By Scott Mandel
When Pete Alonso, the Mets precocious rookie first baseman drove the Atlanta Braves’ starter, Max Fried’s fastball 451 feet into the deepest part of center-field, it put the Mets ahead, 5-4 after having trailed the entire game.
One sensed the momentum change, replete with awakening a quiet home crowd into delirium, would take the Mets to a win over their division rivals. Alas, it didn’t happen for the home town team as the Braves, clearly a better team, took the lead back and went on to beat the Mets, 9-5.
The one positive from the loss was Alonso, who continues to be an offensive force in the National League in his maiden season.
The bomb he hit to the center field black in the fifth inning was his 41st home run of the year to tie the Mets’ franchise home run record. Alonso now shares that record with Carlos Beltran (2006) and Todd Hundley (1996). His next homer will give him sole possession of the franchise home run record.
“As soon as the ball left the bat, I knew it,” Alonso said. “The fans went absolutely nuts. It’s something you dream about as a kid. It was surreal. It was a hell of an environment tonight. That moment was incredibly special.”
The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder tipped his cap to the Citi Field crowd on his way as he took first base in the top of the sixth inning. The nearly packed house (38,300) gave him a loud, long standing ovation.
“I don’t get chills much, but that gave me the chills a little bit,” Zack Wheeler said, who gave up five runs (four earned) over six innings Saturday. “The atmosphere, the timing of the home run and how big it was. That guy is special. Hopefully it can continue. We’re riding him right now.”
The rest of the Mets’ lineup was ineffectual during a critical game. The offense struggled to string together runs in every inning besides the fifth, when Juan Lagares sparked a four-run rally with his second double of the night and Alonso cashed in three runs with his historic homer.
The Braves immediately answered the Mets and tied the game at 5-5 in the top of the sixth by taking advantage of Todd Frazier’s fielding error at third base. The Mets had their best chance to reclaim the lead when Jeff McNeil, hitting for the first time since his 10-day IL-stint, led off the seventh inning with a double to right field.
This was Zack Wheeler’s third straight poor outing but it wasn’t all his fault. There was also poor baserunning and bad defense, and, of course, more long balls given up by the Mets most important off-season acquisition, closer, Edwin Diaz.
Diaz’s nightmare season continued when he gave up a solo homer to Freddie Freeman and left the game two batters later after being seen on the mound by the trainer. The problem, not yet officially reported, appeared to be with pain in his trapezius area, aka the “trap.”
Wheeler, who said he intended to make some adjustments after a pair of bad outings, didn’t show much improvement.
He struggled with the strike zone, allowing four earned runs by the end of the third inning and couldn’t quite find a rhythm throughout his six innings on the mound.
He ended up with a no-decision, but gave up five hits — two of them homers — and four walks.
“Out of the stretch I was a little off today, but nothing really changed from the bullpen to the game,” Wheeler said. “Just trying to throw more four-seams, arm-side, and that just wasn’t there in the first few innings, so I kind of said screw it and started throwing two-seam, because I knew it was going to be there.
“Fell behind a lot of guys, a lot of deep counts and kind of setting guys up for a fastball. I just need to do a better job getting ahead of guys, makes it a lot easier and I’ve had my success when I do get ahead of guys. I think that’s one of the bigger things, I just need to pound the zone and just go after guys.”
The right-hander has now followed up the two gems he tossed in his first games after the trade deadline passed and he stayed in Queens, with three clunkers at the most important juncture of the season.
“He battled,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “The state of our bullpen tonight, he had to get to his pitch count. He did that and got through six. It wasn’t his best outing, the two walks in the second inning probably were the thing that hurt him the most, but he continued to battle.
“He’s been better, he’s been worse, but he battled for us.”
It makes one wonder if a pitcher with Wheeler’s arsenal and velocity is feeling the pressure of the moment, in this, a playoff push in the biggest city. This place is the greatest city to play in if you rise to the occasion but, if you cannot overcome the pressure of a pennant race, the fans in New York are relentless in their criticism and open derision.
Wheeler, the native of Smyrna, Georgia, will have to possibly adjust more than his delivery and pitching style if he is to be counted on down the stretch.