Monday, September 30, 2019

Joey's Soapbox: My 2019 Not-At-All Biased Wild Card Game Picks

It's Miller Time!  But are the Nationals going to shut down the Brew Crew's party?  (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

What's going on, everyone?  This is your favorite fearless forecaster, Joey Beartran.  And I don't know how effective I'll be picking other teams to win, especially since I'm still on a high from the Mets' season-ending walk-off victory.

Finishing ten games over .500 wasn't good enough to get the Mets into the playoffs, as they finished three games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild card.  But at least they're not the 93-win Cleveland Indians, who became a fringe playoff team themselves when they allowed the small-market Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics to beat them to the postseason party.

Speaking of fringe teams, the Philadelphia Phillies paid $330 million to Bryce Harper, who led them to the promised land of a .500 record.  That's over $100 million more than the Washington Nationals are offering Anthony Rendon, otherwise known as the player who was the real offensive leader of the Nats all these years.  And the player who could possibly be one of just 25 who can say they helped Washington advance in the postseason for the first time ever.

But will Washington finally celebrate something other than a division title or wild card berth?  Will Milwaukee continue to win one for the Yelich?  How about the Rays, who are making their first playoff appearance with a skipper not named Joe Maddon?  Or will the A's move on for the first time in five trips to the postseason under manager Bob Melvin?

I guess it's time for me to put on my thinking cap (or the hood from my Mets hoodie, since that's the only article of clothing I wear) and share my predictions for the American and National League Wild Card games.  And of course, there's no chance those picks will be biased.  Not at all.

National League Wild Card Game

Milwaukee Brewers vs. Washington Nationals

We all know the Nationals' history in the postseason.  Four appearances, four quick exits.  Meanwhile, every time the Brewers have qualified for the postseason since moving to the National League in 1998, they've won more playoff games than they did in their previous playoff appearance.  Milwaukee won one postseason game in 2008, then followed that up with five playoff victories in 2011.  Last year, the Brewers fell one win short of their second-ever trip to the World Series.

Both teams are hungry.  Milwaukee is hungry for a pennant, while Washington is hungry for their first-ever October champagne celebration (which is weird because how can a team be hungry for a liquid?)

Let's look at the pitching matchup, because as we all know, pitching wins Wild Card Game championships.

The Nationals will trot out Max Scherzer, whose seven-year, $210 million contract has produced zero postseason wins in three starts and one relief appearance.  Scherzer will also be pitching on six days rest, which usually helps a pitcher.  However, this season Scherzer made four starts on six or more days rest.  He won none of them, producing a 3.28 ERA in those well-rested appearances, which was nearly half a run higher than the 2.86 ERA he put up in his other 23 starts.

Milwaukee's starter will be Brandon Woodruff, who has a lifetime 1.46 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in four career postseason appearances.  Those numbers look good on paper.  You know what looks better on paper?  His 0.96 ERA and 0.70 lifetime WHIP against the Nationals in four appearances.  And I haven't even mentioned that he's struck out 23 Washingtonians while walking just two.  (Okay, maybe I just did.)

The face of a philosopher. (Getty Images)
And the pièce de résistance?  The next extra-base hit a Nationals player collects against Woodruff will be the first.  You read that right.  In his four appearances against Washington, Woodruff has faced 68 batters and has yet to allow an extra-base hit to any of them.

I believe it was the great former Mets shortstop Rafael Santana who once said, "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."  (I also believe my Studious Metsimus colleague is passing me a note saying that it was actually George Santayana who said this.  What does he know about famous quotes?)  With or without Bryce Harper, the Nationals will always be doomed to repeat their postseason failures.  Scherzer might be a future Hall of Famer, but 'Ol Blue Eye is not a future wild card game winner.  At least not until he signs with another team.

Prediction:  Milwaukee will advance to the NLDS.

