Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, left, and Reds pitcher Justin...

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, left, and Reds pitcher Justin Dunn. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The friendship began in the Cape Cod League, where Justin Dunn was a closer for Cotuit and Pete Alonso a first baseman for Bourne. It grew in Brooklyn, as the two Mets’ draft picks were stationed there, then continued to flourish through the minors.

But the trash-talking? That can be traced to a single at-bat during the Mets’ 2017 instructional league, down at Port St. Lucie, where Alonso faced Dunn for one of the first times as professionals. As Dunn tells the story now, he threw Alonso a 1-and-1 changeup. That part is the undisputed truth.

What happened next? The debate continues to rage.

“Pete flew to leftfield, and Tim Tebow was out there,” Dunn said after Monday’s start against the Mets. “The sun got in his eyes and the ball just kind of fell in. He got a sun ball. He claims it’s a hit. I claim it’s an out if the sun’s not there.”

Needing the other side, I relayed Dunn’s version to Alonso before Tuesday’s game. He had a different interpretation than the Freeport righthander.

“No, it wasn’t a fly ball -- it was a double,” Alonso said. “It wasn’t an error. He didn’t touch the baseball, so it’s a double.”

If the Mets weren’t playing a (now retired) Heisman Trophy winner in leftfield that day, maybe the outcome ends up being more clear-cut. But with that episode still fresh in each other’s minds, think of what Monday’s showdown between the two best friends had to be like.

 

This isn’t a weekend golf match with high-school pals or playing one-on-one basketball with your college roommate. It’s two BFFs squaring off in the sport’s highest-level of competition, under the stadium lights, surrounded by 30,000 screaming fans. Alonso calls Dunn the first friend he ever made in pro ball, saying “he’s like a brother to me.” Dunn was in Alonso’s wedding party when the Mets’ slugger got married last November. They lived together through the minors.

But Dunn acknowledged that he had to shut off that part of himself, with no other thought during Monday’s game than to try to make Alonso look bad -- or at the very least, get him out.

It’s harder than you might imagine. Knowing that, Dunn and Alonso spoke on the phone around noon on Monday -- they talk often -- just to clear the air before he climbed the Citi mound seven hours later, for his first start since injuring his shoulder in June of last season.

“We said it together, kind of,” Dunn said Tuesday, recalling that conversation.  “This is the last time we’re going to be nice to each other today. Once we get off this phone, I hope I kill you tonight. He hoped to hit one deep, I hoped I punched him out three times. It’s just the way it goes. It’s part of the battle. But after the game, we gave each other a big hug.”

Dunn knew that phone chat was for real when Alonso stepped to the plate in the first inning. Alonso didn’t even make eye contact. Just dug in the box, flicked the bat three or four times as he always does, then was all business.

“Honestly, when it comes time to play between the lines, I’m trying to win at all costs,”  Alonso said Tuesday. “Whenever the game is over, we’re good buddies.”

Alonso is one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters these days, batting .365 (23-for-63) with six doubles, five homers, 17 RBIs and a 1.157 OPS in his 17 games since the All-Star break. But Dunn got the better of him during Monday’s 4 2/3-inning stint, as Alonso lined out to centerfield in the first inning, whiffed on a slider in the third and popped up foul in the fifth. As Dunn’s pitch count rose in that fifth inning, he was happy that Reds manager David Bell kept him in for that last at-bat against Alonso before pulling him.

“He beat me,” Alonso said Tuesday afternoon. “He did a great job of navigating and pitching with what he had last night. Yeah, he got me. But there’s going to be plenty of times where I’m going to get him.”

Dunn, the former Mets’ first-round pick, is still working his way back from a shoulder injury serious enough to make him wonder if he’d ever pitch in the majors again. Alonso was the first person he called when the Mets traded him to the Mariners in the 2018 multi-player deal that brought back Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano. The two always figured they’d be playing at Citi Field together some day -- just not in different uniforms.

“It’s just putting things in the grand scheme of life, right?” Dunn said. “We have this amazing opportunity to do this as our job and we have even a better opportunity to do it against each other. We had talked about moments like this before I got traded, so it’s a lot of buildup over a lot of conversations. He’s been holding that double over my head for a couple of years now.”

Now Dunn is armed with Alonso’s 0-fer and K. Until next time.