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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Family Man

It used to freak me out a little to see pictures of the Mets from their first three years and find no numbers on the fronts of their jerseys. Just “Mets,” as if they had yet to fully sort themselves out. I guess there was some truth in that. We know the humble beginnings — 120 losses; 111 losses; 109 losses; and then, even with numbers by which to tell them apart as they came charging out of the dugout, 112 losses. Those Mets lost lots and they lost quickly.

But a corps of them endured, not just as figures in Met lore, but as men on this mortal coil. Consider the bulk of the starting rotation Casey Stengel depended on to carry him through 1962, when getting to 1963 was as grand an accomplishment as could have been hoped for.

• Jay Hook started 34 games.
• Roger Craig started 33 games.
• Al Jackson started 33 games.
• Craig Anderson started 14 games.

That’s 114 games started by Mets who lasted beyond their days in uniform in a big way. Roger Craig is 88. Jay Hook is 82. Craig Anderson is 81. And Al Jackson, who died Monday, made it to 83. Together, perhaps, they were the epitome of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

One assumes that to regularly take the ball for the Original Mets, a person had to have remarkable intestinal fortitude. Your offense is spotty. Your defense is absurd. Your karma is questionable. There you were, a member of a world champion a couple of times like Craig the former Dodger; a league champion like Hook the recently Red; or a budding prospect on a franchise of a decidedly respectable bent. Anderson was a Cardinal in 1961, three years before they were world champions in a decade when they’d reach the World Series three times. Jackson had been a Pittsburgh pitcher in 1959 and 1961, sandwiching October 1960, the month of Mazeroski at Forbes Field.

Now, guys, because of something called an expansion draft, you’re leaving your contenders behind and you’re becoming something called a New York Met. Not only haven’t they existed before, there’s never been anything like them until now. You are them and they are you, except it doesn’t really seem fair to lump the four of you in with your brethren. Listen, it was a team effort to lose 120 games, yet none of you probably deserved to be pitchers of record so often for something so analytically awful.

No, there were no numbers on the fronts of your jerseys, but there was no hiding from the numbers that landed wherever the baseball-curious looked. They were practically the unwitting mirror image of the 1971 Oriole aces: 80 losses among Craig, Hook, Anderson and Jackson. 10-24. 8-19. 3-17. 8-20. They pitched in hard luck pretty much every time they got out of bed.

Yet they kept waking up, kept rubbing the last gruesome outing out of their eyes and kept going to the ballpark to take that ball and accept their respective fates. And they did indeed make it to 1963, all of them back for more of this unspeakable competitive degradation, combining to make 87 starts and absorb 55 losses the second season. Talk about endurance.

Craig was the first to escape our cellar. The Mets traded him to St. Louis in November of ’63. Come October of ’64, he was a world champion again. Hook was swapped to the Milwaukee Braves in May of 1964. He never pitched for them or anybody else in the major leagues; possessing an engineering degree, Jay decided after one more trip to the minors that he was good to go. Anderson threw his last pitch for the Mets on May 31, 1964, a date every good Mets fan recognizes as the Sunday the Mets played 32 innings versus the Giants at Shea Stadium. Anderson’s contribution to history was a messy third-of-an-inning in the 23-inning nightcap. The nicest that can be said of Craig Anderson’s final outing as a Met is that it was a no-decision. He was soon sent down to Buffalo and would later wind his way through Jacksonville and Williamsport, never again to toe a major league slab.

That left the lefty, Al Jackson. The little lefty. “Little Al” Jackson, per Bob Murphy. Not tall, in case you didn’t get the word picture, but no short-timer in the realm of those early Mets. Jackson was in it for as long a haul as the worst team Mrs. Payson’s money could buy could manage. In those four years when the Mets established and cemented their collective reputation as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, Al just kept slingin’. Thirty-four starts in ’63 on top of the 33 in ’62. He outlasted the Polo Grounds and ushered in Shea. Thirty-one starts in ’64, then another 31 in ’65. He outlasted Stengel and ushered in Wes Westrum. He won as many games in those four years — 40 — as the entire roster pooled in its first year. If that’s not some kind of record for prevailing above your circumstances, Elias ought to declare it one.

All burdensome things must come to an end, and for Al Jackson, carrying the burden of the early Mets to the mound every few days stopped being his responsibility on October 20, 1965, when he and Charley Smith were traded to St. Louis for Ken Boyer. An era in New York Mets baseball was over.

A larger one, however, wouldn’t end until August 19, 2019, because, save for a few wardrobe changes, Al Jackson remained part of the Mets family for the rest of his life. Maybe not while he pitched a couple of years for the Cardinals — before being traded back to the Mets in advance of 1968; nor during that portion of 1969 when he was exiled to the Reds — getting squeezed from a pitching staff that dripped with youthful vitality on a team just starting to realize it was no longer destined to lose into perpetuity; and probably not amidst a couple of fairly brief coaching stops in the American League.

But for the rest of his life, Al Jackson was a Met. A Met lifer. He might have invented the concept, really. Not only did he endure through those perfectly dreadful incubator years, but he came back and he stayed. As a pitching instructor. As a minor league manager. As Bobby Valentine’s bullpen coach across a pair of postseasons. As a guru on the art of getting ahead of hitters. As a mentor to too many to accurately count. He made a home of the Mets.

Part of the Mets family? More like the heart of the Mets family. Until a stroke sidelined him in 2015, this distinguished denizen of Port St. Lucie was a staple of the Met spring, summer and winter, literally a Met for all seasons. Fantasy campers shook his hand. Grapefruit Leaguers asked if he wouldn’t mind posing for a picture. Freshly signed students of the game with an eye on advancing up the chain absorbed what he had to tell them if they were serious about plying their craft. Periodically, Shea Stadium and Citi Field would be graced by his presence, too.

The last time we saw Al in Queens was the last time the Mets inducted one of their greats into their Hall of Fame, September 29, 2013. Mike Piazza was going in. The family was out in force. Working in reverse-chronological order of their initial appearances as Mets, Mike was shepherded into franchise immortality by Edgardo Alfonzo, John Franco, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson, Rusty Staub, Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool and Al Jackson. An Amazin’ group, to be sure, but it was who Al got to the Mets first and it was Al who remained a Met the longest.

Al Jackson always could be counted on to start things that would last.

In 2009, I wrote a biography of Al Jackson that was published in The Miracle Has Landed, a Society for American Baseball Research book commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Mets. SABR contacted the book’s contributors earlier this year to let us know they planned to offer a revised edition for the 50th anniversary and ask us to update our original articles. I was glad to have the chance, because in the ensuing decade, I’d learned much more about my subject than I knew then. Sadly, I added a necessary addendum Monday to the version that appears on SABR’s Web site. If you’d like to delve a little further into Al Jackson’s baseball career and life, I’d invite you to read the story here.

Slow and Easy

The Mets took two out of three from the Royals. Their unlikely wild-card march has them two games behind the Cubs for possession of the second N.L. spot — but they’ve drawn even with fellow contenders Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

That’s the upshot of a long weekend of baseball. Of course, that’s the straightforward solution to a complex equation that was full of Sturm and Drang. On Sunday the Mets got an early 3-0 lead thanks to a titanic homer from Michael Conforto, surrendered that lead with an inning of shaky pitching and iffy defense, then retook it in an indignant uprising in the seventh. But that uprising came with unlikely events, head-scratchers and worries a-plenty, just in case you’d forgotten that this is the Mets we’re talking about.

Here’s the seventh for the historical record, because this one was worth every twist and turn: Todd Frazier doubled off the glove of Hunter Dozier, who’d proved annoying adept at catching everything to that point; Juan Lagares gave the Royals a free out for no compelling reason … oh my goodness, what an odd way to misspell “sacrificed Frazier to third,” let me see if a WordPress plug-in is malfunctioning; J.D. Davis and his sore calf pinch-singled home Frazier with the tying run; Tomas Nido doubled, sending Davis gimpily to third; Ruben Tejada replaced Davis as a pinch-runner, though not in our hearts; Amed Rosario singled in Tejada and Nido; Joe Panik singled Rosario to second; Pete Alonso doubled in Rosario and sent Panik to third; Conforto singled in Panik and sent Alonso to third; Wilson Ramos singled in Alonso and sent Conforto to third; Ramos was out trying to advance on a ball that eluded a catcher, though it was by an eyelash; Frazier was caught looking.

