PHILADELPHIA -- The slumping Phillies thought they knew all about dysfunctional losing.
And then the real pros showed up this week at Citizens Bank Park.
Nobody does gut-twisting, mind-blowing ineptitude better than the Mets, who arrived on Broad Street with their season on the brink and basically handed the Phillies four games, the last one served up on a tray with provolone and onions by relief pitcher Edwin Diaz.
He’s just an ordinary bullpen piece now. Use him in the ninth, but Diaz doesn’t get to be called a closer anymore. Not after Thursday’s ninth inning, when he surrendered five runs with dizzying speed -- including two homers -- to personally deliver the Mets’ 6-3 loss. And not after blowing four of his last eight save attempts, with his team desperately trying to stay relevant in this rapidly fading season.
“They’re all tough in the moment,” Mickey Callaway said. “This one stings the most because it just happened.”
What happened Thursday actually turned Callaway into a sympathetic figure. Pilloried for just about everything that has gone sideways for the Mets, then hammered for Sunday’s self-inflicted wounds at Wrigley, Callaway perfectly steered his team into position to win the series finale despite a depleted bullpen.
The manager got a scary but scoreless seventh inning from Brooks Pounders, then Chris Flexen did the same in the eighth. The Mets had been 0-for-35 when trailing after the eighth inning, so when Todd Frazier erased a 1-0 deficit with his two-run homer, there was reason to rejoice in the visitors' dugout.
If Pounders and Flexen could keep the Phillies in check, certainly Diaz, the prize of December’s risky trade with the Mariners, would do the same. Just to remind everyone, Diaz converted 57 of his 61 save opportunities last season, with a 1.96 ERA and a 14.4 K/9 ratio. He’s the primary reason Brodie Van Wagenen agreed to take on $67 million of Robinson Cano's contract -- through 2023 -- and ship the team’s top two prospects to Seattle.
On Thursday, the Mets didn’t need anything special from Diaz. They weren’t pushing him for extra outs, or asking him to fight through an excessive workload. Diaz had thrown 12 pitches the previous night, for a clean ninth to protect a 5-5 tie, but that was his first appearance in five days.
This was as close to an ideal save situation as Diaz could possibly ask for. He even had a two-run cushion. And yet Diaz coughed this one up so quickly it was like he had to catch the Acela home. He started with a seven-pitch walk (3-and-2 slider) to Cesar Hernandez, then challenged newly crowned Met killer Maikel Franco with an 0-and-2 fastball, which wound up in the leftfield seats as the tying homer.
By then, you could almost feel Diaz’s confidence draining. Twice this season, Diaz was brought into tie situations and surrendered game-winning homers. Not blown saves, mind you, but devastating nonetheless. So once Franco rocked him, the doubt had to be creeping in.
Diaz momentarily got his legs under him by whiffing J.T. Realmuto, but another walk was followed by a Scott Kingery laser-beam single that nearly decapitated Todd Frazier. Four pitches later, Jean Segura smacked pitch No. 34 of the inning for the walk-off homer.
“It just seemed like they were prepared for every pitch,” Diaz said through a translator.
That’s an alarming statement for a closer to make, and if Diaz hadn’t already torpedoed this season, maybe the Mets would be freaking out. But what’s the point now? Callaway could only shrug. The one on the hook for Diaz is Van Wagenen, whose supposedly elite closer was less effective Thursday than Pounders or Flexen as his ERA jumped to 4.94.
The Mets have bent over backwards to protect Diaz this year, arguably costing them a shot at contention -- or something less embarrassing than eight games under .500. First, Diaz couldn’t be used for more than three outs because the Mets had to preserve him for October. Then, with the team in free-fall, and Callaway’s job in jeopardy, the manager was permitted to bump it up to four.
A lot of good that did them. Diaz began 12-for-12 in save chances, then imploded by the end of June anyway. He’s allowed seven homers -- two more than all of last season -- in 31 innings and has the same number of blown saves as he did total last year.
“There’s not that much of a difference,” Diaz said in comparing his performances.
The difference now is that Diaz is wearing a Mets uniform. Draw your own conclusions from that.