Month: August 2019

Mets Win 14th of Last 15 Games in Another Come-from-Behind Win Over Nationals

By Scott Mandel

There is always an unsung player who shows up big in baseball pennant races or post-season games. The guy you least expect to play the hero on the biggest stages of the sport.

Luis Guillorme? New York Mets reserve infielder has now taken his place alongside such previous luminaries as Al Weis of the 1969 Mets, Brian Doyle of the 1977 Yankees and Gene Larkin of the 1991 Minnesota Twins. All of whom came up big when nobody in the ballpark had a right to expect that from them.

Guillorme picked a perfect time for his first big league homer — a tying shot leading off the eighth — J.D. Davis added a go-ahead sacrifice fly and the Mets worked their magic again, beating the Washington Nationals, 4-3, Saturday night at Citi Field for their eighth straight victory.

The Mets have won 15 of 16 and are on their best roll since a 16-1 run in 1990. They pulled within a half-game of Washington for the first National League wild card and will try for a three-game sweep Sunday.

Juan Soto put Washington ahead, 3-2, with his second home run of the game in the eighth inning, but Guillorme, a backup infielder, countered against Fernando Rodney with his first connection in the bottom of the inning. Guillorme entered with a .192 average in 56 major league games.

After two more Mets reached against Rodney (0-5), Daniel Hudson relieved. He got one out, intentionally walked slugger Pete Alonso, and then Davis hit a drive to deep right field that brought in newcomer Joe Panik for the tiebreaking run.

Wilson Ramos, celebrating his 32nd birthday, hit a two-out drive to right-center, but Victor Robles made a leaping catch against the wall to end the inning.

It was the second consecutive blown save for Washington’s bullpen. On Friday night, Sean Doolittle allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 7-6 loss.

Soto hit a two-run drive in the first inning against Noah Syndergaard, and the 2-0 lead held until Davis and Ramos put fervor into Flushing with consecutive solo shots off Patrick Corbin in the fourth.

Soto struck again in the eighth against Seth Lugo (5-2), ending the reliever’s string of 14 consecutive scoreless appearances. Lugo got two outs to tie the Mets record with 26 consecutive batters retired before Soto hit a no-doubter to right field.

Soto has 24 homers this season, and the 20-year-old already has four career multihomer games.

Lugo also pitched the ninth as All-Star closer Edwin Díaz warmed in the bullpen.

With the Mets making an improbable charge for a playoff spot, fans lined up outside Citi Field five hours before the first pitch and many stood and clapped for lineup introductions as if it were opening day. Soto’s first-inning drive quickly quieted things down.

Davis and Ramos brought fans back to their feet in the fourth. Davis has four homers in his past seven games, and five of his 14 connections this season have been against the Nationals.

The Mets have hit multiple homers in eight consecutive games, breaking a franchise record set this June. Corbin had allowed just two homers over his previous eight starts combined, and he had given up 0.79 homers per nine innings since the start of 2018, trailing only Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom among major league starters.

Syndergaard, pitching to Ramos for the first time since June 15, threw seven innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts and seven hits allowed. He faced one over the minimum in his final four innings, and he completed seven for the sixth straight outing.

Amazin’ Mets Walk Off in Ninth Against Nats, Move into Playoff Position

Conforto with clutch hit wins it for the Amazin’s

By Scott Mandel

They’ve done it again. The New York Mets continued their magic carpet ride in this very strange baseball season by coming from behind tonight with four runs in the bottom of the ninth to defeat their division rival Washington Nationals, 7-6.

Michael Conforto, whom the Mets have been waiting for most of this season if not his career to break out into the star they’ve expected, continued his recent hot streak when he turned on left-handed pitcher, Sean Gilmartin’s inside fastball and rocketed a line drive over the head of National’s right fielder, Adam Eaton. With that, Juan Legares walked in from third base as the Mets were winners for the 14th time in their last 15 games and upped their record since the All-Star break to 20-6.

This was after Todd Frazier, another player who was ticketed to be traded or released just a few weeks ago, tied the game with a three-run homer in that same ninth inning, leading to pandemonium at Citi Field.

The Mets are now a half game out of the playoff hunt. Two weeks ago, they were 11 games out, and left for dead.

Marcus Stroman, recently acquired from Toronto, made his first home start as a Met. It was an appearance he will not forget. Citi Field was literally shaking last night with a deliriously sold-out crowd on their feet for most of that last inning. Stroman, who reportedly was highly disappointed when he was not traded to the Yankees, may be changing his tune.

“It was amazing. That crowd brought it,” Stroman said. “I’m extremely grateful to have their presence there, their energy. I don’t think they realize how much we feed off of that, and how much that gets us going and allows us to elevate our game when we need to.”

