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Neither Here Nor There

When the Wild Card was introduced into baseball in 1994, the Mets were mostly hopeless, yet this extra playoff spot allowed me a touch more hope. So I invoked the 14th Amendment (or perhaps it was Rule V) and decided that if the Mets were five out of the Wild Card at the end of July, they were a contender. This was back when the Mets were nobody’s idea of a contender, so the idea that they could be judged one, by whatever standard you could reasonably apply, was an intoxicating one.

The Five Games Out/End Of July rule did not come into play for several years. The Mets were Nowheresville in 1994 and 1995 at that stage of those seasons and they peaked a touch too soon in 1996 (if being two games under .500 and 4½ out, sixth in line to the Wild Card on July 17, could be said to involve peaking). Then came a bunch of years, 1997-2000, when the Mets played well above the minimum criteria I had set for them and there was no need to split half-game hairs. They were legitimate contenders.

2002 was the first time I had to apply FGO/EOJ in earnest. The Mets had fallen prohibitively behind the Braves in the N.L. East and were generally sluggish in their approach to their jobs, yet I looked up from their Alomar/Vaughn morass and there they were: four games above .500 and 4½ out behind the Dodgers, with the Giants the only other team ahead of them on July 31. That certified them more or less contenders — more, really — so I was forced to take them seriously. So was Steve Phillips, who acquired four playoff-chase reinforcements (giving up, among others, an anonymous minor leaguer named Jason Bay in the process, proving, perhaps, that Steve Phillips possessed extraordinary long-term vision). Thus fortified by the presence of John Thomson, Mark Little, Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed, I settled in for a spirited run at the National League Wild Card, and…the Mets went poof! They lost five straight to open August and soon dropped a dozen in a row besides.

In 2002, Keith Hernandez, then of MSG Network, wrote that the Mets “quit,” [1] which was too tough a word for those Mets’ delicate sensibilities [2]. To borrow the nomenclature of the cuddlier Keith we hear on SNY these days, it was as if they had applied “vanishing cream” and disappeared. However you framed it, the Mets of nine years ago only looked like contenders on paper, and then not at all after July ended.

Following that bracing experience, I kind of forgot about FGO/EOJ and went with my best available read of the subject. When the Mets were kind of close with a decent interval of schedule remaining, was there any reason to believe they were contenders? Could I picture them hanging on, gaining ground, compelling me to care about them more than habitually or nominally?  Would I…should I get sucked into obsessing over their remote chances enough so that when a likely letdown occurred, it would be worth the anguish I would endure?

That’s where I am now, at the question mark.

I never — never — dreamed that 2011 would ask me to give this matter any thought. Once the Mets stopped being 5-13 in April, I took that as the victory. There were ups, there were (as I saw it) inevitable downs and there were surprising rebounds. And then there’d be downs, and I’d tell them, that’s OK, I know you’re not really any good, whatever you do the rest of the way is fine, I know it won’t be much.

Then, suddenly, there are more ups, a few downs, another rebound. The funny thing about the downs is they don’t last long and they don’t seem to be keyed to what you’d assume would be fatal setbacks.

Injury after injury…not that much of a factor.

More inexperience than experience…experience simply gathers the more the inexperienced play.

Expulsion by trade of accomplished mainstays who were doing very well for themselves and for the team…now that’s really interesting, because the Mets have voluntarily removed two genuine All-Stars from their roster in the past two weeks, and those who continue to be Mets seem to have taken their absence as almost a personal challenge.

Management took away their closer — a perfectly understandable business decision — and it’s hard to say it’s hurt them tangibly. Then the slugging right fielder, by everybody’s account the bulwark of the operation, was sent away via another perfectly understandable business decision, and they haven’t lost since it happened.

All right, you might say, it’s been a whole three games since Carlos Beltran was traded, which is no sample size at all. Except if the Mets had lost their first post-Beltran game, we would have probably taken that as a terrible sign of what was to come. Or if the Mets had lost the second game, particularly after building a formidable lead, we would have begun the writing-off process in ink. Now that it’s three games after Carlos, and the Mets are 3-0 [3], and they’re hitting almost without pause, and they’ve squirmed out of uncomfortable situations and emerged essentially unscathed…

…well, I tell ya, I’ve begun to look at the standings as if there’s a point to it. And I’ve begun to glance ever so subtly at the schedule ahead. And for the first time since the 2011 season began, I thought of October and us in the same hypothetical paragraph. I mean, not really, and not seriously, and not without rolling my eyes a little…but it’s almost the end of July; and we’re almost five out of the Wild Card; and we’ve won five straight, the last three of them without Carlos Beltran; and though torrential offensive tears inevitably subside, we have players who tend to get better instead of get worse, so the net-net, as sharp people in boring meetings like to say, conceivably veers to the good.

David Wright is back and smoking. Jose Reyes is still on his feet. Daniel Murphy has gone from sub to grinder to hero and continues to sandwich base hits. Dillon Gee has ten wins. Jason Isringhausen hasn’t melted. Johan Santana recently used his left arm in a game of some sort. D.J. Carrasco used his right arm in an inning of great import. The Mets have the exact same record they did at this stage of the 2002 season, but bring an exponentially better vibe to the ballpark every day. They’re ahead of where they were in 2009 and 2010, late Julys when they were statistically viable for the Wild Card but substantively done for the season. And they’re way beyond what they were when 2011 shaped up as a lost cause at worst, an exercise in head-patting place-holding at best.

They’re 6½ in back of Atlanta, with Arizona, Pittsburgh and St. Louis also ahead of them — but each of them only by a couple of fingers. The Nationals demand their attention for two more games, then the Marlins for three, but the Braves materialize at Citi Field on Friday night. That, like the Mets’ tenuous status as a cusp-contender, is neither here nor there. All that matters is the next game to be played; I’ve always said that and I’ve always believed it.

Still, it’s July 30. Frankie Rodriguez is gone. Carlos Beltran is gone. Ike Davis is long out and probably won’t be in. Johan Santana has yet to make like General MacArthur and return. It’s a reach to think about the Mets and October, or the Mets and September, or maybe even the Mets and six days from now.

Yet here I am, wary of letdowns, cognizant of anguish, understanding fully the definition of long odds…and I’m kind of, sort of thinking about the Mets on the fringes of a context I didn’t anticipate, don’t fully buy into, and can barely believe.

Holy crap, they got me again.