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Same Old Mets!

Bulletin: The Mets’ starters have been recalled from Cooperstown, to which they were headed with Johan Santana’s authenticated gear.

The record will show that the agent of said recall was the St. Louis Cardinals, rising up in semi-indignation after a long weekend in which their only run scored was off of a guy making his big-league debut. But the wound was self-inflicted: With Monday’s matinee tied at 1-1 in the top of the 7th, St. Louis put runners on the corners with no one out courtesy of an Allen Craig walk and a David Freese single. (Which was so much better than a David Freese single late Friday evening, but context, people.) Daniel Descalso tapped a ball back to Dillon Gee. Gee turned to start what should have been a double play, and Craig — who does some interesting¬†things when he’s not hitting — got confused and didn’t break for the plate.

Two out, runner on third … but wait. Gee alligator-armed it into the dirt at Omar Quintanilla’s feet, the ball trickling into the outfield, and Craig trotted home with the go-ahead run. Next came another ball Quintanilla didn’t make a play on, and the Mets had given the Cardinals three extra outs in the space of about a minute. Gee (who actually pitched very well) struck out Matt Adams, but the apparently ageless, ever-detestable Rafael Furcal brought in another run on a fielder’s choice to make it 3-1.

Annoying, but I wasn’t worried — the Mets are in one of those dizzying stretches during which you’re surprised your team actually loses. I predicted they’d come back, and they did almost immediately, with Scott Hairston slamming a pinch-hit two-run homer to even things at 3-3.

Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the Mets’ recent run of success has been that their highly flammable bullpen has been mostly limited to cheerleading. Jon Rauch came in and promptly gave the Cards the lead again, surrendering a no-doubter of a two-run dinger to Craig.

I offered no smug tweets after that one — I had the feeling that climbing the hill again was going to be too tough a task. Darned if the Mets didn’t almost prove me wrong, though — Andres Torres golfed a ball to right-center that was almost a three-run homer, and wound up being a sac fly. In came Jason Motte with four outs to go and a simple game plan: I’m a big hulking closer, and I’m going to throw this ball as hard as I can. When you throw 97 to 99, the animal simplicity of such a plan becomes elegance. Motte got David Wright after a lengthy duel, with Wright hitting a line drive that found old friend Carlos Beltran waiting at the other end. In the ninth, Motte then got Lucas Duda to pop one up, worked up a sweat to fan Daniel Murphy, and barely broke one fanning Jordany Valdespin. Ballgame [1].

Taking three of four from the world champs is a perfectly good way to spend four days, even if you don’t make history in the process. And yet even as I saw the positives in what Gee and Hairston and Duda had done in a one-run loss, I couldn’t help remembering that other recent Mets squads have struck me as likeable and scrappy in June, only to run out of gas in the summer and wind up exhausted and dispiriting in September. The Mets’ offense and starting pitching have both been better than expected, but their defense isn’t very good and their bullpen is terrible, failings that tend to outweigh neighboring successes and leave a team exposed as also-rans.

More worrisome is depth. The Mets have been awfully lucky this year in getting contributions from bench guys and rookies pressed into service: Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Rob Johnson, Ronny Cedeno, Jeremy Hefner, Justin Turner and Hairston have all been pretty good when called upon. But they’re on their fourth-string shortstop, it’s both unfair and unwise to expect miracles from Chris Young, Baxter’s out until the All-Star break and none of the admirable fill-in work has helped the bullpen.

The loss of Baxter really hurts, in my opinion: I don’t think any of us want to rewind the tape and see Baxter turn and play Yadier Molina’s drive cautiously off the wall, but without him it’s harder to bite the bullet and send down Ike Davis, which seems like a good idea no matter what promises have been made. Yes, Duda could move from right to first, and arguably help the overall defense right there. But if Duda’s medium- and long-term future is in right, better to leave him out there to learn as best he can rather than yo-yoing him around the field. Baxter got only a cursory mention as a potential first baseman when the Ike to Buffalo watch was on in earnest, but he has plenty of minor-league experience there, and so struck me as a good potential answer. Without him, the Mets are dipping deeper into an already-depleted well, hoping for good things from Josh Satin and perhaps soon looking for another reliever, now that Rauch is reporting elbow tenderness.

I’m sorry to be gloomy: The Mets are playing well, they seem to have an organizational plan, and there are good reports from the minors. But I worry that they’re something of a Wile E. Coyote team: They’ve run halfway across a canyon with nothing but air beneath their feet, which is pretty amazing but functionally the same thing as saying they’re suspended above a mighty big drop with no proven means of locomotion.¬†Don’t look down, fellas.

* * *

I’m not going to leave you on that grim note — not even a Mets fan can stay depressed after Friday night.

Tonight I chased the matinee out of my head by sitting down for SNY’s encore of Johan making history, with no need to crane my neck in a sports bar or stay superstitiously silent about what might be happening. Despite it being an encore, by the eighth inning I was grimacing and groaning and muttering, actually nervous, and when Santana sneaked a change-up past Freese tears ran down my face, about which I am not the least bit embarrassed, because if you don’t put baseball up there behind family, friends and country you’re doing it wrong.

Some random thoughts from a more leisurely look at what we never thought we’d get to discuss:

* Gary Cohen’s “it has happened” received plenty of ink and pixels, and deservedly so, but the whole SNY team should get credit for handling a gripping endgame marvelously — the eighth-inning pan of each fielder behind Santana was particularly great. They didn’t quite make it to Duda before having to return to pitches being thrown, meaning No. 21 popped up a moment later to complete the montage. I don’t recall going rigid with fear on Friday night at the sight of poor Lucas having to defend right field with the souls of Mets fans in the balance, which I assume means I was so terrified that I immediately blocked it out.

* After the encore, I griped on Twitter that Justin Turner could have skipped the whipped cream — I much preferred the champagne soaking Johan received in the dugout. My heart was in the right place, but on further review this was dumb: I wanted Johan treated like a demigod sent down to light our way, but I bet he was happy to be treated like a teammate. What was Turner supposed to do, hobble over and hand him a scepter?

* I think the now-famous interloper fan is getting a collective pass from us for a few reasons: a) he’s obviously a die-hard Mets fan with his heart in the same places ours were; b) we all at least momentarily felt a pang of envy that we couldn’t be out there whooping and hugging; and most importantly c) he was wearing a CARTER 8 jersey, just the most obvious portent of a whole bunch of spooky 8 numerology on display Friday night. On the other hand, the interloper fan was doing something dumb, didn’t belong out there, and reportedly got himself banned from Citi Field for life. If his back had been adorned with TRACHSEL or BONILLA or LOOPER or BENITEZ, we’d be screaming that he’d polluted a great moment and should be drowned by Mayor Bloomberg in a giant tank of soda. The lesson, as always: Don’t wear jorts.

Greg’s Huffington Post piece on Johan and history is here [2]. For Faith and Fear on regular-season game 8,020, go here [3], then here [4], then here [5], then here [6], then here [7]. From the world outside F & F, two Johan pieces I particularly loved were penned by Brian Costa [8] and Mike Vaccaro [9].