You must have heard
The cautionary tales
The dangers hidden
On the cul-de-sac trails
From wiser folk
Who have been
Through it all
And the faded names
Sprayed up on the wall
Ninth inning. Travis d’Arnaud has homered off Rafael Soriano to cut the Nationals’ lead to 3-2. Matt den Dekker has singled. After an ill-advised as well as poorly executed bunt attempt by Juan Lagares has gone awry, Wilmer Flores singles. Den Dekker takes off for third and makes it.
Exciting, right? Of course it was. If you couldn’t figure it out for yourself, you could see it in the faces of those seated (now standing and jumping) behind third base. The Mets, having declined a seventh-inning bases-loaded, one-out opportunity to knot the score at two, were being given a second chance to tie and win. Eric Young came in to pinch-run for Flores and immediately stole second, which pushed the team even closer to immediate victory.
But let’s back up to before EY appeared, to the end of that den Dekker dash from first and third…to, as Pete Townshend might urge us, face those faces. Those were the faces of hope. Of defiance. Of expectation, almost. Those were the faces of Mets fans who had watched 8½ frustrating innings but were willing to believe that the bottom of the ninth was going to be different.
An erratic closer was on the mound. The opposition defense had been shaky. The home team’s starting pitcher had kept the game very close. A long, highly specific losing streak — nine consecutive games succumbing to the Washington Nationals right here at Citi Field — had to snap sooner or later. Now, this moment, was going to be it. First and third, one out, ace pinch-hitter Eric Campbell in the on-deck circle.
How could this not work? And when EY takes second, how could this not work right away?
Well, it didn’t. It found a way not to. Campbell bounced to Ian Desmond, who threw home to Wilson Ramos, who kept a couple of his toes on the foul line, which had nothing to do with anything except for some murky rule nobody understands and can be interpreted differently depending on the time of day. In San Francisco Wednesday afternoon, a similar play penalized the catcher. In Flushing Wednesday evening, den Dekker was out by a mile and several hours. Terry Collins — reportedly destined to manage the Mets long after Bud Selig is done commissioning baseball — attempted to litigate the call, but Chelsea Market’s night crew wasn’t moved to overturn.
Two out. Young stayed at second. Curtis Granderson bounced a ball that Soriano would have to leap to grab, but he leapt and he grabbed it and he tossed it to first. The game was over.
Another National disaster at Citi Field. Another night when the faces of hope, defiance and expectation defaulted to their more standard expressions.
Disappointment. Fatalism. Acceptance.
You must have tried
And defied belief
Maybe buried your head
In insular grief
I need your hunger
You need mine
A million mouths
Can swallow up time
Maybe those fans had just been putting on lower-case brave faces during that rally that wasn’t. Maybe they knew not so deep down that this was going turn out no better than Nationals 3 Mets 2. Despite the d’Arnaud homer. Despite Bartolo Colon’s seven swift innings. Despite Kevin Frandsen channeling Luis Castillo in left and Adam LaRoche tipping his cap to Bill Buckner at first. Despite the jolt of adrenaline that coursed through Citi Field’s vital organs as den Dekker flew 180 feet. On the scene, in the moment, of course you think things are going to be different this time. They’re going to be like they used to be, whenever that was. Maybe like that one time it really happened when you were there and the Mets came from behind. Maybe like in one of those highlight films you caught on SNY during a rain delay.
You try not to drift to the dark side, the part of your Met brain that tells you the Mets will put as many runners on as legally possible without sending any of them across the plate. You try not to assume the previous two-and-three-quarters hours were devoted to tracking another semi-nice try. You try to believe there’s a clutch hit embroidered somewhere within the fabric of those hit towels.
But not so deep down, you knew this wasn’t going to turn out any better than Nationals 3 Mets 2.
If you, unlike that long, highly specific losing streak (now 10), has to snap sooner rather than later, go ahead. We can embrace patience as a concept all we want to and compliment ourselves on our sophistication in the process of demonstrating our wise waiting and seeing, but did Wednesday night’s defeat convince you at least a couple of Metropolitan toes are planted firmly over the line of progress and that the rest of the foot is surely destined to follow? Or did you get the feeling you’d seen this game bad infinitum and that more are on backorder?
Eight of the fourteen players the Mets used last night can be classified as the “kids” of whom we demand to see more when mid-August rolls around and there’s no point penciling Gary Sheffield or Rod Barajas or Jeff Francoeur or Bobby Abreu into the lineup any longer. (Or as Andy Martino nailed it Tuesday, “we’ll be seeing a lot more of Fernando Martinez and Josh Thole this month and next. No, wait. Wrong year.”) We got glances at two outfielders, an infielder, a catcher, two relief pitchers and two pinch-hitters whose service time is limited and whose potential strikes us as promising.
How’d they do? Late in the game, as described above, a few did very well. D’Arnaud homered for the tenth time this season, the most any Met rookie catcher has ever gone deep. Den Dekker and Flores were the spark plugs who ignited those fleetingly bright faces. If the Mets had followed through and won, the win would have gone to Vic Black, who struck out two Nationals in a scoreless top of the ninth.
On the other hand, Jeurys Familia gave up the insurance home run to Asdrubal Cabrera in the eighth, Campbell and Kirk Nieuwenhuis each fizzled in enormous spots (Kirk stranded the bases loaded in the seventh) and Juan Lagares, despite his knack for evoking center fielders from Willie Mays to Devon White to Andruw Jones, had a Don Bosch kind of game. He made a terrible relay in the seventh that facilitated Washington’s first two runs and popped up on that inane bunt attempt in the ninth. It was inane to implement the bunt there — let’s play for the tie, because there’s no way we’d ever lose to the Nats in extras! — but as long as that’s what your presumptive Manager For Life is commanding, don’t suck at it. And even if you suck at it, as Juan did, run it the fudge out. Instead, Lagares turned for the dugout without making serious strides toward first.
