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I Can See Clinching Now

The fine folks of Steak ‘n’ Shake, a restaurant chain I’ve been known to patronize with a little too much enthusiasm for my optimal well-being, use as their slogan the phrase, “In Sight It Must Be Right.” Although its backstory [1] has something to do with letting the customers see the meat that’s about to be turned into their sumptuous Steakburgers, the implication is if you are tooling about this great nation of ours, or perhaps just strolling down Broadway in the vicinity of the Ed Sullivan Theater [2], and you see a Steak ‘n’ Shake, then…bingo!

I can’t see a Steak ‘n’ Shake from where I sit, but I can see a division title up ahead in the ever decreasing distance. Why, it’s not very distant at all. The lights are on, the doors are open, the grill is hot. We’re gonna be inside any minute.

And man, it’s gonna be delicious.

The New York Mets, by way of the extraordinarily thoughtful Baltimore Orioles, lowered their magic number to 3 on Thursday. With more than a week to go, the Mets will have to win and/or the Nationals will have to lose a total of three games to make the sixth National League East championship and eighth playoff berth in Mets history a reality. The Mets lead their closest competitor by 7½ games with nine to go.

I am restating what you all know just to emphasize how in sight all of it is. It’s happening. It’s really happening.

The Orioles did more than their share of our dirty work over the past three days, sweeping their Beltway neighbors while the Mets napped Tuesday and Wednesday and bringing that number we can’t resist counting down from 7 to 4 — or Belanger to Weaver, in deference to who was doing the actual knocking off of digits for us. But the Mets woke up last evening and did a little whittling of their own [3], directly taking care of business in Cincinnati.

The top five men in the lineup all produced for what seemed like the first time in a long time; Steven Matz [4] pitched adequately and hit effectively; and the bullpen didn’t break. Jeurys Familia [5] recovered from his recent Freddie Freeman [6] debacle (like you didn’t know one of those wasn’t going to come crashing down on us eventually) to move within one of Armando Benitez [7]’s saves record. As countdowns go, it’s not the one that has our attention, but 42 saves compiled relatively quietly is a quality accomplishment.

Winning 6-4 en route to a magic number of 3 sets us up for something loud and joyous. We are in the driveway if not quite at the doorstep, but we have arrived close to where we need to be. It is real and it ought to be understood as spectacular.

We haven’t done this [8] in nine years. Approximately 17% of my life has been lived since the last division-clinching. That’s a time frame that encompasses a September when our seemingly surefire Magic Number countdown stalled at Swoboda [9], a marker we dipped below last night. I’ve had it in the back of my mind (lately somewhere toward the front) that if — if — we got this one below 4, I would treat its conclusion as 4-gone.

Hence, I’m getting ready to get giddy. I’m warning our affiliates that when — when — it happens, I will brook no pessimism. Save it for the morning after the morning after. Save it for your NLDS anxieties. Those will be legitimate when they approach. But first this is in sight. I defy you to not enjoy it.

A hundred out of a hundred Mets fans instinctively thought “Bud Harrelson [10]” when the last out was made in Cincinnati, and not just because you can’t watch the Reds without thinking of Pete Rose [11] and you can’t think of Pete Rose without thinking of Buddy Harrelson taking a licking and keeping on ticking. Buddy is the quintessential 3 in Mets history; every other 3, from Gus Bell [12] to Curtis Granderson [13] would have to acknowledge his pipsqueaked primacy. But today I want to give a nod to a 3 who came and went in two seasons and left little legacy, except for two things I remember most of all.

Damion Easley [14] was one of those veteran pickups who looked very good when he did something well and who looked deceptively decent when he wasn’t doing much of anything. I was always comforted by the presence of Damion Easley in the lineup or off the bench despite looking it up once and discovering that his Wins Above Replacement during his second of two years as a Met was negative. I couldn’t quite comprehend that. Damion Easley seemed to be one of those guys who made your team better. How could he be dragging it down?

I suppose on some meta-level he must have been, because no team that included Damion Easley ever made it to the postseason, including the eventually Swoboda-stalled Mets he came to in 2007 (though an injury curtailed his season long before any lead got away) and the star-crossed 2008 outfit that followed directly behind them. In the twilight of his 17-season career, it was mentioned regularly [15] that no active player had played more games without making it to the playoffs [16] than Easley. How brutally fitting in that context it was, then, that in the last of his 1,706 major league appearances, Easley’s team was eliminated from playoff contention. Those were the 2008 Mets, the unit to whom Damion’s WAR measured -0.5, implying that if not for the half-win he was taking away, the Mets would have…well, they would have come up a half-win short, wouldn’t have they?

So get off Damion Easley’s case. Besides, in Easley’s final plate appearance, pinch-hitting for rookie Bobby Parnell [17] with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets trailing by two, he walked, making him Shea Stadium’s last baserunner and, once Ryan Church [18] flied to Cameron Maybin [19], Shea Stadium’s last runner left on base. He went out by making one more lunge at a postseason that ultimately never accepted him.

I remember Damion holding the unwanted distinction of being the active leader in a category no player wants any part of, but I said I remember something else as well, and that’s this. When the ’08 Mets had commenced to rolling, Easley was an important part of the surge. There would have been no Game 162 heartbreak if not for the midseason uprising that briefly catapulted the underqualified Mets past the mighty Phillies. On the night in July when they won their seventh in a row (en route to ten straight and a 40-19 spree that carried them into September), Easley made all the difference, homering off the Rockies’ Taylor Buchholz [20] in the eighth inning to give the Mets a 2-1 lead Billy Wagner [21] would preserve in the ninth.

Frankly, I don’t remember the home run, but I do remember that Easley did something noteworthy in that particular game, because he was Kevin Burkhardt’s postgame guest that night, and a phrase he used in their interview has stuck with me to this day. He said the Mets weren’t just confident, but that they had “the earned confidence”. They felt good about themselves, Easley explained, because they had earned every right to feel that way.

We, my friends, can feel good, too. We can be confident. After a 153-game span during which our first-place team has definitively separated itself from the pack, we have earned it. We have in sight something Damion never got to glimpse up close. It is only right to revel in the feeling as we move even closer.