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Better Met Than Never

It’s a small detail from a big night, no more than a leaf on a tree in the forest of delight that emanated from Chavez Ravine Thursday night as the New York Mets defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, to advance to the National League Championship Series. But the detail tells us a little something.

Get out your scorecards and note these plays:

Bottom of the third: Kike Hernandez out (2), 1-6-3.

Bottom of the seventh: Howie Kendrick [1] out, 1-3.

Bottom of the eighth: Andre Ethier [2] out, 1-3.

Those were four of 27 outs, all of them recorded because three different Met pitchers handled their position cleanly. SIMPLE TASK COMPLETED will never be mistaken for clickbait.

Yet if you can remember all the way back to 2014, this was a Met problem [3]. Met pitchers made throws to bases adventures [4]. In October of 2015, in the biggest game the Mets played in nine years, it was all very routine. No ball was flung down a line, none sailed into center.

Small detail, but a larger story. The Mets, who we would have had a hard time imagining playing for such high stakes one October ago, got better at various aspects of their trade. Their pitchers got better at fielding their position. Their second baseman got better at thinking while in motion. Their manager got better at deciding who should be on the mound when.

The Mets got better and better as 2015 progressed and now they are at the precipice of proving themselves best in their league.

You might have expected it, but you probably didn’t. For the longest time — in general and specifically within the cauldron of a hyperstressful deciding NLDS game — you more likely expected the worst, not so much from a reflexively fatalistic point of view, but just because the Mets of recent vintage have so rarely inspired confidence.

Do you doubt them now?

You might, and that’s your prerogative. It was easy to doubt them not that many hours ago when most of them were going down in orderly procession against Zack Greinke [5], the starting pitcher who had posted the lowest regular-season ERA baseball had seen since the prime of young Doc Gooden. The Mets had just lost to his even more accomplished rotationmate Clayton Kershaw [6]. It was brick wall after brick wall where Dodger pitching was concerned. The Mets were simply to going to bang their heads against it until you couldn’t stand the pain.

Or so, perhaps, you thought. And, really, you were 88.88% right if you did. Greinke absolutely dominated eight of the nine batters in the Mets lineup. They were all but uniformly helpless against him. Meanwhile, Jacob deGrom [7], our best hope, was distressingly ordinary. DeGrom was the All-Star who had struck out the side on ten pitches, the ace who overshadowed Kershaw in Game One. To the naked eye in the first inning in Game Five, he was a Matsuzaka or Harang, some journeyman attempting to eat up innings while we dealt with the indigestion. We learned to deal with that brand of acid reflux at the tail end of all those Terry Collins Septembers to which he had grown numbly accustomed as the 2010s approached mid-decade.

This was not one of those nights that permitted that sort of performance. Collins doesn’t manage that kind of team anymore. And deGrom isn’t that kind of pitcher, even if he appeared to pitch like one. He did eat up innings, as it turned out. The first one wasn’t very tasty — two runs allowed to the Dodgers, negating an early 1-0 Mets lead — and he was eternally plagued by baserunners.

Yet the baserunners were halted in their tracks.

• First and second in the first, two runs in, deGrom strikes out the next two.

• First and second in the second, two more Ks.

• First and second in the third, deGrom gets that double play ball, which he fired perfectly to Wilmer Flores [8], who relayed it to Lucas Duda [9].

• A runner makes it to third in the fourth, but deGrom strikes out Corey Seager [10] to end the threat.

Justin Turner [11], .526-hitting virus for whom there was no known cure, doubles with one out in the fifth, but he goes no further.

DeGrom looked as if he would go no further than the second inning. It would have been an understandable hook for Collins to deploy. There was no wiggle room in a Game Five. Appropriately enough, Collins decided not to wiggle. He went with his best pitcher. He stuck with deGrom. His faith was rewarded.

In the meantime, Greinke toyed with every Met but one. But sometimes one is all it takes.