Eight young players, eight varied results. Fine. Rome wasn’t built in a day, we keep saying. But how about the rest of this crew? Because young players can take a long time to tell us who they are, we have only learned in 2014 what 2008 rookie Daniel Murphy and 2010 callup Lucas Duda are capable of being. We’ve gotten two consecutive very solid, occasionally stellar seasons of Murphy, at least when it comes to singling and doubling. We’ve seen, once Duda is left at a position that isn’t left or right field, he functions fairly consistently and belts with bursts of power.
But do you see anything in either of them that suggests that there’s another level to their respective games? Maybe Duda, if given an entire season to play first and hit fourth, can accumulate a genuinely impressive pile of extra-base hits. Yet is he going to be any more than he is? Save for the odd road trip where he really warms up, is he more than not bad/pretty good at his best? There’s less mystery to Murphy at this point. He will single and double, which are two excellent skills. He will alternately surprise you and confirm your doubts for you in general. Like Duda, he’s not a problem. Like Duda, he’s probably not making an enormous difference down the road.
David Wright and Curtis Granderson were promising young players a decade ago. They reached their ceilings, which were elevated. The Mets pay them both to be superstars in their prime. Neither has played like it. Now and then there’s a flash. In David’s case, there might be a great excuse he can’t bring himself to make vis-à-vis his shoulder, but in 2014 he hasn’t been the David Wright who earned the long and large contract he signed in December 2012. Maybe a winter of rest will fix what ails him and he can rebound from steady to somewhat spectacular. But do you really think David Wright is going to peak again?
Granderson hasn’t been a bust, once you erase April from your memory banks, but he hasn’t been an impact player. Maybe there’s a metric that swears he is, but I haven’t noticed it, have you? He was hot for a spell and he’ll probably get hot again, just like his team. He certainly knows what he’s doing in right field (no mean feat, we’ve learned over the decades) even if his arm doesn’t pack a lot of oomph. He socked one of the great home runs of the summer, the eighth-inning shot off Luis Avilan that tied the Braves on July 7 and set off the stretch that giddified us going into the All-Star break. And he doesn’t ground into double plays ever. But when you get right down to it, do you get the sense that Curtis Granderson was a fantastic free agent investment or is a far more pleasant version of Bobby Bonilla?
Mind you, Bonilla, after creating his indelible horrible initial impression in 1992, put up some good numbers as a Met from 1993 to 1995, so aligning him with Granderson is not the slam you might read it as. But what Bobby Bo ultimately proved in the realm of baseball if not personality was he was no Barry Bonds…which is what the Mets paid him to be in the offseason following 1991. Likewise, Granderson, who was supposed to provide a complement to Wright and give the Mets two powerful pillars in the middle of their lineup, was miscast in that role. He’s a leadoff hitter these days, not because he’s awesome at it, but because it’s where he’s been least ineffective.
Duda, Murphy, Wright and Granderson are your four veteran stalwarts. They can all be pretty good to very good. They’re more likely to be pretty good when not slumping. You have to get them all hot at the same time for them to generate real heat. That’s tough to ask for.
We’ve got to judge the judge
We got to find the finds
We’ve got to scheme the schemes
We got to line the lines
We got to fight the fight
We got to fall the falls
We got to light the light
We got to call the calls
So while we are granted our long look at “the kids,” we can’t forget that the more chronologically advanced among our former kids are only going to do so much individually or as a unit. That explains as much as anything why the Mets, when not playing the Phillies, don’t score many runs. Since the All-Star break, against every opponent who doesn’t currently have a worse record than they do (everybody but Philadelphia, that is), the Mets have tallied 43 runs in 19 games, or 2.26 runs generated per contest. At that rate, Harvey at his healthiest and deGrom at his dandiest and Wheeler at his most wonderful and Syndergaard the sensation, assuming he lives up to his hype — let alone Colon with his blood spun to a fine mist — aren’t going to be enough to carry us to brighter days.
We don’t yet know if Lagares can accomplish with a bat what he can craft with a glove. Or if d’Arnaud will learn to knock down the pitches he can’t frame. Or if Flores isn’t a designated hitter in shortstop’s clothing (or if he’s truly any kind of hitter). Or what den Dekker and, for that matter, Nieuwehuis and Campbell are. Or whether the bullpen that seemed so sound for so long can stay perfectly in tune.
All told, there isn’t enough here to win games like last night’s more often than the Mets lose games like last night’s. This assessment isn’t based on last night alone. It attempts to not be based on snap judgments or ingrained “here we go again” instincts…though, let’s face it, those are hard to ignore. As is the always mysterious question of what resources will be made available for the improvement of this ballclub beyond Closing Day and how much resolve exists to improve it. We’re at the point of the season where Fernando Martinez and Josh Thole have indeed morphed into Matt den Dekker and Wilmer Flores. There’s always something or somebody better coming. Just ask the Mets fan who was told that and told himself that in 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013. Once the rally dies down and “New York State Of Mind” fires up, you can see it in that fan’s face.
Be as patient as you can stand to be at your own risk. Be reasonably impatient when it suits your mood. You’re a fan. Your informed impulses are just as valid as your longstanding faith.