As Games Behind go, my rule of thumb for holding out the slightest Met hope before September is 7½. I adopted it in August of 1973. The Mets were buried in the National League East cellar, but it was a shallow enough grave so that I could invest a modicum of faith in the concept of life after death. I’m not sure why 7½ seemed doable and 8 seemed impossible, but that was my view on things. Baseball Reference shows us the 1973 Mets were last 7½ out of first place on August 17, when they sat in sixth place with a record of 53-66.
So in that regard, You Gotta Believe the 2010 Mets — in third place, 54-54, 7½ games behind — are still alive, still reasonably well, still something of a presence (besides that of a speed bump) in the N.L. East race.
But that’s the only regard. Otherwise, they’re dead and they’re buried and they did it to themselves as much as the first-place Braves did it to them.
I’m not delusional, I swear I’m not. I knew it was a long shot once the West Coast beckoned and the Mets slipped through the San Andreas Fault by losing nine of eleven. Contending teams, even barely contending teams, have to win on the road once in a while. That’s about as often as the Mets do. If you’re going to go 2-9 in your most daunting road trip of the year, you have to do better than 3-3 where you allegedly enjoy a trademarked Home Field Advantage. Finally, if you’re going to remain ever so slightly viable heading into a six-game journey through the ballparks of the two teams ahead of you, you can’t not, at the very least, win one of those series — preferably the first, against the statistically better team of the two.
The Mets were zombies Monday night. They pulled themselves together Tuesday night. They were in position Wednesday night, at 6½ back, to gain ground from where they began the week.
They didn’t . They emphatically didn’t. They didn’t at every phase of the game. They didn’t pitch well. They didn’t hit at all. They fielded atrociously. They were managed poorly.
They failed as a team.
It was a Must Win, but they didn’t heed the the urgency of the moment. Now all they have going for them is my 7½-game rule of thumb; the slightest of chances to partially redeem themselves against the other team ahead of them; and the precedent of 1973.
It’s probably not enough to plan one’s final of a third season around, but at the moment, it’s all I’ve got.
THE METS DIDN’T HIT
The Mets almost never hit anymore. The Mets have scored 8 runs in 4 games, or as many as the Braves scored last night. The Mets have scored as many as 4 runs in only 8 of their last 25 games, more than 4 runs only 5 times. The Braves’ good young starter Kris Medlin left in the fifth inning with an injury, and the Mets still couldn’t hit.
There’s nobody doing the job with a bat in his hand. Nobody. Angel Pagan was the last consistent difference-maker. He’s on an eight-game hitting streak, actually, yet it’s not making any difference. He’s driven in three runs in those eight games, which may be why he attempted to bunt his way to first with Reyes on second early — it served as a sacrifice but more as an admission. I assumed Wright and Davis would bust out at some point. My assumption has been sadly mistaken. They are both in helpless funks that show no signs of relenting.
Reyes hasn’t been right since the oblique. Thole is a rookie again. Jeff Francoeur takes one effective swing per week. Carlos Beltran is, as we speak, a former star. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Luis Castillo, there’d be nobody doing anything. And if you’re relying on Luis Castillo to carry that weight you’ll be waiting on your delivery for a mighty long spell.
THE METS DIDN’T FIELD
Best Infield Ever, Jr.  — the three-quarters that’s here anyway — sure had its growing pains Wednesday night. Reyes (twice), Davis and Wright all rushed things and forced errors that the Braves gladly took and ran with. Yip City. Davis is a rookie. What are the excuses for Wright and Reyes at this stage of their careers? Why does David still sidearm balls to second. On his double play attempt in the sorry sixth, when I instantly wished he would have gone for the one out at home, you could see the car wreck developing from clear on the other side of I-85. David’s gonna throw this away, isn’t he? He is so much a better third baseman than that, yet I get the feeling he thinks he can make up for his lack of bat by growing six extra arms. Dude, you’re David Wright. You don’t have to be an octopus.
