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Too Soon for a June Swoon

“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
—Don Draper

The rockheads [1] were at it again Wednesday night, and again it was the Mets who pulled more rocks than the Nationals, losing once more in frustrating fashion and falling a little further away from first place in the National League East, a perch nobody…nobody…envisioned them approaching as the season passed the one-third mark.

Of course it’s irritating to stick close on a night when a rockhead play by the hustling, well-meaning second baseman sets up a three-run homer and the pitcher who gave up the homer (your temporary No. 6 starter, mind you) hangs in there and offers six solid innings thereafter. Of course when you lose 5-3 [2] you can find all kinds of opportunities that went awry. But as Terry Collins said, sometimes the other guy beats you, and Edwin Jackson held the Mets to three hits (if four walks) in seven innings, so on neither side of the ball were the Mets really finding a way in.

That’s one game. And this is one series that never…never…shaped up as looming mutually large in the scheme of things when the pocket schedules were finally printed. But it did. A battle for the top of the division between the Mets and the Nationals was just one of the items I didn’t expect to materialize in 2012. But then the Mets went and changed our expectations.

• A win in Toronto [3] when you would have expected them to get swept by blowing a slender ninth-inning lead.

• Two wins in Pittsburgh after their requisite charitable donation [4] of a PNC game they had in hand.

• Three wins over the Padres following an opener in which they sloshed around helplessly in the muck [5].

• An invigorating win on the backs of Jeremy Hefner and Omar Quintanilla [6], of all people, versus the Phillies.

• Then, just as if it seemed we were buried under a pile of Chris Schwinden [7], three magnificent [8] pummelings of the world champion Cardinals, followed by two shots at moving into sole possession of first place.

The first shot [9] went awry, but you said, OK, that’s the way it goes, it was a fun and historic homestand. The second shot [10]was aimed at our head and it was tougher to be nearly so philosophical. Last night demanded we refind our footing on the carousel, yet we failed to grab even the diminished brass ring.

We’ve lost three in a row by a total of four runs, and the sense of fun fades and the sense that maybe…maybe…we’re in a position to make a charge at some more history is in peril. That really takes the wind out of one’s sails when one was just beginning to believe that this season could be one of those seasons.

I’m tempted to say this is what the Mets do to you when they make you care about them.

Except for this:

1) There are still 105 games left to play and anything can happen. That includes anything bad, but also the other kind of anything, so stay tuned, it’s not like there’s anything more pressing for a Mets fan to do.

2) More specifically, the Mets weren’t supposed to be anywhere near where they are, which is 2½ out of first and a piddling half-game from the second Wild Card, even after what feels like mathematical elimination based on the discouraging display to which we’ve borne witness at Nationals Park for two nights.

This is not to suggest they are still in great shape to make a pennant run. They’re probably not, for reasons myriad and obvious to anybody monitoring how they’ve been forced to burrow through their already shallow depth thus far, gutsy, never-say-die (unless a ball is hit to short) determination notwithstanding. But back in the land of “supposed to,” this year was never about contending. If it continues to be about contending, then fantastic. If it’s not, it can’t be considered a disappointment in those terms.

The disappointment would be a failure to progress for the young core of this team, the players who first came up between 2008 and 2010, none of whom is older than 27: Murphy, Niese, Parnell, Thole, Tejada, Davis, Duda, Gee — and throw in Nieuwenhuis as he gets a longer look than planned this year (and maybe Valdespin, if you can resist the temptation to throw him in the Potomac). I’ve mentioned these names before in this context, and I’ll mention them again. These are the guys you’re attempting to grow this year, just as described on one of those runner-up banners from Banner Day [11].

Sweep aside the journeymen relievers, look past the soon-to-lapse free agent megacontracts and put on hold for a moment the question of David Wright’s ultimate destination, and you’re left with figuring out what kind of team you’re going to build around at the major league level. Do you have a second baseman? A catcher? A shortstop? A first baseman? A right fielder? A center fielder? A solid lefty starter? A dependable righty starter? A potential eighth- or even ninth-inning man? Because if you do, my gosh, you’re that much closer to being in business for the long haul than previously imagined.

And if you don’t, square one’s going to be a pretty annoying place to start over.

The Mets have already committed to Niese, so he’s in the rotation for the next couple of years as long as he’s healthy. I doubt Gee ever factored into their plans at the same level their budding crop of minor league hurlers does, but he hasn’t pitched himself out of anything. Parnell’s an enigma, but the potential remains, and kudos to anybody who emerged from Monday night’s miscue-laden tenth inning as he did. Thole and Murphy give you reasons to feel cautiously optimistic if not necessarily secure about their positions. Tejada’s turned himself into a question mark by not being around. Duda keeps coming along, albeit in sporadic bursts. Davis keeps struggling, despite his weekly encouraging at-bat. Nieuwenhuis is having Davis’s 2010, so it’s too early to honestly determine what he is. And Valdespin, in brief glimpses, has been the best and worst of all worlds.

I keep coming back to this bunch because they loom as the future. They are the team David Wright will lead or depart after next year. I think each side in that negotiation has to be keeping an eye on their collective development. Mets management has to decide whether the financial commitment to Wright will be about keeping together a potential contender or just a bow to popular sentiment (though it’s not like people are coming out to Citi Field just to see David…check the attendance figures this year). And David, who can get paid anywhere, will have to decide whether, for all the appeal of being a Lifetime Met and a permanent almost Seaveresque icon for the franchise with which he grew up, it’s worth committing his early thirties to a team that isn’t materially any closer to potential postseason participation in 2013 and beyond than it was from 2009 to 2011.

If a majority of the young, homegrown Mets succeed in 2012, the record and the standings will take care of themselves, and that will be a bonus. This division has talent, but we’ve seen the first-place team in action for two nights and they’re not world-beaters even if they’ve been Met-beaters. We’ve seen the Braves and the Phillies and the Marlins, and they’re all, at best, pretty good in their present state. At best, we’re pretty good if maybe not deep enough to withstand a turnstile at short, zero production at first and the perpetual training-wheels placement of the second baseman in shallow right. We still have Santana (a well-rested Santana, at that), we still have Dickey, we still have Wright and, for whatever reason, we still have Bay. No need to throw in the towel or wave as much as a beige flag after three hair-tearing losses in June.

But keep an eye on the kids and keep reminding yourself that what they do is what counts most for where we are next June and the June after that.