NEW YORK — Forty-two years before Brian Snitker and Buck Showalter became NL East managerial adversaries, they played against each other in the Double-A Southern League, where the Nashville Sounds’ Showalter was a designated hitter with neither power nor speed but an acute sense of how to play the game and do the little things.
Some of that attention to detail is what Showalter seems to be instilling in the Mets in his first year as manager. But New York has underperformed for so long that it will take a while before skeptics believe a 65-year-old manager can lead the Mets to unseat the Braves as kings of the NL East.
The Mets are 16-8 after Monday’s 5-2 loss in the opener of a highly anticipated four-game series at Citi Field. Snitker’s Braves improved to 11-13, beating the team with the best record in the NL after losing Saturday and Sunday to the Texas Rangers, who went in with the AL’s worst record.
Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud drove in three runs with doubles in the sixth and eighth innings against his former team. Austin Riley hit a tape-measure homer to continue his career success at Citi Field, and Max Fried pitched six strong innings of four-hit, two-run ball with no walks and six strikeouts.
Ronald Acuña Jr. also had his best game since returning last week from a nine-month recovery from knee surgery. The right fielder showed terrific speed in beating out an infield hit, came within a couple of feet of a homer to straightaway center — Brandon Nimmo’s leaping catch robbed him of an extra-base hit — and caught Francisco Lindor’s sinking liner in the eighth inning.
“It was as good of a ballgame as we’ve played,” Snitker said. “It was kind of nice to see just some singles that produced runs. We’ve been like a homer-or-nothing-type club. … This is a big series. They’re a really, really good club. They’re playing really well. They’re doing a lot of things right.”
D’Arnaud tied the score with his one-out double in the sixth and Adam Duvall followed with a sacrifice fly. Then, in the eighth, d’Arnaud hit a two-run, two-out double to stretch the lead to 5-2.
“Max did a great job today, and so did the bullpen,” d’Arnaud said. “(The Mets) haven’t lost a series yet, either, right? So to be up 1-0 is very big. We believe in ourselves. We know we’re a good team, and today we had everything going except my blocking, so I have some work to do.”
He was being modest.
“Obviously, what (d’Arnaud) did at the plate was big for us, coming up in big spots,” said Fried, who has a 3.00 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in five starts and a stunning ratio of 27 strikeouts to one walk in 30 innings. “He’s always due for those kinds of games, and then did an unbelievable job putting down the right pitch tonight.”
The biggest out was recorded by Braves reliever Collin McHugh, who entered with the bases loaded and two out in the seventh and struck out Mark Canha to protect a 3-2 lead, after Tyler Matzek hit a batter between a pair of two-out walks. Canha’s third-inning homer had given the Mets a brief 2-1 lead.
“That was the ballgame right there,” Snitker said of the strikeout. “That’s a tough, tough spot.”
Canha is 1-for-12 with six strikeouts and two walks in his career against McHugh.
“It’s great, man,” McHugh said of the rush he felt. “Kind of the game on the line at that point in time. Their guy up there, Canha, had done some damage tonight, swinging the bat well. I faced him a bunch — we’ve got a history of good battles against each other, so that’s what you live for.”
Two hours before the game, Snitker said he wasn’t surprised by the Mets’ fast start under Showalter, who took over a talented team that billionaire owner Steve Cohen has spent prodigiously to improve.
“Every time I turned around (since last season), they were signing somebody else,” Snitker said.
Showalter wasn’t in the dugout for the game. Less than an hour before the first pitch, MLB announced that Showalter was suspended for one game and fined an undisclosed amount after Mets pitcher Yoan López threw at the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber in Sunday night’s win, which gave the Mets their seventh consecutive series win to start the season. López was also fined and suspended for three games.
A winning culture and good clubhouse chemistry haven’t been associated with the Mets in recent years. But with Showalter as their manager and three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer leading their pitching staff, the Mets have a different look about them. They are playing hard, having fun and winning a lot.
Has the culture changed?
“Not playing here with this new regime, it’s truthfully hard for me to say,” said d’Arnaud, who played for the Mets in his first six-plus seasons into 2019. “But from the outside looking in, yeah, they’re firing on all cylinders. They’re playing well together. They have each other’s back.
“And Buck seems like an amazing person and understands the game — he can almost predict what’s going to happen this game, the next game. Like, certain situations, certain counts, what these hitters are going to do. So yeah, I think they’re definitely clicking on all cylinders right now.”
It was Snitker who mentioned Monday that he and Showalter had played against each other in the minors.
“He could really hit,” said Snitker, who was a 24-year-old catcher with the Savannah Braves in 1980, his fourth and final season as a player before he took the advice of then-Braves farm director Hank Aaron and moved into coaching and managing. “I’ve known (Showalter) for, shoot, my whole baseball life, probably.”
Snitker hit .162 with a .489 OPS in 18 games for Savannah that season, after hitting .255 with eight homers in 75 games the year before with the same team. Meanwhile, a 25-year-old Showalter won the 1980 Southern League batting title with a .324 average in 142 games for the Yankees’ Nashville affiliate.
One thing Showalter and Snitker had in common in 1980: Each had just one homer. Showalter struck out only 23 times in 615 plate appearances in 1980 and had a Southern League-record 178 hits.
“Buck was a player that when you left spring training and looked at your roster, you’d say he might not get an awful lot of at-bats because he didn’t really fit the position that well,” Stump Merrill, the Sounds’ manager in 1980, told NashvilleSounds.com in 2011. “Yet once the season began, he found a way to get his name into the lineup, and he’d stay there all year long.”
Showalter played three more minor-league seasons, including just 32 games at the Triple-A level, before he, too, moved into minor-league managing. Six years later, at age 36, he was manager of the New York Yankees.
Snitker? He was 60 when he got his first major-league managerial job, an interim position replacing the fired Fredi Gonzalez in May 2016. It became a permanent job after Braves players responded on the field and urged the front office to retain Snitker.
Showalter has 1,564 wins and three AL Manager of the Year Awards in 21 seasons as a major-league manager with five organizations.
“Darren (O’Day) speaks very highly of him, and he’s a very good judge of character,” d’Arnaud said of the Braves reliever who pitched for Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles from 2012 through 2018.
Snitker, 66, has 452 wins and an NL Manager of the Year Award in seven seasons and something Showalter does not: a World Series ring as manager.
Now, both are in their mid-60s, and their teams are going to square off in what figures to be a season-long series of highly entertaining and important matchups. Around baseball, most observers probably won’t be surprised if the NL East isn’t decided until the last weeks of the season, perhaps coming down to a series in the final week between the Braves and Mets at Atlanta, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
“I mean, you bring Buck in and the attention to detail is that much greater,” said Braves pitcher Ian Anderson, who will start Wednesday in the finale of this four-game series, after a doubleheader Tuesday. “Cohen’s shown that he’ll spend whatever to put the best team he can out there. It seems like they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now — rightfully so.”
But, Anderson added, “I think we’re coming in here with a good mindset. Now get out there and play the game and challenge them and see what happens.”
The Braves did, taking a 1-0 lead in the series and trimming a game off the Mets’ NL East lead, with 138 games to play, including 18 more between them.
(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism