harvey’s fastball has had the same heat, his breaking stuff has had the same bite, and he’s been able to go late into games with regularity.  Isn’t that more important than an arbitrary innings limit?  Every arm is different, and Harvey has looked like the same dominant pitcher that blew hitters away before he got hurt.  He’s currently sixth in the National League in ERA and WHIP, and has been a big reason why the Mets are five games ahead of the Nationals in the N.L. East race.

As Mets fans know, though, a five game lead in September is a long way from a division championship.  The late season collapses of 2007 and 2008 are still fresh, open wounds on Mets fans’ hearts, and until they close the deal when it counts, those wounds will never really heal.  That’s why it’s so important to have Harvey for the stretch run.  To say that the Nationals have underperformed this year is an understatement, as they were heavy favorites to not only win the division, but to contend for the World Series.  They’re still dangerous, though, and the Mets have to face them six more times before it’s all said and done.  More importantly, though, the Mets need to worry about themselves and keep on winning, and Harvey is a big part of how that’s going to happen.

The Mets have already begun to take measures to get Harvey rest, including skipping a recent start of his (which couldn’t have turned out better, as Logan Verrett came in and did his best Harvey impersonation in throwing an eight-inning gem to get the win).  The team will also welcome back fellow young hurler Steven Matz this weekend, which will give Harvey and the rest of the staff more time between starts as they move to a six-man rotation.  As of this moment, the Mets have 28 games remaining in the regular season, which would put Harvey at five more starts, max, before the playoffs.  I find it hard to believe that those five starts, plus a few more if the team makes the playoffs, are going to ruin him, especially if the Mets are conscientious in how they use Harvey when he’s out there.  Mets manager Terry Collins hasn’t allowed a starting pitcher to finish a game yet this year.  If noted pitching slave driver Dusty Baker was calling the shots, it might be a different story, but Collins has done everything possible to protect the team’s young arms all year.

Those saying the Mets should shut Harvey down without any evidence of wear on his arm are doing him and the team a disservice.  If it seems like his arm is becoming overworked, or something just isn’t right, by all means protect the guy and keep him out of harm’s way.  But as of now, we see no reason to believe that’s the case.  One need only look back to the team chasing the Mets to see how shutting down a star pitcher in the name of saving him for the future can go wrong.  In 2012 the Nationals shut down number one pick and “next big thing” Stephen Strasburg in the heat of a pennant race.  At the time, it was thought that the Nationals were an up-and-coming franchise that would have many more chances to make a World Series run in the near future.  The Nats bombed out in 2012, and despite being one of the favorites the last few years, that hasn’t translated into any serious postseason success.

The Nats are the perfect cautionary tale in this case, as the Mets are in the same position they were three years ago.  A great young pitching staff, an increasingly excited fan base, and a real chance to make a run at a title, right now, this year.  As long as Harvey is feeling good, the Mets need to keep on riding him and their other young arms as far as they’ll go.  You only get so many chances to try and win a World Series, and with the perpetually cash-strapped Fred Wilpon holding the checkbook, there’s no guarantee that the Mets will field this strong a team again.  Go for it now, because there is no next year.

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