Whew! When all that dust had settled it was 9-4 Mets, but the forces of good had nine outs to get and no left fielder. And that’s how Rosario wound up in left and Jeurys Familia was asked to put up a second scoreless inning. Familia did allow a run, but it was a point in the game where you’re more concerned with counting down outs, and the Mets would keep the Royals at bay behind another Rosario RBI double and Alonso’s 40th homer, a nice round number that leaves him one shy of the prime number that would tie the single-season club mark. (And with an outside chance of claiming the RBI record as well.) Meanwhile, Brad Brach handled the eighth flawlessly, and Edwin Diaz put up a 1-2-3 ninth. Rosario even caught a flyball in left, though his footwork and body language accomplishing this reminded me of a dog climbing a ladder — the impressive thing wasn’t how it was done but that it was done at all.

If you want to be a pessimist, you’ll wonder why in the world Mickey Callaway didn’t remove Davis when he reached first; the Mets’ outfield depth has gone from tissue-thin to, well, to putting shortstops out there as defensive replacements. The Mets are already without Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith and Jeff McNeil; they may well now have to go a week and a half without one of their most reliable bats.

If you’re an optimist, look how many audibles somehow worked to give the team a win. And go ahead and read that Davis is still insisting he can play (hey, at the very least he can certainly hit) and note that Nimmo is finally playing rehab games. Now think about the Mets’ lineup and bench if they’re still in it next month and have Davis, McNeil, Nimmo and Smith back. Heck, while we’re dreaming, maybe there will be a Jed Lowrie sighting.

I’m trying to walk a careful line between optimism and pessimism, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I veer sickeningly between them without warning. What I am trying to do is keep perspective, if only by averaging those moods out.

It’s normal fan behavior to go into the fetal position after dropping the first two in Atlanta and to swear a blue streak after dropping one to the Royals; it’s also neither wise nor healthy. A rule of thumb for me is to ask what making up one game per week on your competition would mean for the rest of the season, and then temper your reactions accordingly. If you’re three games out with a week to go, then yeah, commence living and dying based on the outcome of every half-inning. The Mets, though, are two games shy of getting to play a 163rd game, with six weeks of schedule to go. That means a race that will have some ebb and flow to it, in ways we can’t predict. Maybe the Mets will ebb their way back to irrelevance, revealing this happy August as a mirage; maybe they’ll flow their way to locking up a wild card and taking aim at the division, turning this month’s successes into a harbinger. Or maybe the outcome will be something in between.

We’ll know the answer sooner than seems imaginable at the moment. But for now, keep in mind that a team can make up two games in six weeks without everything going right. It can even do that with more than you’d like going wrong.

Juan Way or Another

Pete Alonso belting a grand slam barely foul, which is a sexy synonym for strike two, could have buried a dagger in the heart of Saturday night for the Mets. The bases were loaded; there were two out; the score was tied; Jacob deGrom was, as if by unquestioned custom, pitching without a suitable level of support; and our slugger of record had taken presumably his best shot at making the Mets’ most effective case for grabbing a lead, yet when Pete’s ball went barely foul, we were thisclose to thinking someone went to Kansas City and all we got was this lousy tease — plus this dandy tee if seated with the 7 Line Army.

It did feel that we were indeed thatclose to disappointment on a Polar scale, except a foul ball is still a foul ball, no matter what they may be experimenting with in the Atlantic League these days, which means Pete had another chance to unload some bases. Two pitches later, Alonso set his sights lower: on the ground, through the middle, with a humble hit that eluded the Royal infield to the tune of two runs driven in — the second facilitated by KC reliever Tim Hill cutting off a throw directed at home plate (the defensive equivalent of Gary Apple’s play-by-play given its baffling cluelessness in the middle of everything). The Mets were finally ahead, 3-1, and deGrom was on his way to a much-deserved 4-1 win.

Hurrahs deserve to resonate for Alonso’s persistence, deGrom’s endurance (7 IP, 3 H, 2 BB) and Mickey Callaway’s ability to at last discern that the eighth and ninth innings of a close ballgame are no place for Edwin Diaz. Justin Wilson effectively handled the eighth, new closer in town Seth Lugo the ninth. And how about the sound of two hands clapping for one of the forgotten Mets of 2019, Juan Lagares, all of a sudden reminding us that he lives, breathes, fields and, oh yes, hits among us?

Lagares was a revelation with the glove when he came up to the big leagues with little in the way of advance notice in 2013. The bat seemed adequate. It would get better with time, we told one another. It never really did, and the glove, a shimmering shade of Gold from the start, lost some of its luster, possibly from gathering DL dust. Six seasons after we shouted our tweets hoarse that Terry Collins must play Juan Lagares every day, his fate was barely worth a whisper across most of Metsopotamia. If thought of at all, it was in the category of dead weight, the same way we tend to view veterans whose future appears past.

Juan’s biggest 2019 moment prior to this road trip was probably last Friday in that impossible comeback win over the Nationals (impossible except that it was against the Nationals’ bullpen). He was on second base in the ninth and scored the winning run on Big Shirtless Mike’s RBI single to right. You know how every Met in creation and probably a few who were conjured on the spot chased Michael Conforto from first base into the outfield and relieved him of his game-worn jersey? They were well-positioned to rip the top half of his uniform to shreds because they’d all charged from wherever they stood to first so they could accost with congratulations the batter who delivered the decisive blow.

Maybe Lagares got there eventually to join the festivities. He was mostly busy crossing the plate. You know who stepped right up and greeted the Met who technically won the game with that all-important seventh run of the 7-6 victory for the ages? One of the Met bat boys. No doubt a fine lad, but hardly a welcoming party worthy of the occasion. It’s understandable that Conforto would have drawn the bulk of focus in the moment, but it also struck me that Lagares being left to his own devices amidst the defining run of this season — the run of 15 wins in 16 games and the run that clinched the thrillingest win around here since 2016 — was sadly symbolic. Juan was a .182 batter at that moment. He wasn’t even supposed to be on base. Callaway had sent him up to sacrifice Joe Panik to second, and Juan’s bunt failed to accomplish its mission. Panik was thrown out. Lagares going to first was the consolation prize. He moved up on Amed Rosario’s single and then was pushed home by Conforto. Juan was visible only if you searched hard to see him, an almost incidental tourist aboard the 2019 Mets’ wildest ride yet.

A funny thing happened on the way to irrelevancy for a neglected reserve playing out the last of an extended contract that ceased looking like a bargain soon after Sandy Alderson signed him to it. Jeff McNeil felt something in one of his hamstrings. The Squirrel who darted from outfield to infield and back as needed would be unavailable for a spell. Versatility was lacking on the 25-man roster. Infielders — Panik, Ruben Tejada — would have to play the infield. Lagares, the Gold Glove outfielder who had quietly remained one of the few Mets to avoid a detour to the injured list or Syracuse, would have to be our everyday center fielder.

Every day this week Juan Lagares has, in fact, been the Mets’ starting center fielder, just as Alderson envisioned it in 2015 when he secured his services clear to the end of this decade. Lagares has responded by remembering how to do everything that made him a good bet to keep for the long term then. If Gary Cohen weren’t on vacation, he’d be telling us how Juan’s glove is where extra-base hits go to die. Even Gary Apple recognizes Juan’s bat is where hits of many varieties have been born. The batting average that was wallowing is now rising. It’s up to .218, boosted Saturday night by three key hits. In the fifth, Juan sparked the rally that tied the game in the first place with a single. He was followed by Aaron Altherr doing the same and, after Rosario grounded into a 6-4-3 DP that sent Lagares to third, Juan scored on Joe Panik’s single.

Lagares. Altherr. Panik. The LAP Attack. I can’t believe a 7 Line t-shirt wasn’t at least being considered.

