Jason Bay is on the bench. David Wright and Johan Santana are on the shelf. Jose Reyes is being poked and prodded like a prize steer by 29 other covetous baseball teams. It’s an unsettling time to be a Mets fan. (Maybe you’ve heard.)
Yet quietly, some of the less-expensive and less-discussed Mets are making strides, refining their game in ways that make you think about 2012 and 2013 and imagine good things, instead of some threadbare version of the Marlins North or the Royals East fighting over canned goods in a tattered, dingy Citi Field.
Jonathon Niese, for instance, is more and more a pitcher you trust. Tonight he was awesome, dazzling the Brewers with variations on a deadly curveball. Would you like a swooping parabola, or a knee-buckling rainbow? Oh, why decide — how about both? Niese undressed Carlos Gomez rather cruelly in not one but two at-bats, leaving Go-Go staring helplessly at everything happening down there on the black and at his knees. But nothing was more fun than the Jonathan Lucroy at-bat to close the seventh. Niese was looking mortal, having began the inning giving up a hit in the hole to Ryan Braun and walking Prince Fielder. But he then got Casey McGehee to fly out and retired Yuniesky Betancourt and his ridiculous name thanks to a nifty play by Josh Thole, and then it was 2-2 on Lucroy, representing the tying run.
Niese threw him a curve, of course. It was absolutely unhittable, denting the outside corner at the knee, and led to one of my favorite sights in baseball. Once in a while, in that situation, the pitcher throws a perfect pitch when the hitter’s either helpless against it or looking for something else. The pitcher sees the batter locked in place, knows the ball will be a strike, and begins to exit the mound before the umpire even has his say. The catcher knows the same thing and catches the ball with his momentum headed dugoutward. Actually, this is pretty much the stuff of illusion — the pitcher maybe takes a half-step a split-second early and the catcher sensibly stays where he needs to be. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the pitcher, catcher and their teammates all leave way before the pitch goes where it’s supposed to, leaving the poor batter standing on an empty field in lonely contemplation of just how out he is while the umpire almost apologetically signals the coup d’grace.
Niese wasn’t alone Thursday night — the Mets continued their gnat attacks on enemy teams, buzzing the Brewers for single after single and building a lead that shouldn’t have felt safe, given what happened the night before, but somehow did. And alongside Niese in the spotlight was another Met growing in leaps and bounds as we watch.
Ruben Tejada has been a silky-smooth fielder since he arrived, but last year he was pitiful with the bat. Seeing him clearly overmatched, none of us had any particular objection when the Mets were firm about sending him to Buffalo with the apparent intention of leaving him there. It was a fine plan, until everything that’s happened happened. Now, bizarrely, Tejada is pushing to the front of a second-base line that’s proved a lot longer than we figured back in March. He doesn’t have the pop of Justin Turner or Daniel Murphy, but he no longer looks overmatched, to put it mildly. He looks like he has an idea of the strike zone, a quick bat, and confidence that he isn’t just here for his glove. He looks like he belongs.