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The Chance We Wanted

I no longer remember the exact circumstances, but years ago there was a newspaper story featuring a Yankee fan who didn’t understand why any franchise would adopt “Ya Gotta Believe” (or one of its non-spontaneous, corporate-approved descendants) as a rallying cry. Terrible slogan, she snorted dismissively: “Believe? That’s lame. We know.”

That always struck me as a perfect way to describe the two New York fanbases, because strip away the condescension and that long-ago fan got it right.

Yankee fans expect dollars to flow and moves to be made to ensure a full calendar in October and a ticker-tape parade a month later; anything less than that is a failure, for which there will be consequences.

Mets fans? We love ticker tape as much as the next guy and gal, and we’ll take a wire-to-wire regular-season cruise that doesn’t require too much heavy breathing. But dismissing anything less than a World Series trophy as a failure? We don’t get that — it’s entitled hubris that sounds deeply and dreadfully boring.

Knowing? Where’s the fun in that? Give us wild hope and a stubborn belief that refuses to be extinguished, no matter what obstacles the baseball gods throw in our way. (Tug’s call to arms was as much battered defiance as it was optimism.) Those are the things that power our baseball dreams.

Still, there are limits to even a Mets fan’s belief. This season began with the Mets under the same old shadow cast by Madoff and the Wilpons’ serial dishonesty about payrolls and financial flexibility. Then injuries decimated a team that had been expected to at least battle for a wild card.

Which should have meant 2015 was like too many recent years, except the big, bad Nationals — all but anointed National League champs in February — got off to a sputtering start and then proved unable to accelerate away from an unimpressive divisional field. The Nats have had injury problems of their own, but that hasn’t been everything that’s wrong with them — they’ve got a push-button manager and the absence (so far) of a certain undefinable something. You look at them (again, so far) and are struck that as a team they’re less than their component parts.

There was an opportunity there, but the Mets limped along for months with a makeshift lineup of mismatched Triple-A guys and played extended periods with key players in that curiously Metsian limbo that might be called the pre-DL. The team’s failure to summon reinforcements went from puzzling to maddening, until finally it seemed like the powers that be were pointedly ignoring a chance to depart from their plodding plan back to contention.

We don’t need certainty, but that doesn’t mean we take kindly to mulish inaction.

But then things changed. Sandy Alderson decided to trade off some of his impressive stockpile of young pitching. The Wilpons agreed to let him. Reinforcements started to arrive. First came Michael Conforto [1] from the farm. Then Kelly Johnson [2] and Juan Uribe [3]. Then Tyler Clippard [4], just in time to replace recidivist dunderhead Jenrry Mejia [5]. And, finally, Carlos Gomez [6] Yoenis Cespedes [7].

Actual ballplayers! From major-league rosters!

This spasm of activity led to the Nationals arriving for a three-game series, on the field where they’ve kicked us around for the last few years. The Mets commenced hostilities three games back, and you had to forgive us if we were a little amped: These were the first meaningful Mets games since George W. Bush was president and Shea Stadium was still standing.

What would happen? This was the 2015 Mets, so who the hell knew? We’ve seen the Mets look godawful against second-division clubs (at least with bats in their hands) and stand toe-to-toe with playoff contenders.

They won the first game on a ludicrously dramatic bit of soap opera [8] starring new Met cult hero Wilmer Flores [9].

Then they won the second game behind the heroics [10] of an apparently resurrected Lucas Duda [11].

By the time the third game arrived, at 8:05 ESPN Hijack Time, every Mets fan on Earth was just a little high-strung. A sweep of the Nats was possible, along with an at least technical share of first place.

So what happened in a Citi Field that’s found out how to be loud?

For openers, Noah Syndergaard [12] happened.

Syndergaard hit a bump with the second batter, as Anthony Rendon [13] swatted a fastball over the center-field fence for a 1-0 Nats lead. But watching Syndergaard, I didn’t think that was any kind of harbinger of trouble. He was hitting his spots — something Jacob deGrom [14] and the relief corps struggled to do — and the fastball had its usual scary velocity and movement. Rendon’s a good hitter who’d gotten a 2-0 pitch and turned on it; it happens.

Syndergaard’s only 22 and still learning his craft, but when he’s on I find myself thinking he might have the best stuff of anyone on this very good staff. He doesn’t have Matt Harvey [15]‘s slider or assassin mentality (yet), but the fastball’s ungodly, the curve dives with authority and the change amplifies both pitches’ effectiveness. In one sequence, Syndergaard shoved Ryan Zimmerman [16] away from the plate with a 97 MPH fastball at the chin, put a 100 MPH fastball on the outside corner at the knees, then picked off that same spot with a vicious breaking ball. Zimmerman just looked morose and trudged away; there was nothing whatsoever he or anyone else could have done.

Syndergaard’s pitches lost their crispness in the middle innings, probably because the adrenaline had stopped firing. But he found a way through it and finished the night with a flourish, daring Bryce Harper [17] with a fastball on the inside corner. Harper is the furthest thing from overrated (so stop chanting that, you fools), but not even he could do much with a fastball thrown at 98 with movement that could have chewed through bedrock.

The other thing that happened was a fast-forward flurry of Mets offense that came almost too quickly to appreciate.

In the third, Jordan Zimmerman [18] walked Kevin Plawecki [19] (who quietly had a very impressive game on a big stage) and Syndergaard sacrificed him to second. The inning seemed destined to fizzle after Ruben Tejada [20] hit a scorching liner right into Zimmerman’s glove, but Curtis Granderson [21] swatted a 2-2 hanging pitch over the Mo Zone for a 2-1 Mets lead. Daniel Murphy [22] then hammered Zimmerman’s next pitch deep into the Pepsi Porch, one of those monstrous shots with which Murph occasionally ambushes pitchers. Cespedes singled (his first Met hit) and then Duda hit a ball on the inner edge of the plate, practically off his hands. Duda peered at it as it arced towards the stands, waiting for it to go foul … but Duda is so strong that the ball wound up clanging off the pole and just like that, in five pitches, a 1-0 Nats lead had become a 5-1 deficit.

“I’m not really sure how it’s physically possible to hit that ball where I put it,” Zimmerman said of Duda’s drive; the only answer I can think of is that right now nothing is impossible for Lucas Duda.

The Nats made a little noise, but Clippard put them down in the ninth and that was that [23] — a three-game sweep that left the Mets technically in second place, but only if you want to be a spoilsport about it.

The Mets played a grueling July schedule and came out of the month 13-12; they now play subpar competition for most of the next month [24], while the Nats play much tougher teams on the road. The Mets should also add more reinforcements, with Travis d’Arnaud [25] shaking off the rust, Michael Cuddyer [26] starting a rehab assignment, Erik Goeddel [27] working his way back, Jerry Blevins [28] throwing and perhaps even David Wright [29] suiting up on the minor-league side.

I’d be more confident if this team hadn’t spent 2015 succeeding when I expected them to fail and failing when I expected them to succeed. But that’s not to say I’m not hopeful.

I’m hoping. I’m dreaming. We’re all even with two months to go; why not us? I don’t know, but I don’t need to know. Because I’ve got something better: I believe.