Daniel Murphy [12] was responsible for every strand of the Met offense Thursday night. His double to left center brought home Curtis Granderson [13] (who had reached on a replay-reviewed infield single that somehow didn’t award Chase Utley [14] second) in the first. Murph’s extra-base hit so fired up his teammates that they strode to the plate and made eight consecutive outs. They composed the 88.88% of the lineup that couldn’t touch Greinke. When you get the Mets and the Dodgers together in the playoffs, you’re best off not mentioning “88” once, let alone twice.

But quicker than you could say “Orel Hershiser [15],” Murphy stealthily sparked the Met attack. Never mind that Murphy hardly does anything stealthily. You notice him when he’s succeeding. You really notice him when he’s essentially stepping on rakes, Sideshow Bob-style. You want to love him. Sometimes you merely endure him.

You’ll have nothing but love for Daniel Murphy the rest of your life now…at least until the next rake inevitably takes his measure.

Murphy leads off the fourth by becoming the first Met baserunner since himself. He singles. With one out, Duda walks. That puts Murphy on third.

Second. You mean second.

No, I mean third.

Well, Murphy meant third, because he realized that with the Dodger infielders in one of those obnoxious shifts designed to prevent Duda from singling — as if Lucas (.111) was capable of such a feat in this series — no Dodger would be covering third.

Hence, Murph went for it. He trotted nonchalantly to second when ball four was called and then sprinted to third.

And he was safe.

Holy crap, it was fair to think, Murph just outsmarted an entire baseball team.

So much for the sanctity of the Dodger Way [16].

Daniel stood on third with less than two out, which in a game of Greinke Versus The World is incredibly valuable. Now the Mets didn’t need one of those base hits they couldn’t get without Murph batting. All they needed was the right kind of out. Outs were a commodity they could manufacture like crazy against Greinke.

Travis d’Arnaud (.158) could be depended upon to make an out…the right kind, to right field. He flied to Ethier deep enough to score the heady Murphy with the tying run. Not sure which was more newsworthy: Greinke allowing a second earned run or Murph meriting being described as heady.

The game wasn’t necessarily won there, but it was kept from being lost. The Dodgers had punched themselves silly. DeGrom played rope-a-dope. Then Murphy parachuted into the ring when nobody was looking.

Still, it was difficult to picture a TKO of Greinke was in the offing. After Murphy stole third and a run, the Mets made five more outs in a row, taking them to the sixth, still tied. If only Murph could come up again and create more magic.

Murph came up again and created more magic. He homered to right on a three-two count. Taking on a pitcher who gave up one-and-two-thirds runs every nine innings during the regular season, Daniel accounted for three earned runs in three plate appearances.

And just like that, the Mets had a lead of 3-2. Except there was no sense of “and just like that” to how they did it. Greinke did almost nothing wrong. He’s as good a pitcher as there is, yet it was his line that read as distressingly ordinary. Sure, he struck out nine in six-and-two-thirds, and when he was Murphless, he was almost flawless, but you can’t dominate only eight members of a nine-Met lineup.

DeGrom? He spent six innings in a slog. Even his one clean frame, the sixth, was nearly undone at its end when Greinke of all batters took him deep to right. Granderson caught that ball, though, and allowed Jacob to go to the dugout with the best so-so outing you’ll ever thank your lucky stars for. Six hits, three walks, impending doom…but only those two runs from the first inning. DeGrom left as a winning pitcher in every sense of the phrase.

He didn’t outpitch Greinke. He outperformed him.

Meanwhile, Collins didn’t panic. He could have pulled deGrom. A different manager might have looked at the odds in the second and done just that. This was lose-and-go-home territory. A fancy switch in which you replace a starting pitcher with another starting pitcher isn’t merely fashionable in October. It is perfectly reasonable.

But it didn’t happen, not until the seventh, when the several-times-warmed Noah Syndergaard [17] was inserted in deGrom’s place. Syndergaard is a rookie and a starter. He had never pitched relief in the majors. He was being told to partake of this exceedingly novel experience in the seventh inning of the fifth game of a five-game playoff series. Syndergaard’s stuff runs rings around that of every pitcher Collins would normally use in a seventh inning, but this seventh inning was unlike all that had preceded them in 2015.