You need the usually suspect to come through when you’re chasing a playoff spot. Lagares had been suspect from March onward. What’s our solution to any player who used to produce but isn’t producing? “DFA him already,” as if a player with decent MLB credentials isn’t going to sooner or later get something going besides an ever-longer slump and as if we have a parade of upgrades for each of them ready to launch on demand. At various times, we’ve collectively given up on most of our position players. Not McNeil, not Alonso (except for a bad week when we began to get a little antsy), not Conforto (though faith in Michael has by no means been constant or unanimous), but pretty much everybody else. Choose your demeaning adjective. Smith, Rosario, Ramos, Frazier, Cano were all deemed useless, worthless and/or hopeless before they unleashed outbursts of offense without which we wouldn’t be monitoring the Wild Card standings every ten minutes like they’re traffic and weather together on the 8’s. Lagares rarely came up in these dismissive conversations because he’d all but disappeared from our consciousness. Then he’d get an at-bat once in a great while, make little of it, and be subject to the same unflattering treatment.

Maybe he just needed to play regularly. I’d hate to think it took McNeil going on the shelf to revive Lagares, but however regular playing time came about, Juan’s been getting it and been running with it. He’s the Next Man Up ethos incarnate, the most compelling explanation for why McNeil’s strained hammy hasn’t altogether debilitated our postseason dreams. Juan got that first rally going Saturday night. He also got the second rally going, the one that culminated in Alonso’s two-RBI hit in the seventh. And he capped off the Mets’ third and final rally, tripling in Luis Guillorme in the eighth, providing the crucial insurance run every deGrom start requires before responsibility for its safety passes into the hands of the (gulp) bullpen.

Good for Juan Lagares. And what’s good for Juan Lagares is good for the USA…or our orange and blue corner of it. Next time you see him crossing home plate, be sure to line up behind the bat boy and slap the man’s palm like you mean it.

Mr. Clean Slate Here

“Hey, Greg, what’s this?”
“It’s a clean slate.”

“Aren’t you going to fill it in with details of Friday night’s brutal 4-1 Mets loss to the Royals?”

“Why not?”
“Need a clean slate for tonight.”

“We understand the concept, Greg, but what about the way the Mets in the midst of a scalding pennant race couldn’t beat a team that came into Friday 35 games under .500, the only supposed soft touch they have left on their schedule for the next several weeks?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how the Mets batted 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how shvitzy Noah Syndergaard, who had been cruising, cracked just enough to let the Royals take the lead in the fifth while the Met offense could hit only ‘snooze’ against Mike Montgomery?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how J.D. Davis had to leave with tightness in his calf, and even though he and Callaway swear it’s nothing, we can — to put it mildly — ill afford to lose J.D. Davis?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how Brad Brach and Edwin Diaz joined forces to give up two killer runs in the eighth and were lucky there weren’t four more as the umpires who, as Keith so Keithishly framed it, ‘couldn’t get off their duffs’ to follow the flight of a fly ball down the right field line initially called a foul grand slam fair?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how the Mets, having been rescued from an 8-1 hole by replay review, loaded the bases in the ninth with two out, brought up their hottest hitter in Amed Rosario as the potential go-ahead run, and Amed rolled a ball between short and third that couldn’t quite find a hole and Luis Guillorme wasn’t quite fast enough to beat the throw to second and there went a final golden opportunity to beat the stupid Royals in their stupid gold-trimmed uniforms?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how, when you consider all that went awry and all that didn’t click, this performance was of a piece with the misery that oozed across the first half of 2019, particularly late June and early July, a segment of the season that drove you to nightly despair as you searched your heart and soul not to mention what was left of your mind for ways to write about it that didn’t leave you and your readers thoroughly despondent, a period we, with the possible exception of the chronic provocateur types who aren’t happy unless they can seed dark clouds in sunny skies, convinced ourselves was ancient history once we got on that glorious 15-of-16 roll, which itself is beginning to feel a little like it transpired in a previous life?”
“Clean slate.”

“What about how the combination of 2015 World Series flashbacks and Gary Apple’s clueless droning only made the entire debacle worse?”
“Clean slate.”

“All right, Mr. Clean Slate, we know you’re not usually so zen after a Met loss of this proportion. What gives?”
“The Mets are still, despite absorbing an admittedly disgusting defeat, very much in a playoff race, only two games behind for the second Wild Card spot with forty games remaining. I know memories are highly selective and that if a person has one that incorporates an accurate portrayal of what actually happened in the past that person is often considered an oddball in this world where people too rarely pause to conduct an iota of original research or provide anything that resembles relevant context, but the Mets experienced tough losses like this down the stretch in other years when they contended. Yet they shook them off and kept going. That’s what the Mets gotta do tonight. That’s what we as Mets fans gotta do tonight. We got deGrom going. We got a clean slate. We gotta fill it with a better game. Gotta believe, too, as long as we’re doing gottas.”

“Wow, Greg, did you really just guide us through the lowlights of a horrible game like last night’s Metstivus-style, airing multiple grievances while pretending you weren’t going to utter a bad word about it, and end up turning the entire regrettable episode into a rallying cry of sorts so that we’ll tune into tonight’s game and somehow think everything might just turn out all right when all is said and done?”
“Clean slate.”

Well That Was Interesting

Wednesday night’s Mets game was an exercise in shifting narratives: That contest with the Braves looked like it was going to be a Taut But Ultimately Depressing Loss, morphed thanks to Steven Matz and J.D. Davis into an Inspiring Minimalist Comeback Win, morphed again thanks to Seth Lugo and Mickey Callaway into a This One’s on You Skip loss, then wound up as a That Futile Rally That Just Made Things More Depressing loss.

One thing you can say about the 2019 Mets is that they’re rarely dull. Dysfunctional, self-sabotaging, ill-assembled, star-crossed and tragic? They’ve been those things far too often. Inspiring, fun and compelling in spite of themselves? They’ve checked all those boxes too.

On Thursday night the Mets came roaring out of the gate against Julio Teheran, with Pete Alonso smashing a ball into the pool far beyond center field. It was one of those Alonso home runs that reminded you just how strong he is: Alonso didn’t connect with a ball in his happy zone or put a classic slugger’s swing on it, the one that ends with the satisfied look skyward and dropping of a no-longer-needed bat. (A Todd Frazier special, in other words.) Rather, Alonso reached across the plate for the pitch and hit it near the end of the bat, only to have the ball go 430-odd feet anyway.

The Mets scored in the first three innings to chase Teheran and then kept going. Alonso wound up with five hits and six RBI; Amed Rosario collected five hits and scored four runs; Wilson Ramos collected four hits; Juan Lagares had three; in fact, everyone in the starting lineup had a hit.

If we’re sticking with narrative taxonomies, it looked like either a Where Was That Yesterday Laugher or a Save Some of Those for Tomorrow Laugher. Or, if you’re a Braves fan, it looked like one of the more annoying varieties of losses: We Coulda Swept But Decided to Be Flat and Bad.

We’ll be back to that thought, but first it should be noted that Rosario’s continuing development as a player is one of the more inspiring stories of the season. Rosario may never become a truly superb shortstop, lacking both the range and the instincts, but over the last six weeks or so he’s become much more reliable defensively, and shown he can more than outhit his defense.

The secret, as is so often the case with young players, is he no longer reliably cooperates with pitchers by getting himself out. That was apparent in his very first AB: Ahead in the count 1-2, Teheran threw Rosario a slider that dived off the plate, then a fastball up and away. Two years ago, Rosario probably swings at the slider and misses it; last year, he probably gets enticed by the fastball and swings under it. On Thursday he ignored both, fouled off the next two pitches, got a fastball in the middle of the plate and nearly hit it out of the park. Yes, he still has ABs where he gets too excited, expands the strike zone and does the pitcher’s work for him. But not nearly as often as was the case not so long ago.

Back to the game, and our shifting narratives. With the Mets up 7-0 and then 9-1, I confess I stopped paying close attention, except to note that for once Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies were having balls just elude their gloves, when normally they corral anything and everything in the same ZIP code. That was something to savor, considering those two will be torturing us for the better part of a decade.

