Wednesday, June 26, 2019

They Called it Stormy Monday

By Jeff Kallman

It must be nice to work for a team in which a vile, vulgar outburst on behalf of avoiding accountability doesn't get you canned on the spot or within 24 hours. By that measure, Mets manager Mickey Callaway and enough of his team live charmed lives. At least until they squared off against the Phillies Monday evening.

For their profanities at reporters who sought nothing more than accountability for a bullpen decision that cost them a series-ending game against the Cubs Sunday afternoon, the Mets didn't fire Callaway or trade or release pitcher Jason Vargas. They didn't suspend either man. They merely fined the pair of them.

General manager Brodie Van Wagenen issued Callaway yet another vote of confidence. Cynics think Callaway was thus rewarded for being Van Wagenen's human shield because no major league manager could be anything close to Callaway's kind unless he was little more than a general manager's satrap.

Come Monday Callaway and Vargas issued apologetic non-apologies unless they were non-apologetic apologies. Or vice versa. Then Callaway backtracked just so and, seemingly on his own, he apologized to the writers traveling with the Mets and specifically to Newsday's Tim Healey, who'd been Callaway's and Vargas's specific Sunday post-game target.

At least Vargas didn't try in his too-short apologetic non-apology to justify himself by invoking Billy Martin's ancient decking of a reporter, which actually happened not after a baseball game but in a bar during halftime of a Western Basketball Association game. As Deadspin's Samer Kalaf observed wryly, "invoking a successful Yankees manager, who was also a kook, isn't the best play here."

It's also not the best play there to invoke a manager who was infamous for handling pitching staffs as though this year was next year. "Managers, like anyone else, tend to be shaped by their experiences," Bill James wrote in 1981. "Billy Martin probably manages as if there were no future because he has never had a future with any organisation, only a string of todays here and there."

Callaway's experience before becoming the Mets' manager was as a pitcher and a pitching coach who could be presumed reasonably to operate with the organic knowledge that this year isn't next year and that pitching arms must be kept oriented six parts this year and half a dozen parts next if they're to deliver the most of their ability with the least imposition and injury.

Presumably, Callaway could have been assumed to know better than to send a clearly less-than-at-his-best relief pitcher out to work a second inning, instead of a) opening that second inning with a fresh arm; or, if he insisted on staying with his man to open, b) bringing in his well-enough-experienced closer for a prospective five-out save.

But in just the latest in a two-season series of pitching maneuvers described most politely as dubious, Callaway sent his less-than-at-his-best man Seth Lugo out for the eighth after Lugo worked a scoreless but too-difficult seventh Sunday afternoon. Instead of opening the frame with freshly-prepared Robert Gsellman, or asking closer Edwin Diaz for a five-out save of a 3-2 Met lead, he left Lugo in.

Javier Baez promptly smashed a 3-run homer, overthrowing the Met lead for keeps, and only a soul afflicted with sleeping sickness couldn't have told you the number one question on every writer's postgame mind was going to be why on earth Callaway stayed with Lugo — who'd pitched two innings last Friday — when Lugo's arm was clearly enough spent after one inning of work.

Callaway's and Vargas's behaviors would likely have led to their prompt unemployment with the Mets, if not necessarily in baseball elsewhere, if the Mets weren't so befuddled looking a club that the very idea of sending any message stronger than a wrist slap on behalf of demanding accountability seems to be one that sends them praying to the porcelain god regardless of the best play here. Or there. Or anywhere.

Vargas finally dismissed Sunday's clubhouse rumble as "an unfortunate distraction." From what? The Mets' inconsistent play? Their second-year manager's strategic mischief, mistakes, and malpractice? Callaway from all appearances is a genuinely decent and likable man otherwise, but he's in so far over his head he needs a periscope just to see twenty feet below the surface.

Their rookie general manager's clumsy team construction that's left them with a bullpen of compromised stock and fielders playing mal-positioned and into the sort of miscues you'd expect from the Mets' 1962 ancestors but without the mirth and merriment? Their metastasizing inability to stand accountable? Their unexpected faith that it's all the media's fault?

The same rookie general manager supposedly managing at least some of the Mets' games from New York, regardless of whether he knows anything beyond the numbers when it comes to managing his players, their fuel tanks, and the immediate game situations that require a manager's insight and foresight? Which means the hapless Callaway has an unwanted partner in crime leaving him to take the worst plays' fall?

These are the Mets who opened against the teetering Phillies Monday night. The Phillies entered the set in a spell of plate somnambulism. By the time the game was in the bank, the Mets and the Phillies swapped bombs, defensive slickness, defensive inconsistencies, pitching mismanagement, timely hitting, and wasted contact.

And that was just in the first five innings.

The Phillies' bullpen is an injured mess. The Mets' is a misassembled and mismanaged mess. Presumably those are what forced Callaway and Phillies manager Gabe Kapler to leave their starting pitchers, Steven Matz and Zach Eflin, in to take 7- and 6-run beatings, respectively, before either pitcher got past a fifth inning's work.

Callaway relieved Matz with Brooks Pounders as the Phillies took a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs. Jean Segura doubled home the eighth Phillies run before the side retired. Callaway left Pounders in for the sixth. A 1-out triple, an RBI single, a steal, a 2-out infield RBI single, and a 2-run homer. Pounders was probably lucky to escape without the Phillies pounding additional bullets into his evening's corpse.

Kapler relieved Eflin with Juan Nicasio, JD Hammer, and Fernando Salas. Only a single Met was allowed to get to within binoculars distance of second base under their command. Until Dom Smith sent an excuse-me homer the other way over the left field wall in the top of the ninth. The Mets otherwise allowed the teetering Phillies to resemble the 1927 Yankees while ending a seven-game losing streak during which the Phillies scored only two more runs than they scored all Monday night.

Nineteen hits versus the Mets' fifteen in a 13-7 Phillies win does that for you. For the Mets, that wasn't even close to the best play here, either.

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