Let’s start here: I’m not one for the term “pitchers’ duel” — it’s not as if Johan Santana and Stephen Strasburg took turns yesterday beaning each other with fastballs until one begged for mercy. (Note to self: Possible All Star Game skills competition?) They came face-to-face just four times, pitcher against batting pitcher, ending in three strikeouts and a pop up to left. So it’s not as though the two directly competed as equals. Only indirectly. Santana battled Strasburg’s friends, Strasburg battled Santana’s, and one pitcher’s friends played better. That’s not really a duel in the Hamilton-Burr sense. More like a duel in the dead-’90s-rapper sense, a duel in a loose sense. Maybe we just need a better name for these things: Pitchers’ showcase? Pitchers’ exhibition? Pitcherspolooza?
Anyway. Whatever we want to call Wednesday’s Mets-Nationals game, the first six innings played out exactly as such. Johan Santana, shoulder repaired, struck out eight Nationals in five innings plus. Stephen Strasburg, elbow repaired, and home plate umpire Larry Vanover combined to strike out nine Mets over six innings. The Mets’ misguided “free bases for the first eight National batters” bullpen promotion eventually spoiled the showcase and brought the game to a tooth-pulling grind. But for two-thirds of the game, Santana against Strasburg, past against future, ability against experience, the meticulously groomed against the gnarly chin-bearded, lived up to its billing.
Johan Santana, for his half, made a compelling argument against the radar gun. He worked up, down, changing speeds, both sides of the plate, attacking the Nationals righthanded heavy lineup with sliders through the back door and others at buckling knees through the front. Santana forced the Nationals to play his rigged game of “guess what’s in my hand” and they guessed wrong about every time. Leading off the game, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond saw an alternating pattern: Fastball outside, slider darting towards his knees, fastball back outside, and then a changeup inside, swung at and missed for a strikeout. That was Santana’s basic pattern for the game. Outside, inside, hard stuff, soft stuff, wrong hand guessed each time. Santana attacked Ryan Zimmerman with fastballs in the first, striking him out — nope, wrong hand — then teased him with sliders and changeups for another strikeout in the third — different hand, still nothing there, guess again. The rebuilt Santana has evolved his fire-breathing act into a traditional magic show and it’s no less awesome.
But all the while, Santana’s opposite was just heat and fire. Stephen Strasburg is the most impressive pitcher in the National League because — as good as he already is — he still doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing. He gets major league hitters out throwing his pitches seemingly at random, which is why it’s awesome to imagine what he could become with some sort of will behind the pitches. He’s always going to be more potential than reality, somehow doomed because no one could possibly be as good as he could be. And if he’s already the best pitcher in baseball — he might be — there’s really no reason for him to improve. It seems that nothing is going to, and nothing could, force Strasburg to become better.
For example: Strasburg faced Ruben Tejada in the third — Tejada, who thinks along with the pitcher, recognizes every pitch, and doesn’t swing and miss, looked like the only Mets’ player with a fighting chance yesterday — and Strasburg got ahead immediately 0-2 with a curveball Tejada spat on and a sinking changeup Tejada swung over. Tejada fought back, took a close changeup, fouled off the first fastball of the at-bat, and then took a curveball in the dirt to work the count back even. Sixth pitch of the at-bat, Strasburg jammed Tejada . . . with a 90 MPH changeup. Tejada grounded out 4-3 in the scorebook. It wasn’t fair — Tejada fought, won the mental game of the at-bat, and then was overpowered with a changeup.
That’s the fire. Strasburg is just plain better, his pitches are better, than everyone and everything else in baseball. He looks ready to be called up to a more competitive league. His problem is that there aren’t any. Strasburg may never be truly challenged, forced to grow, may never become everything he could. And that’s a shame in its own way.
. . . and then the Mets’ bullpen took a fun game and ruined everything and everyone went home miserable. So on that note, let’s get into the Mets-Nationals random notes and observations:
— Beware inflated strikeout totals against the Nationals: They strike out a lot. Mike Pelfrey struck out eight Nats on Monday, Dillon Gee struck out six on Tuesday, and then Santana K’d up eight yesterday. This may have more to do with the opposition than the Mets’ starters. Almost every hitter in the Nationals’ lineup — Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Roger Bernadina — is a good bet to strike out between 100-150 times this season, and that’s a lineup with Michael Morse still sidelined. Washington led the league in Ks last season and they’re going to do it again this season. Good job by the Mets’ pitchers for attacking that weakness, but . . . maybe hold off on picking up Pelfrey in your fantasy league or something.
— With constant exceptions Tejada and Ike Davis, and steady-if-uninspiring work from Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Jason Bay, and Scott Hairston, the fielding was abysmal this series. It’s hard to imagine any team being worse than the Mets.