As if on cue, Acuna then made a nifty above-the-fence catch to rob Davis, with the added gag of sitting in apparent dismay on the warning track before revealing that he did in fact have the ball. For the historically minded, it was the opposite of Todd Pratt hitting it over the fence. If you were there 20 years ago (as Greg and I were), Pratt’s drive didn’t trigger instant celebration, but was preceded by a heart-stopping moment of uncertainty — a Schrodinger’s Playoff Game — during which none of us had any idea if Steve Finley had caught the ball or not. Looking at the replay, I swear you can see Finley realizing that he’s the only person* in Shea Stadium who knows the truth, and when he lets go of this secret his team’s season will really and truly be over.

Anyway, it was a great bit of theater from Acuna, but his team was still down 9-1. Except Mickey Callaway assigned Drew Gagnon mop-up duties, and it didn’t go well. Gagnon has added a glove flutter to better hide his change-up; on Thursday he needed to hide the pitch from his repertoire. Gagnon’s job was to get six outs before giving up seven runs; he got five and gave up five, surrendering homers to Freddie Freeman (twice), Acuna and Donaldson. (In all, the Braves hit six homers — if you want to find another game where the Mets gave up six dingers and won, well, it ended with Matt Franco beating Mariano Rivera.)

The Braves were somehow only down two, the laugher had morphed hideously into a Team in Rearview Mirror Is Closer Than it Appears mess, and it was threatening to explode into a full-bore You’ll Be Brooding About This One at 3:32 AM 15 Years From Now loss. Because here came Edwin Diaz, needing to record one out before giving up two runs.

I put Diaz’s chances at no better than 50-50, which might have been kind, and he promptly walked Brian McCann on four pitches. Up stepped Ender Inciarte, famous for his starring role in a They Ripped Out Our Heart and Showed It to Us Still Beating Before We Gasped and Keeled Over Dead loss a couple of years back. Diaz’s first pitch was a ball, and then he somehow found his slider, or at least a reasonable approximation of it, and three pitches later the Mets had won and could escape to Kansas City with disaster averted, having prevailed in … hmm, well, what to call it?

Perhaps an And You Were Worried victory sums it up. Or how about dubbing it a Remember That They All Count win? Or maybe we should honor Bob Murphy (always a good idea) and christen it a They Win the Damn Thing game?

Whatever the case, the never-boring Mets salvaged the finale, and are now off to Kansas City to play the Royals, against whom they explored some of the narrative taxonomy’s most depressing niches not so long ago. But I’m not going to go there. Instead, I’m going to think about Pete’s 39th, and Amed’s continuing evolution, and that Lagares is off the interstate, and remind myself that they won despite all the rest.

* Not so! See the comments for a cool memory of this moment from a slightly but critically different POV.

Callaway's Calculations

If you’ve been reading us for the last two years (in which case thank you, by the way), you know that I think Mickey Callaway is a bit dim.

That said, I have sympathy for him right now. A fair amount of it, in fact.

He’s got a closer who can’t be relied on, a setup guy who can’t be relied on, and another setup guy who can be relied on but whose arm is whatever the opposite of rubber is. (Glue?) That turns a sixth or seventh inning with a lead into a stressful scramble that hinges on a series of interlocking questions.

  1. Is Seth Lugo available?
  2. If he is, which inning or innings should he cover?
  3. If he covers those innings, what are the consequences of not having him the next day?

I mean, managing the back end of a bullpen is tricky even when you have pretty good options, and Mickey doesn’t have good options.

So yeah, sympathies.

Callaway, as you undoubtedly know, chose to remove Steven Matz after six innings and 79 pitches and after he’d retired the last 14 batters. It didn’t work out, to say the very least: Lugo started by walking Josh Donaldson and then gave up five hits and a fielder’s choice on a ball Michael Conforto trapped.

Lugo wasn’t hit particularly hard — the Braves jerked some tough pitches over the infield, broke bats and still had balls fall in, and were gifted an extra out when Pete Alonso left first and Lugo didn’t cover on a grounder to recidivist Met Ruben Tejada, returning to duty as Jeff McNeil‘s replacement. (I would have opted for Dilson Herrera, but that’s another post.)

But that doesn’t change the ugly fact that by the time the inning had ended, a flimsy yet inspiring 2-1 Mets lead had swollen and rotted into a 6-2 Braves lead. In the ninth, the Mets rose up biting and kicking and scratching and clawing, only to lose 6-4 with the bases loaded as old friend Jerry Blevins fanned Conforto. It was one of those rallies that you almost think you’d rather they’d skipped, since it just made the outcome more agonizing.

But back to the decision to go to Lugo. Mets Twitter, predictably, exploded. And after the game, Callaway faced questions from every direction. His first line of defense was standard Callaway: Lugo’s been terrific, he’d make the same decision 100 times out of 100, blah blah blah. His second line of defense was a bit more nuanced: He wanted a righty-righty matchup with Lugo against Donaldson, and Matz had run the bases in multiple innings, draining more gas from the tank than those 79 pitches indicated. Fair enough; in a spirit of generosity, I’ll also toss in something I don’t think he mentioned, namely that Matz’s 1-2-3 sixth inning was a bit deceptive, as all three outs were hit on a line.

So OK, I see how taking Matz out wasn’t quite the obvious mistake you probably thought it was while stewing in the eighth. But I still think it was the wrong decision, because of that unenviable question of where to use the Mets’ only reliable reliever.

Nothing worked out for Lugo. But even if everything had worked out, Lugo wasn’t going to go three innings. Which means in the ninth, the top of the Braves order (Acuna and Albies and Freeman, oh my!) was going to face … well, who, exactly?

Callaway wouldn’t say. But he doesn’t exactly specialize in thinking outside the box, so let’s assume it was going to be Edwin Diaz or Jeurys Familia. Doesn’t either of those matchups in the ninth strike you as a lot scarier than a possibly tired Matz facing the Braves’ fourth through sixth hitters in the seventh? Why not send Matz back out with the bullpen on notice? Maybe you get one more inning out of him. Maybe he has an easy seventh and you push him to 100 pitches for the eighth. Or, OK, maybe he gives up a leadoff homer to Donaldson and annoying bloggers write 800 pissy words about lefty-righty matchups.

Sticking with Matz struck me at the time as the wisest way to navigate dangerous terrain and simplify the puzzle of where to use Lugo. Instead, Callaway opted to safeguard the seventh at the expense of the ninth. And that’s the part I don’t understand.

It’s not all on Callaway that this is the nightly puzzle he has to solve — it would help a lot if Diaz and/or Familia could get outs the way we expected them to five months ago. But the plan Callaway chose didn’t make sense even before Lugo ran into a buzzsaw. If everything had worked out, Callaway still would have been picking one of two serially unreliable pitchers to face three of the most dangerous hitters in the National League. And it’s that decision that still has me shaking my head.

Point Lookout

The heyday of the New York tabloid wise guy columnist was in its twilight, but those fellas weren’t done roaming the print earth just yet, not in January of 1983, not when I needed a hit of what they were pushing. The Jets were on the verge of taking on the Dolphins in the AFC Championship Game in Miami. I was physically near Miami but my heart was of course in New York. I needed the hometown perspective, whether it came in the saltine-thin national edition of the Daily News or yesterday’s Post, flown in to savvy retailers who knew there were bushels of Big Apple expatriates who never lost their taste for deep, bold coverage of the stories that mattered most, like how the Jets were gonna kick the Dolphins’ ass and go to the Super Bowl.

That’s what I was looking for when I picked up one of those papers, I forget which, exactly. Didn’t matter. I needed an antidote to the Dolphincentric nonsense that surrounded me as I visited my parents in South Florida. So did my dad, whose birthday was the reason I slipped away from college in Tampa for a couple of days. What a nice present for both of us it would be to watch together as the Jets — our Jets — wipe the smirk off Don Shula’s face. This was gonna be our day, our year, our Super Bowl. The AFC Championship was just a formality.

I ripped open the News and the Post to soak up the analysis and the atmosphere of what was going on back at Hofstra as the Jets prepared to fly south. The back page of the Post headlined a picture of a few players whose breath was visible in the cold, JETS BREATHE FIRE! That’s the calm, objective journalism I was seeking. Somewhere in somebody’s inside pages was a column. I wanna say it was Dick Young, who had recently turned free agent and moved to the Post despite being adamantly against that sort of thing when he was railing at modernity when he was a staple of the News. I don’t know how much legwork of this type Young was doing at this point as his career and relevancy waned. I can imagine it being Steve Serby at the height of his Richard Todd-taunting glory, though Serby was probably busy out in Hempstead getting the quarterback’s goat. Maybe it was a gambling expert named Bernie in the News. There was always a gambling expert named Bernie with a column telling you to lay the points, one of those phrases I’ve always found charming, whatever the hell it means.

