After wrapping up their current series in Miami, the Mets re-enter the general baseball conversation for a little while, which has its upside and its down. The upside is everything the Mets do in their succeeding nine games against St. Louis, Atlanta and Washington potentially impacts the playoff picture. The down is that what appears to be Met momentum stands a decent chance of being stifled.
The Mets have been playing games that definitely matter to us as Mets fans and theoretically to them as Mets players but are otherwise second-tier in the late-season scheme of things, and that’s never clearer than in what Frank Sinatra would have called the wee small hours of the morning. See, when I’m not up here writing through the night, I have a tendency to nod off on the living room couch instead of getting up and going to bed like a person when sleep begins to pervade my consciousness. Lately, usually at the persistent suggestion of a ravenous cat, I seem to unwillingly open my eyes in the latter half of a given hour, say at 3:45 AM. When it happens, my thoughts have tended to go like this:
1) “Shut up, Avery, I’ll feed you guys in a minute.”
2) “Gotta go to the bathroom.”
3) “If I turn on MLB Network, I can probably catch Met highlights again.”
When the sub-.500 Mets are playing sub-.500 competition, I know that no matter how scintillating the action — and on Saturday night the Mets scintillated the hell out of the Marlins in the ninth inning — that they are strictly 3:58 AM programming on the likes of Quick Pitch on MLBN. I’ve noticed it all week in my nocturnal maneuvers. Did the Mets take it to the Astros sometime before I went into snooze mode? The Phillies? The Fish? Great! I could always watch the key hits again, no matter my state of alertness. So I look at the clock, I fend off my kitties, I put my bladder on hold and I think:
“Oh good, it’s not quite four in the morning yet. I wanna see Ike’s homer for the eighth time.”
The Mets are playing well again, but they’re playing off the grid. In a vacuum, that’s fine. We don’t need no stinking context to enjoy a rally that would have fit beautifully with the narrative they seemed to be constructing in the season’s first half. Sometimes base hits are base hits. But the ninth-inning hits strung together by Daniel Murphy, David Wright and especially Lucas Duda against Steve Cishek (or Not Josh Johnson, thank Ozzie very much) carried that “late & close” air of CLUTCH! And when they combined to close the gap from 3-1 to 3-2 — despite Ike Davis’s clever attempt to bunt for the first time in his life going awry — I was ready for Mike Baxter to make us love him even more than we already do. But I had also been expecting Ike to not square to bunt but launch a three-run bomb, and he’d struck out, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mike from Whitestone popped a ball foul and it was picked out of the air, à la LeBron crowding the boards, by a leaping Jose from Flushing.
Reyes’s nifty grab meant there were two outs but still two on (one of them a pinch-runner named Jason Bay who looked familiar from defensively replacing Duda the night before; man is that guy versatile!) when Andres Torres came up, faced a two-two count and seemed very much struck out by Cishek/Not Johnson to end the game. Jerry Meals, however, called strike three “ball three” and Torres had the good sense to not question it. Two pitches later, he received legitimate ball four and loaded the bases for Kelly Shoppach (or Not Josh Thole).
Shoppach joined the CLUTCH! parade, going straight up the middle with the game-tying RBI, allowing center fielder Justin Ruggiano to do the same, albeit in the helpfully opposite direction. Kelly’s ball darted from the infield into center; Justin’s feet darted from center toward the infield; Justin’s glove was only vaguely involved in the proceedings and allowed Kelly’s ball to keep on darting. Not only did Wright score from third, but Bay pinch-ran home from second and Torres motored on in from first. Shoppach wound up on third, the Mets led, 5-3, default Marlin closer Cishek was ironically replaced by deposed Marlin closer Heath Bell and Frank Francisco, hold on to your hat, was perfect yet again.
