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Mudville: July 19, 2024 7:12 am PDT

The Pretenders

Without a doubt, my favorite day of the baseball season is the last day of the regular season.

Many pick Opening Day as their favorite and I understand why. It is customary in the press box to greet each other with “Happy New Year’’ on Opening Day. It’s a day of hope. I get it.

The last day of the regular season, however, is my favorite day because it is a day of reality.

I call it Pretender Day.

All the Pretenders, and every year there are more and more thrown our way, are revealed for what they really are, pretenders, not contenders, because it’s Scoreboard Sunday and since the dawn of baseball the scoreboard never lies.

The scoreboard is undefeated.

Now some pretenders slip into the postseason, but for the most part, teams that make the postseason have earned it. The full-season schedule is a real test.

This is the first Pretender Day since 2019. Last year in the shortened 2020 season and the bloated postseason (thanks, Rob Manfred for diluting the game once more) too many pretenders made the “postseason’’ so that was pretty much a joke.

We had to endure and hear how much these teams improved and, of course, those teams are right back where they belong this year, out of the postseason.

Baseball is filled with pretenders and here at BallNine we will call them out. Now more than ever. Many of those pretenders have been put on a pedestal by others and they are everywhere in the game, especially the front offices, the GMs who supposedly win the winter and are gushed upon, but then the reality of October sets in and… here we are.

“The Rays have become the Beasts of the East. They are not pretenders. They know how to get the job done.”

Oh look, the Padres just fired another manager. Time to bring on Bruce Bochy to save A.J. Preller. Oh look, the Rangers stink again. Oh look, the Mets are the Mets. Oh look, the Mariners are trying to make the postseason for the first time since 2001 way back when Lou Piniella was managing them. The Mariners lost a huge game Friday night when they had runners at first and third with no outs against the Angels and the next three batters struck out. Not a surprise, since the Mariners are dead last in batting average in MLB with a .225 mark. Oh look, the Phillies have once again shown themselves to be a dysfunctional mess and could not even make the most of Bryce Harper’s incredible monster second half of the season.

It goes on and on, don’t let me get started with the Pirates, Orioles, Diamondbacks and other Lost Franchises.

AMBS is not a fan of the second wild card, remember, I come from the era when there were two leagues and only one team from each league won the pennant. The rest were also-rans, but times change. The second wild card keeps fans interested and sets up a final fun Sunday in the AL with the Red Sox and Yankees both at 91-70, a full nine games behind the Rays in the AL East.

The Yankees got slapped around by the Rays, my favorite team in the game now, while over in the NL the Cardinals put on a tremendous run that boosted them into the California Wild Card game.

From what I’ve been told about the Cardinals, and I alluded to it in an earlier column, the leadership of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina made the difference. I’ve heard that there were too many daily meetings in Cardinal-Land for the players to endure and the leaders of the team made it clear to management, less meetings, more going out and just playing baseball and that is how the Cardinals went on their win streak.

The Cards' win streak earned them a spot in the 2021 Wild Card. (Photo: Bill Greenblatt / UPI)

In essence, the Cardinals stopped wasting time in meetings and instead took that energy to start scoring runs, pitch better and play better defense. It sure clicked and hopefully that is a wave of the future.

Also, have you noticed there have been some hitters and pitchers recently who have said, “I stopped worrying so much about my mechanics and went back to basics’’?

That’s code for, “I told the Nerds to chill and let me play baseball.’’

That’s a good thing and we need more of that across the game, not less.

Along those lines, the Pretender Mets, who blew another golden opportunity in the NL East, are having their Instructional League get together in Port St. Lucie this month and guess what one of the main focuses of emphasis is on “Instructional League’’?

Let me remind you that Instructional League used to be just that, workouts and games where you would improve your fundamentals, get to sharpen the blade in real-time games with other top prospects and that was always a good thing.

You know, games and actual instruction. It’s called baseball.

Some teams aren’t even playing games any more in Instructional League.

The Mets are using Instructional League largely as hitting practice, and not just hitting, but hitting the ball in the air practice.

I would rather see the prospects play other teams in games, but improving hitting works when essentially the Mets couldn’t hit this season after firing hitting coach Chili Davis. However,  there is a big problem here.

Davis believed in a whole field approach to hitting, you know, line drives. The change in hitting coaches didn’t help the Mets.

So now the Mets are having their prospects restructuring their swings. Yikes. Yes, changing swing paths at Instructional League in an effort to hit more balls in the air. Great.

It’s essentially being called Swing Reconstruction Camp.

That sucks, but that, evidently, is what these Mets believe in now that they have a new hitting coach and some new leadership that wants to model the upper cut swing as the swing of the Mets future.

What could go wrong?

The Mets are back to being the Mets once again.

Well, it’s the Mets, so much can go wrong. This will mark the fifth straight season the Mets could not make the postseason.

Speaking of the Mets, new owner Steve Cohen thoroughly embraced the hope of the Mets becoming the East Coast version of the Dodgers (nine straight postseasons), spending a lot of money and winning. Cohen has the money part down pat, handing Francisco Lindor $341 million for a .233 average this season (20 home runs) with an added bonus of that tussle with Jeff McNeil, who also forgot how to hit this year, and the Thumbs Down saga with his friend Javier Baez.

His first two seasons in the majors before Lindor started focusing on home runs, he batted .313 and .301 and did manage to still hit 15 home runs that second season with a much shorter swing than he has now.

