Each Mets game lately seems to come preordained with a finite number of runs. Friday there was no way there were going to be more than five altogether. Pity, then, that the Marlins got to three first.
The tiny glint of optimism I still allow myself told me this was going to be a more productive weekend. Here are the Marlins, a team that has thus far surprised the league by maintaining a legitimate finhold in its slow-motion playoff scramble, showing off some of that young talent we hear about every spring and persevering over .500 despite the loss of their Harveyesque ace Jose Fernandez. If I’m a Marlins fan…well, mostly I’m extremely lonely, but then, when I get used to being all myself, I’m thinking that we — the Marlins — are on the cusp of making hay. We’ve got the Mets coming in and, hell, we always beat the Mets, right?
Perfect setup for the Marlins fan(s). A setup for a fall. The presumed patsy instead makes like the dog in those Coppertone ads, immodestly wrapping its teeth around the bottom of that child’s bathing suit and exposing those heretofore sizzling contenders as the pale-ass pretenders they really are. It’s a perfect theme for a team that plays somewhere near South Beach and a satisfying outcome for us psyche-battered snowbirds.
And my slightly optimistic theory was working for one night, thanks to Zack Wheeler and David Wright, who combined to assure the one-run maximum was deposited and defended safely in the Met column. But then came Friday, when the arm of Marcell Ozuna delivered not one but two messages maybe urging us we should take these Miamians a little more seriously than we usually do.
Listen, we’ve spent too many evenings watching the tasteful lime-green walls of the Loriatorium come crashing down around Met hopes to disrespect the Marlins’ mischief-manufacturing capabilities. But that was when we viewed the Fish as a definitively lesser life form. They, not we, are the ones hanging legitimately close to the Braves and Nationals these days. We’re in last place, clinging to no more than sad “you know, they’re only ‘x’ games out” numerology. The Marlins are, until they start sinking, as real as they need to be.
And the Mets are the Mets. The Mets are the team that can’t score a third run because twice that third run is gunned down at the plate. The first time David Wright was out by a mile, and all attempts to litigate his way to a safe call came up against a wall of sound judgment by way of murky interpretation. This was in the eighth, when David attempted to tie the game on Eric Campbell’s pinch-hit. He was doomed as soon as left fielder Ozuna’s laser beam beat him home. But wait…was Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s tiniest toe blocking David’s sliding lane? The Mets challenged (the out call, not the Marlins’ pitching) and, no, there was no overturning to be had.
Nor should there have been. A noble concept about keeping catchers from crumpling into Pinky Tuscadero at the hands of an onrushing Malachi Crunch has revealed itself, in practice, as ludicrous. Nobody knows how to slide. Nobody knows how to block. Or if they should slide. Or if they should block. It’s not baseball. It’s touch and feel and maybe somebody will phone somebody at the home office and ask if the scoreboard should change.
So the Mets found a way to not tie in the eighth, and they soon found another way to not tie in the ninth. This time it was Kirk Nieuwenhuis getting the tease party started with a pinch-double in his first at-bat back from the minors. Have you noticed how well the legion of marginal Mets perform the moment they’re recalled to the majors and then never again? Surely the geniuses in the front office can manipulate the system to keep a shuttle of Nieuwenhuii coming and going, squeezing from each that first precious drop of adrenaline that inevitably sparks instant if fleeting offense.
We got what we were destined to get from Kirk. Then we got a sacrifice bunt from Ruben Tejada, which, all things considered, wasn’t the worst thing to ask from him. It put Nieuwenhuis on third with one out and brought up Chris Young, whose task became the hitting of a deep fly ball to brink Kirk home.
You know that old proverb that warns, “never depend on Chris Young to do anything to help you win a ballgame”? Technically it’s still true, but CY did his job. He lifted that fly ball, and it was indeed deep. Perhaps it wasn’t as deep as it could’ve been, but it sure seemed sufficient. Though the longer that ball hung in the air, the less deep it appeared to be. And when Ozuna caught it with a little forward momentum and Clemented it home at the instant Kirk tagged up and took off…
In another season, Nieuwenhuis would have crashed into Saltalamacchia and consonants and vowels would have flown hither and yon. But in this season, when even the best of baseball instincts have been muted between third and home (and, let’s face it, Nieuwewnhuis already runs like he’s trying to inch his field goal kicker a little closer to the hashmark on third down), all it took was a phenomenal throw to end the game. Make no mistake, it was a phenomenal throw. Vladimir Guerrero, Dwight Evans and Joel Youngblood would all tip their caps to Marcell Ozuna, even if they fired their rifle-arms from right rather than left. The ball couldn’t have soared to the plate on a more deadly trajectory had it been sent by drone.
