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Loving the First Half Despite Hating the Last Inning

The funny thing is, for 80 games and 8 innings, it really was a helluva first half. It was more than I hoped for and more than we could have dreamed of. Who here really thought the Mets, even after the worst, dumbest ninth-inning meltdown of the season [1], would be 9 games over .500; in 2nd place 3 games out of first; and leading the pack for the Wild Card?

I sure as hell didn’t. I figured we were in for basically more of 2009. I had no conception of this crew looming as a playoff contender. I had no conception of this crew being this crew. The roster is dotted with individuals who did not figure into the 2010 scene as one tried to set it in April. Several of the names we’ve gotten to know were circulating as late as the final cuts of spring, but they weren’t here when we started and there was no solid reason to believe they’d be here in due time.

But they got here and because of them — and a few notable holdovers — there is reason to believe.

One year ago at the exact midpoint of the schedule, the Mets had a record six games worse than they do now. In an effort to examine their plausibility and possibility as a contender, I considered their position (3 under .500; tied for 3rd in the East 4 games out of first; 5 out for the Wild Card behind a ton of teams) in historical context [2] and decided it was surely possible they’d remain contenders yet not very possible that they’d endure as a plausible playoff team for very long.

And I was right. The Mets’ divisional chances had actually petered out right before the halfway point of 2009, when they went into Philly at 39-39, a game behind the Phillies and Marlins, and got themselves swept. They just fell further and further behind from there. The Wild Card remained a faint possibility until the beginning of August (50-53, 6½ back after a dramatic win). Then reality set in and it crashed at 70-92.

The motions were what we went through in 2009. It stopped being fun long before the Mets stopped being contenders. It never started being fun, actually.

In 2010, it’s been way fun [3], certainly as much fun as 45-36 will allow. And while we sorely wish we had made it to 46-35 on Saturday, we’re in a good spot to keep this going. Forty-five wins through 81 games is better than, as good as, or no more than two lousy victories shy of lots of Mets seasons that span competitive to successful. Comparable halfway marks include:

• 1969 — 47-34
• 1970 — 45-36
• 1975 — 43-38
• 1984 — 47-34
• 1985 — 46-35
• 1987 — 43-38
• 1997 — 45-36
• 1998 — 44-37
• 1999 — 45-36
• 2000 — 46-35
• 2007 — 46-35

Not all of those seasons call to mind golden memories but every one them saw the Mets arrive at the doorstep of September with a shot at making the playoffs (as did a few others that featured more than 47 wins or fewer than 43 wins after 81 games). You can’t at-this-pace everything in life, but the Mets, at this pace, are statistically en route to winning 90 games in 2010.

Did you expect that? I didn’t.

The midway point doesn’t dictate the second half. The lousy 35-46 first half of 1973 never hinted at the fantastic finish to come. Conversely, you never would have guessed the 1991 Mets and their 47-34 record (not pictured above) would fizzle out in the final third of the season. For the 49th consecutive year of New York Mets baseball and the umpteenth consecutive year of human existence, anything can happen and often does. But what matters here is these Mets are still very much alive — as plausible as possible — for the foreseeable future.

Mind you, the foreseeable future is a span of time no longer than the blink of an eye, but it’s inarguable that the Mets are a contender as we speak. They’ve played half a season, they’ve swallowed ten bitter walkoff losses [4], they’ve undergone round after round of bullpen roulette, they’ve shuffled two disappointing starting pitchers as far from the deck as their contracts will allow, they’ve hidden their most discouraging infielder, they’ve been without their best outfielder every single day…and if the season ended right now, they’d be facing the Padres in Game One of the NLDS at Petco Park.

Didn’t see that coming.