American League Wild Card Game

Tampa Bay Rays vs. Oakland Athletics

So remember what I said about pitching winning championships?  Well, we're going to get some pitching in this game.  Unless things change, Oakland will be going with Sean Manaea, who made just five starts this season, but posted a 1.21 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in his September to remember.  Tampa will be going with All-Star Charlie Morton, who went 16-6 and struck out 240 batters in just 194.2 IP.  And if you recognize his name, it's probably because you recall how great he was for the Houston Astros in the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning the seventh and deciding game to give Houston its first-ever championship.  In other words, he's got what it takes to pitch in a win-or-go-home game.

Manaea was great in September, but his last four starts were against the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers (twice) and Seattle Mariners.  Those three teams combined to finish 99 games under .500, meaning Jeurys Familia and Edwin Díaz could probably shut them down as well.

In addition, Tampa's lineup is as consistent as they come.  Nine players had 300 or more plate appearances.  Eight of those players had between 14 and 21 home runs.  (The one who didn't, Austin Meadows, hit 33 taters.)  No one on the Rays had as many as 90 RBI, but eight players drove in over 50 runs.  No player hit .300, but eight of the nine regulars hit over .250, and the one who didn't (Kevin Kiermaier) led the team in stolen bases.  How consistent were the Rays throughout the season?  They had 11 players with a bWAR of at least 2.0, but none with a WAR above 5.0.  And who is the one player worth exactly 5.0 WAR?  Why, it's wild card game starting pitcher Charlie Morton.

The game is in Oakland, but Tampa had the second-best road record in the majors at 48-33.  This team knows how to win on the road.  And their starting pitcher knows how to pitch when the team's season is on the line.

Touch 'em all, Travis.  (Scott Audette/AP)
Oh, and one more thing.  Travis d'Arnaud is on the Rays and he just had that breakout campaign (16 HR, 67 RBI in 92 games with Tampa Bay) we were told he'd have one day as a member of the Mets.  But in addition to his skills with the bat, d'Arnaud also made Charlie Morton better, as evidenced by the opponents' .202/.265/.361 slash line against Morton with d'Arnaud behind the plate.

The Coliseum hasn't seen a playoff victory in six years.  That streak isn't ending this year.  Right, Travis?

Prediction:  Tampa Bay will advance to the ALDS.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Joey's Small Bites: Crashing the MLB Food Fest II

Time to step up to the plate at the MLB Food Fest.  (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)

What's cooking, everyone?  I'm Joey Beartran, roving reporter and culinary expert for Studious Metsimus.  And everything was cooking for me this weekend and the MLB Food Fest, which for the second straight year was held at Center 415 on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

Most of the bugs from last year's inaugural food fest were fixed (and I'm not just talking about the toasted grasshoppers from Seattle; those were still there).  There were 15-minute gaps between sessions so that everyone could enjoy their full two-hour window.  Departing guests also didn't have to use the same staircase to leave the venue as the arriving eaters were using to enter it, which allowed for a smoother flow of traffic.  The main difference from last year was that all guests could only sample a food item once.  No going back for seconds here.  Attendees were required to scan a bracelet before taking a food item which kept track of which food stands they visited.  That kept lines moving and prevented large gatherings of people by the most popular food stands.

As a culinary expert, I wanted to try as many foods as possible.  Also, my colleague never got me breakfast before we left for Center 415 so I made him make up for his obvious oversight by going around from stand to stand collecting the best items from all 30 ballparks.

Lights, camera, snack-tion!  (EL/SM)

Since it was lunchtime when our session began, I decided to lead off the eating game with a grilled cheese sandwich.  But it wasn't just any grilled cheese, it was a beer braised short rib grilled cheese courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays.  Just like Brandon Nimmo or Jeff McNeil, this dish got things off to a flying start with its Budweiser braised short ribs, multiple cheeses, caramelized onions and horseradish cream.  It's too bad the Four Hands Nachos offering from the St. Louis Cardinals grounded into a double play.  Its diced chicken and typical nacho toppings were just meh.

Next up were by the Mahi Mahi Tacos from the San Diego Padres and the Philly Cheesesteak from the team that made a clown move by signing Bryce Harper because his history of losing when it counts fits in perfectly with the team's history.  Surprisingly, the tacos were nothing special and the cheesesteak was probably the best thing to come out of Philly since DJ Jazzy Jeff.

