Buck Showalter learned the lesson a lifetime ago, when he was still mastering letters and numbers and possessed only a vague knowledge of bullpen management.
He was in first grade — about 6 years old, the age when there’s nothing better than getting older and rushing to the next big thing — and had blustered through an assignment, ready to move on. But Mrs. Monk would have none of it, Showalter said. The teacher ticked an “X” in her ledger, the mark of a job done poorly.
“She had a thing — a check, ‘uses time wisely’ or ‘uses all time,’ ” Showalter said before the Mets’ 9-6 loss to Atlanta. “I got some work done fast and ran around and played. I should have used my time more wisely.”
Let it never be said that teachers don’t leave their mark. Six decades later, as Showalter tries to navigate the Mets past their NL East rival and earn their first championship in 36 years, Mrs. Monk’s words echo in the heartbeat of this team, even on nights like Friday. Maybe especially on nights like Friday.
There are 56 games left in this season and, at its surface, Friday was the type of game you flush. Taijuan Walker, not looking quite at ease, put the Mets in an 8-0 hole and the offense couldn’t quite fight back.
But there’s something to be gathered in this muck, too. Everyone knows October baseball is different, but in the Showalter calendar, August baseball is different, too. It heralds bolder moves befitting a bigger stage and a shift in managerial style.
Maybe that meant keeping Walker in a hair longer than would otherwise be advisable and asking Trevor Williams to eat up four innings on the eve of a doubleheader. When the Mets had the tying run at the plate in the sixth, Showalter trotted out Mark Canha for Daniel Vogelbach against lefty A.J. Minter, a move that backfired. Canha struck out, leaving a one-man bench of light-hitting James McCann.
Call it a gamble, call it managing with an edge, but it’s clear that’s not something Showalter will shy away from. There was enough proof of that Thursday, when he called on Edwin Diaz for a two-inning save, the first of his career. And in his pregame news conference, Showalter didn’t talk only about Friday’s game but of planning for the two games Saturday and the off-day Thursday.
“You see that off day coming and you’re thinking before and after, the benefit that would serve, but you’re also trying to put your best foot forward and win the game,” Showalter said. “That’s why it’s so important to have depth so when you do run some guys out there, you don’t have that big drop-off and it’s their time to shine. It’s what the club needs.”
That might look like championing group success over individual necessity, or lineup decisions occasionally predicated toward future results as opposed to immediate dividends.
“We need to make sure that we don’t get ahead of ourselves and rob Peter to pay Paul and create a different problem,” Showalter said. “But August, September, there are different things that I do, there are things that change, without getting into them.”
The intention is to hone this team like a blade — carefully, intentionally — and propel them into postseason mode, even now. If they’re successful, August won’t be a slog but a training ground. Time used wisely, and all that — even in a loss.
Of course, you don’t need too many postseason reminders on weekends like these, when Atlanta is in town. The seats were full, and when Walker appeared to hurt himself in the first inning, the collective intake of air felt as if it could’ve blown one of LaGuardia’s jets off course. The atmosphere was charged throughout, as if the fans were getting into postseason shape, too.
“Anybody who tries to tell you there’s not [a different vibe]? C’mon,” Showalter said. “There’s a thing in the air, you just feel it. A lot of it rides off the fans, too. You can feel it with them, too. There’s a sense of urgency that you’d like to have all the time, but let’s face it, we’re human beings.”
He searched for a way to describe it.
“Palpable? Is that the word?”
Yes, palpable. And Showalter is clocking every second of it and trying to use his time wisely, even on days like Friday.
Mrs. Monk would approve.