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A Million Ways to Die in the Midwest

It’s not surprising that they lost. Losing is what they do. They’ve lost more often than they’ve won as a matter of course for five going on six seasons.

On May 31, 2009, buoyed by a week of having played teams who seemed indisputably lousier than them (Washington and Florida), the New York Mets stood seven games above [1] .500, at 28-21. Those were the Mets forecast by Sports Illustrated to win that year’s championship, the Mets who came off campaigns in which they nearly made the World Series once and the playoffs twice. Those were the Mets who, dating to September 16, 2005 [2], had been on a regular-season roll of 314-237; for 551 games, collapse-saddled notoriety notwithstanding, they played at a .570 pace, or the equivalent of a 92-70 record in 162-game terms.

On June 1, 2009, the Mets landed in Pittsburgh to play three games against another team that seemed indisputably lousier than themselves. They lost all three and were on their way to being a team that seemed indisputably lousier to fans of other teams. The Mets’ record from 6/1/09 forward, including Tuesday night’s entirely predictable loss in Chicago: 374-443, a clip of .458, good when compressed to 162 games for a mark of 74-88…the Mets’ final-season record in 2012 and 2013.

The 443rd loss in this 817-game span followed a nice, albeit short stretch that consisted of four wins out of five in Philadelphia, two of three at home against Pittsburgh and the salvaging of a doubleheader versus Arizona for a total of seven victories in nine attempts. Those clubs, like last night’s opponents, the Cubs, seemed either indisputably lousier than the Mets or certainly no better as their respective series approached. A really good team would make hay…should make hay when the schedule hands them such a slate. A pretty good team is supposed to prevail reasonably handily in these circumstances.

Since starting with the Diamondbacks on May 24, the Mets have gone 7-5, indicating that maybe they’re the class of a blah lot in the squishy sub-middle of the National League. Only two teams in the N.L. appear marooned impossibly far from contention in 2014: the D’Backs and the Cubs. The foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphians don’t look like much, either, but they sit only five games out of a Wild Card spot on the morning of June 4. Our predictably futile Mets are but two out of the playoffs even as they wallow two games under .500.

All of this is to say the sample size that encourages a person in the very short term has a hard time competing with the long-term trend that has served to suffocate that same person’s ability to gather enthusiasm. By my own calculation, I’ve watched or listened to at least part of every game but two the Mets have played since June 1, 2009. I’ve seen or heard them lose a clear majority — 54.2% — of those contests across a half-decade. Sometimes they surprise me and win. Precedent generally dictates a lack of optimistic expectation on my part.

Before Tuesday night fully revealed its nefarious intentions, I expected a Met loss at Wrigley Field. Not all day, mind you. Not because destiny insists the Mets lose. I’m not necessarily that much of a fatalist. That’s more the Cubs’ thing, anyway. No, I didn’t expect the Mets to lose at Wrigley Field until the game was up to its fifth batter.

Matt den Dekker [3] led off the first inning with a single. Terrific.

Daniel Murphy [4] was robbed on a line drive to third. Oh well. It happens.

Den Dekker stole second. Beautiful!

Den Dekker took third on a wild pitch. All right, here we go…

David Wright [5] walked. Good, good, keep it going…

Curtis Granderson [6] flies to center to bring home den Dekker. An out for a run, OK, it’s the first, and he did hit it hard…

Chris Young [7] is up.

Fifth batter. Jake Arietta had not looked at all good for the first four, yet he was one Chris Young from escaping with a 1-0 deficit. Arietta didn’t require a double play here, which was fine for him. A pitcher’s best friend traditionally may be the double play, but an opposing pitcher’s best friend these days is Chris Young.

Chris Young flied to left for the third out.

We’re probably screwed.

Zack Wheeler [8] comes out and shoves in the bottom of the first. Wheeler’s dealing so masterfully that when the Cubs go three up, three down, I’m thinking that one run might be sufficient support for him. I’m thinking one hit might be impossible for Chicago to attain. I’m thinking in ways I’m somehow still capable of thinking despite the Mets having lost 442 of their previous 816.

The top of the second arrives. The first two Mets reach base. Neither of them reach home.