Whoever it was, the wise guy columnist got in touch with a bookie in Brooklyn. Went to see him, actually, because that’s what wise guy columnists did. The subject was the big game, Jets at Dolphins. The columnist said to the bookie that he supposed there must be a lot of money coming in for the Jets this week.

The bookie in Brooklyn shook his head and pointed at his right knee. No, the money was going the other way. Why? “The knee,” the bookie explained succinctly. “Klecko.”

Ah, Klecko’s knee. Joe Klecko, my father’s favorite player. “He drove a truck in college!” my dad, who never drove a truck, once told me excitedly. I responded with enthusiasm to this revelation, because I loved when my dad got excited about anything and wanted to talk about it with me, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why Joe Klecko having driven a truck in college was exciting. It was enough that the Jets, who neither of us paid any attention to until 1978, were exciting. We were Giants fans first and foremost every fall, yet expanded our portfolio and bought low on the Jets about the time they updated their uniforms and pasted that sleek SST-looking logo onto their helmets. In 1981, we exulted in both of our teams making the playoffs after a generation of New York football drought. In ’82, the Giants crapped out, but the Jets soared.

Except for Klecko’s knee. He hurt it badly in the second game of the season. Then there was a lengthy strike. Then the Jets came back and flexed their muscles, but without Klecko. They made the playoffs, anyway. Nine-game season, eight teams per conference. The Jets were seeded sixth in the AFC. We were still in it.

Klecko, by no means fully recovered, came back to reunite the New York Sack Exchange in the first-round game against Cincinnati. Freeman McNeil ran all over the Bengals. The Jets romped. The next matchup, in L.A., was anticipated as a street brawl and lived up to the hype. When it was over, the Jets outlasted the Raiders and were thus due back in Miami, in the Orange Bowl, site of previous franchise glory. It had been fourteen years since Joe Namath won Super Bowl III a relatively short drive down I-95 from where we’d be watching this Sunday’s game. Who doesn’t love symmetry?

You couldn’t have convinced me the Jets weren’t going to win, not until I read, “The knee. Klecko.” After that, I sensed we were screwed. The bookie in Brooklyn knew. His clients knew. It was reported by a reliable source, the wise guy gambling columnist named Bernie. Or perhaps somebody else. Whoever it was made it clear that we needed Joe Klecko at as close to top form as possible and that we weren’t gonna have that.

It was a rainy weekend in South Florida. When the Jets landed, they looked out their charter flight’s window, gazed at the leaden skies and reportedly chanted as one, “JET WEATHER! JET WEATHER!” Remember, these were the tough SOBs who breathed fire across the frozen tundra hard by Hempstead Turnpike a few days earlier. Their confidence made me feel a little better, but I couldn’t shake the pointing at the knee. Also, it kept raining and, as it turned out, that didn’t make it Jet Weather. Jet Weather would have allowed McNeil to run wild and free on the Orange Bowl turf. Instead, the turf drowned in the deluge. Smirking Shula explained it wasn’t the kind of grass you put a tarp on. No, nobody ever heard of covering a field when it rains, not when the team coming into plays you relies heavily on a gifted running back.

This game came to be known as the Mud Bowl. Freeman, who rushed for 202 yards at Cincinnati and 101 in the L.A. Coliseum, was held to 46. Todd, who rarely conjured visions of Namath in any stadium, threw mostly to A.J. Duhe, who, even with it caked in mud, could be seen sporting a Dolphins uniform. Five interceptions from Todd. Zero touchdowns, except from one of the interceptions. Dolphins 14 Jets 0. No Super Bowl appearance for the Jets after fourteen years on championship hiatus. No Super Bowl appearance for the Jets after thirty-six years more. Certainly not the happiest of birthday presents for my dad.

Save for a few spikes of interest in the market following the Mud Bowl, I’ve not been an over-the-top Jets fan post-1983. I wish them well. I hope they get their big day one of these winters, but they’re not my cause. Yet I continued to admire Joe Klecko, marveling that he switched positions as necessary and excelled at each assignment he took on. Every time I see a social media message urging support for him to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I click my two cents. He drove a truck in college, you know.

But the knee. The knee. That’s what I remember most. Every time I’ve watched a key player on a team I care about go down with an injury, especially when that team is doing well and has cultivated in my mind and perhaps theirs championship aspirations, I think of just knowing how one critical body part intrinsic to one player’s abilities can injure an entire team’s immediate future plans.

I don’t want to think about a bookie in Brooklyn pointing at Jeff McNeil’s left hamstring after McNeil (no relation to Freeman as far as I know) felt “a little snag” Tuesday night in Atlanta toward the end of an otherwise unremarkable 5-3 loss to the Braves. It had been a relentlessly dreary night straight out of the Big O or Joe Robbie in its Pro Player phase during that period when Bobby Valentine’s Mets would arrive fresh from a raucous series at Shea only to overly decompress inside an empty, apathetic ballpark and play down to dismal competition. Except the Braves are in first place, so go figure why SunTrust Park looked so empty and sounded so apathetic. Zack Wheeler was racked around, while the Mets couldn’t do much with Max Fried. If you like good news, there were crumbs of it: Juan Lagares, pounding out four hits, showed offensive life for the first time this season; Todd Frazier reminded us emphatically he knows how to play third base with the best of them; Brad Brach appeared reinvigorated; Drew Gagnon threw a very solid inning in his return from Syracuse; Jeurys Familia was again major league-caliber; and the Mets, while never really in this game, somehow were never totally out of it.

Little of the gleaned positivity registered in the aftermath. The only image that lingers is McNeil running out a potential infield hit to lead off the ninth, one of his final strides compelling him to grab at something no Mets fan wants to see perhaps the most essential of 2019 Mets grabbing at. There wasn’t much game to come out of by then, but Jeff was done for Tuesday. An MRI will indicate how much more done he might be. It won’t tell us for sure. Nothing ever does. “It didn’t feel great,” the second baseman/right fielder/left fielder/third baseman said, trying to articulate the sensation he experienced. “It wasn’t…terrible.”

It’s a hamstring, an anatomical connector with alarm bells that sound every time the damn thing comes up in conversation. Too bad Keith Hernandez (among others) wasn’t in the booth Tuesday night. He knows from hurrying back from a hamstring injury and how counterproductive that can be. We spent many a summer fretting how tight Jose Reyes’s hamstrings could get, which was inevitably too tight and too often for comfort. If rehiring Mackie Shilstone or Ray Ramirez and then blaming them for any of this would help, I’d be all for it.

Hernandez won a batting title. Reyes won a batting title. McNeil’s been competing hard for one of those. He competes hard for everything, including a Wild Card spot the Mets are near because they have a Squirrel who flies from position to position and never stops hitting until something he can’t play without snags.

Jeff McNeil’s left hamstring. It’s a body part we don’t want anybody pointing at.

UPDATE: MRI reportedly reveals a mild strain. Ten-day trip to IL allegedly all Jeff will need. Let’s hope. Also, Ruben Tejada (!) is returning in the interim.

Knots Landing

Five Sundays prior to the most recent Sunday, I went to Citi Field. It was the last game before the All-Star break. The Mets weren’t going anywhere, so when they continued to go nowhere, it made me no never mind. Zack Wheeler gave up four runs in the first; Aaron Nola flirted with a no-hitter; I got a little too much sun; and the Mets lost to the Phillies, 8-3, to fall ten games under .500. My companion for the afternoon, statistical guru Mark Simon, noted when the final out was made that the Mets had never so much as brought the tying run to the plate. He called the game “depressing”. I considered it Mets baseball business as usual. I didn’t write about it because it wasn’t my Sunday to recap, but if I had, I would have told you I had a nice time at the ballpark with my friend, it was too bad the Mets didn’t have quite as nice a time, and I would have moved on.