Jose? He was having his best defensive season to date until a few weeks ago. Finally gonna get the Gold Glove, I thought. But he just seems clueless sometimes, rarely more so than he did in firing poorly to Davis at first. You look past one error as one of those things, but you get concerned when there are two from one guy or four from three, especially when three of them occur in the same damn inning.
On the other hand, Luis Castillo was quite sharp defensively.
THE METS DIDN’T PITCH
I stared at two sets of numbers before the season as if they held within them some magic answer for something I was anxious to divine. The numbers were these:
Different results born of different roles, different times and different skill sets, but similar sample sizes and a similar sense of frustration linked Nolan Ryan’s Met years and the first four seasons in which Mike Pelfrey pitched in the bigs. Pelfrey never threw as hard as Ryan, while Ryan was always more wild than Pelfrey. Ryan had some adventures. He could strike out eight, he could walk eight and he could do it in the same three-hit complete game victory  (no wonder he preaches against pitch counts).
It’s often mentioned that the Nolan Ryan deal was one of the worst any team has ever made, yet it is rarely mentioned what a handful a Nolan Ryan start could be between 1966 and 1971, that the stupendous results — like the 16-strikeout four-hitter of May 29, 1971 — never left him free and clear of suspicions that he was really the pitcher he was on September 28, 1971: four consecutive walks and a two-run single to start the first and then removed for the last time as a Met. Nolan Ryan could be the best and worst of John Maine and Ollie Perez rolled into one tantalizing, exasperating package.
Then the Mets traded him and he almost immediately became Nolan Ryan.
Mike Pelfrey’s a different story, but often over his first four seasons, particularly his fourth, 2009, I was personally ready to give up on him. Maybe the only thing that held me in check was that Nolan Ryan didn’t look like much after a comparable time frame and trading a pitcher of Ryan’s potential before he turned 25 years old — washed up Jim Fregosi or no washed up Jim Fregosi in exchange — was dadburn stupid.
Pelfrey, 26, made me feel none too bright for doubting him once 2010 got underway. It took approximately 500 innings, I decided, but the kid had figured it out. If it’s not Ryan all over again, it’s close enough. We had faith in this guy and he has affirmed it. Mike Pelfrey, ERA down 2.23 on June 8, had arrived.
Well, that Mike Pelfrey has departed, and this Mike Pelfrey (ERA up to 4.10 on August 4) is every bit as much a handful as Nolan Ryan before he underwent his Angel metamorphosis or — shudder — John Maine and Ollie Perez the last time we saw either of them start.
Mike Pelfrey, quite simply, has reverted. His starts aren’t even tightrope affairs. He doesn’t stay aloft long enough for that. Big Pelf crashes through the net below as if he was drawn by Tex Avery  for Warner Bros. He’s a cartoon catastrophe every frigging start now. You know the plunge is coming — and it saddens you because you know there’s no trampoline below the net.
He doesn’t bounce back. He gets down on himself. He gets distracted. He loses his focus. He loses his confidence. I don’t know what it is with Mike Pelfrey since June. Before June, I was convinced he had turned the corner, that holding onto him was the smartest thing the Mets had done in years. I am now wondering what they could have gotten had they sold high.
In general, I root for the starting pitcher, whatever name on the back of the jersey on a given night. I don’t like to see starters come out of games if they have any chance at all of wriggling out of a jam. Ideally, that’s a choice to be made late in a game — the manager considers his options and sticks with a Seaver or a Gooden or a Santana reaching back and firing and justifying the faith. Let the ace take care of Bench or Schmidt or Pujols. That’s baseball at its best.
The fifth inning is no time to conjure such manfully competitive visions, not when the batter, Brian McCann, is as close to that Hall of Fame level as you need to see right now and is on a killing spree against your staff; not when the fifth inning may very well be the last inning anything you do really matters for the rest of your season; and not when Mike Pelfrey has grease on his tightrope shoes.