Which makes for a fascinating quandary: Do you use your best arm in an unfamiliar circumstance because it’s the most important game of the year?

Answer A is yes, because it’s the best arm you’ve got and the game is too important to screw around.

Answer is B is no, because it’s an unfamiliar circumstance and the game is too important to screw around.

Collins, urged on by Dan Warthen [18], went with A. After a season when one of the most vexing subplots was “who will relieve in the seventh?” the manager chose someone who had never relieved in the seventh.

The best arm trumped the unfamiliar circumstance. Syndergaard was Syndergaard. Kendrick hit him that 1-3 grounder; Seager struck out; menacing Adrian Gonzalez [19] walked; Turner at last swung and missed.

Noah Syndergaard kept a 3-2 game 3-2. Then he was removed, which at first brush seemed absurd. You have this golden-armed, overpowering 23-year-old who regularly throws a hundred pitches and you sit him after seventeen?

You do. Terry got what he needed from Thor. He got the seventh. Syndergaard let it all hang out. Now it was time for…



Again, they’re doing what they never do. When the Mets go to Jeurys in the eighth with two outs or one out it’s treated as breaking news; you wait for Wolf Blitzer to interview a hologram of Hoyt Wilhelm [20]. That’s during the season. This is during the postseason. With well-rested bullpen professionals (not to mention almost all other starting hands on deck) you pick now to get a jump on closing the door? You ask Familia to get six outs when you never ask Familia to get six outs?

In another era, that was standard procedure. We who lived through that era love to point to it as proof of when firemen were firemen and relievers’ arms were shipped directly from Akron, Ohio, rubber capital of North America. We assumed those days were gone forever.

We stand corrected.

Familia treated the eighth like he treats most ninths. Like they’re no problem. He got his grounder back to the mound, then a liner to left, then (from classic miscreant Jimmy Rollins [21]) a hot grounder to first, smothered and snuffed out by Duda, who was in there for his glove.

Despite all the State Farm and GEICO ads that inundate us every commercial break for six going on seven months, the Mets opted not to invest in a policy. They simply refused to insure their lead with an additional run. The offense had been Murphy and practically nothing but Murphy all night and, really, the entirety of the Dodger affair. There were flashes from others, but several Mets chose the National League Division Series as a great time to fall into or stay in a slump. An enormous part of that was the presence of Kershaw and Greinke, but a few extra runs here and there would have been helpful. Except for Game Three, those runs never came.

With no cushion provided, Familia returned to the mound for the ninth with the same 3-2 lead that had been effect since the sixth. His first assignment was retiring the loathsome Chase Utley, who shouldn’t have been wearing any uniform this week other than an orange jumpsuit. Utley gave a ball a ride to right, but then the ball said, no thanks, I’ll get out here, and fell into Granderson’s glove. Met karma intact, Jeurys reared back and struck out A.J. Ellis [22] and then Kendrick.

Oh, by the way, that was the 27th out. The Mets had won the game and the series, both by a score of 3-2. [23] The next sight you saw was their entire roster forming a ball of human Silly Putty. The next sound you heard was — for the 18th time in franchise history — the spritzing of champagne over everybody and everything orange, blue and otherwise. The next thought you had was “tonight the Dodgers, Saturday the Cubs.”

Then you thought a little more and tried to understand what you had just witnessed over five games, particularly inside the fifth game.

The Mets did not let you down.

The manager made more right moves than wrong ones.

The pitchers threw almost exclusively extraordinary innings.

The second baseman was, after a career that’s come off more as blooper reel than highlight film, a net Met positive [24].

Nobody particularly screwed up, or at least not enough to blow anything that couldn’t be fixed.

Your New York Mets, who you were not used to seeing in the glowingest of lights and who you quietly assumed you wouldn’t see at this time of year for many Octobers to come, were postseason winners. They had already won a division; now they had won a division series and were sanctioned to pursue a pennant. Four teams in all of the major leagues are still playing baseball. One of them is the Mets.

I’d say, “imagine that,” but you don’t have to imagine. It’s really happening.