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The Closer & The Continuer

“The Mets — ah, the Mets! Superlatives do not quite fit them, but now, just as in 1969, the name alone is enough to bring back that rare inner smile that so many of us wore as the summer ended. The memory of what these Mets were in mid-season and the knowledge of what they became suggest that they are in the peculiar position of being simultaneously overrated and patronized in our recollection.”
—Roger Angell, 1973

Almost nobody scores [1] runs off Jacob deGrom [2]. Almost nobody hits home runs but Lucas Duda [3], but Lucas Duda hits a home run almost every day [4]. Put those facts of Met life together, and you have a decent shot at being up by at least 1-0 in a given game started by deGrom and co-starring Duda.

Sunday, the Mets were up by twice that much. Through six innings, luxuriously locked deGrom had the Brewers thoroughly washed, set and braided, leaving them trailing the Mets by two runs, both of which scored on Duda’s 18th round-tripper of the season, his fourth since the All-Star break and the Mets’ fifth in that span. Except for Curtis Granderson [5] reminding us he’s alive and belting one out on Saturday, it’s been all Duda all the time in the Metropolitan power department dating clear back to July 12, when Chris Young [6] delivered his dramatic pinch-homer against the Marlins. That was more than two weeks ago.

Chris Young hasn’t hit a homer in more than two weeks and it’s still the second-most recent Mets not named Lucas Duda have managed.

Jacob and Lucas did their jobs. No other Met with a bat was doing much of anything. Once the Brewers scratched out a couple of base hits to start their seventh, another Met faction would be counted on to perform capably.

With two on and one out, deGrom heads for the hair dryer and the rest of us are left to hope the Met pen doesn’t curl up and die. It’s instinctive behavior for us to think that way. How will whoever’s coming in on the heels of another beautiful start ugly it up?

Trick question. Vic Black [7] entered and kept the game looking sharp in its natural tones; two popups rinsed the Brewer threat out of our hair the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth, after the Mets put two on for no apparent reason in the top of the inning, Jeurys Familia [8] was called on to maintain the Mets’ 2-0 edge. Maintain, he did, in order, no less.

“Even with the best of the short men, the brevity of their patchwork, Band-Aid labors; their habitual confinement in faraway (and often invisible) compounds during the long early stretches and eventful midpassages of the game; their languorous, cap-over-eyes postures of ennui or lassitude — are they asleep out there? — for the first two or three hours of the event; their off-putting predilection for disorder and incipient disaster; the rude intrusiveness of their extroverted pitching mannerisms into the staid game-party; their reckless way of seizing glory, or else horridly throwing away a game nearly in hand, all in the space of a few pitches — all these confirm some permanent lesser status for them: scrubs, invisible weavers, paramedics, handymen. The slur persists, I think, in spite of clear evidence that relief men — the best of them, at least — are among the most highly rewarded and most sought-after stars of contemporary baseball.”
—Roger Angell, 1985

The bottom of the ninth brought Jenrry Mejia [9] to the mound. That’s how it works these days: Black to Familia to Mejia, with maybe Edgin mixed in if a particularly nasty lefty is lurking. They don’t individually avoid every hazard — Vic can walk guys and Josh has been known to roll around on the ground at the worst junctures imaginable [10] — but they’ve certainly grown consistent of late, haven’t they? Consistently dependable, I mean, in case your instincts are still set on Farnsworth or Valverde or, for that matter, Manny Acosta [11] Time.

Do you remember the last ninth-inning lead a Met reliever irretrievably mishandled? If you don’t, it’s a sign that the times, they really have a’changed. Best as I can tell, it was on June 7 at San Francisco when Mejia allowed a 4-3 lead to dissipate into a 5-4 loss. That was more than seven weeks ago. It was so long ago that I had to comb through the Met pitching logs on Baseball Reference [12] to find one of those “BL” notations that signify a pitcher was served a double-scoop of futility: a blown save and a loss.

So in comes Mejia, whose previous six outings each merited an “S” in the box score. On SNY, it was mentioned that the last Met closer to streak that efficiently was Billy Wagner [13] in July of 2008 (no great shakes [14] before that sudden spurt of spectacularity, Billy would pitch three more times and then be shut down for the season, setting up that year’s bullpen for exploits likely still inducing nightmares in particularly skittish Metsopotamian precincts [15]). Mejia was seeking his seventh save in seven consecutive outings. The last Met closer to do that? I don’t know. I assume either Jesse Orosco [16] or Jesus Christ.

Mejia’s not necessarily a bump-free ride. An opposing batter or two reached base in five of those six saves. But none reached home. That’s key. Also helpful is not teetering on the brink of debacle. You get to do that now and then if you’re a closer, since “closer” is a subset of “human”. But you do that too often, it’s not just bad for our nerves, it’s tough on the closer’s shoulder, elbow, what have you. Goodness knows Jenrry Mejia has lost enough time to injury. He shouldn’t hurt himself and he shouldn’t hurt us.

The Brewers can be a mountain of an assignment in a ninth inning, and they presented Jenrry with multiple hills to climb. Mt. Lucroy, for example, can elevate the ball. But he grounded to short for the first out. Mt. Davis — the strangely spelled Milwaukee version that got on in the seventh, not the Oakland iteration that blocks out the Alameda County scenery — also grounded to short, but inconveniently unauthoratively. Ruben Tejada [17], back in the lineup Sunday after the republic nearly dissolved in his absence, made a desperate grab and throw, but Khris Davis [18] was safe by a step. Mt. Reynolds, who might as well be a mountain, struck out, but then Mt. Segura nuisanced Mejia with a single to center.

Well, isn’t this a predicament? Two out, but two on. Lyle Overbay [19] is the last slope Mejia must scale. He’s oh-for-two lifetime against Jenrry, which doesn’t mean much, unless you’ve watched one too many Met closers over the years, in which case you believe Overbay is overdue. After Mejia falls behind two-and-oh-no, you don’t just believe it, you’re bracing for it.

Then, one more pitch, the eighteenth of the half-inning. It becomes a grounder to second so harmless that Daniel Murphy [20] doesn’t rush the throw to first. Call the batter Lyle Oh-for-Three. Call the pitcher 7-for-7. Call a Mets fan relieved by the relief pitching he’s been seeing over an extended period.

I love the sight of Jenrry Mejia stomping off the mound in triumph. I love the smell of reliable relief pitching in the late afternoon. It smells like…victory [21]. We’re not used to that aroma. Met bullpens usually stink. But the one we have now is kinda sweet. I’m kinda sweet on it. On its arms. On its heart. On its insistence on not imploding.

“My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heartbreakingly difficult, that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime, indeed.”
Roger Angell, 2014 [22]