Musgrove Silences the Mets as the Padres Advance to the NLDS

© Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of ways to win a ballgame. Some teams like to get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in. Some go for pitching, defense, and a three-run homer. One fairly reliable method is to absolutely obliterate the baseball all night long while your pitcher nearly throws a perfect game. On Sunday night, the Padres opted for that approach.

San Diego’s batters crushed everything the Mets could throw at them, while Joe Musgrove allowed no runs, one hit, and one walk over seven shutout innings. He also allowed one person to get very intimate with his ears, but we’ll get to that later.

Coming into the game, much of the talk was about Mets starter Chris Bassitt, who was riding high after posting a 2.94 ERA in the second half of the season. Some predicted that Bassitt’s curveball, which Stuff+ ranked as the best pitch in the game this year, could decide the game, as the Padres usually feast on curves. Instead, it was Bassitt’s fastball that ended up being the issue.

Contact management is key to Bassitt’s game. He ranks in the 10th percentile in whiffs. He’s 19th overall among qualified pitchers in average exit velocity, and nearly everyone ahead of him on the list is a reliever:

Normally, Bassitt throws his four-seamer in the zone more than 51% of the time. On Sunday, he threw only one of seven four-seamers in the zone, and he missed repeatedly with the two-seamer as well. Working from behind, and inducing only two whiffs all night, Bassitt was unable to keep the Padres from hitting the ball hard:

Chris Basset – Game 3 vs. 2022 Season
Time Frame Zone % Avg EV Hard Hit % xwOBA
2022 Season 53.1% 85.7 32.8% .290
Game 3 42.6% 88.8 53.8% .407
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The Padres put up three runs, hounding Bassitt from the game after just four innings. From the fifth inning on, Buck Showalter brought in many of the solid relievers he’d been so reluctant to use earlier in the series. Unfortunately for New York, they allowed plenty of hard contact as well. The Padres put 24 balls in play. Thirteen of them, or 54.2%, were hard hit. The Padres’ average exit velocity was 90.8 mph.

Those 24 balls in play, by the way, exclude two bunts. Amazingly, despite the pyrotechnics, the Padres more or less played small ball. In the second inning they scored on a single from Josh Bell, walks by Ha-Seong Kim and Trent Grisham, and then another single by Austin Nola. 2-0 Padres.

In the fourth, they went walk, stolen base, bunt, single. 3-0 Padres.

In the fifth, they went single, bunt, single. 4-0 Padres.

In between, Musgrove dominated the Mets. Making his first postseason start and coming off the best season of his career, he was perfect through four innings. The only noteworthy thing that came from the Mets’ bats in the first four frames was an improbable Jeff McNeil chopper that hit first base and took an oddly high carom. Wil Myers was able to leap, barehand the high bounce and get the ball to the Musgrove in time to catch the runner. It was the first of three times that Myers would make an impressive defensive play while also looking like there was a rat hidden in his hat, controlling him remotely:

As the innings progressed and Musgrove still hadn’t allowed a Met to reach base, ESPN’s cameras started finding his face more frequently. His ears looked quite shiny. In the bottom of the fifth, Pete Alonso ended Musgrove’s perfect game bid with a single into right field. The Citi Field fans struggled to start a “Lets Go Mets” chant that fizzled after Mark Canha swung and missed badly on a curveball in the dirt. Canha hit an absolute rocket to center field, but Grisham, the star of the series, ran 95 feet to make a play with a 25% catch probability. (Update: since publication, the catch probability has been updated to 40%.)

It was the bottom of the sixth when things got weird.

Musgrove had just finished his warm-up pitches when Showalter trundled out onto the field. He asked the umpires to check Joe Musgrove — whose ears were still very, extremely, noticeably shiny — for foreign substances. The umpires caucused, then walked over to the mound and summoned Bob Melvin. Umpire Alfonso Márquez checked Musgrove’s glove and hat. This was likely a courtesy. Márquez then checked Musgrove’s ears. That is, he rubbed them with his fingers. This is a thing that really happened.

Márquez felt Musgrove’s left ear: He touched the top part with all the cartilage, then the fleshy lobe. Then he rubbed his fingers together to feel for anything out of the ordinary. Márquez felt Musgrove’s right ear: He pretty much stuck his thumb in it, then thoroughly checked the top. For one tender moment he even let his fingers wander onto Musgrove’s right temple. Demonstrating immense restraint, Musgrove just stood there and took it.

Márquez declared that Musgrove’s ears were not, in fact, illegally shiny, and everyone walked back to where they were supposed to be before Showalter demanded that one person invade another’s sovereign earspace. (If Márquez availed himself of some hand sanitizer either before or after stroking Musgrove’s ears, the cameras didn’t catch it.)

Musgrove retired the side in order, staring daggers at the Mets dugout and directing some words and gestures in that direction for good measure. A guy’s only got so much restraint. Asked later what he was thinking during the search, Musgrove answered, “He’s not gonna find nothing.”