But maybe things will get better for Lindor. It can’t get much worse.

Maybe his swing will become even more of a launch angle type unlike the swing he broke into the major leagues with – when he could hit for average – before he went all Launch Angle on us. Maybe he should go all in with the Instructional League guys.

“Instructional League used to be a 60-game schedule,’’ one top talent evaluator told BallNine. “You went out there and competed. There were guys from AA and AAA trying to get over the hump to get to the big leagues. Guys would pitch seven innings in Instructional League games. Guys go to Instructional League for two weeks now and they’re lucky if you get them on the mound and they face 10 hitters in two weeks. It’s horrible. Nobody knows how to compete. These guys barely broke a sweat yesterday.’’

A former player told me that the first time he pitched in an Instructional League he faced the Cardinals and they had five players who played in the big leagues in their lineup that day.

Players, and particularly, young pitchers were challenged.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash (16) hugs a Rays staff member as they celebrate the Rays clinching the American League East. (Photo: IVY CEBALLO | Tampa Bay Times)

Now it’s a “do not break glass” experience.

The team the Mets should emulate, and this is what I would tell Cohen if I were advising him, that team is the Rays, who do more with less money, always seem to find hungry, fundamental-based players and have married analytics successfully with player development.

The Rays don’t lose their player development people, they pay them well. They stay in the organization and do a terrific job and it’s also nice living on the west coast of Florida. Pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson is one such coach and major league pitching coach Kyle Snyder does a really good job.

“The Rays pitchers pound the strike zone and throw pitches with conviction,’’ one scout told me.

This season marks the third straight season the Rays have made the postseason and they picked up their 100th win in a 12-2 slaughter of the Yankees on Saturday in the Bronx, beating the Yankees in the first two games of the series to set up the Sunday finale. That is the first time in Rays history they have won 100 games and to do it in the AL East is impressive.

They do it on the cheap, too, with a payroll of $71 million this season.

By the way, the Mets have never been to the postseason three seasons in a row in their history. Imagine that. In fact, there are nine teams who have NEVER made it to the postseason for three straight seasons in a row. That’s an amazing number and I just looked it up at each team’s franchise history.

The nine teams that have never had three straight postseason appearances are the Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Reds, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks, White Sox and Mariners.

Amazingly, the Reds who have been around since 1882, have never had three straight postseason appearances. Back in the day, of course you had to win the pennant three straight years but that is an incredible lack of accomplishment by the Reds for 139 years. Not even the Big Red Machine managed three straight Octobers. The White Sox are right up there with the Reds, too. They’ve been around since 1901 and that counts the Black Sox years as well. Incredible ineptitude.

Aaron Boone is going to have his hands full with the Rays if he wants his Yankees to move forward into October. (Photo: Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

Wouldn’t it be something if Tony La Russa hangs around managing the team until he is 79 and accomplishes the feat? The Astros have made it five straight years, the second straight season under old-timer Dusty Baker, but Baker is a playoff machine. The Brewers have made it four straight seasons and you can be sure that Cohen would love to take New Yorker David Stearns away from Milwaukee to run his Mets, if at all possible.

That would be his dream front office scenario.

The Rays believe in accountability too, and that is important. Kevin Cash had a little dugout bench conversation with starter Shane Baz after a quick hook Saturday after Baz screamed into his glove. Meanwhile, later in the game, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres could not be bothered to sprint to first base after a third strike went all the way to the backstop and it didn’t appear that Aaron Boone said a word to him.

All this matters in the big picture of a team.

As for hitting the century mark in wins, Cash said, “It’s pretty special, you look at the three other teams that are still playing for a lot (the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays) they are all going to sit at 90 wins for the year. That is just very reflective of how talented the division is, but ultimately how talented this club has been this year. I am so proud of the guys, happy for them, 100 sounds better than 99 and 101 sounds better than 100.’’

One longtime baseball operations man told me of the job Cash has done this season, “I tip my hat to Kevin Cash. He runs that baseball ship well.’’

The Rays have scored more runs than anyone in the game, 857 runs. The top eight teams in run scored are all in the playoffs.

If the Rays drive down the 101 Victory Highway and sweep the Yankees Sunday, it sets up all kinds of playoff possibilities. All that makes the last day special as well. The Yankees were in control of the top wild card spot heading into the series but are now backed into a corner in a tie with the Red Sox heading into the final day.

The Rays have become the Beasts of the East. They are not pretenders. They know how to get the job done. In the season series against the Yankees, so far they have outscored the Yankees 98-49. The Rays starter ERA against the Yankees is 2.29 and Cash leans heavily on a bullpen that has put up a 2.41 ERA against the Yankees. Meanwhile, Yankee starters have a 5.46 ERA against the Rays and Yankee relievers have a 4.22 ERA vs the Rays.

The Rays wear down the Yankees in every way.

If the Yankees somehow miss out on the postseason, what a complete mess that will be. Billy Martin once said, “The Yankee Pinstripes, they stay with you wherever you go. To me, being a Yankee always meant playing with pride, desire, self-confidence, the will to win.’’

That’s on the line these days. If the Yankees make it to the postseason, it will be their fifth straight, but they have not advanced to the ALCS since 2017 when they lost to the Astros. If they somehow lose out and don’t make the postseason after owning the top wild card spot just a few days ago, the Yankees can just get in line with all the other Pretenders.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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