By Ernie Palladino
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As well they should. Heading into Sunday night’s 18-inning victory over the defending world champion Cubs, life was good for the Baby Bombers. They had already provided the baseball world with an early shock, sitting atop the AL East at 19-9, a half-game ahead of the Orioles.
Their biggest issues involved who to play where, and those are always enjoyable headaches for a manager. Joe Girardi has faced many more serious issues in previous years than whether to give utility outfielder Aaron Hicks regular time in place of Jacoby Ellsbury, or whether to hit Aaron Judge and his Paul Bunyan ax cleanup instead of fifth.
Meanwhile, the Mets sit on the other side of town showing all the signs of a veteran team struggling and destined to fall well below expectations. They may remain in the wild-card hunt the whole time, even as they flap around at 14-16 after the Marlins one-hit them Sunday. But the frustrations of watching the Nationals leap ahead in the division race have begun to take their toll.
Bad enough that their ever-growing injury list, already headlined by Noah Syndergaard’s slow-healing strained lat that could keep him out until late July and a fast-declining public attitude that flashed hot in the locker room Saturday, now includes catcher Travis d’Arnaud and Asdrubal Cabrera. But even more disturbing than that is the situation surrounding Matt Harvey.
He was supposed to start Sunday, but instead was yanked just hours before game time and suspended for three days without pay reportedly for failure to show up for the previous day’s game. And now Harvey, claiming he had informed the club that he had a headache following some morning golf, might file a grievance with the players union.
This is not the kind of drama the experts expected the Mets to be generating at this point. The Mets always seemed to appreciate Harvey’s hard-headedness, from his bulldog willingness to take the ball under adverse conditions to his reluctance to come out of games. They even had no apparent problem with his penchant for dating every high-profile model in town.
But this recent incident — whether miscommunication, as Harvey says, or the flaunting of rules — marks a major departure for the hard-throwing right-hander. It not only created a public relations tempest for a team trying to put a long losing period behind it, but it gave a stack of ammo to the growing brigade of Mets fans who believe Harvey’s best role has become that of bait to hook an additional bat on the trade market.
Intentional or not, the right-hander legitimized the view of Harvey as a distraction. But general manager Sandy Alderson can’t afford to even think about the idea considering the continued inactivity of lefty Steve Matz, the struggles of Zack Wheeler and the fact that Syndergaard won’t even pick up a baseball the next six weeks.
See the difference? Losing team, big problems. Winning team, little problems.
It’s indeed good to be a Yankee right now, unless that Yankee is named Ellsbury. And even he has to realize that the thought of taking a temporary seat for Hicks will only improve the team.
Ellsbury hasn’t played since May 1, when he slammed into the outfield wall and injured a nerve in his left elbow. He returned Sunday night against the Cubs, but only because the switch-hitting Hicks replaced the left-handed Brett Gardner against lefty Jon Lester.
Ellsbury made good in Sunday’s extra-inning affair with an eighth-inning homer. But the question still lingers about Hicks’ playing time.
He needs to see regular action, and that means putting him in for Ellsbury in center most of the time. In his four games out there, Hicks had gone 9-for-17 (.529) with two homers, two doubles, three walks and six RBIs. It’s no coincidence that the Yanks won all four games.
It’s not like Hicks got hot all of a sudden. He’s been contributing in a part-time role all season, as indicated by a season slash line of .355/.468/.710 heading into Sunday.
He’s hitting well against lefties as well as righties, so it stands to reason Girardi should keep him in there every day, at least until he cools off. At this point, he offers more average than Ellsbury, and with six homers and 15 RBI, he’s exhibited more power than the center fielder’s four homers and 11 RBIs.
As for Judge, he went 0-for-5 in his cleanup debut Saturday, leaving four men on base. But he was back in the No. 5 hole for Sunday’s series finale at Wrigley Field, with Starlin Castro taking the cleanup spot.
Girardi would do well to leave Judge alone and hit him in a spot where he’s found a definite comfort level. A little experimentation at this point won’t hurt, though, especially if the other names involved are Castro and Gary Sanchez.
Those are the big issues that face Girardi these days.
They are far different than the Mets’ problems.
But then, so are the records.
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