As for the accusation that Musgrove was using an illegal substance, while the ESPN broadcast had noted that Musgrove’s spin rate was higher than usual, they failed to note that his velocity had also increased:

Joe Musgrave Velo and Spin Rate – Game 3 vs. 2022 Season
Pitch Gm 3 Avg Velo Season Avg Velo Change Gm 3 Avg Spin Season Avg Spin Change
4-Seam Fastball 93.9 92.9 +1 2662 2559 +103
Cutter 91.1 90.1 +1 2701 2581 +120
Curveball 82.5 81.3 +1.2 2904 2722 +182
Slider 83.4 82.9 +0.5 2962 2715 +247
Sinker 93.3 92.4 +0.9 2483 2436 +47
Changeup 88.4 86.5 +1.9 2133 1974 +159
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

“These things are related,” Eno Sarris tweeted, specifically about Musgrove’s four-seamer. “His spin per mph is up only a little, 27.6 to 28.0 rpm per mph.” It would be completely understandable for Musgrove, full of adrenaline during his first ever postseason start, to throw harder, which would bring his spin rate up as well, no sticky stuff required. In fact, just the night before, Jacob deGrom’s four-seamer was 0.5 mph and 74 rpm above his season average.

The other thing worth noting is that while Musgrove was excellent, his performance wasn’t dramatically different from what he’d done the rest of the year:

Joe Musgrove – Game 3 vs. 2022 Season
Time Frame K% BB% Avg EV Avg LA wOBA xwOBA
Game 3 21.7% 4.3% 86.1 5.8 .068 .291
2022 Season 23.8% 5.7% 86.4 11.7 .292 .282
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

He held the Mets to one walk and no home runs, but his wOBA was still massively below his xwOBA. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that Musgrove experienced a fair bit of luck, though he certainly deserves credit for keeping the Mets from elevating the ball and for staying ahead in the count all night. The Mets faced 0-2 counts in 13 of their 29 plate appearances throughout the game. Musgrove made it through the seventh on just 86 pitches despite allowing the hardest hit ball of the night to Alonso, a 109.1 missile right at Juan Soto.

The Padres played more small ball in the eighth. Mychal Givens gave up a walk and a single, then Edwin Díaz came in to the sound of sad trumpets. The Padres laid down their second successful bunt, then Soto singled to drive in both runners, pushing the game to 6-0.

Robert Suarez struck out two and induced a popup in the bottom of the eighth. Not to be outdone, Trevor May struck out two and induced a popup in the top of the ninth.

The Padres brought in Josh Hader, whom they were likely relieved not to have needed in Games 1 and 2, to pitch the ninth. Showalter, presumably demoralized after the failure of the great ear gambit, didn’t pinch hit for Tomás Nido with any of the superior hitters on his bench. Despite appearing to have some trouble getting on top of his fastball, Hader struck out Nido swinging and induced soft grounders from both Brandon Nimmo and Starling Marte to close out the game and the series.

Predictably, the postgame commentary was all ears. Buster Olney asked Musgrove point blank what was on his ears. Musgrove equivocated just a little bit. “I don’t know,” he said. “He was checking me. He said there was nothing on there, so. A lot of sweat.”

Andrew McCutchen weighed in on Twitter, asserting that the substance was Red Hot, a capsicum ointment pitchers sometimes use not for stick, but to stay focused. He also said, “Buck is smart tho. Could be trying to just throw him off.” As they sprayed champagne in the clubhouse, multiple Padres made the same assumption, that Showalter was just looking to disrupt a hot pitcher. For his part, Musgrove later said he didn’t use Red Hot.

In his postgame press conference, Showalter defended his actions: “I’m not here to not hurt somebody’s feelings. I’m gonna do what’s best for the New York Mets, and I felt like that was best for us right now.”

As pumped as the Padres are right now, they have to face the Dodgers on Tuesday. The new Wild Card Series means that they won’t have time to line up their starting pitchers the way they’d prefer. The Padres will be huge underdogs. They finished 22 games back of the 111-win Dodgers, and lost 14 of 19 games against them in the regular season.

The good news is that Hader seems to largely be back to his old unhittable self, and San Diego’s bats just might be coming alive at the right moment. Grisham and Nola, the Padres’ eight and nine hitters, led the team in hitting in the Wild Card Series. While Grisham posted an 83 wRC+ during the regular season, he was at 366 through the first two games and stayed hot in the third, going 2-2 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch:

Trent Grisham and Austin Nola – Game 3 vs. 2022 Season
2022 Season .184 .284 .341 .626
Wild Card .500 .667 1.250 1.917
2022 Season .251 .321 .329 .649
Wild Card .444 .500 .556 1.056
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Profar and Kim also fared much better at the plate than they had during the regular season. If any of those players can keep their bats hot in Los Angeles, it could change the NLDS. While the Dodgers can throw a fantastic rotation at them, the Padres can’t be too scared after facing down Scherzer, deGrom and Bassitt.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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3 months ago

the ESPN broadcast certainly did not fail to note that his velocity increased. It was mentioned several times both before and after the substance check.

Michael Noldmember
3 months ago
Reply to  dennisca

I couldn’t watch the broadcast. Do you remember if they mentioned that Musgrove only threw 85 pitches in his last regular season start and that he was working on five full days of rest?