Nothing says watching Major League Baseball in 2020 quite like watching Monday’s New York Mets–Atlanta Braves game in Atlanta, hearing a loud clap of thunder and having Mets announcer Gary Cohen explain that the thunder was actually from Citi Field in Queens, where he, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez were broadcasting the game.
The Mets have had their usual measure of stormy weather already, including a couple of bullpen meltdowns and the sudden departure of Yoenis Cespedes on Sunday, when he opted out of playing the remainder of the season. The Mets entered Monday’s game with a five-game losing streak and the division rival Braves looking to sweep their four-game series and gain a five-game lead less than two weeks into the 60-game schedule.
It seemed like one of those games with a little extra must-win urgency for the Mets. After all, they were sitting at 3-7 after one sixth of the schedule, and the Braves were already 5-1 against them on the season. The Mets had two-time reigning Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom on the bump, but the Braves countered with sensational sophomore Mike Soroka in what promised to be a great pitcher’s duel, especially because the Mets usually struggle to score runs for their ace.
Instead, the night took an ugly turn, as Soroka suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in the third inning, when he tried to bounce off the mound to cover first base. Meanwhile, deGrom was dominant other than one hanging slider that Travis d’Arnaud hit for a home run, finishing with 10 strikeouts in six innings. Soroka struggled with his control before his injury, and the Mets scored some runs for deGrom for a change, winning 7-2. In one game, the NL East took a sudden twist in plot, as the stumbling, bumbling Mets righted their ship and the Braves found a huge hole in their rotation.
It’s hard to imagine deGrom getting better than he has been the past two years, but that’s the case through three starts. He has always had elite velocity, but he’s averaging 98.7 mph so far on his four-seam fastball and has hit 100 mph 10 times this season — after doing so twice previously in his career. His swing-and-miss rate is at 38.0%, up from 31.4% last season. He even dropped in a few curveballs against the Braves, registering a couple of strikeouts because, you know, his fastball/slider/changeup combo isn’t enough.
Sure, deGrom has electric stuff, but he’s also smart and knows how to make adjustments. When he throws the curveball — and it’s usually only a handful of times in a game — it’s usually later in the game, but he threw several early in Monday’s game. Afterward, he explained that his changeup was a little flat, and he wanted to give hitters something “with a little different speed difference.” He struck out Freddie Freeman in the first with a curve and Marcell Ozuna in the second after a nine-pitch battle. Imagine seeing eight pitches from deGrom — including one fastball at 100.7 mph — and then he drops in a curveball? That’s how you can join Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to win three straight Cy Young Awards.
Still, deGrom is the one constant with Mets. Everything else, in true Mets fashion, remains a bit chaotic. Cespedes’ departure caught the team by surprise, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, it’s understandable. “Every guy has to take into [account] their own personal situation, and with all that’s going on and recent outbreaks with certain teams, I completely respect Cespedes’ decision,” Pete Alonso said on a Zoom call with reporters earlier Monday. “I don’t think anything less of him. He’s a great teammate. If he felt he was at risk, then by all means, this is an unprecedented time.”
The slugging first baseman, coming off a record-setting 53-homer rookie season, is the focal point of the Mets’ offense but is off to a slow start, hitting .167 with just one extra-base hit (a home run). In many ways, Alonso is also the emotional center of the Mets, and his energy was a big reason the team went 46-26 in the second half last season.
“I always try to refine my craft and try to be the best player I can be, so to not produce is frustrating,” Alonso said. “It’s my job. It’s been tough stringing together the results, but they’re going to come. I know they are. I know what I’m capable of. I work hard, I work diligently, I’m a smart ballplayer, so for me, I know it’s rough now, but it’s only going to be temporary.”
He went 0-for-2 on Monday, but to back up that approach, he drew three walks. He mentioned a couple of mechanical things to work on, and the Mets broadcast showed side-by-side images of him in 2019 and 2020, with 2020 showing Alonso’s shoulder a little more tucked, his hands resting a little higher and him going a little deeper as he begins his swing. For now, he’s watching a lot of footage from 2019 and doing a lot of work in the cage.
The Mets still have rotation issues after deGrom, with Noah Syndergaard out for the season, Marcus Stroman gone for an extended period because of a torn calf and Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha struggling so far.
Assistance is needed to carry Mike Soroka off the field in the Braves’ game against the Mets after he suffers a noncontact injury to his right leg while attempting to cover first base.