After washing down my food with several cans of the well-stocked Coke product coolers (they had 12-ounce cans this year, which was an improvement over last year's eight-ouncers), I moved on to two American League Central specials.  First, I tried the Fat Rooster from the Cleveland Indians and then I topped it off with the BBQ Burger from the barbecue-loving Kansas City Royals.  The Fat Rooster was surprisingly very hot, but I guess when you top off a fried chicken breast with Frank's Hot Sauce, habañero powder, cajun seasoning, Lawry seasoning, white pepper and garlic, that's to be expected.  The BBQ Burger had pulled pork on top of a steak burger patty, along with American cheese, world-famous Kansas City BBQ sauce and a large onion ring.  Both were a meat lover's dream.

Speaking of meats and love, I loved the meaty offerings from the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs.  The Reds' dish was a Bulgogi Beef Egg Roll, which had steak, rice, carrots, onions and scallions all drenched in Gochujang sauce, which is a Korean red chili paste.  Meanwhile, the Cubs served up a Beer Can Chicken Sandwich, which was grilled beer-can chicken, bacon and dijonnaise on a brioche bun.  Both were very different and both were very delicious.

Clearly, this food fest was not made for vegans.  (EL/SM)

After eating all of the above meals, I had to take a break to get the food down.  In other words, I had to make a run for the rest room.  Since we only had two hours to eat everything we could get our paws on, I allowed my sisters, Gabby and Iggy, to try some of the delicacies I didn't think I would like.  Since Gabby likes fried foods, she went for the Rocky Mountain Oysters from the Colorado Rockies, while Iggy sampled the Coney Egg Roll from the Detroit Tigers.

Gabby was intrigued by the breaded cowboy caviar and fries.  However, when she found out that cowboy caviar was mostly veggies, she just ate the fries.  Plus, the cowboy caviar was very tough to chew.  Iggy's snack was supposed to have chili on it, but it looks like the server forgot that part.  Despite the missing ingredient, she seemed to enjoy the hot dog and diced onions inside an egg roll.

My pinch-hitters came through when I needed it most.  (EL/SM)

After I returned from what turned into an extended bathroom break (don't ask; what happens in the stall stays in the stall), I didn't think I looked very photogenic so I let my Studious Metsimus colleague take photos of several other items I ended up trying, some of which were amazin' like the 1969 Mets, and some of which were reminiscent of the 1962 Mets, meaning they sucked pretty bad.

First, let's talk about two items that were like the '69 Mets.  The "See You Tater" Backyard BBQ Tots from the Washington Nationals and the Pulled Pork Pierogie Hoagie from the Pittsburgh Pirates were both truly scrumtrulescent.  The first dish had tater tots topped with some incredibly creamy mac and cheese, perfectly crispy onions and pulled pork shoulder covered in tangy BBQ sauce.  The latter sandwich was a repeat offering from last year, but I'm glad it came back because it was my favorite thing to eat in last year's food fest.  Both items had pulled pork, but only Pittsburgh had the smarts to add a pierogi to it.  Seriously, I could eat both of these all day.

Things I wouldn't eat all day included the Curveball Frites (Milwaukee Brewers), Shrimp Po' Boy (New York Yankees) and unfortunately, the Bases Loaded Dog (your New York Mets).  Look at the photos below for the Curveball Frites and Shrimp Po' Boy.  All I see is some tough-to-chew Andouille sausage from Milwaukee and pickles from the Bronx.  Let someone else have those.  And what about Citi Field's Bases Loaded Dog?  Let's just say no one's coming around to score after having that one.  Sorry, Mets.  I still love the team, though.

Now look at the offering to the left of the Bases Loaded Dog in the next-to-last photo below.  That's the Chicken and Bubble Waffle from the Miami Marlins.  Clearly, Derek Jeter had nothing to do with that dish because it was absolutely delicious!  The Marlins took a thick piece of breaded chicken, smothered it with maple aioli and stuffed it in a bubble waffle cone to create the best thing at Marlins Park.

