John Maine departed yesterday’s game with none out in the seventh inning, a runner on first, and an under-filled stadium giving him a standing ovation, but he wasn’t having any of it. Maine had just pitched six plus innings, striking out nine, and walking three batters – including Jamey Carroll, who was standing at first base after drawing the last of the walks which brought Maine’s afternoon to a close. So, after what was easily the greatest of his early season starts, and after also so recently drawing close to losing his spot in the rotation, Maine, head down, either not hearing the cheers or, more likely, just not permitting himself to hear them, walked down the dugout stairs and hurled his glove into the bench in disgust because he had JUST WALKED JAMEY CARROLL.
It was perfect John Maine. Some people are perfectionists, and some people are PERFECTIONISTS. And then some people are John Maine. One gets the feeling that Maine could throw a no-hitter in the seventh game of the World Series, but spend the entire post-game celebration sulking in champagne and kicking himself for that one batter he walked in the third inning. If you read about and watch John Maine, you see someone who will appear dryly sarcastic, funny, moody, cross, intelligent, stubborn, and deranged, often all at once. But when he’s on the mound, he mostly comes off as a perfectionist. I would really like to know what exactly John Maine is whispering to himself when he’s on the mound, because I suspect it would be funny and similar to what we all say when we mutter to ourselves.
So yesterday you have Maine walking off to the applause of the crowd and then firing his glove into the dugout because of that one final walk. He succeeded according to our standards, which, admittedly, were quite low. However, he didn’t succeed according to his own, so the glove was punished for his transgressions. John Maine: Perfectionist.
Of course, not so long ago – just a few days ago, really – John Maine was hearing no applause in Colorado, and wasn’t succeeding by anyone’s standards. His fastball velocity had dropped down into the mid-eighties, and he wasn’t fooling anyone with off-speed pitches. Two starts into the season, he found his back set up squarely against the wall, a lineup of microphones in his face, and forced to play out his part in a miniature American myth. Like a dusty old cowboy in a tumbleweed Western, Maine didn’t quite have his quickest stuff anymore, and he didn’t know how to fool anyone with slight of hand, and wasn’t going to try to learn how. Instead, with his one last chance, he decided to go down, guns blazing, living and dying with his trusty old fastball, no matter how slow his draw may be now.
Or, you know, something vaguely heroic like that.
When you think about it, it was sort of an odd choice. His fastball is clearly not what it used to be – it’s not a mid-nineties pitch that explodes up and can only be fouled off. It’s a zombie version of that pitch, shambling and ragged. So it seems strange, almost sad and almost inspiring, that John Maine decided he was going to live or die with that beat up old fastball.
And I suspect Maine decided to do this not out of confidence, because he clearly knew that it might not work. That’s probably not indicative confidence. And he didn’t decide this out of confidence’s ugly step-sister, arrogance, either – because he wasn’t CERTAIN this was going to work.
Instead, it seemed, to me, to be much more out of defiance, this wonderful and awful little twitch of humanity that seems to show up now and again, and causes people to dump tea into the Boston Harbor, to chase white whales to their death, or to sing a song like “My Way.” It was as if John Maine said to himself, Fine, I might be going down here, but I’m going down my way. I’m a fastball pitcher, and I’m going to make it as a fastball pitcher, even if my fastball isn’t what it used to be. I’m going to do it my way.
Or, as John Maine actually told ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, “I’m going to get back to what I was doing. It may work. It may not . . . I’ve got to throw my fastball. If walks happen, walks happen. If the guys get a hit, they get a hit.”
So we have this story’s protagonist courageously or stupidly sticking to the only thing he ever really knew how to do well. And it may work, or it may not. But he’s going to do it his way.
This was supposed to end in one of two ways, if you like to imagine this as a little piece of American mythology, as I am right here. John Maine was going to succeed gloriously, and prove that the dusty old cowboy could still get people out with the same quick draw and win our admiration. He was going to be wrinkly Clint Eastwood, and prove that his defiance was just him staying true to himself, that he was right all along and HE KNEW IT.