That said, I thought Nieuwenhuis could’ve slid a little more effectively, even in 2014 when no one knows how to slide anymore. Maybe he could’ve tailed to his right, tried to grab the plate from the outside. Maybe he could’ve sprinted instead of trundled. Maybe Wright could’ve been held up by Teufel the inning before. Maybe Tejada, who also made a phenomenal capture of a grounder, could’ve cleared his throat and protested, “I GOT HIM!” and set a replay review in motion when Jake Marisnick came off the bag on a stolen base attempt that instigated what proved to be the winning Marlin rally in the seventh. But like I said, five runs had already been scored, so, as with my idea that the Mets were going to deflate the Marlins’ ascendant balloon from below, it’s all just another theory for theory’s sake.
As long as we’re exploring the theoretical, let me lay an exercise on you. I thought of this before the Mets’ recent heady two-game winning streak, directly after Monday’s incredibly dispiriting loss and the resultant “what’s the point?” round of reflection I posted Tuesday morning. My Met mood was dour enough that a concerned friend was compelled to ask me, “Are you OK?”
I was fine, but the Mets were the Mets, so I wasn’t as fine as I could’ve been. In the hours after Monday night’s game ended, I found myself thinking that if there was some mechanism by which the Mets had to lose a player — they just couldn’t have him anymore — honestly, I wouldn’t care who it was. Take one, take ’em all, I decided.
In the light of day, I revised my outlook a little and framed it this theoretical way:
Let’s say Major League Baseball holds a draft every June. Besides the amateur draft, I mean. It’s something of a random affair. Every June 21, in honor of the onset of summer, MLB chooses one franchise out of a hat and subjects it to provide one player from its current active 25-man roster to another franchise, also chosen out of a hat. The deal is whoever’s chosen to give up a player doesn’t know who’s going to get to pick a player from them, so there’s no telling in advance whose needs you might take into consideration. All that the providing franchise knows is it won’t lose a player to a division rival or its so-called “natural” Interleague rival. It’ll hurt, but it won’t sting.
The other elements of this draft are if you lose a player, you gain the first-round draft pick of the team that takes your player plus a sandwich pick next June; and you get to protect exactly ONE player from your 25-man roster.
For our theory’s sake, the Mets, given their Metsian luck, are chosen to be this year’s summer piñata. Somebody — and it could be anybody but the Braves, Nationals, Marlins, Phillies or Yankees — gets its choice of 24 current Met major leaguers. No minor leaguers are involved; nobody on the disabled list is involved. Names like Matt Harvey, Juan Lagares, Travis d’Arnaud, Dillon Gee, Bobby Parnell and Noah Syndergaard are immune to all of this.
But from there, the Mets can only hold one player back. Everybody else is ripe for the picking. Mind you, the Mets will lose but one player as a result of the Summer Solstice Roulette Draft (sponsored by Caesars), but it could be anybody…except for the one player you are entitled to string a velvet rope around.
And you don’t know who is going to be doing the picking. You don’t know if you are going to have to give up a pitcher to a team that needs pitching or a position player to a team with a specific glaring void.
So, who do you protect among the 25 current Mets?
Here’s who I don’t hesitate not to protect: Almost everybody, even after that heady two-game winning streak.
Here’s who I do have to think about:
• Jon Niese: Never exactly a personal favorite, but he’s finally rounded into what we’d hoped he would be. He’s got a favorable contract, he’s entering his prime, plus he’s lefthanded, which is one of those things you always have to emphasize when you’re discussing a pitcher who isn’t righthanded.
• Zack Wheeler: According to Matthew Cerrone of MetsBlog, I’m a fount of wisdom regarding Wheeler’s development. We were chatting during BP one night last month when I said to Matt, in so many words, don’t worry, Zack’ll be fine. Now I’m a prophet, too, at least since Thursday night’s 1-0 shutout. Despite not being lefthanded, Wheeler’s young, he’s talented, he’s been part of your master plan practically forever and who wouldn’t grab him if given the chance?
• David Wright: No longer quite as over the hill as he was rumored to be heading earlier this week. Even in the most stubborn slump of his career, he’s never been less than the second- or third-best Met player on the field at any point this season. Now he’s emerging from his slump, it seems. And he’s David Wright, who slots snugly in the batting order of all that is Met-sacred between mom and apple pie. He’s the franchise player (and losing your Franchise player is never any fun). He’s the first and only Met of extraordinary note to have a chance to play an entire lifetime as a Met. If he’s not quite our Tony Gwynn or our Stan Musial, he’s in that realm for us. He’s almost all we’ve ever asked him to be. Then again, he’s 31, is due a ton of money and has been quoted on the subject of loss more than anybody since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
That’s it for the active roster. Yeah, Josh Edgin has shown wonderful progress, Jeurys Familia has closer written all over him, Daniel Murphy pounds out hard-earned hit after hard-earned hit, Bartolo Colon is a reborn five-tool player…but this team, mired in mediocrity, is giving attachment a bad name. I’m still mostly where I was the other night. Take whoever you want, mystery team who gets to take away one Met in my theoretical draft. I can get by swimmingly without most of these Mets.
But I get to protect one. Which one do I save?