As Saturday morning is traditionally Schoolhouse Rock time, 61 is a magic number — our magic number. Any combination of Mets wins and somebody else's losses adding up to 61 makes us division champs.
The Phillies have the fewest losses in the East among teams that aren't us, so they're the still the bottom half of this magic coupling. But I see they're no longer in second place. They're a percentage point (actually one one-thousandth of a percentage point…decimals never get their due in a pennant race) behind our old frienemies the Atlanta Braves. Each of them trails us by 13 games. The Marlins are 14 back, with the same number of losses as the Braves, but two fewer wins.
In any event, 61 is a magic number.
Let's not kid ourselves: There is no division derby anymore. We've been saying that here for a solid month and the big picture is still solid. We're enjoying our largest lead of the season as we speak and it's in no practical danger of being obliterated.
Those years when legendary chokers were blowing monumental margins have generally been a bit misstated. Take your 1978 Boston Red Sox, often reported as having given up a 14-game lead. While, yes, they did lead the Yankees by that much, it's not like it was a 14-game shadow over the field. At their apogee, the Red Sox were nine games up on the second-place Brewers; the Yankees were five behind the Brewers in fourth place. Think of it as Milwaukee blowing a five-game lead for second, and then Boston blowing a 7-1/2-game lead to the Yankees, which is where that team was in relation to the Red Sox when it passed Milwaukee.
Does that make sense? It always has to me because Boston never commanded its world by 14 games. If they had, then you'd be talking an otherworldly collapse, like that of the '51 Dodgers, whose lead with 48 games remaining in its season, was 13 games over the second-place Giants. (We're up 13 with 72 to play, which theoretically gives our opponents more time to catch us, but also gives us more time to further distance ourselves from them.) The difference between those Giants and today's NL East pretenders is that the Giants, even before their historic 37-7 roll, were a good team. They were eight games over .500.
This is important. The great comeback teams, like the '51 Giants, have to come back from somewhere plausible. Likewise, the '69 Mets, even when stuck in third place, down 10 to the Cubs on August 13, were eleven games over. The '78 Yankees, at their 14-games-back nadir on July 19, still sported a winning record: 48-42. The Braves and Phillies are each eight games under .500.
It's highly unlikely we'll be the '64 Phillies (up 6-1/2 with 12 to play) or the '95 Angels (ahead by six with 16 to go) because those teams didn't have 13-games lead at this stage of their seasons. That's the beauty of a comfortable cushion over subpar opponents like those in our rearview mirror.
Need another example? Look back only one year to the 2005 White Sox. They nearly blew a monster lead in the AL Central…nearly. Chicago led Cleveland by 15 on August 1. The Indians whittled that down to 1-1/2 on September 22. Good thing, then, that Chicago had built as large a lead as it did because the Tribe wasn't able to decrease it any further. They had a good scare, but the White Sox overcame it — and a sluggish 17-22 stretch — to gear up for a postseason pretty much unmatched in recent years for its combination of dominance (11-1) and drama.
That's worth mentioning since the Sox' blah final lap supposedly doomed them for October. I actually heard a ninny radio host on an obscure sports station the other day insist that the Mets have to pillage their way to 100 wins to set themselves up for a championship run, 'cause 99 isn't going to do it. 99 wins is exactly what the White Sox wound up with in 2005…but who remembers that? It was so long ago.
One month ago today, the Mets finished their never-to-be forgotten 9-1 stampede through Los Angeles, Arizona and Philadelphia. We came home 19 over and 8-1/2 up. Today we are 18 over and 13 up. We're fine.
But we knew that. What we don't know — I sure as heck don't — is who we're against.
Right now, the only two rivals that really matter are the day's opponent and the injury bug, and not necessarily in that order. The perennial pitfalls and pratfalls of Wrigley Field notwithstanding, we have a good chance of handling the Cubs for the next two days. Bumps and bruises, however, continue to linger. Reyes needn't rush. Beltran can take a day or two. Delgado probably ought to do the same. Floyd? Stop attracting baseballs. Pedro? Come back soon, only to prove that you can.
I assume nothing, but let's assume we hew to the statistical models laid out above and let's assume the Goodyear Blimp doesn't emergency-land on David Wright's head. Who, then, are we against?