Last, but not least, was the Smoked Pork Belly Bao Buns, courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The extreme close-up below perfectly shows off the candied pork belly, corn relish, sriracha aioli and spicy mayo nestled within a soft bao bun.

In order, base hit, base hit, strikeout, strikeout, home run, strikeout, base hit.  (EL/SM)

There was plenty of food to be had at the MLB Food Fest, but for those with smaller stomachs than my own, there were plenty of other things to do to pass the time.

In one corner was a virtual reality home-run hitting game.  There were also TVs everywhere showing all of the day's MLB action as well as a free soft serve ice cream stand (okay, so that still qualifies as food).

There were also larger-than-life sculptures of pretzels and cotton candy, which many people posed for photographs with.  But my personal favorites were the French fry ball tank that I jumped into and the hot dog seesaw, which I hopped on with my siblings.

There was fun for everyone at the MLB Food Fest (EL/SM)

The Studious Metsimus staff had a wonderful time at this year's MLB Food Fest.  The delicacies were plentiful and the portions were bigger this year than they were in 2018, which made it easier to accept the fact that I didn't have time to try about half of the items from all the ballparks.  Sure, there were some things I could have done without (I probably wouldn't have tried what Gabby had), but I have faith that the teams that struck out this year will make up for it at next year's food fest.  And there will be a food fest next year, right?

On that note, it's time to say goodbye from Center 415 in midtown Manhattan.  I hope my report makes you want to visit some road stadiums in the near future.  I know I want to go back to Miami, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, to name a few.

Now it's time for me to collect my M.V.E. Award.  I was kind of expecting a trophy, but I'll take the napkin.  Besides, I think I have some barbecue sauce on my chin.  A trophy probably wouldn't do much good to clean up that mess.  Happy eating, everyone!

I always love being recognized for my work.  (EL/SM)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Healing Win After a Terrible Loss

My mother was only 15 years old and living in Puerto Rico when her mom passed away.  Soon after, she met a man while she was finishing up high school and married him at age 18.  That marriage lasted for nearly a decade, but when she and her husband couldn't conceive a child, the relationship fizzled and led to divorce.  The year was 1967.  And once again, my mother was alone.  Her aunt, a rabid Yankees fan who lived in New York at the time, asked her to come visit for a few weeks to get away from the heartbreak and disappointment.  My mother accepted the offer and her visit ended up lasting for decades.

You see, soon after my mother arrived in New York, she met a man who just happened to be from Cabo Rojo - the same town in Puerto Rico where she was born and raised.  He had also been involved in a relationship that had recently ended and they found comfort in sharing those stories with each other.  Eventually they shared more stories with each other, sometimes over ice cream on City Island or under the stars by the Hudson River.  Less than nine months after they met for the first time, they were married.  And five years later, I came along.

It.  Had.  Happened.

I was one awkward looking kid.  But I was the only one my mother had, and she loved me for it.

After 15 years of trying, the long-desired title of "mother" had finally been earned.  You can imagine how much Mamita (that's what I called her) loved me and spoiled me, especially after thinking that she would never have a child of her own.

When I was eight years old, I became a Mets fan.  And when Mamita saw how much joy the team gave me - even if it was 1981 and the team rarely won - she became a Mets fan as well.  Her aunt wasn't very pleased with Mamita's decision, but the 22 rings won by her team probably made it a lot easier for her to accept.

Since my father was not a big sports fan, it was Mamita who took me to my Little League games.  She even worked at the field's hot dog stand just so she could be closer to me when I was playing.  When I pitched my first and only Little League shutout, she was the one who served me and my teammates the celebratory frankfurters.  They were probably the best dogs I ever had.

Once my Little League career had ended, my mother would take me to Mets games so we could continue to bond over our mutual love of baseball.  I'd talk to her about Mookie Wilson and she'd tell me about seeing Linguine Lasorda (that's what Puerto Ricans playfully called the legend we know as Tommy) playing and managing in Puerto Rico.  It made those pre-1986 losses much more tolerable to watch in person.

