These can’t be easy times for Terry Collins, especially if these turn out to be the last six weeks of his career as the Mets manager, which would almost certainly make them the last six weeks of his career as anybody’s manager at age 68.
Collins waited his whole baseball life, all the way back to 1971, to taste the postseason. He savored every moment of the Mets’ October ride two years ago, and their September surge last year. Those journeys made all the bus trips and awful motels along the way worth the toil and sweat.
“When these games mean everything, day after day, and you have to keep winning ’em,” Collins said, blinking away champagne in Philadelphia last autumn, the day the Mets clinched the wild card, “that’s what Heaven sounds like to me.”
There will be no Heaven across these final six weeks, just an endless slog through the Dog Days. The Mets have emptied their roster, and in doing so they made two things perfectly clear:
1. They are officially on the clock for 2018.
2. They want to see what the kids can do.
Tuesday night, Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario were responsible for all four runs the Mets scored in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees, Smith with an opposite-field, two-run homer to left off Sonny Gray in the seventh, Rosario going to right off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. And Rosario also made two dazzling plays at shortstop, which already has become an almost daily ritual.
This is what makes these games tolerable now for Mets fans. They want to see the kids. It’s like 2004 all over again, when it was Jose Reyes and David Wright coming up and allowing folks to forget the record and the standings, to forego today for tomorrow.
So it was interesting that it was Reyes — erstwhile wunderkind, now a salty veteran — who unwittingly provided the night’s biggest buzz kill. Because Collins sent Reyes up to pinch hit for Smith in the ninth. Collins has spoken incessantly these past few weeks about wanting to “challenge” the kids now that they’re here, to see what they’re made of.
Chapman and his 100-mph fastball — even as hittable as it has been lately — were deemed too much of a challenge for Smith, in Collins’ view. So up went Reyes. And to be fair to the manager: Reyes got a hit. He was on board when Rosario found the right-field seats. In a lot of contexts that would be celebrated as a fine move, given the result.
In this context, when the Mets want to see what the kids have, what they’re made of, when they say how much they want to “challenge” them — it made little sense.
Actually, it made no sense.
“For me, I was trying to get someone on base and maybe create something,” Collins said. “He’ll have his chances down the road, believe me. He’s going to be a good hitter. But [Chapman] absolutely mows down left-handed hitting so I went with a right-handed hitter.”
The Mets are 53-64, and sit 12 games back of the second National League wild card. If they were 64-53 and three games back, fine. Hell, if they were 59-58 and just wanting to light a spark for the final kick, that would be fine, too.
Of course, if that were the case, then both Smith and Rosario would have been in Fresno, Calif., on Tuesday night, playing for the 51s against the Grizzlies in the Pacific Coast League, and the big question for Collins would have been if Lucas Duda should hit against Chapman.
The kids are here for a reason. The season is gone. The game was gone. You don’t think Smith could benefit from facing Chapman and his heaters — even if he went good morning/good afternoon/good evening against them? Really?
It isn’t easy to manage this way. Managers are paid to win baseball games, and if the only prism here was Collins giving the Mets the best chance to win this game by pinch-hitting Reyes, it was a no-brainer move — especially since it worked out.
But the Mets are fooling themselves if that’s the way they’re going to conduct business the rest of the way. It was one thing to limit Michael Conforto’s at-bats against tough lefties the last two years because every game mattered, there was no time for an internship.
Now there’s nothing but time. They need to use it wisely. Or else: what’s the point?