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Morality Rehearsal

Well, anybody see that coming?

I just got back from three days in San Francisco (where I risked my college pals’ wrath during our annual get-together by riding shotgun on Johan’s no-hit bid, resulting in a curious ambivalence when Placido Polanco RUINED EVERYTHING) and tomorrow morning I’m heading out for six days in Orlando and Providence, R.I. So today was a brief spot of normalcy — and my one chance for a while to follow normalcy’s dictates, as in “7:10, the game is on.”

So imagine how I felt to see that the game I’d drawn was Big Pelf, stalker of mounds and mutterer of imprecations, against Ubaldo Jimenez, of the thunderbolt fastball and the old-timey, age-of-pitchers W-L record. Pelf might return to June form, working quickly and aggressively and keeping out of his own way? Yeah right. He might match Ubaldo zero for zero, 122 pitches for 122 pitches, deep into a wet-blanket, dog-panting-in-your-face night? Good one. The Mets might hand the eighth inning to a new reliever and have him not immediately spit the bit like a kid with a juicy watermelon seed and a little sister on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Lies, lies, lies! Eighth-inning messiness and disappointment for Pelf would be prevented by a diving catch from one Fernando Martinez — and F-Mart would get to his feet with no apparent need to go on the shelf for six to eight weeks? Now you’re stretchin’ it. And K-Rod — whose latest assumed misdeeds in my book include antagonizing the Jet Blue flight attendant and deciding that Triceratops never existed — would work yet another one-two-three inning? Purest fantasy.

Actually I didn’t see K-Rod’s relatively placid outing, because I was snoozing — somewhere between the end of the bottom of the eighth and Frankie emerging from the bullpen my eyelids shut, and so I woke up to an empty Citi Field and had to judge whether or not Gary and Ron were trying to be consoling. They weren’t — all was OK, thanks in large part to Ike Davis beginning the inning with a jai alai save on a ball behind him, then offering an odd little shot put of a throw to K-Rod. They and we could exhale [1].

Kudos to Big Pelf, K-Rod, Tak II and Ike, but for me the most interesting half-inning was the bottom of the seventh, and not just for the obvious reasons of the scoreboard. Rather, it was because you could simultaneously see what the Mets had been and what they might be becoming, with the two somewhat awkwardly sharing space and trying to find a way forward.

Moderately useful spare part Chris Carter walked and was replaced by Jeff Francoeur, the greatest guy you’ll ever beg to completely rethink his approach to being a major-league hitter, and who probably has seven weeks at most remaining in his Met tenure.

Next came a double off the Mo Zone by Josh Thole, who’s replaced Rod Barajas at least a few months early behind the plate.

Up came Ruben Tejada, whose sudden promotion had me simultaneously cheering and fretting. The cheers were for the exile of the torpid Luis Castillo to the bench, the next best thing to removing him from the roster entirely, and for the Mets having escaped the second year of the idiotic deal they handed to the wise but otherwise useless Alex Cora amid competition from absolutely no one. The fretting was that too much was being asked of Tejada too soon, and that the Mets’ long-term plans might be better served by playing out the string with Tejada reflecting on a big year in his development while Luis waved vaguely at balls three feet to his left or right, and never mind the short-term effect on my temper.

It was a little morality play, and I was rooting desperately for Tejada to prevail — for the sake of Big Pelf and the score and the faithful sweltering out there, but mostly for the sake of Tejada’s own confidence. What would happen? He looked like a child in a too-big batting helmet, but he also looked like a determined, capable child, refusing to bite at sliders off the plate and fouling off fastballs over it. When he fought back to 3-2 amid rising cheers, I thought to myself, That’s good, but it’s not success — all you’ve done is put yourself in a position to succeed. Don’t confuse the two.

Tejada fouled off another one — and then looked at strike three.

Up came Carlos Beltran, as a pinch-hitter, and I don’t know what to call Carlos Beltran these days. He pretty obviously isn’t the stellar midseason acquisition we thought would catapult us to the top of the NL East, though that seemed plausible at the time. He might just be fighting through on-the-job spring training. He might be trying to do more than his body can do yet, out of a sense of pride and professional duty and a desire to have everybody in New York shut the fuck up already. Or he might be descending steeply toward oblivion, betrayed by his knees as many a ballplayer has been before him. We don’t know what he’ll be in 2011, or for whom he’ll try to be it, or what the best answer is for him or us. The Rockies, for their part, clearly thought he was the Carlos Beltran of recent years, and walked him intentionally.

Up came Jose Reyes, he of the huge smile and the too-frequent errors and the lost 2009 and the faintly maddening 2010. Jose worked the count to 2-2 and then connected with a curveball. It was kind of an odd hit — he put kind of a funny short-handed swing on it, like he hadn’t hit it very hard at all, but he had. In fact, it drove Brad Hawpe back into deep right, far enough so Francoeur could amble home, not to mention saunter, stroll or join Ike Davis for a three-legged race to the plate. Mets 1, Rockies 0.

And then there was Fernando Martinez, our prodigal prospect, the oldest 21-year-old in baseball, once a key part of our future and now the subject of collective shrugs despite the fact that his tender years ought to buy him around three more years of patience. F-Mart, who began the year with his path to Citi Field hopelessly blocked by Beltran and Angel Pagan and Jason Bay and Francoeur and Gary Freaking Matthews Jr. and his own rotten karma, but now somehow stands one Beltran change-of-scenery trade away from a 2011 job. Like Tejada before him, this was F-Mart’s chance to make a statement, to confront a big moment and emerge victorious.

He went up 3-0 in the count — and struck out.

And so it went. Sometimes the morality plays aren’t ready for an audience yet. Sometimes the principals still need more time to rehearse. But that’s OK, because sometimes you win anyway. And that feels pretty good too.