Jesus, what was Jerry Manuel doing letting Mike Pelfrey pitch to Brian McCann with the inning, the game and pretty much all of 2010 on the line? It’s first and third, there’s two out, the Mets are down by one, Pelfrey just semi-intentionally walked Chipper Jones and it’s only two innings since McCann homered off him. Before the fateful fifth, he was 14-for-33 lifetime against Pelfrey.
After the fateful fifth, he was 15-for-34, with another double and another RBI. Yet Pelfrey remains on the mound. He intentionally walks Eric Hinske to get to Matt Diaz. Then he hits Diaz. It’s 5-2 Braves.
That was it. That was it for Pelfrey in the fifth. That was it for my Nolan Ryan comparison, too. Mike Pelfrey’s Met career has consisted of two or three very nice months in 2008, two or three very nice months in 2010 and pitching in circles otherwise. Whether it’s mental, physical or that he’s just not that good, I am re-convinced that it’s never going to happen for Mike Pelfrey with the Mets. I don’t care how much stuff he has. He doesn’t know how to use it, and this organization apparently has no one capable of teasing it out of him for an extended period.
Somebody will think he can figure out what to do with Big Pelf. I invite all bidders and encourage the Mets to entertain all potentially beneficial offers in the offseason. This time, however, if you do go that route, please get more than Jim Fregosi in exchange.
Until shopping Pelfrey can be thoroughly explored, he’s not automatically in my rotation. He goes to the pen or Buffalo or wherever before he gets the same opportunities we shouldn’t have kept giving Maine and Perez. Brooklyn Cyclones manager Wally Backman recently told Bob Klapisch of the Record , “At this level, it’s supposed to be about player development, but to me, development is winning.”
Wally was talking about Single-A ball. He could have been talking about the majors. Development is winning. Pelfrey’s development has clearly stalled and the Mets stand little chance of winning with him as a starter. Thus, if you’re going to cut Ollie (good god, please do), you can’t keep pretending Pelf is one start from finding himself again. He is too lost for that.
Whether the Mets are 7½ back and barely breathing or prohibitively out of it, there is something to be said for trying to win games. Mike Pelfrey in his ongoing state, is not positioning them to do that.
Not even close.
THE METS DIDN’T MANAGE
What exactly is it that Jerry Manuel does? Two or three very nice months in 2008, two or three very nice months in 2010 — he’s the Mike Pelfrey of skippers, except I can understand why people have seen potential in Pelfrey. Manuel? What has he ever been for this team other than Not Willie Randolph when that was considered therapeutic?
He leaves Pelfrey in to face McCann Wednesday just as he left Feliciano in to face McCann Tuesday. McCann was 8-for-24 against Pedro and came out of that battle 9-for-25. Do they keep track of batter-pitcher matchups for the edification of fans or do they share them with the manager?
And what was with Pagan bunting in the third inning? Is there no NO BUNT sign in Jerry Manuel’s arsenal? Or did Angel just think that’s what we’re supposed to do on the Mets? If the players show no confidence, it’s no wonder. The manager thinks it’s 1908 and that he’s John McGraw. It isn’t and he’s not. You’re allowed to play for more than just one run these days.
There are all kinds of minefields to negotiate as a major league manager among the fragile egos and the glaring media eye and the need to balance a sense of urgency with the reality that no game is statistically more than 1/162nd of your season. Those caveats invoked, what exactly is it that Jerry Manuel does other than chuckle mordantly? Is a manager responsible for motivating a team that appeared revved up when it won in dramatic fashion  the night before? Those Mets who lost 8-3 to the Braves looked like the motivation got sucked right out of them once McCann doubled off Pelfrey.
It may not be Jerry Manuel’s fault, but none of what’s been going on since June 28 (11-22) is to his credit. You can release Perez and seek new homes for Castillo and Francoeur (though Bay’s extended DL stay  makes immediately jettisoning Frechy somewhat impractical) and kick Cora to the curb before his 80-game option vests, but you really want to help this team in the short-term?
Say goodbye to Jerry Manuel.