The Braves, meanwhile, are without the three starters who pitched for them in last year’s NL Division Series against the Cardinals: Soroka, Dallas Keuchel (signed with the White Sox) and Mike Foltynewicz (designated for assignment after one bad outing and now at the team’s alternate training site). Cole Hamels, signed to replace Keuchel as the veteran lefty, is on the 45-day injured list and will miss more than half of the truncated season.
“To sum it up, this night just sucks,” Freeman said. “When you lose, in my mind, one of the top pitching arms in the game for the whole season, it’s pretty tough. It just sucks. There’s no sugarcoating this night.”
Soroka and Max Fried had been the only Braves starters to pitch five innings in a game, so now even more pressure falls on Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright. Options to replace Soroka include Bryse Wilson, Tucker Davidson or veteran Josh Tomlin, who is currently working out of the bullpen.
That’s a group not without potential. Newcomb went 12-9 with a 3.90 as a starter in 2018 before pitching mostly out of the bullpen in 2019. Toussaint is a big power arm who was a former top-100 prospect. Wright was the fifth pick in 2017 out of Vanderbilt, but in 31⅔ career innings in the majors, he has walked 26 batters. Wilson is still just 22 and has a few big league innings, and Davidson had a 2.15 ERA in the minors in 2019. Tomlin might get first crack, but the Baby Braves are going to have to step up.
“Somebody else is going to get an opportunity,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the game. “Things like that happen. These guys will regroup. Somebody is going to get an opportunity to do something really good. Our young guys are going to continue to get better. We’re going to be fine.”
Given the coronavirus outbreak that wiped out a week of games for the Marlins and Phillies, no division is in chaos like the NL East. If we get through this season, it just got a lot more chaotic.
MLB Wild Card Tuesday Takeaways — Reaction to all four games as MLB playoffs begin
The 2020 MLB playoffs began Tuesday with four American League Wild Card Series.
The Chicago White Sox beat the Oakland A’s as Lucas Giolito flirted with perfection. The Houston Astros, who finished the 2020 season with a losing record, topped the Minnesota Twins to extend Minnesota’s record playoff losing streak to 17 games.
Here are the heroes, turning points and takeaways from the Game 1s as each opening matchup concludes.
Game 1 hero: Lucas Giolito. The White Sox ace became the fifth player in MLB history to take a perfect game into the seventh inning of a postseason game and allowed just a run on two hits and a walk over 7-plus frames.
What it means for the White Sox: What does a bad finish tell us? Apparently, not much. The White Sox looked like a dispirited club as they dropped seven of eight to finish the season. In the first game of their first postseason game in 12 years, that changed. It didn’t hurt that Chicago’s No. 1 starter — Giolito — pitched like a championship-level No. 1 starter, taking a perfect game into the seventh. Just as important though was the lineup of bashers who swaggered their way through most of the short season was back. Adam Engel, Jose Abreu and Yasmani Grandal went deep, as the White Sox were characteristically aggressive at the plate and did damage when they made contact. That was the team we saw for most of the campaign. — Bradford Doolittle
What it means for the A’s: The less said about this performance by the A’s the better. Their lineup was the biggest question mark heading into the 2020 postseason, and Giolito validated those concerns. He was brilliant, the White Sox’s relievers did enough to hold the lead and now the A’s — who have bowed out of the playoffs five times in the last eight years without reaching the ALCS — need to beat Dallas Keuchel and his 1.99 ERA to remain alive. — Jeff Passan
The Twins surrender three runs in the ninth inning and lose 4-1 to the Astros, setting an American pro sports record with their 17th consecutive postseason loss.
Game 1 hero: Framber Valdez. Taking out a former Cy Young winner early is exactly the kind of move that can get you second-guessed in the postseason, but young Valdez made Dusty Baker look very smart when he came in and pitched beautifully in relief of Zack Greinke. The relief outing gave Houston’s offense a chance to finally pounce and steal Game 1.