What a great win for so many reasons. A comeback is always great. The aggressive approach of Duda on a two-one pitch suggested progress since his involuntary trip to dazzling downtown Buffalo. The removal of Johnson after he threw eight innings of dominating three-hit ball indicated that whatever you think of him, Ozzie Guillen is a gracious host. Torres’s eye on “ball three” was a thing of beauty. Thole patiently waited until September 1 to emerge from his oh-for-ever schneid, which was key because, given the break glass in case of emergency presence of Mike Nickeas on the slightly expanded roster, it meant Terry could securely pinch-run for Josh in the eighth, which got his wet noodle of a bat out of the game in plenty of time for the ninth, otherwise Collins probably doesn’t use righty Shoppach against righty Cishek, and Kelly Shoppach is the best hitting catcher the Mets have had since anybody who wasn’t everybody else they’ve used this year.
From an opposition standpoint, I got to enjoy Jose Reyes, my favorite Met of 2003 to 2011 — and, honestly, still my favorite Met in 2012, albeit in absentia, the way Tom Seaver remained my favorite Met in the late ’70s despite the wacky Red getup he insisted on wearing — looking dashing on defense, professional at the plate and bubbly along the basepaths, and I didn’t have to get stuck with a Marlin victory to do so. And while I have nothing except their affiliation against Cishek or Ruggiano per se, I got a kick out of their being particularly culpable in their team’s loss since David Samson disingenuously campaigned for one or the other, based on very small sample sizes, to replace Giancarlo Stanton on the All-Star team in July when Stanton was injured. Samson is Jeffrey Loria’s longtime accomplice in franchise crime. Anything that reflects badly on Loria or his stooge is a welcome development.
Met wins proffered in pleasing plurals are welcome developments, too, and it’s always preferable to play pluckily rather than get plucked, yet I can’t reflexively take this recent surge as proof that they have suddenly refound their footing. Consider the not so random starting point of August 20, or the beginning of the 13-game stretch when the sub-.500 Mets began playing nothing but sub-.500 competition. Against the similarly lousy Rockies, Astros, Phillies and Marlins, the Mets have gone 6-6, with one to go. If you want to be all Pythagorean about it, the Mets have scored 33 runs in these last dozen games while allowing 33 runs. Overall, for two weeks, they’ve been just as good as the bad teams they’ve been taking on, and vice-versa.
In the last seven games, they’ve stopped being the lousiest among the lousy, and it’s injected those 3:58 AM highlights — right before the Barbasol commercials — with some badly needed joie de vivre. But after Sunday’s finale at the South Florida Lime-o-torium, the Mets move to the front end of Quick Pitch, toward the top of Baseball Tonight, to an element of relevance that transcends our irrevocable obsession with them.
The Mets figure to be part of the pennant race for the next nine games. Everything they do against the Cardinals will matter, and not just to their core loyalists. St. Louis is in a birdfight for the Wild Card. Grounding their winged asses would be a lot bigger than reeling in the Marlins, no matter our distaste for all things aquatic. Then it’s the last visit to Queens from those kings of ancient Met hurt, the Braves, an even more legitimate contender. Chopping Chipper and his disciples at this stage of 2012 would be a lot bigger than having taken it to the Phillies at this stage of 2012, and that’s factoring in that they’re the Phillies. Then, the Nationals come around, a team that’s been the anti-Astros all year long. We took two of three from the hapless Houstons; oh, to do something similar to the wily Washingtonians.
I miss pennant races. I miss watching scoreboards for more than recreational purposes. I miss mattering. Yeah, the Mets always matter to me, but you know what I mean. Impressing the highlight-packaging producers isn’t my cause. I want the Mets to be spunky and feisty while playing up to their competition, not just across it. I want to see them rise above their lousy ranks and give the good teams what for.
Yes, to invoke the hoariest of misunderstood Met clichés, I want relatively meaningful games in September, at least until we’re back to fighting at our weight class again in Milwaukee in a couple of weeks. Beat somebody with something on the line as long as you’re playing somebody with something on the line. That would constitute a true highlight.