This Mets-Phillies series shapes up as the biggest thing to hit Shea Stadium since Paul McCartney joined Billy Joel on stage.
But seriously, I've been thinking about it and I can't come up with a recent Mets series, home or away, that really answered to the name showdown the way this one does. What makes a series a real showdown? Well, let's see…
It's late enough in the season to impact the big picture.
It's July 22. When it's over, it will be July 24. Both the Mets and Phillies will have 60 games left, including five against each other. It's not so late that this will be definitive, but it's far enough long so that it can have repercussions. Worth noting, however, that after the Mets had booked 99 results in 2007, that the N.L. playoff teams figured to be — based on the standings at that moment — the Brewers, the Dodgers, the Padres and our Mets. None of them made it.
It's between two teams going after the same goal.
Obviously the Mets and Phillies are both looking at first place, co-leaders that they are. This is different from last September's collapse special when the Mets were trying to run out the clock and the Phillies were maneuvering toward the Wild Card. They entered that set 6-1/2 back with two-plus weeks left. The Mets and Phillies weren't on the same map on Friday the 14th. You could even argue they were barely on the same competitive continent when the lead was cut to 3-1/2 after the weekend sweep. What we have here is two teams residing at exactly the same latitude, the stakes rarefied and juicy.
It's between two teams with the same amount to gain or lose.
Who benefits more from winning this series? Whoever wins is the cheap and accurate answer. There will be instant analysis that the winner made a statement and that the loser has to scramble, but whoever comes out of this burdened by a one- or three-game deficit relative to the other (with the Marlins mixed in there somewhere) has sixty games to make it up. The Mets won't be shot to hell if they're not in first by suppertime Thursday. Neither will the Phils. Surely, though, they're in the same boat as they climb onto the deck.
It's between two teams who share some history.
The Mets-Phillies rivalry used to be noteworthy for existing only in theory and maybe geography. That's over. All the “team to beat” tripe is underscored by real on-field intensity, even if its fuse was lit for real in 2007.
Is this really the first showdown series for the Mets in a long time? Let's review:
2007: The Mets couldn't be bothered with showdowns up to and including the September Phillie series. That and the one at the Cit in late August were big series for the Phillies, not us, before they commenced. In retrospect, they were enormous for both teams. But you have to know that going in. The Mets had big series post-Phillies in September, but those were dear life affairs, as in hanging on to first, hanging on to any chance of not folding.
2006: I've long maintained the biggest showdown of two years ago was very early, the first game between the Mets and Braves at Shea when Pedro won his 200th decision and the Mets' lead extended to five games in mid-April. We've seen that large leads with months to go evaporate, but there was something different about that night, something different from all the Mets-Braves series that preceded 2006. But it was April. The Mets-Phils series at CBP in the middle of June was significant in that the Mets nailed down the East for all intents and purposes, but it never felt as if Philadelphia was going to make a run. There was a series in August between the Mets and Cardinals that felt portentous, but that's different from a showdown.
2005: The Mets and Phillies met in a Wild Card showdown that spanned the end of August and beginning of September but that's not a divisional showdown. Too many other teams were lurking (with Houston eventually winning the damn thing). We had our hopes up, yet despite Ramon Castro's best efforts, the Mets — losing two of three at Shea — weren't ready in '05. Neither were the Phils. This is a front 'n' center series starting tonight. It should lead Baseball Tonight and any objective sportscast. That's a showdown.
2004: For about two seconds the Mets and Phils showed down for first in Philly (Bobby Abreu vs. John Franco…brrr…), but it was a tad early — first week of July — to take it seriously as death. As the Mets would prove by the beginning of August, the Mets weren't to be taken seriously at all in 2004.
2002: The '02 Mets were supposed to be neck-and-necking with the Braves, but the Mets were done in by their own torpor from May until August. When they garnered a little momentum midsummer and faced a significant series against the Diamondbacks, Bobby Valentine downplayed it (scolding Mo Vaughn for suggesting it was crucial) and the Mets played down from there. By the time the Braves visited Shea again, they were polishing another N.L. East belt and the Mets were putting out feelers to Art Howe.
2001: Real close, but no showdown. The Mets' last best hope for mano-a-mano action for the division was derailed by Brian Jordan on September 23 at Shea. Instead of heading into Atlanta with first place at stake for both teams a week later, it was the Mets who needed wins desperately, the Braves more or less tuning up; they hadn't clinched but deep down, we had to know they would. Tough pair of weekends for the Mets. Outstanding pair of weekends for Brian Jordan.
2000: The last year of balanced scheduling, so the Mets-Braves series weren't as plentiful as they are now. The two rivals faced off in mid-September with the Braves up three games. Two Brave wins (emphatic Brave wins) put to the rest the notion that the Mets could win the East. The final-week series between them at Shea was the essence of anticlimactic. The Braves won the first game and clinched first. The Mets won the second game and clinched the Wild Card. It was the living, breathing embodiment of Everybody Gets a Trophy Day.
1999: All the showdown criteria were lined up perfectly on September 21 as the Mets (92-58) hit Turner Field. Braves (93-57) led by one with twelve to play. The division was as up for grabs as it ever would be in the Bobby V era. So what happened? Turner Field hit the Mets. Chipper Jones, mostly. Three heartbreaking defeats propelled Atlanta to a quick clinch. How quick? The Braves won so many and the Mets lost so many so soon that Atlanta was champ by September 28 when they showed up at Shea for what was supposed to be the ultimate showdown for first. The Mets had actually — no joke — printed up t-shirts that displayed both teams' logos and the fightin' words BATTLE FOR THE EAST on them. I can still see them sitting unsold at concession stands everywhere. They were revived in October during the NLCS, but the message didn't have the same oomph behind it.
If we're going to call this Mets-Phillies series a showdown and not find one series that loomed quite on the same level since 1999, can we say this shapes up as the biggest series the Mets have played in nine years? I wouldn't go that far. There can be big series, like the Mets-Marlins debacle from last season's final dreadful weekend, that aren't showdowns. Can we say, then, that there hasn't been a bigger showdown in which the Mets have been slated to take part in almost a decade? It doesn't sound quite correct, but based on the evidence, it might very well be.