Eleven days ago, the Mets arrived in Philadelphia for a four-game series, six games up in the NL East — and (in case any of us forgot) promptly got swept. Today, we're six games up in the NL East. And there are just 22 games to play.
Reading my co-blogger's memories of 1997 reminded me of something that Phillies fans are no doubt stewing about tonight — that in September, time is an even more implacable foe than your division rivals. Losing is bad. Seeing the team you're chasing win is bad. Seeing a precious day disappear from the calendar compounds whatever measure of bad you've had to suffer. In April, in July and even in August, a loss or the failure to take advantage of another team's loss can't be treated like life and death — rooting that way (or playing or managing that way) will leave you wrung out and ruined by September. But come September, the marathon turns into a sprint — and if you're still being philosophical, you're whistling among headstones.
It's not over, but 11 days have gone by and the Phillies have accomplished exactly nothing. (And are 3.5 back in the wild card.) Our magic number, meanwhile — and given the above, we can talk about it without expecting a crack of thunder from baseball-god heaven — is 17.
How'd we get to this latest pass? By beating the crap out of the Astros. There was plenty to like here, from Mike Pelfrey's continuing maturation (10 hits in 5.1 ain't great, but his slider looked superb, and there wasn't a wheels-come-off inning like the ones that have doomed so many Pelfrey starts) to Lastings Milledge's great game (a home run that might have gone through the left-field fence and a catch that must have had Ron Swoboda grinning in the stands) to Endy Chavez reminding us that he can too outrun baseballs to the welcome sight of Carlos Gomez back on the field. Meanwhile, the Astros missed cutoff men, dawdled after balls in the gap, auditioned horrible relievers and forgot how many outs there were. Maybe it's a kindness showing Cecil Cooper why that “interim” tag might be a good thing.
Carlos Beltran's phantom catch in the top of the first reminded me of something. The trigger was the moment where the crowd was cheering, Lance Berkman had slowed between first and second, and Beltran was possibly the only person of the 50,000-odd in attendance who knew the ball was irretrievably over the fence. He did the only thing he could do — he showed Berkman the empty glove and shook his head.
Every time I see a play like that, I think of Steve Finley and Todd Pratt's blast just over the fence. And I feel a little twinge of sympathy for the devil.
Next time you see the replay, watch Finley — he comes down from the top of the wall, where he'd stolen many a home-run ball in better days for him, and there's a moment where he's just standing there, peering kind of quizzically in at the infield, before his chin drops like there's a magnet on his chest.
It's probably just a fan's overactive imagination, but I've always thought Finley realized — as Beltran did tonight — that he was the only one who knew he'd come up empty and the drive he'd failed to corral was a home run. Can you imagine that? His teammates are on tenterhooks staring out at center field. All those fans are staring down at him. There's Pratt, about to come out of his shoes near second base, and the Mets halfway out of their dugout. And Finley alone knows the terrible truth — the ball is gone and the Diamondbacks' season is over. And in a moment it will be his terrible duty to make that plain. But until he does, nobody will know — and it must be tempting to prolong that moment, to try to make what's just happened not have happened by not revealing it. But that's not an option, is it? And so Finley's chin drops, his shoulders slump, and it's winter.