Ah, 1986.  The year the Mets finally won the World Series.  Mamita and I watched every postseason game together that October.   And in the tenth inning of Game Six, she passed down an old Puerto Rican tradition to me, although it was completely by accident.

As you surely know, the Mets needed to win Game Six to force a seventh and deciding game.  My mother had been holding a ceramic elephant for luck during the entire contest.  Not only did she have to hold the elephant, but it had to be facing away from the TV and she could only grab the elephant by its tusk.  It's only weird if it doesn't work, right?

Well, once Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez made the first two outs of the tenth with the Mets trailing by two runs, she tossed the elephant aside in disgust.  Ya gotta believe that I picked up the elephant and held it backwards by its tusk once she let it go.  This long-suffering Mets fan (of five whole years) was not about to give up on the team just yet even if things looked somewhat bleak.

With the elephant correctly positioned in my hand, my mother and I watched nervously as Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight singled.  We were on the edge of our seats as Mookie Wilson tap-danced away from Bob Stanley's wayward pitch.  And once Mookie's little roller up along first found its way behind the bag, I knew that I'd be holding elephants by their tusks for the rest of my life whenever I needed a little good fortune.

The Mets didn't make a return trip to the World Series until 2000.  By then, my father had been retired for 11 years and my parents had moved back to Cabo Rojo to spend the rest of their lives in their hometown.  Even though Mamita was now 1,576 miles away (according to what the frequent flyer miles said), she always made it back to New York for important Mets games.

Shea Stadium will always be in my heart.  As will my mother.

She was with me at Shea Stadium when Mike Piazza played his final game as a Met in 2005.  She was there when we saw the Mets clinch the N.L. East division title on September 18, 2006.  (I don't think I apologized enough to her for injuring her shoulder when Cliff Floyd caught the final out of the game.  I was a little excited and started jumping up and down while pressing down on her right shoulder repeatedly.  Oops.)  She even attended the last game played at Shea Stadium in 2008 and the first regular season game played at Citi Field in 2009.

The baseball-loving-woman-in-my-life torch was passed from my mother to my wife when we were married in 2010, but my mother always asked me about the Mets whenever we spoke on the phone during baseball season.  Even when we couldn't find something else to talk about, there was always baseball.  And it would be like that until her final days.

My mother passed away yesterday, exactly 13 years to the day after I got a little too excited after seeing the team clinch their first division title since 1988.  And even in passing, she gave me one more happy Mets memory.

As my father informed me of her passing, the Mets were playing a day game in Colorado.  Eighteen years ago, when I was told the news that my grandmother had passed away, the Mets were also playing a day game.  On that day (May 20, 2001), the Mets were trailing the Dodgers by two runs as they came to bat in the eighth inning.  New York scored in the eighth, then pushed across the winning run in the ninth inning.  It was a happy moment on an otherwise awful day.  So what do you think happened after I learned of my mother's passing?  Yup, you guessed it.

Mets down by two as they bat in the eighth.

Mets score in the eighth.

They score again in the ninth, turning a potential defeat into a healing victory.

The funny thing is, once the game against the Rockies entered the eighth inning with the Mets trailing by a couple of runs, repeating the scenario from when my grandmother passed, there was no doubt in my mind that the team would come back to win.  When it came to baseball, my mother had never let me down before and she wasn't about to begin now.

The Mets might not make the playoffs this season, but as far as I'm concerned, they already had their biggest win of the year yesterday.  And in a way, Mamita got to experience that win with me.

As a child and young adult, baseball helped my mother escape from the difficulties that life presented her, whether it be losing a parent, a marriage, or even the place she called home.  Now baseball will help heal me as I face my own challenge.  And I will heal, just like my mother once did.

We believe in comebacks.  And just like the Mets did yesterday, I'll come back from this loss.

My mother wouldn't have it any other way.

Dedicated to Juanny Leyro (Dec. 27, 1938 - Sept. 18, 2019)

Mamita, you'll always be in my heart.