The standings are no guide. When the All-Star break arrived, the Dodgers loomed as our first-round opponent. Two days since the break ended, the Reds have taken over the Wild Card. Are we to make a choice between these two? Should we be cheering for some lesser-known, less-tested quantity like the Rockies to surge into the best second-place record in the league? Do we want to avoid travel outside our time zone and pull for Cincy? Is it important that Houston lose so we don't fall into the Bermuda Triangle of Oswalt, Pettitte and Clemens? Are we haunted by Bill Hall and Carlos Lee and bats like theirs or would Milwaukee make relatively easy pickin's?
Come to think of it, should we not worry who the opponent in 2-1/2 months will be and instead turn our attention to maintaining a bulge over the Central-topping Cardinals so we secure intraleague home-field advantage? We're up 3-1/2 on resurgent St. Louis and 5-1/2 ahead of San Diego, first in the West.
Not that we ever control anything on the chess board save for our own moves, but play at this level, there's no ordinary venue. It's surely different from our 2005 stance of simply wishing ill on everybody ahead of us — one team's very like another when your head's down over your pieces, brother — and it's a far and happy cry from those non-contending years where we might pull for some team on a whim because it won't matter to us way down where we reside. All we can do, I suppose, is BTO this thing: Take care of business every day.
But there are other games going on and I do pay attention to them even if I don't know what to do with them.
Last night, I took in the end of the Phillies-Giants game. San Francisco had come from behind and led by two in the ninth. Well, good, I thought. We can extend our lead over Philadelphia. But is Philadelphia really a concern anymore? I couldn't root for Philadelphia, but should I be concerned that the Giants, still very much a factor in the Wild Card scrum (a half-game back), might be a pain come October? And who's closing for San Francisco but Armando Benitez? Do I have the luxury of nursing an ancient grudge where he's concerned? I decided I didn't. The Giants held on. Yea, I guess.
One more West Coast game remained and it was a doozy. The Braves and Padres traded proverbial punches all night. An early check had Atlanta up by four. San Diego stormed back, taking a one-run edge into the ninth. Hating the Braves and never trusting them, even double-digits out and divisionally dead in the ground, I don't want them winning a single contest the rest of the way. But, Hell's Bells, look who's coming in to attempt the save for the Petco Pooches…the biggest All-Star dog of them all, Trevor Hoffman!
For a dozen years, I've sailed through life not thinking about Trevor Hoffman much and all, and when I have, it's been vaguely positive. Since Tuesday night, he's Public Enemy No. 2 for costing us his league's champion home-field in the World Series. So I'm looking at the always-hated Braves and the suddenly hated Hoffman and I don't know who I like less. Aesthetics aside, I don't know what it means for us. Are the Padres, with Peavy and Young and Piazza and potential 11 o'clock starts, a team we want no part of up the road? Can the Braves, their lineup still damp with all the names that make your stomach churn, possibly right themselves into a Wild Card? And do you want to see Turner Field in October?
As has been the case many times a night this summer, there was plenty to root against, but nobody to root for. Thus, I just sat back. I got a kick out of Hoffman blowing yet another save, turning San Diego's 9-8 lead into a 9-11 deficit. But then I delighted in Jorge Sosa proving incompetent per usual for the Braves in the bottom of the ninth. You can never not Atlanta-bash. The Padres evened the score at 11 — Cameron struck out with the winning run on second — and the game went to the tenth. The Braves chalked up another run (Hoffman was long gone) and led 12-11 going to the bottom of the tenth when Bobby Cox did something I don't think I'd ever seen. Up one, facing runners on first and third and nobody out, he had the Braves align for a double play…conceding the tying run in extra innings. I scoffed and the Pads tied, but it worked! The Braves pounded the next San Diego reliever in the eleventh and wound up with a nutsy 15-12 win, saved by Mets turncoat Tyler Yates.
One hopes it's just one game and they go back to scuffling and are never heard from again. Yet there they are, the Braves, who have relieved as badly as FEMA after Katrina, eighth among non-division leaders in the NL, but “only” 5-1/2 behind Cincinnati in the Wild Card race in the middle of July. Improbably but not impossibly, Atlanta is one of eleven National League teams we could face in either the first or second round of the playoffs.
So who are we rooting against? For now, everybody but us.