Normally a guy who gets a lot of ground balls and not an elite strikeout pitcher, Stroman punched out seven of his first nine Nats’ batters. The Long Island native ended up, in front of one of the loudest Citi Field crowds in recent history, soaking in the playoff-type atmosphere of his hometown city.

“I can’t put it into words. I want to pitch [in] every single game like that,” Stroman said. “It felt, honestly, like a playoff atmosphere, like that [World Baseball Classic] atmosphere that I had, from the second I walked out there. The entire crowd was going crazy. I love energy. I love that. Keep bringing that energy New York. We’re gonna feed off of that.”

With friends and family watching from the crowd, Stroman opened looking like the ace who made his first All-Star team this season, matching Washington’s ace, Stephen Strasburg zero for zero.

“I’m just happy to be here. And it’s a great vibe that we have on this team.”

Another guy happy Stroman is here is his new manager, Mickey Callaway.

“He battles. There’s no doubt about it. This kid is gonna battle and you’re gonna have to beat him. That’s what you want out of every guy on your team,” Callaway said. “There is no doubt that Marcus Stroman has that type of personality.”

“His slider was really working. And, he was really feeding off of this crowd,” Callaway added.

After last night’s walk-off hero, Conforto, ended things with his base hit, his Mets teammates stormed out of the dugout to surround him. Pete Alonzo, a very strong man, ripped Conforto’s jersey right off his back during the celebratory scrum at second base.

“Today was probably the most fun I’ve had up here in the big leagues,” Conforto said. “It was special. The stadium was packed. It felt like the playoffs.”

“When guys’ shirts come off after the game, I’d say it’s probably been a very good day,” said Callaway.

Indeed, Mickey. It was a very good day for the Mets.

Mets Win Again Over Lowly Marlins, Pennant Race Begins This Friday at Citi Field vs. Nationals

by Scott Mandel

This is what a pennant race in New York City is supposed to feel like.

The New York Mets, left for dead just one month ago, with a manager barely clinging to his job and a new general manager under fire for a series of moves that mostly failed, are the hottest team in the sport since the All-Star break.

Today, in a matinee game at Citi Field, they won their 13th game out of their last 14, moved their record to 19-8 since the All-Star break and have moved firmly into the wild card race in the National League after sweeping the hapless Miami Marlins, including today’s 7-2 win behind Steven Matz. The Mets are now one game behind for the second wild card position, behind the Washington Nationals, who visit Citi Field this Friday.

The Mets, dead as a door nail in early July, are now firmly in the National League playoff hunt, just 30 days later. Old Mets fans may have to dig up that relic of a team moniker from 1962, the Amazin’ Mets, to describe what this 2019 team is now doing.

The metamorphosis in the Mets pitching staff continued today, as Steven Matz pitched into the seventh inning, continuing a pattern Mets manager Mickey Callaway has set for his starters.

Today, in a 12:10 matinee, Matz, the 27-year old lefty who has averaged 5 innings per start over the course of his career, was bound and determined to match his compadres by pitching more efficiently and later into games. Mission accomplished.

Despite the oppressive humidity, Matz came within one out of completing that objective as the Mets won their fifth game in a row and their 13th out of their last 14 games.

Matz gave up a run in the second and escaped further damage that inning due to some brutal base running by the Marlins, as both Lewis Brinson and Starlin Castro were thrown out on the basepaths. He also allowed a solo shot to Brian Anderson in the sixth, but manager Mickey Callaway praised Matz’s ability to slow down on the mound, which he has struggled with at times.

“We’ve talked about this a lot the past couple years,’’ the manager said. “He continued to understand he needs to focus on the next pitch and tonight in particular, I think he did a good job of stepping back.”

“It was definitely a conscious effort,’’ Matz said of taking an occasional breather. “The heat and humidity worked in my favor because I couldn’t rush. … Throughout the whole game, I was mindful of working quick, but also taking a second every once in a while.”

Matz wasn’t the only big contributor to today’s festivities, which was merely a prelude to the biggest month of games this franchise will be playing since their 2015 World Series season.

Michael Conforto, whom the Mets and their fans have seemingly been waiting for five years to turn into Stan Musial (Google him, young ones), hit his 24th and 25th homers of the season to lead the offensive assault against the Marlin’s helpless pitching staff. He’s been a streaky hitter throughout his still-young career, struggling to find consistency. He figures he’s picked a good time to heat up.

Pete Alonzo is coming out of his post-All-Star event funk, hitting his 37th homer in the first inning, a two-run job. He has now hit the fifth most homers in a season in franchise history, four behind Carlos Beltran and Todd Hundley, who hit 41 in 2006 and 1996, respectively. With 47 games remaining, it seems a cinch the rookie first baseman will fly past that record.