Three Sundays prior to the most recent Sunday, I watched the Mets on TV from San Francisco. The Mets had shown a few signs of life in the week following the All-Star break, but this series they were completing seemed to suck it all out of them. When they lost the finale, the third game they dropped to the Giants in extra innings, I sort of snapped. It wasn’t that I thought they were going to go anywhere had they won this game or the other games their opponents celebrated in walkoff fashion. It was just that I was sick of Mets baseball business as usual. I didn’t have it in me to write about it in any depth even though it was my Sunday to recap. What could have I told you other than the Mets lost, 3-2, in twelve; had fallen nine games under .500; and I couldn’t wait for this season to move on to the next one?

The most recent Sunday, yesterday if you’re reading this on Monday, might as well have been from a season entirely apart from the one in which those Sundays took place. I wouldn’t have recognized this Sunday from the vantage point of five Sundays or three Sundays earlier. It was as if the Mets had gone into an entirely different baseball business. Experientially, they had. It was the business of contending for a playoff spot. They entered this Sunday five games over .500. The Wild Card lead was conceivably within nine innings’ reach. Even the division lead could be seen over the horizon without a surfeit of squinting. The Mets, since the Sunday I stewed over their San Francisco shortcomings, had done nothing but win series. They’d already clinched this one versus the Nationals. They could very well sweep it, just as they had swept the series before it and two of the three series before that.

Of course this shaped up as a better Sunday than those aforementioned Sundays to be a Mets fan. It’s always a better Sunday to be a Mets fan when what the Mets are doing matters beyond the baseline measurement of a Mets game is occurring, it would sure be nice if they won it. For the bulk of two-and-a-half seasons that seemed like two-and-a-half decades (because bad Met years groan on forever), the Mets did little more than show up. We watched out of habit. I did, anyway. If anything good happened, good. If nothing came of it, fine. The Mets of 2017 and 2018 and close to two-thirds of 2019 had made an art of eliminating expectations. They could have held an exhibition of blank canvases and called it their tribute to an era.

But now we are in the thick of a race and sodden with expectations. The Mets had won eight games in a row, fifteen of sixteen, 21 of 26 — including those three crummy defeats in San Francisco. The Mets ceased being the Mets we couldn’t stand anymore and commenced becoming the Mets we couldn’t get enough of, the Mets we embraced every waking hour, the Mets we remembered we loved. Just like September 2016…and August 2015…and the final few seasons at Shea, save for their murderous endings…and the relentlessly electric campaigns running up to and out of the turn of the century…and the golden age of the 1980s we thought would never tarnish until it did in the early 1990s…and, for those of us who go back far enough, the formative experiences of 1973 and 1969. In those times, Mets baseball business as usual was a whole other line of work. It traded on joy and possibility, albeit with an undercurrent of constant anxiety because when possibility positions you so close to joy, how can you not be constantly anxious that it may elude your grasp?

Which, I suppose, explains why my stomach was in knots throughout Sunday’s game against the Nationals, taken in from the couch — the one in my living room, not a therapist’s office, though that might have been equally appropriate.

The Mets are never more dangerous to my mental health than when my fellow Mets fans have decided there’s no way the Mets can lose. That’s the vibe that seemed to have emanated from the way the Mets didn’t lose Saturday or Friday or any of the recent days preceding those days. Winning streaks are to be caressed and cajoled. You ask the winning streak if it needs anything. Can I get you a cold drink? A hot towel? A warm compress? Just let me know. Winning streaks don’t stream. They aren’t available on demand. You can’t fast-forward to the next episode. Don’t dare try to binge them.

On Sunday, the Mets gave up three horrible runs in the top of the first inning. They were worse than the four runs they allowed the Phillies in the first inning five Sundays before. They were worse than any of the walkoff runs they allowed the Giants in San Francisco three weekends earlier. They were happening now. They were mattering now. And they were ugly. Jacob deGrom, lauded on SNY as Sunshine Superman, had apparently just visited with a contingent from the Planet Krypton and hadn’t properly decontaminated before taking the mound. The Nationals nicked him for a couple of hits that weren’t hit hard. There was a full-count walk with one out, then a bases-loaded strikeout that spoke well of deGrom’s ability to wriggle from trouble.

Then there was Asdrubal Cabrera, whose name used to be spoken of here in reverent Grandersonian tones. For the duration of 2019 hostilities, he will be considered a vengeful villain. The Mets and Cabrera seemed ripe for a reunion once Texas let him go and Robinson Cano was ruled out for the long haul. Though Recidivist Mets have lately been letting us down, I would have welcomed the Ass Man back to town, for he would have filled a need at second base and likely would have done it well. Cabrera was still plenty productive when the Mets exported him last July to make room for Jeff McNeil. He figured to be reasonably productive upon return. One never knows, for contingency is laced with mystery, but I would have taken my chances with Asdrubal Cabrera 2.0.

What you don’t want is an ex-Met who considers himself scorned —Cabby apparently thought the Mets were going to re-sign him in the offseason when they instead opted for urban myth Jed Lowrie — going to a main rival who is coming to play you ASAP. Cabrera the National figured to be bad news at some point in a series that, until the first inning, had garnered notices that were universally bright and bouncy. All Asdrubal did in Sunday’s first inning, really, was get his bat on the ball, grounding it toward the hole between first and second. That was OK, maybe, because Pete Alonso was covering the ground. Cabrera’s not that fast, Alonso is certainly able, and deGrom? DeGrom is a Gold Glove fielder in everything but hardware. This is the bases-loaded situation a Cy Young winner gets out of. This is the first inning the opposition looks back on and rues. We had deGrom on the ropes, but we couldn’t break through, and you know what they say about elite pitchers and getting to them early if you want to get to them at all.

That would have been a great thing for the Nationals to say, but the thought didn’t need to cross their minds, because Alonso didn’t quite make the throw he needed to make and deGrom definitely didn’t make the grab he needed to make. Pete wasn’t wholly on target, Jake wasn’t completely fluid getting to the base and, as a result, the ball clanked off the pitcher’s glove and into foul territory. Two Nationals scored before deGrom could recover Alonso’s errant toss. Jake delivered the ball to Wilson Ramos, where a tag of Juan Soto would stanch the damage and end the inning. Except Ramos, maybe thinking of UPS, didn’t believe there was such a thing as Sunday delivery. He wouldn’t or at least couldn’t cleanly accept the throw, which allowed Soto to bring in a third Washington run.

Someone I know and like tweeted that down, 3-0, the Mets had the Nats right where they wanted them. My stomach tied another knot. That’s the sort of thing you NEVER express out loud, not while it’s still 3-0. Say it later. Say it AFTER the Mets have overcome deficits of 3-0 and 6-3 on Friday to win, 7-6. Say it AFTER the Mets have overcome a 3-2 deficit on Saturday to win, 4-3.

But never on a Sunday down, 3-0.

That said, the Mets tied the game in the bottom of the second. Two who were largely responsible for Saturday’s win and had quite a bit to do with Friday’s, J.D. Davis and Ramos, singled with one out off Anibal Sanchez. With two out, Joe Panik — the Mets’ contingency second base solution instead of Cabrera — singled in Davis. I am moderately satisfied to have a middle infielder of Panik’s pedigree among us. I was also moderately satisfied to have had middle infielders of Panik’s pedigree among us in other playoff chases: Tommy Herr in 1990; Mike Bordick in 2000; Luis Castillo in 2007. None of those names jump off the page as net Met positives a million or so years later, but at the moment of their respective acquisitions, they filled in nicely and filled holes ably. Panik probably isn’t a panacea, but for the time being, he’s all right.

DeGrom, who’s more than all right, bunted his way on, making up aesthetically for the lousy play at first in the first. Alonso was charged with an error, but it was deGrom who should have snared his throw. Once Jake laid down his bunt, though, that was history as ancient as Tommy Herr. He had kept our rally alive long enough for Jeff McNeil to extend it some more via a double that sent home Ramos and Panik. We were knotted at three. My stomach was knotted without pause.

I kept waiting for deGrom to absolutely take command of the game. He didn’t. Talk about expecting too much. Sorry, I’ve been watching Jake for six seasons. I just assume he’ll carry the Mets, even when they fuss that they don’t want to go anywhere. Given the load of pitches he had to throw in the first, maybe it wasn’t surprising that he surpassed triple-digits in volume by the fifth. Five innings was gonna do it for deGrom; so much for Sunny de’. He left a tie game in the hands of his bullpen.