Or, option two, he was going to fail miserably, and, as Bruce Springsteen sang, “wind up wounded, and not even dead” and earn our pity, but only so far in that we would also wish that he kindly went away. In this version of the story, he was going to become Fat Elvis, or zombie Joan Rivers, or one of those ghosts of pitchers that always seems to find their way into the Nationals’ or the Brewers’ rotations. His defiance was just someone sadly hanging around for too long, refusing to change. Either way, his next start was the end of the road.
Of course, real life doesn’t always cooperate with nice little stories – that’s what movies are for, where the dramatic twists and turns are pointed out by sad songs and soft symphonic strings. In real life, the soundtrack is Joe Morgan talking about how much he loves Gary Matthews Jr. as Gary Matthews Jr. strikes out on three pitches. Things are slightly less dignified in real life. John Maine pitched against the Cardinals in his make or break start, and did this:
5 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 1 HBP, 115 Pitches
Which certainly wasn’t good, but it certainly wasn’t awful. Maine succeeded, only insomuch that he did not necessarily fail. He punted, and up next was his start against the Braves, which looked like this:
3.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 0 HR, 0 HBP, 63 Pitches
A better John Maine, but his glove arm elbow decided it didn’t quite want to come along for this journey, at least not that night. This looks more like a decent relief appearance than a shortened start. Another punt, but a shanked one. He was losing field position with his inability to stay on the mound. He was about to get sacked for a safety, or whatever, if you want to continue this stupid football analogy.
Which brings us to the wonderful improbablity of yesterday’s start:
6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 1 HR, 0 HBP, 101 Pitches
Maine came out and threw almost nothing but fastballs against the Dodgers, still with an average velocity hovering in the mid-eighties, far slower than two years ago, before his shoulder started playing tricks on him. He didn’t have his low-nineties fastball anymore, but with that one so-so pitch, John Maine struck out nine Dodgers over six-plus innings.
And you know what? You shouldn’t be able to strike out nine of anything with that one slow pitch, especially if you insist on ONLY throwing that one slow pitch. If someone had told me before yesterday’s start that John Maine would come out and throw nothing but 88 MPH fastballs, I would have run out and put $20 on
the under for 2 1/2 innings pitched. But Maine did it anyway, fooling Andre Ethier with movement and not velocity. Mets.com calling the start a gem might be a bit much, but it was a quality start, if you buy into that term. It wasn’t a disaster, and he struck out nine, so it was a success, especially considering what he had done earlier in the season. It was a quality start, and everyone was happy with John Maine – except, of course, John Maine.
For those of you keeping score at home, since Maine decided to go all fastball in Colorado, that’s two punts and, let’s call yesterday a field goal. Not great, but maybe not so terrible anymore.
I find myself rooting for John Maine especially hard this year. There’s something oddly compelling about his insistence on relying in his fastball in the face of his baseball demise. It’s as if on one hand you have Mike Pelfrey, who is succeeding because he is growing and changing and relying on his breaking pitches more to fool batters and generate swings and misses. Then, on the other hand, you have John Maine, who is going back to a caveman approach of throwing nothing but fastballs. One pitcher trying to figure out who he is, and another trying to remember. I find myself rooting for Mike Pelfrey BECAUSE he decided to become a new and better pitcher, and for John Maine BECAUSE he decided that he wasn’t going to try to become another kind of pitcher. He was going to be John Maine the only way he knew how – maybe stubbornly, maybe misguidedly, and maybe with nothing left in the tank, but he thought he was right, and that’s all that mattered. And maybe it’s stupid and stubborn and all sort of other things. But maybe no one knows John Maine better than John Maine. After all, John Maine seems to talk to John Maine more than anyone else does.
And yesterday? John Maine was right. He wasn’t perfect, so he wasn’t good enough for John Maine, but you know what? John Maine is crazy. He was good enough for everyone else.
Like everything else the Mets are doing right now, I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I have no idea if Maine can rely on nothing more than an 88 MPH fastball, or if Ike Davis can hit like this, or if Jeff Francoeur can continue to be useful, or if the bullpen can pitch this many innings and remain successful. And Oliver Perez, Frank Catalanotto, and Gary Matthews Jr. are still on the roster, best I can tell. I don’t know if it can last. I don’t know if John Maine is going to make it. But I know that I hope so.