But, as is usually the case in baseball, pitching will get a team to the promised land of the post-season. Mets starters have dominated since the All-Star break, pitching to a 2.92 ERA and averaging 6.2 innings per outing, the best in the game. They are feeding off of one another.

The season takes a serious turn, now. The Mets may be 13-1 in their last 14 games, may be just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff position, and may have the best starting pitching in the sport but now, it’s time to play the big boys. Washington is up, next, on Friday, with ace Stephen Strasburg looking to set a tone for the Nationals against these upstarts from New York.

This is what a pennant race feels like.

NBA Legend Lance Stephenson Taking his Talents to China

by Scott Mandel

Old buddy, Lance Stephenson, the Coney Island, Brooklyn kid who made it to the NBA and became better known for his on-court antics than his sometimes superb basketball talents, is about to sign a contract to play in China next season.

According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Stephenson agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association.

“Born Ready,” as he was called when he was 14-years old, and dominating the blacktop playgrounds of New York City against much older players, found his market in the NBA had apparently dried up at age 29. He was unable to get an offer for this upcoming season after the Lakers, his last employer, did not extend the one-year deal he signed with them last year.

His career should have been more productive than it turned out. His talent level, on both sides of the ball, was considered by many to reside in the elite section of the NBA. But, some combination of career-long immaturity, entitlement, cockiness, and corniness mitigated his talent, in the eyes of many NBA executives.

He was a constant triple-double threat during the 2013-14 campaign and averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. However, he has been a journeyman since and played for the Charlotte HornetsLos Angeles ClippersMemphis GrizzliesNew Orleans PelicansMinnesota Timberwolves, Pacers again and Lakers over the last five seasons. He suited up for three different teams in 2016-17 alone.

Stephenson shot 37.1 percent from deep in 2018-19 on his way to averaging 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

When he was a young player with the Indiana Pacers, just two years out of high school back in 2011-12, his cockiness and physical style of play during Pacer practice sessions rubbed some of the veteran players, like Dahntay Jones, the wrong way.

In the locker room after one such competitive practice, Jones started a fight with Stephenson, which was soon broken up. Upon hearing of the altercation, Pacers President Larry Bird came down to the locker room.

According to a highly reliable source who was in that room, Bird read the team the riot act. He told those players, which included Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and David West,

“Lay off the kid. He’s possibly the most talented player in this room and you need to encourage him to mature and to get better. He makes us a better team.”

Less than a month after that 2012 season ended, Bird traded Dahntay Jones to the Dallas Mavericks and handed Jones’ job, playing the wing from the big guard or small forward position, to Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson would go on to become a key part of the Pacers teams of that era, leading the league in triple doubles in 2013-14. He was just 22 years old that season and his future as an NBA star seemed in place. He, along with George led the Pacers to memorable Eastern Conference finals against the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat, in 2013 and 2014, each series concluding with a game seven.

Stephenson was on his way, or so it seemed.

With an expiring contract in 2014, Stephenson, flourishing in Indiana, was expecting a financial reward commensurate with his exciting play for the Pacers. Instead, they underwhelmed him, leading to his acceptance of a three-year, $29 million deal from the Charlotte Hornets.

It started a league-wide sojourn for Born Ready that took him to six more teams, all with different styles and coaches. Stephenson found out he didn’t easily fit into the roles each coach wanted from him.

H is now at a basketball crossroads, which will be leading to the same country fellow Lincoln High School stars, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, were forced to explore. Marbury, who had worn out his welcome in the NBA at age 30, became a national legend in China, on a par with Yao Ming. A statue was built in Marbury’s likeness in Beijing, where he led that team to two consecutive CBA championships.

Image result for lance stephenson
The infamous blow in the air moment during the Pacers-Heat 2014 Eastern Conference finals

Telfair used the Chinese Basketball Association as a launching point to get back into the NBA. He averaged 25 points per game overseas and the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him to a series of 10-day contracts though he wasn’t able to parlay that into a long-term commitment from the NBA.

Stephenson is hoping to play well in China, and upon the end of the CBA season in February, 2020, come back to the states to help an NBA team make the playoffs.

Liaoning Province in China is in the northeast sector of the country, bordering North Korea. The NBA already has one of its old stars, Dennis Rodman, who pals around with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un. It wouldn’t shock anyone if Lance Stephenson becomes a national hero in China or, begins basketball clinics in North Korea. Two Brooklyn kids, Stephenson and Marbury, from the same high school, using the power of sports to dominate the socio-athletic-political spectrum of two Asian powers.

One gets the feeling Born Ready, always happiest when he could just be a big kid with a ball in his hands, will somehow find his way back to the United States to play basketball again, whether it’s in the NBA or on a black top in a playground.