Oh, that Mets bullpen. It hasn’t been that bad, actually. How bad could any aspect of the Mets be when they’re winning eight in a row and fifteen of sixteen? Nevertheless, they are the Mets bullpen. Perfectly nice fellas, I’m sure, yet I wouldn’t implicitly trust any of them to not place the watermelon directly atop the eggs at the checkout lane.

The first reliever was Luis Avilán. He struck out a Nat, allowed Cabrera to single (as if anybody was gonna stop Asdrubal on Sunday), struck out another Nat, then gave up a hit to Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki, I suddenly noticed, is a low-profile Met-killer. He killed us with Atlanta. He killed us one night when he was with Oakland (it was a veritable eon ago, but I have receipts). The Nationals, like the Mets and every Wild Card wannabe, have their flaws, but between the genuine talent (Rendon, Soto), the certified Met-killing (Suzuki) and now Cabrera imagining the need to get even, they have enough of a critical mass to make a Mets fan antsy.

Good thing, then, that Mickey Callaway was able to turn to a Mets fan who clearly recognized what was going on, namely his second reliever, Brad Brach. Brach is a Mets fan from way back. Not one of those locally sourced “I rooted for the New York teams as a kid” diplomatic-answerers who doesn’t want to piss off his new fans by admitting he didn’t care or preferred another nearby team, but somebody who, had he not been preoccupied getting outs for other staffs in recent years, would have recognized Kurt Suzuki kills us. Brad from Freehold put his Mets fan instinct to good use and flied out Brian Dozier to get us out of the sixth still tied.

Just as the Nats outlasted deGrom, the Mets outlasted Sanchez, which meant their bullpen was in play. The Nationals bullpen makes the Mets bullpen look like…oh no, I’m not going there. Again, that’s the kind of thing you say after the game. Respect your opponent, for crissake. Don’t assume that the flaws of others will rescue your own. Davey Martinez needed two of his relievers to navigate the sixth. Panik walked with two outs. Callaway sent up Luis Guillorme to pinch-hit for Brach. On Saturday, Guillorme took to extremes the notion that in a winning streak everybody is a hero. Luis sure was then. Not this time, striking out against Matt Grace.

That Met bench is kind of a flaw, too, Saturday night heroics notwithstanding.

The knots from the first inning remained tight inside my abdomen going to the seventh. That’s a pennant race for you. Glorious discomfort. Energizing agony. Exquisite torture. I guess. It’s preferable to the que sera, sera Sunday of an 8-3 loss or the I’ve had bleeping had it Sunday of another extra-inning debacle. But it surely angries up the acids.

“If your stomach disputes you,” Satchel Paige advised, “lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.” Good luck if you’re keeping tabs on the Mets bullpen. The seventh inning was in the hands first of Robert Gsellman. Gsellman’s hands can be slippery bastards, particularly the one connected to his right arm. One out, two on. Exit Gsellman. Enter Justin Wilson, thoroughly useful throughout the Mets’ communiqué to the rest of the National League that they shouldn’t look back, something orange and blue might be gaining on them. Wilson walked Soto. Not useful, but at least not an RBI double. Wilson then struck out Adams. Adams strikes out like clockwork Serval Zippers would have admired.

Oh look, Cabrera is up. This can’t possibly be good. I mean it could be, for if Asdrubal Cabrera were invincible, the Rangers might have held on to him, but this is his day of jubilee, his Sunday to show the Mets what they had and what they don’t got no more. Asdrubal doubles. In comes Adam Eaton. In comes Anthony Rendon. To a halt comes Soto, spraining an ankle jetting around third, attributable to the brakes being put on a tad too suddenly by Nationals third base coach Bob Henley. I remind myself sternly to take no pleasure that the most threatening non-Cabrera player on the Nationals is leaving the game. I actively wish him no pain. Get well, Juan. No, really. Deriving anything resembling relief from an injury to another is far worse than “got ’em where we want ’em.” It’s bad karma and bad humanity.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Mets fight back as we wish them to. That’s our theme. Never out of the fight. We weren’t out of the fight several Sundays ago, even when we were sure we were nowhere near it, and here we are, down two runs but still on the edge of grabbing the Wild Card lead. Aren’t these crazy times? Jeff McNeil doubles. Amed Rosario singles. McNeil races to third. Michael Conforto flies out effectively. McNeil runs home. It’s 5-4. Maybe we really do win every game like this. Alonso is up. He’s hit by a pitch, according to sight-impaired home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn. He’s not, according to informal replay review. Martinez, however, doesn’t request an official version, so Alonso trots to first. I don’t like it. It takes the bat out of Alonso’s hands. I have more confidence in him as a hitter than as a gift baserunner. I have even more confidence in the next hitter, J.D. Davis, the revelation of the weekend, than I do in Alonso or anybody in this suddenly stacked Mets lineup, but this doesn’t feel right. I’m not playing. I’m not managing. I’m feeling. My gut is in a pennant race, too.

Davis strikes out looking. Another pitching change is made. Ramos lines out to left field. He got good wood on it, but that’s one of the stories of Sunday. Balls the Mets hit aren’t carrying as far as we think they might or landing where they’d do us the most good. Balls the Nats hit are eluding our gloves and refusing to be handled with care. Some days are just like that. One is tempted to go overboard and add, “…but this wasn’t just any day.” This was the Sunday when we could sweep the Nats and leap the pack. This was the prospective ninth victory in a row. This was momentum incarnate on the line. But, honestly, it was just one day.

Is winning better than losing is worse? The answer is not winning is worst of all. We’d been gorging on winning for more than a week. We had a taste for triumph. To go unsated at this point was practically cruel in our skewed view of the new world in which we contended. Despite the pile of manure this game was leaving behind, it was only 5-4. There must be a pony of a tying run in there somewhere.

Jeurys Familia, the fifth Met reliever of the day was very good in the eighth, striking out the side. It could have been 2014 again, except the Mets weren’t contending for anything then, so we had to content ourselves with our good-looking setup man looking better and better with every outing. He looked so good going into 2015 that when Jenrry Mejia, our closer of record, accidentally ingested some performance-enhancing substances (it’s always by accident), no Mets fan flinched at the idea of Familia hunting saves. He bagged a slew of them for two years. He’d been mostly lost in the wild ever since. Good to have a glimpse of the Jeurys we knew and didn’t automatically cringe at.

In the home eighth, the Mets did nothing. Nothing at all. Not a hint of a rally. Not a wisp of offense. There was still another inning to go, but in that active gut of mine, I mixed metaphors and sort of threw in the towel. You could overstuff washers and dryers with all the metaphorical towels I’d thrown in from this team, but sometimes you know deep in your knots that it’s not your day. I was willing to be shocked from my certainty (I also thought Friday night was hopeless going to the bottom of the ninth), but another resurrection would have really surprised me.

Not quite stunning but extremely disappointing was Edwin Diaz not following forcefully in the encouraging footsteps of Familia. He struck out the pesky Trea Turner, needlessly walked Eaton, struck out 2020 Mets third baseman Rendon (if only) and appeared poised to emerge unscathed in his first ninth inning in ages. He didn’t even have to face Soto. Victor Robles had replaced him since the ankle sprain.

Alas, Robles took Diaz deep to up the Nationals’ lead to 7-4, and that was basically that. I didn’t care that Sean Doolittle, the gift that had kept on giving Friday night, was going to attempt to close out the Mets and that Doolittle is this generation’s Dave Smith. Smith was a dynamite closer for the Astros in 1986 yet blew up when having to quell the Mets in the NLCS. My mother would get very smug at the sight of Dave Smith. I urged her to cool it with that, that the baseball gods don’t care for such attitude. I would have urged Mets fans at Citi Field the same thing on Sunday, except I was already unknotting and disengaging. We had McNeil, Rosario and Conforto due up. Most days I have faith in them against anybody. But karma was due up in the other dugout. Doolittle wasn’t going to blow every lead. Cabrera wasn’t going to leave unjustified in his mind. Soto could ice his ankle in peace. Whatever. I don’t care for the Nationals, but they don’t lose on command. The Mets went down in order and their beautiful winning streak was a thing of the past.

