What are we doing?
What are we doing? Come on.
That would be an amateur lip reader’s summation of what Taijuan Walker said to Luis Rojas after the Mets pitcher threw up his hands in the seventh inning as his manager headed to the mound. The Mets held a 2-1 lead over the Giants. Walker had thrown just 74 pitches, he was absolutely rolling, and the two Giants who had just reached base had done so on poorly hit balls that should have been successfully fielded.
But Rojas wanted his brilliant left-hander, Aaron Loup, to face lefty hitter Brandon Crawford, because he felt it was the Mets’ best available matchup. The manager went by the book, and ignored the game’s (and Walker’s) heartbeat. Loup had allowed one hit in his last dozen appearances, and he hadn’t allowed an extra-base hit to a lefty all season. On Loup’s very first pitch, a cutter, Crawford changed all that with a two-run double that became the game-winner, and an angry Walker turned and threw a water bottle in the dugout.
The starter, who sounded like an incredulous Mets fan before he exited the mound, now acted like an incredulous Mets fan with his two-hit night in ruins. People in the crowd started chanting, “Fire Rojas,” and a butt-ugly free-fall (even by Mets standards) got a bit uglier.
Yes, the Giants tried giving this gift back to the home team in the ninth, when two outfielders collided on Brandon Drury’s fly ball. No, the home team wasn’t terribly interested in receiving it. Francisco Lindor again picked up right where he left off before his injury, popping up Jake McGee’s first pitch and earning boos from the crowd. Then, with the bases loaded and two out, Pete Alonso, home-run champ, offered nothing more than a bloop out to second base, sealing the Mets’ 10th defeat in their 12 games against the Giants and Dodgers.
This return to Citi Field was supposed to revive whatever chances the Mets had of charging back up that NL East hill. Instead, Loup said, his team was “basically kind of booed off the field.”
Rojas took the brunt of it, in Queens and all over social media. He was trending on Twitter, never a good thing for a manager who held a four-game division lead on Aug. 1, and now faces a seven-game division deficit on Aug. 26. Rojas watched two of his baserunners, Javier Baez and Michael Conforto, get doubled off on line drives, watched Loup get laced on his first pitch and then heard some fans call for his job.
“They can say whatever,” Rojas said. “We have a very passionate fan base.”
At the end of batting practice Wednesday, the manager had talked with a reporter on the field about how badly he wants to permanently establish a winning culture and delete media and fan references to a Same Old Mets mentality. Rojas doesn’t turn 40 until next week, and he has a chance to be a very good manager in the long term. But if he wants that future to be in New York, the losing and the bad baseball have to stop much sooner rather than later. And days like Wednesday, which started with the encouraging sights and sounds of Jacob deGrom playing catch in the outfield and then manning his old college position, shortstop, during batting practice, can’t keep ending with so much negative energy exploding around the building.
The Mets were 45-37, with a four-game lead in the NL East, after deGrom pitched most recently, on July 7. The Mets have gone 16-28 in the seven weeks since, while plunging into third place, a country mile behind first-place Atlanta.
After Rojas announced what he called “great news for us” — an MRI exam that showed enough improvement in deGrom’s elbow inflammation to allow him to throw a baseball — he was asked about the damage his ace’s absence did to his team, not just in a physical context, but in a psychological one too.
“We’ve faced a lot of things this season, and the guys have taken it the best way,” Rojas said. “They show up to play every day with the same demeanor. … I don’t think the guys felt sorry for themselves. … I don’t think from a mental standpoint [deGrom’s absence] hurt the guys. They showed up to play the same way every day.”
Just not half as effectively.
Rojas has to protect his players, and he can’t give them a reason to fail in a press conference answer. But with deGrom’s return potentially on the horizon, his Mets are still a collapsing team. They have 14 games coming up against the Nationals and Marlins, and they need to win 10 or 11 of them.
Rojas pushed all the right buttons for three months, keeping his team in first place. He needs to rediscover those buttons ASAP.