The Mets have the kind of team that is capable of giving us too many Saturdays, too many 5-3 leads not growing because a well-compensated left fielder cannot generate any kind of offensive consistency (unless you count Jason Bay consistently not hitting in the clutch) and too many 5-3 leads becoming 6-5 losses because three outs remain elusive to the single individual charged with attaining them. At any minute that team with its flawed closer and its flawed manager and its flawed general manager and its flawed attack and its flawed depth can remind us of its flaws so often we forget how much it has done well.

The Mets are 45-36. They have risen on the unlikely shoulders and knuckles and other body parts of R.A. Dickey and Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis and Chris Carter and Josh Thole and Jesus Feliciano and Elmer Dessens. Some of these names were penciled in conditionally before 2010 commenced, but none was inked onto the Opening Day roster. It figured somebody like Davis would be here eventually. It didn’t figure at all that Dickey — from the moment he arrived as a certifiable curiosity [5] — would emerge as the most reliable of all starters [6]. It didn’t figure that Tejada, one overly hasty double play attempt notwithstanding, would show up practically fully mature at the age of 20. It also couldn’t be known ahead of time that Hisanori Takahashi would occasionally save a staff’s bacon, that Rod Barajas would be a powerhouse for two months, that Henry Blanco would be a stalwart behind the plate with a bit of pop beside it; that Raul Valdes would contribute vital innings or that Bobby Parnell would have a second act so soon.

So much has worked. And so much hasn’t:

Jason Bay has done next to nothing (except hustle). Jeff Francoeur only silences his doubters for so long before writing them reams of new material regarding his inadequacy. Jose Reyes needed several weeks and an escape from the three-hole to revert to greatness…until suddenly reverting to injured. Johan Santana is only an ace on occasion. David Wright strikes out more than almost anybody in the National League. Jon Niese detoured to the DL. Mike Pelfrey’s been shaky for several outings. Pedro Feliciano isn’t really the Energizer Bunny. Frankie Rodriguez chose the wrong weekend to quit sniffing glue.

And yet…

With all that swirls around this team and all that drops from the sky to conk it on the collective noggin, the Mets are squarely in the playoff hunt a season after they were buried in the dumper. This team is winning far more often than losing no matter the disappointing offseason that preceded it. This team daily gives us a reason to check our watches, clocks and digital devices to see how soon it will be 7:10.

This year kicks the sorry ass of last year and it can continue to kick significant quantities of ass over its next 81 games. Carlos Beltran can rejoin the living. Jose Reyes can get over what ails him. Some combination of John Maine and Oliver Perez can prove modestly useful. Luis Castillo can park cars. Somebody can stop catering to the failed philosophies of bullpen management or mismanagement that have conspired to ruin this beautiful sport for the past two decades. There is room for improvement.

There is also room for continuation. David Wright, strikeouts or not, can continue to be one of the hottest hitters around. The infield can continue to pick up most balls hit in its direction. Bay can be the Bay he is vaguely recalled as being in Pittsburgh and Boston. Pelfrey can stand tall. Santana can straighten out. Niese can keep his legs out of harm’s way. Dickey can just keep on being Dickey. Little miracles like the FIRST pickoff play to ever end a Mets win [7] (so reported on Baseball Tonight) can sprout up and make us smile the smile a play like that deserves.

One particularly wretched ninth inning and a dozen nagging doubts shouldn’t stop Mets fans from saying, hey, all right, we’re in pretty good shape. Maybe there’s another arm, another bat to be had to keep us in such shape. Maybe this bunch is essentially our bunch for the duration and we can find the wherewithal to believe in them. Maybe, quite frankly, we can save our bitching and moaning for when we lose, and enjoy every win beyond the 45 we have until we don’t have enough to merit loads of enjoyment. Feel free to point out Met foibles but keep some perspective. We’re not trying to be right. We’re trying to be happy.

This isn’t 2009. That alone is a triumph of the human spirit. The second half of 2010 starts today. The only motion I’ll be going through will be leaning forward in anticipation of what awaits in Game 82 and the 80 thereafter.

Let’s Go Mets, for crissake.