Don’t wait. Why wait? When was the last time you thought to yourself, “Good call, Jerry” or “Nice move, Jerry” or “Jerry showed good judgment sticking with that guy”? Pagan got a chance to shine because there were no other options once Gary Matthews was given multiple opportunites to not succeed. Same for Dickey in the wake of the John ‘n’ Ollie mess. Other than deciding to not put up with Maine fibbing about the condition of his arm, I’m at a loss to see how Manuel’s made a positive, lasting impact on this club in 2010.
It so happens that we have reached the two-thirds juncture of the 2010 season. I’ve continued to track  that bromide about how “You win one-third of your games no matter what you do, you lose one-third no matter what you do, it’s what you do in the other third that determines your season.” True to what I discovered through the first third of this year, the math is off. Here are my updated Determining Third Index Standings:
28 Wins of the “gonna” win variety
25 Losses of the “gonna” lose variety
26 Wins that “determine your season”
29 Losses that “determine your season”
That’s slightly more than half of your games deciding your fate. Usually I’d slot Game 108, Wedensday’s desultory five-run defeat, among the losses that are going to be losses no matter what you do. But I list it among the 29 that are serving to screw us over. it may have definitively determined our season, and it was not out of these players’ or this manager’s hands. It wasn’t fate that they’d slide to the very outer edge of viability on Wednesday. They had a lead. They could have played better. They could have been managed better.
They didn’t. That’s not fate. That’s them, all of them.
On Sunday, before the Mets were so fired up by the presence of their 1986 predecessors  that they stormed forth and lost by thirteen runs to a last-place team, Davey Johnson spoke  to the enduring meaning of this franchise’s last championship season:
“The one lesson we all learned from that year is no matter what in life, we always have a chance, no matter how bleak it looks.”
Easy for him to say, what with a rotation so deep that his best pitcher in the second half, Rick Aguilera, didn’t even get a start in the postseason. But yeah, like Davey said, we always have a chance. The ’86 Mets didn’t need to worry about 7½-game margins, but the ’73 Mets overcame one in August…as did the ’69 Mets, come to think of it.
Ancient history but our history. It’s what keeps me hanging on — that, and what Richard Gere cried to Louis Gossett, Jr., in An Officer and a Gentleman:
“I got nowhere else to go!”
C’mon, I’m a Mets fan. This is the Mets’ season. The moment the Mets dip absolutely out of the pennant race with which they are, at most, technically associated, what good is that? This, the season, is what I wait October to April for. I want it to continue in ways that encompass more than motions being gone through. And please don’t tell me about football training camps, for crissake. I’m here for the Mets. The Mets start playing out the string, it’s that much closer to not being baseball season. 2011 means nothing to me until 2010 is all the way over, and even then, 2011 has to wait another six months, another October to April, another altogether unending winter in a lifetime that includes too many of them already.
Why would I welcome that void? I did last year because last year yearned to be gotten on with, yet all that did was leave me in the cold and dark of it not being baseball season. Sheesh, what’s the rush? The urgency should be for the Mets to win a game Friday, another Saturday and another Sunday. The rush should be to leave Philadelphia, at minimum, with two wins in their steamer trunk and, with any luck at all, a little closer to first than they are now. Can’t do anything about the Braves at the moment. Had our chance and didn’t take advantage. We’ll have another chance at the end of August. I’d like that chance to represent something other than a chance to briefly hinder their chances.
After Philadelphia, it’s Colorado and the Phillies at home. Then it’s two lousy teams on the road, Houston and Pittsburgh (though lousy Arizona on the road didn’t exactly yield gold). Then it’s home cooking again with the Cantu-less Marlins and the lousy Astros. Then, on August 30, back to the Ted. By then, with 22 games between visits to Atlanta, the idea that somebody sat here on August 5 and calculated the Mets’ schedule with any sense of purpose because the margin was “only” 7½ will almost certainly look absurd.
Almost certainly. As Davey said, we always have a chance — though it couldn’t look a whole lot bleaker than it does right now.