What it means for the Astros: Never did the Astros panic — not when they were stranding runners, not when their starter Greinke got chased after four innings and not when Jose Altuve, in the midst of a season-long struggle, took a full-count Sergio Romo fastball just above the strike zone for ball four to put them ahead in the ninth. Between him and Valdez going five brilliant innings in relief with just a fastball and curveball — and escaping a ninth-inning jam — the Astros did just what they needed to scrape by. And now they’re in quite the enviable position: two cracks at a chance to face the winner of Chicago-Oakland in the division series. — Passan
What it means for the Twins: I’d argue that no team needed to win its first game more than the Twins, because now they’re staring at that incredible, inconceivable mark of 17 consecutive losses in the postseason. Different teams, different years, sure, but that doesn’t mean this streak doesn’t feel like the weight of the Mall of America on their shoulders. Those 17 defeats have come in many ways, but this was one of the most painful. Shortstop Jorge Polanco made a lazy error with two outs in the ninth inning, casually flipping the ball wide of second base on what should have been an inning-ending force that would have kept the game tied at 1. Now they have to summon the mental fortitude to ignore those 16 years of history and hit the ball over the fence — or just get a hit with a runner in scoring position after going 0-for-7 in Game 1. — David Schoenfield
More Tuesday games
Minor league baseball contraction process begins with Appalachian League
NEW YORK — Major League Baseball started the process of contracting minor league affiliates Tuesday, with the Appalachian League converted to a college summer circuit for rising freshmen and sophomores.
The agreement between MLB and the minor leagues expires Wednesday. MLB has proposed cutting the minimum guaranteed minor league affiliates from 160 to 120 next year, or to four per major league organization plus teams at their spring training complexes.
Many teams from the Pioneer League and the New York-Penn League also are likely to become part of college summer leagues.
MLB and USA Baseball said the Appalachian League will become part of its Prospect Development Pipeline and that 320 players will be invited to play next year. The Appalachian League had been an affiliated minor league with professional players since 1911.
MLB and USA Baseball said they are communicating with the NCAA to ensure participation does not detract from college eligibility, which presumably means players in the league no longer will be paid.
Each team will be scheduled for a 54-game regular season with wood bats, and the two organizations will support staffing and administration. Former major leagues will provide instruction.
The 10 teams in the league will change their names and logos to “incorporate symbols and images important to their respective local communities,” according to MLB and USA Baseball.
The 10 teams that were scheduled to be in the Appalachian League at the Rookie Advanced level in 2020 were the Bluefield (West Virginia) Blue Jays, Bristol (Virginia and Tennessee) Pirates, Burlington (North Carolina) Royals, Danville (Virginia) Braves, Elizabethton (Tennessee) Twins, Greeneville (Tennessee) Reds, Johnson City (Tennessee) Cardinals, Kingsport (Tennessee) Mets, Princeton (West Virginia) Rays, and the Pulaski (Virginia) Yankees.
A large number of teams in the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League and the Class A Short Season New York-Penn League also were on an early list of those targeted to lose their affiliations but it is not clear whether those targeted by MLB have changed.
The early list included four Double-A teams from the Eastern League and Southern League and several from the Class A Advanced Florida State League, Midwest League and South Atlantic League, and the Class A Short Season Northwest League.
MLB has proposed eliminating the office of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in St. Petersburg, Florida, and moving administration of the minors to MLB’s ofice in New York. Pat Conner, president of the National Association since December 2007, said on Sept. 8 that he will retire on Dec. 31.
Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks gets Game 1 start against Miami Marlins
CHICAGO — Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks will start Game 1 of their NL Wild Card Series against the Miami Marlins on Wednesday, manager David Ross announced. The decision was between Hendricks and Cy Young contender Yu Darvish. Darvish will take the ball in Game 2.
“I [feel] like I have two aces,” Ross said. “I trust both those guys.”
Can you please drop this in as the third graph.
“It’s a huge honor for me to get the nod from Rossy for Game 1 but at the end of the day we all know what Yu has done this year,” Hendricks said. “He’s our ace. He’s been the guy dominant all year long. If this was a one game playoff kind of thing, he would be the guy, obviously.”
Hendricks started on Opening Day and has taken the mound in big games for the Cubs over the past half-decade. He’s 2-3 with a 2.98 ERA in 11 career postseason games, including 10 starts. This season, he led all qualified pitchers with an 8-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, giving up a free pass to less than one batter per nine innings pitched.
“It’s really comforting from my seat when he takes the ball,” Ross said. “I know he’s excited. I’m excited. We have to win two of them. I’m glad we’ve got those horses.”
Hendricks last pitched on Sept. 23 so he’ll be off a full week, while the move gives Darvish an extra day of rest after his last outing on Friday.
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