In the bottom of the second, Wheeler’s no-hit bid goes awry when his sixth batter, Nate Schierholtz [9], singles. I shift into Nancy Seaver mode from July 9, 1969, accepting Tom’s spousal assurance that a one-hit shutout is a worthwhile outing, too. Wheeler’s so good early that why would I think 1-0 won’t hold up?

In the top of the third, more cushion for Zack is on order: Murphy singles, Wright walks, Granderson — I’m thisclose to calling him Grandy — singles. Murphy’s on third. Wright’s on second. Curtis is on first.

The bases are loaded. There’s nobody out. The cushion store calls to say the merchandise we requested is out of stock.

If Foxwood Resort and Casino still had a Turning Point of the Game, this would be the one to wager on. Because I know…I just know that another run should have occurred by now…and I just know another run isn’t going to.

Young hits a ball to the right side of a Cub infield that’s playing back. Murphy, celebrated as grand exemplar of the modern family man [10], orphans the Mets’ chance to take a 2-0 lead. He’s not running on contact, he’s forced at the plate, he makes the first out. Lucas Duda [11] does what is most accurately described as nothing for the second out. Wilmer Flores [12] lines a bullet, just like Lamar Johnson [13] coached him to, but Arietta intercepts it midflight.

Jake Arietta has been strafed for three innings and still hasn’t given up more than one run. Zack Wheeler will issue no more than a harmless walk in the bottom of third. A leadoff single from Travis d’Arnaud won’t go anywhere of note in the fourth. Wheeler will retire a side of Cubs immediately thereafter. Arietta will give way to Jayson Werth [14] döppelganger Brian Schlitter [15] once he’s put two Mets on with two out in the fifth. Schlitter whiffs Wilmer to keep the game, 1-0.

We’re still probably screwed.

A Schierholtz single goes for naught in the home fifth. Schlitter squelches the Mets altogether in the sixth. Wheeler’s spotless again. James Russell [16] enters in the seventh, gets two out, gives up a base hit to Grandy (!), then can leave his glove on the mound for all it matters because Young is up next and due to strike out whether someone throws him three pitches or not.

Wheeler still has that 1-0 lead. He strikes out Anthony Rizzo [17], he grounds out Starlin Castro [18] and gets ahead of Luis Valbuena [19] 0-and-2. That he issues four consecutive balls to conclude the plate appearance is more troubling than it should be. It shouldn’t be a big deal because when Zack is immediately and correctly pulled with lefty-swinging Schierholtz looming, he’s pitched something very close to a gem. In 6⅔ innings, encompassing 107 pitches, he’s struck out seven Cubs, surrendered just two hits to nagging Nate and allowed only two walks. But something about that last one, to Valbuena, after being so definitively ahead on him…it was another reminder, like all the stranding on which Arietta and the Met offense had collaborated, that this game should have been safely projected in the New York column by now. Instead, exit polling was inconclusive and we were still waiting for key precincts to come in.

Historically speaking, Chicago’s the last place where you want to rely on late votes to decide a close outcome.

Josh Edgin [20] preserved the 1-0 lead for Wheeler by fanning Schierholtz. The Mets didn’t score in their half of the eighth. The Cubs, however, did. Chris Coghlan [21] homered off a lefty, Edgin, for the first time in four years. The last lefty he dinged? 2010 Met Oliver Perez [22]. Edgin and Vic Black [23] got out of the eighth with the game still tied.

It was still tied. It had been led for so long, now we were grateful it wasn’t actively being lost.

Instead, it was subtly being lost. The top of the ninth ended on a double play, leaving the total of Mets baserunners who never saw home at 10, the Mets’ output with runners in alleged scoring position at 1-for-9. The bottom of the ninth then produced a result so predictable that the Cook County Board of Elections would have been impressed. The prohibitively lousy Cubs arose from their presumed graveyard and beat the recently rolling Mets [24], 2-1. David Wright, the one Met who has stood head and shoulders over long-term lousiness since 2009, couldn’t turn a turnable double play [25]. Nate Schierholtz, the one Cub who troubled Wheeler, got the winning hit off Scott Rice [26], despite Rice being a lefty, which is the skill that explains his continued existence in a Met uniform. That somehow wasn’t surprising, either.

I had a feeling we were screwed in the first, was fairly certain by the third, had that sense reinforced in the fifth and couldn’t have been convinced to bet against it in the seventh. I just knew the ninth would unravel more or less as it did.

So did you, probably.