— Okay, that’s a lie. It’s easy to imagine a worse defensive team. Nine swamp creatures would probably be worse. Nine poorly-oiled robots. Mole people. Cavemen who only know the rules of cricket. This is really easy, actually.
— I believe Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ hair marks him as King of the Lax Bros.
— On Tuesday, the Mets played two middle infielders, Justin Turner and Ronny Cedeno, at first and third base, all while Daniel Murphy, still a corner infielder in truth, blew a number of double plays at second base. If Terry Collins’ goal was to win Tuesday’s game, this was an insane and bad defensive alignment for all kinds of painfully obvious reasons. I don’t think immediate wins are Collins’ goal, especially in April. It’s pretty clear that Mets are willing to sacrifice runs in this early season for runs saved in the future, both later this year and beyond, as Murphy learns second base and Duda learns about fly balls. Those two need the reps, and the confidence that they will have time to get those reps in before the experiments end.
— For that same reason, even if David Wright misses a significant amount of time due to his fractured pinky, the Daniel Murphy experiment should continue at second while Turner and Cedeno combine their shortcomings at third. It’s not about winning now, it’s about winning in the soon. At the very least, the Mets probably need to see this through with Murphy once and for all.
— On a similar note, replacing David Wright with Ronny Cedeno makes the Mets’ lineup look about as imposing as you’d expect from a lineup with Ronny Cedeno playing third base.
— Josh Thole had a rough game on Wednesday, allowing a run-scoring wild pitch to escape along with a few other runaway pitches, but his blocking of balls in the dirt has looked much improved. He’s also impossible to get out in this early season.
— Ike Davis saw 16 fastballs and 26 off-speed pitches against the Nationals. Like Atlanta, Washington attacked Davis with breaking stuff in the zone, and Davis took or fouled off most of the offerings.
— Davis and Bay are hiding that, outside of a two home run game, Lucas Duda is off to an otherwise slow start.
— Ruben Tejada, still 22-years-old, went out to the mound when Manny Acosta was struggling with his command in the sixth inning yesterday. After some Tejada magic dust, Acosta started throwing strikes, the Nationals lined into a double play, and the Mets escaped trouble. (For then.) Rah-rah leadership may or may not mean very much, but it’s still just one more thing to like about Tejada. He’s 22 and he’s giving pep talks to veteran relievers.
— Non-baseball: After being sat down by a friend for a forced viewing of the first episode, I’ve started watching The Wire. Early opinion: Good, certainly addicting, but — and this is my only criticism — in the first half of season one, it’s clear that some scenes exist only to serve as clumsy metaphors. Teach the kids chess, because the drug dealers are metaphorical pawns! The police have trouble communicating enough to even move a desk through a doorway! That kind of stuff. Not bad scenes, but almost distracting because of their barely concealed meaning.
— About the Omar Minaya as the architect of the Mets thing: Ken Davidoff with the latest version. I have to disagree. This is like congratulating the captain of the Titanic because, you know, some passengers didn’t drown. You can’t just tally up the stuff that went right and ignore everything else that went wrong.
So it’s true that most of the players on the Mets came into the organization under Minaya — Thole, Davis, Murphy, Tejada, Nieuwenhuis, Duda, Bobby Parnell, Pelfrey, Jon Niese, Gee — and ditto for the next group of prospects — Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia, Jenrry Mejia, and Jordany Valdespin. It’s also true that this group of players, however fun and homegrown, is probably going to win 70-something games. And it’s hard to credit Minaya’s amateur scouting ability when Pelfrey and Davis are the only high-round draft picks to pan out (though Harvey could join this list), and the area in which Minaya concentrated energy and funds — international signings — has thus far produced only Ruben Tejada. Every other contributing player listed came into the organization as a middle-to-late round pick, which may speak more to the ability of the coaches in the minor leagues than the general manager of the organization. It’s also possible that only late draft picks and under the radar pieces like Tejada developed because anyone Minaya’s administration focused on — Fernando Martinez, Wilmer Flores, Jenrry Mejia, Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez, even Pelfrey to an extent — was rushed through the minors until they failed or were traded to fail elsewhere.
Minaya had his moments, particularly finding flowers among the weeds — R.A. Dickey is his best contribution to the organization, while Fernando Tatis and Jose Valentin had impacts on good Mets teams — but Minaya dug a hole so deep that the Mets are still digging their way out two years later.
— Let’s leave on this: Daniel Murphy’s walk off hit from Monday night. Please note Scott Hairston’s “I ripped off his batting helmet like it’s a severed head” dance just behind the dog pile.