For the first time in seven years, I’m finding myself more than moderately bothered by the result of a Mets game lost on this late a date on the calendar…an indicator of progress for the franchise, if not for myself.
We must be stepping up in class. Get to July 22 of previous seasons — or the 95th game — and there was little on the Met line except for whatever we chose to read into it. Here, in the present, we were presented a legitimate showdown series, pitting our team in second place against Washington’s in first place. Only a sweep at the hands of the Nationals would have been semi-fatal (nothing’s necessarily a killer when there are 67 games to go). A sweep by the Mets would have been cause for euphoria. Splitting the first two games is what we got. It made the final game this Wednesday relatively enormous. A win would have left us a single game from the top of the division.
The loss that materialized  leaves us three out. It feels like more, but it’s not. A team capable of being this close this late should be able to edge in a little closer a little later, maybe even when Washington comes to Flushing for a three-game series the night of July 31, by which time we’ll know just how serious the Mets take themselves.
That’s when the trading deadline will be over, but that will be another story, told by next week. For tonight, three games out when it could have been one is the story. It gnaws and nags at the fan who very much wants to believe (let alone Believe) proximity to first place isn’t a temporary condition.
Noah Syndergaard  toughed out five innings of not being great yet yielding only one run. Jordan Zimmermann  was better longer, but gave up more runs, three. Yes, the Mets led the mighty yet mightily vulnerable Nats and one of their impressive arms by two entire tallies. The Mets put runners on base in the fourth and scored them. The fourth has been their lucky inning since April. With Kirk Nieuwenhuis  driving in two and Kevin Plawecki  driving in Kirk, it appeared charmed today.
When the Mets lead the Nationals, 3-1, and continue to lead the Nationals, 3-1, it seems so real. It seems like whatever we’ve got is all we need. Why call up prospective phenoms? Why list as disabled the halting and the lame? Why make or take phone calls from other teams looking to upset our perfectly formed apple cart? The Mets won one night  and they’re winning the next afternoon. Don’t disturb this group and don’t disturb this groove!
Still, I kept hoping a little more offense would unfold. The longer this game was being won, the more it absolutely had to be won. That was my thought, anyway. I hadn’t thought this much about the absolute need to win a game since 2008. It was a nice thing to think about.
Zimmermann surrendered nothing else and Syndergaard relayed the lead to Hansel Robles , who took it through the sixth. Robles passed it along to Jenrry Mejia , who cleared the seventh. In the eighth, Bobby Parnell  came out of the blocks.
And boy did he stumble.
Mejia to Parnell to Jeurys Familia  reminds me of Richard Nixon (Dan Aykroyd) plotting his political rehabilitation in cahoots with his secret advisor (Walter Matthau) in 1979 on SNL. The conceit was former president Gerald Ford — who had been Nixon’s veep — was going to run for the Republican nomination in 1980 and would thus block Nixon’s return. Matthau as the mastermind came up with a brainstorm: we’ll just get Jerry to serve under Dick again. The slogan: “The President and the President for President and Vice President”.
This is to say we have the closer from 2014 and the closer from 2013 and the closer from 2015 working not three ninth innings, but operating as bridge, setup man and closer. It’s all semantics if it works. It’s a disaster if it doesn’t. Wednesday it was a disaster, as Parnell had less of his best stuff than Syndergaard had had of his, along with four fewer innings to straighten out his act. In March, you might recall, veteran Bobby was part of the two-man enforcement crew that tried to teach rookie Noah a lesson about Spring Training comportment. Noah was in the clubhouse during an intrasquad game grabbing a quick bite. David Wright  — the captain of the Mets, in case you’ve forgotten — and Parnell teamed to take away his lunch.
Today, Bobby did it again. He swatted the win straight off of Noah’s tray. It was as if he was saying, you don’t pitch your heart out and expect to be rewarded for it on this team, rook, ya just don’t.
I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but Bobby gave away the lead. I’m sure Terry Collins didn’t mean to allow Bobby’s miserable three-run eighth to get that far out of hand, but he did. Would have Familia been a better bet? Anybody would have been, but Terry managed an important midseason game like Matt Williams  managed a crucial October game: according to robotic formula, not in response to what was going on in front of him. The difference in 2014 was Williams — who I think I like even less than Fredi Gonzalez , as N.L. East gym teachers go — at least had his team in October.
That’s not going to happen for Terry unless almost everything that can go well does go well. It didn’t go well on July 22. Later, once Parnell got done delivering his worst outing since returning from Tommy John  and Nieuwenhuis took borderline strike three and Plawecki failed to check a swing on ball four, the manager took (in contrast to David Frye’s version of Nixon) both the responsibility and the blame for all that went awry. It was his call to ride Parnell into the ground, so yeah, sure, fall on that sword, toss yourself on that that grenade, own that unfortunate decision , but I honestly felt bad for Terry at that moment.
This man, 66 years old; never winning anything anywhere in a big league managerial career that dates back more than two tumultuous decades; pushing and pushing and pushing this boulder of a team uphill for five years; gets them within six outs of one of game from first place; ready to take two of three from their de facto blood rival….and here comes the boulder rolling briskly downhill, flattening him, flattening his team, flattening the bejeesus out of whatever hopes, dreams and good mood we’d gathered together on the heels of making up crucial ground on July 21.
Parnell threw. Nieuwenhuis took. Plawecki swung. The Mets lost. But Collins had to make like it was all his fault.
The afternoon was edging toward something special, one of those day games you get to caress through the evening, go to sleep with smiling and wake up thinking about giddy that another game will follow tonight. There’s no big win quite like a big matinee win against the team you need to beat. It’s straight out of 1969, for Gil’s sake. Personally, I was dying to trot out the Durocherisms . Hey, Matt, were those the real Nationals we saw out there today? Williams would have given us his big, blank stare and tell us he approached today like every day, every day is equally important, we can’t get too up or too down, now choose sides for dodgeball. Collins, had the Mets won, might have shown a few teeth and emitted a little less melancholy.
Of course we’ll all get over it if we so choose. Baseball is made of far too much resilience to leave us flat. Thursday Terry will don a baseball cap, which is the only thing he looks right in. He’ll seem tortured but speak in platitudes tomorrow afternoon before skedaddling spiritedly to the home dugout to watch his players stretch. They’re stretching all right. Their feet are hammered into the ground yet the stars twinkle almost within their grasp. Almost. Somebody in the counting house needs to spring for a stepladder. We’ll see if somebody does. We, the fans, will repeatedly bounce back, unless we’re determined to show how immune we are to the charms of a decided underdog that is slated to throw itself to lions named Kershaw and Greinke.
We’re as more-than-moderately bothered as can be. But we lead with our heart, our chin and as little of our brain as we can spare. No, we don’t seek devastation, but to be in a position to be disappointed is far better than where we usually are on the eve of July 23, wholly unbothered because the Mets have already mostly gone away for the rest of the summer. I’m pretty sure the Mets, somewhere between 2009 and 2014 pioneered the concept of well-heeled New Yorkers basically taking August off.
But this year they’re still here, damn it. And so are we.