Extra Innings in April

27451132180_318b0f6003_oBesides all things Yoenis Cespedes and the unending delight of learning all the possible medical procedures that can be performed on the human elbow, one of the chief joys of the recent Mets was Bartolo Colon, who spent more innings on the mound over the last three seasons than any other Mets pitcher. Colon, now an Atlanta Brave, returned to New York last night to face his former team. The Mets lost in extra innings, 3-1, in a game that was fun until the starting pitchers left and it revealed its true nature: an extra-inning game in April.

Colon was fun though. A circus strongman hiding inside an old bullfrog, Colon still has the Tantalus fastballs that zip just out of a hitter’s reach. My favorite at-bat ended the second inning. Colon struck out Lucas Duda—who seems to have lost every facial expression but that of someone wondering whether he left the stove on—with a sequence of fastballs that must have been planned from the moment Colon signed with the Braves last winter. Colon had no trouble with his former teammates, allowing just two hits and a walk to a veteran Mets lineup. New York’s lone run came on a fluke home run by Jay Bruce, who poked a shin-high pitch over the wall. The other hit and the walk both came from Yoenis Cespedes, the only puzzle Colon didn’t seem to know how to solve—so he didn’t pitch to him. (Colon did hug Cespedes at first base, to the apparent amusement of Colon and annoyance of Cespedes.) Colon survives, in part, by picking his battles. May we all pitch around the Yoenis Cespedes in our lives.

That’s the joy of watching Bartolo Colon: all the clever tricks that allow a short, old, 300-pound pitcher to evade hitters twenty years his junior. It’s a contrast the Mets and their fans already miss. Their current starters—Syndergaard, deGrom, Harvey, Wheeler, Gsellman—are forceful demigods undone only by a frail tendon in their pitching elbow. The Mets effortlessly produce flame-throwing young men who appear in the Major Leagues, grow their hair out, and learn an impossibly hard slider. They don’t need to be deceptive. It doesn’t matter whether they’re thinking ahead, because the hitters don’t have a chance anyway.

Colon, of course, was a tricky Odysseus to the Mets’ rotation of Achilles, the king who’s traveled the world, disappeared for a few years (perhaps gaining a few magical advantages), and reemerged older but more or less the same. He needs the tricks. Every start is a heist movie. He’s playful but professional—old man Colon never fell into the bored-pitcher trap of throwing sidearm or lobbing an eephus, like an underachieving student who just wants to see what happens. He’s all business when it comes to pitching, even if he never seemed to take hitting all that seriously. The magic can’t last forever for Colon, but that’s been the case for the last eight years, so who knows.

The Mets and I will miss Colon, but their current pitchers provide their own joy too. Jacob deGrom, whose limbs are made of rubber and wire, is the pleasant surprise that keeps surprising. He shut out the Braves for six innings. I have no idea what he puts in his hair, but that’s an achievement in its own right. (How many long-haired men have you met with hair you wouldn’t be grossed out to touch?) Just three years ago, when both were in the minors, the Mets reportedly preferred Rafael Montero to deGrom. Last night’s game shows how they’ve since diverged. Whoops. Matt Harvey pitches today, down one rib since the last time we saw him, and Zack Wheeler follows, the first time the two have been in the rotation together since 2013. The gang’s not quite all here: Steven Matz is on an elbow sabbatical, as is Seth “spin rate” Lugo, and the Mets may never have their five best starting pitchers together. It’s not even clear who the five best pitchers are. But the five they have now should be enough.

Plus the Mets don’t have time to wait for arms to heal. While their pitchers rehabbed, their lineup got old. Bruce is 30; Duda, Cespedes, Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera are 31; Jose Reyes is 34 and has looked it the first two games; Curtis Granderson is 36; David Wright is trapped in the bardo; and even Travis d’Arnaud is 28. The Mets brought the whole team back (except for Bartolo) for another run this season, but come the winter the Mets lineup will take a new form. Bruce, Duda, Walker, Cabrera, Reyes, and Granderson can all become free agents at the end of this season. It’s unlikely they all return for 2018.

Of course, with enough four-hour games like last night’s, this season will feel like an eternity, and may even delay next season infinitely. I’m glad to be in the same time zone: I spent the last two years in London, and if you thought the World Series losses to the Royals were fun, imagine if all the games ended at 5 a.m. (I basically didn’t see Jeurys Familia pitch in a regular season night game for two years.) A game ending at 11 p.m., even an extra-inning loss, seems wonderful to me now.

So do the Mets. Health and age concerns aside, the Mets seem like a postseason contender in April. Hope! Optimism! Who doesn’t need some of that right now?

image via slgckgc

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