When your team has been immersed in an era of losing, your main ambition for them is that they start winning. Or at least stop losing more than they win. Nobody aspires to be .500 unless you can’t get and stay there. We haven’t gotten there and then beyond it for keeps since 2008. Hence, .500 looks pretty darn aspirational in 2014.
On Sunday, thanks to rain on Friday, we got to take .500 out for a little spin. They handed us the keys to a vintage doubleheader, which comes standard with three settings: sweep, swept or split. When you win the first game, you only care about the sweep. The Mets didn’t win the first game, making avoiding the “swept” the overarching desire of what remained of the day. That’s also not a very uplifting goal, but when you’re trying to raise yourself from a potential seven hours of total futility, a .500 day is a million times better than one expressed as .000.
Back when doubleheaders were less often contingencies than regularly scheduled treats, Ralph Kiner drummed into me that winning the first game is paramount. Winning the first game meant you had one victory in your pocket and they couldn’t take it away from you. When the first nine innings of Sunday were over, the Mets had expertly pressed that win in the Diamondbacks’ palms instead. They wasted six fabulous Rafael Montero innings — 10 K, 3 BB, an early solo homer and only one other hit — because they couldn’t touch April’s eminently touchable Bronson Arroyo.
They poked at their old recurring nemesis, but only in the feeble Weeble sense, which is to say Arroyo wobbled but the Mets could never discern a way to make him fall down. There were three initial hits that generated a run in the very first inning and then there was nothing but frustration. Before Arroyo’s six frames and his bullpen mates’ three more were over, the Mets would leave 10 runners on base and erase five more on double plays hit into. Not only did this offensive inefficiency writ large render Montero’s promising start irrelevant (for the purposes of winning the opener, that is), but it compressed the immediate margin for error into almost nothing.
So when Daniel Murphy — not a second baseman or any kind of defensive player by nature — couldn’t hold onto a baseball thrown into his glove during a 5-4 force attempt, which allowed the Diamondbacks to score the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth, doom was spelled out as clearly as any word on any banner paraded pregame. A Mets team that wasn’t struggling to return to .500 might have found a route to winning in the bottom of the inning or pushing the game to extra innings, but the Mets are indeed struggling to return to .500. They took their last licks and sucked up a 3:09 2-1 loss as quickly as they could.
The Mets disregarded Kiner’s advice (just as the Banner Day judges disregarded banners paying tribute to Ralph…and most of the other well-done banners) and dug themselves a doubleheader hole. There would be no sweep. There now needed to be no swept.
Thrilling or not, a split was attained. Daisuke Matsuzaka emerged from the bullpen to give the Mets a start just as good as those with which he finished September 2013. As dependable as Dice-K has been as a reliever, starting is what he does and he seems better suited to being one-fifth of the Mets rotation than does Bartolo Colon, except Bartolo Colon was fronted a two-year contract to take up that space and Dice-K came to camp on a minor league deal. Neither Colon nor Matsuzaka figures to be around when .500 finally becomes a rearview-mirror memory, but in the interim, the Mets might be missing the boat on which veteran they’ve assigned the inevitable inning-eating role.
Dice-K devoured his six splendidly, especially considering it was his first start of they year: only two runs on three hits and a walk, plus six strikeouts. Not only did he pitch, but he hit! Dice-K flared a single to left and drove in the Mets’ first run of the second game. See? The bat meeting the ball can produce marvelous results sometimes.
The Mets tied the game in the fifth on a double from Bobby Abreu — a second game of a doubleheader lineup entry if ever there was one — and took the lead when pinch-hitter Ruben Tejada succeeded at his unlikely role with a single. Murphy would later complete his penance for his drop by registering his third hit of the nightcap (Ravishing Recker had four) and put the Mets up, 4-2, a score expertly protected by workhorse closer Jenrry Mejia.
It felt good to win the second one even if it felt worse to lose the first one. It felt no more than OK to have gone 1-1 altogether. That, in case you’ve forgotten during these seasons mired in the .400s, is precisely how .500 works.