When Sunday was all sorted out, the Cardinals had stormed from behind to crush the Pirates. The Brewers were blanked by the Sans-drubal Rangers. Philadelphia fell apart in San Fran. Arizona couldn’t touch L.A. Cincinnati…do we care what Cincinnati does? There are too many teams to track diligently, but the bottom line is the Mets weren’t in first place for the second Wild Card, yet they were still pretty close to it, just a game from postseason access if the season ended Sunday. The season, as you are keenly aware, keeps going beyond Sunday. There are seven weeks left, 44 Mets games in all, a whole bunch whose machinations are as likely as not to wrench guts all over Metsopotamia.

In other words, baseball like it oughta be.

Double Shifts at the Superlative Factory

The rocket ride, amazingly, continues.

In front of a packed, delirious house, the Mets kept on playing baseball with verve and swagger and a talent for the impossible whenever it was necessary. From Noah Syndergaard shaking off some early stumbles (though Juan Soto will make even a sure-footed pitcher miss a step or two) to home-run heroics from J.D. Davis, Wilson Ramos and Luis Guillorme (yes, Luis Guillorme) and clutch relief from Seth Lugo. Heck, even Mickey Callaway has showed some welcome flexibility.

I’m in Gettysburg, Pa., for a family reunion that distant cousins very kindly invited me to. Did you know Gettysburg is within the Nationals’ blackout territory? Neither did I. That’s meant the last two nights have been a Howie-and-Wayne affair — which has been about the best Plan B one could imagine. Howie’s been terrific, fully present in the drama and determined to make you love what’s happening as much as he’s loving it.

On Friday I was in a Greek restaurant as the game began and contented myself with Gameday until I got out to the car and joined the radio feed. But not Saturday night. On Saturday night I was nervous, obsessively checking whether it was game time yet and making sure I was in position to hear every word.

I was also thinking about Emily and Joshua, who were at Citi Field. They’d gone in part because I’d pleaded for a Hawaiian shirt but also because Joshua has been as caught up as anyone in the Mets’ unlikely ascent to relevance and beyond. My kid’s relationship with baseball and the Mets has ebbed and flowed over the years; on Friday, he persuaded his mother to walk for a while before getting on the subway so he wouldn’t lose the audio feed — a show of faith that was rewarded. But he’d never been to Citi Field when it was packed with fans roaring and baying and trying to conjure their desires into reality through sheer will and maximum volume.

I’ve been to plenty of big games that fizzled, which is an occupational hazard of letting yourself get excited, but I had an additional reason to hope Saturday night’s game wouldn’t be one of those. For a little while it looked like that would indeed happen, but Syndergaard steadied himself and the Mets were lurking against Patrick Corbin. Davis and Ramos together equaled one Soto, and I thrilled both to Howie’s call of the back-to-back shots and to the replay, once I got to see it. Davis’s bat flip was a thing of beauty; so was the pose struck by Ramos, a split-second after hammering a ball out of sight.

And when Soto struck again, there was Guillorme, of all people, to get us even. Guillorme has long been one of my favorite Mets, with sure hands and superlative instincts — he always knows what he wants to do if the ball comes to him, and the game never speeds up on him when the unexpected happens. I grumbled and groaned when Adeiny Hechavarria got the call instead of Guillorme, just as I muttered and moaned when the Mets refused to give him a long enough stretch of playing time to show what he could do.

Well, now he has — just ask Fernando Rodney, who spread his arms in disbelief and despair as Guillorme’s first big-league homer sailed into the right-field seats. It got no easier for Rodney: Joe Panik reached on an error and Jeff McNeil singled. Against Daniel Hudson, Amed Rosario came within a whisper of slamming a ball into center (and, OK, also within a whisper of hitting into a double play), moving the runners. to second and third. Dave Martinez opted to abracadabra Pete Alonso to first, loading the bases with one out, and up came Davis.

An 0-2 count, but Davis has made immense strides this year (funny what happens when you let young players play), and he drove Hudson’s fourth pitch to Adam Eaton in right, deep enough to score Panik, then gave the universe a satisfied nod and a raised fist: mission accomplished.

Through it all, the fans were roaring — Emily and Joshua among them. You could hear them on the radio, a welcome addition to the soundscape; you could practically feel them making the screen shake on the highlights. As for me, I was wearing out the carpet in a two-foot path, back and forth across my hotel room, cajoling and begging and exulting and worrying.

The Mets being the Mets and baseball being baseball, there was still the ninth to be navigated, a journey that’s been treacherous, to say the least. Callaway opted for Lugo instead of Edwin Diaz, and Lugo (with perhaps a little help from a tall strike zone) dispensed with further drama. Which was fine; the game had delivered plenty.

(And even then, it all came down to a 3-2 pitch, because of course it did.)

Then it was time to monitor scores and check standings and worry — happily — about Sunday. And in the middle of it, a welcome text from Emily: “Guess who really enjoyed his first experience at a playoff-feel game?”

Can Sunday compete with what’s come before? Hell if I know — this all stopped making sense about a week ago. We’re in a strange country, a land of dreams, and I don’t want to wake up and I don’t want to go home.

Impossible to Not Believe

FLUSHING (FAF) — The New York Mets did not come back to defeat the Washington Nationals, 7-6, Friday night, as Todd Frazier did not hit a game-tying, ninth-inning, three-run homer off Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, not setting up an immediate second rally that didn’t culminate in Michael Conforto driving home Juan Lagares with the winning run that did not send Citi Field into a pennant race frenzy.

When Conforto did not line Doolittle’s final pitch over right fielder Adam Eaton’s head for what wasn’t the first walkoff hit of Conforto’s career, Conforto’s Mets teammates did not storm from the first base dugout, did not giddily tackle him to within an inch of his life and did not tear his jersey from his torso, just as the fans who did not see the Mets take their fourteenth victory in fifteen tries did not depart the ballpark relentlessly chanting “Let’s Go Mets.” Skeptics who didn’t believe the Mets could succeed against stiffer competition than they’ve recently played were not quieted for at least one evening.

The Mets did not overcome the first of two three-run deficits when Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis did not launch back-to-back fourth-inning home runs off Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg. For Alonso, it wasn’t his 38th home run, not moving him closer to both the National League rookie record and the Mets’ all-time single-season standard. The Mets did not snap out of an offensive stupor versus the stellar Strasburg, while Marcus Stroman, making his first home start as a Met, did not dazzle Nationals hitters with seven strikeouts across the first three frames of an eventual six-inning outing.

Earlier in the day, the Mets did not sign the recently released San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik, who didn’t join Stroman and reliever Brad Brach as Metropolitan Area-bred additions to the New York roster, each of whom doesn’t have an All-Star appearance in his background. Panik did not contribute a key single to the ninth inning onslaught that didn’t rattle Doolittle and the Nationals to their very core. (To make room for Panik, the Mets did not designate for assignment Adeiny Hechavarria solely to avoid paying him a substantial bonus he would have been due had they not gracelessly cut him and his highly useful glove loose.)

It was not an all-around team effort that didn’t elevate the Mets to perhaps the most dramatic triumph they’ve never notched in the eleven-year history of Citi Field. Amed Rosario didn’t make a leaping grab of Brian Dozier’s sixth-inning bid for a two-run single in addition to not collecting another three base hits. Before he didn’t launch his awe-inspiring home run to deep left field in the ninth, Frazier didn’t have the presence of mind to nail Juan Soto attempting to score in the sixth. Wilson Ramos did not deliver a clutch line drive that wasn’t crucial in creating one of the most amazing ninth innings the Queens ballpark has never witnessed. Luis Avilán did not strike out the only two batters he didn’t face to not raise his record to 3-0.

Without the win, he Mets did not maintain their amazing momentum in the Wild Card race, not trimming the Nationals’ advantage over the National League pack and not keeping pace with the Brewers, Cardinals, Phillies and Diamondbacks, as they don’t sit a half-game out of a playoff spot after wallowing at the bottom of the standings for most of the season.

That’s because nothing like this could possibly be happening.