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New Though Not Yet Improved

On Saturday, before I slipped into my beloved PIAZZA 31 [1] in order to pay tribute to our beloved Piazza’s 31, I dressed as a mild-mannered reporter at Citi Field. It doesn’t take much to dress like a mild-mannered reporter at Citi Field. You just wear what you’d wear to go out and get the mail, except without your favorite sports team’s logo showing. You also need a credential of some sort, which the Mets communications department was kind enough to provide upon request. I was pseudo-incognito — not recognizing myself without Mets stitched somewhere on my person — in the hours before the game in order to sit in on Mike’s pre-ceremony press briefing (his Mets career is the subject of my next book, details to come), but since I was already granted access to the room where it happens, I figured I’d stick around to hear what Terry Collins had to say.

Terry Collins didn’t have much good to say. Remember, this was Saturday, following the dispiriting losses of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The first words out of his mouth were that Jose Reyes [2] was going on the disabled list and Justin Ruggiano [3] was going to be playing center field. There are a lot of nutshells in the course of a baseball season (just inspect the floor around your seat next time you’re out at the ballpark), but that update seemed to encapsulate everything about the 2016 season perfectly. Somebody you weren’t counting on to begin with, who was now an essential stopgap, had strained something. It was initially said he’d sit as a precaution. He kept sitting, not only on the bench, but on the active roster. Eventually it was determined the player wasn’t going to heal in a few days’ time, so off to the DL he went, to be replaced by some guy you had no idea was remotely on the team’s radar.

If you didn’t see Jose Reyes coming before the end of June, you had to be Kreskin to conjure a vision of Justin Ruggiano at the end of July. But there he was, No. 1 in your program, another question mark in your head. From what I could gather, he was here because he possessed a body whose temperature measured more or less a toasty 98.6 degrees, and Terry knew him from his days in the Dodger organization. I didn’t know Ruggiano had ever been in the Dodger organization, but approximately one of every six people in baseball is somebody Terry describes as having known from his days in the Dodger organization. Kevin Bacon probably played for him at Albuquerque.

Since Terry delivered that news Saturday, Reyes has receded into the disabled background, Ruggiano has strained a hamstring, Asdrubal Cabrera [4] has strained a patellar tendon, the Mets have lost two of three with a short bench and the Mets have made a couple of trades [5]. The roster will shake itself out once Jay Bruce [6] and Jon Niese [7] arrive and it is determined if Cabrera, Ruggiano and, for that matter, Yoenis Cespedes [8] are going to idle actively or join Reyes, Juan Lagares [9], David Wright [10], Lucas Duda [11], Matt Harvey [12], Jim Henderson [13], Zack Wheeler [14] and George “The Stork” Theodore on the DL.

Somehow, amid all this turnover and uncertainty, the Mets remain playoff contenders. Seriously, go check the standings. At 2½ out of the second Wild Card with 57 games to go, you can’t say they aren’t. They won thirteen of fifteen in April and have yet to lose at a similar pace. The Mets’ record since the night Noah Syndergaard [15] belted two home runs on the heels of Bartolo Colon [16] going deep, and it was impossible to imagine we weren’t rooting for a team of some kind of star-kissed destiny, is 33-39. They’ve played just well enough to not lose all credibility as a contender, though you couldn’t tell it in any given nine- or ten-inning stretch when they appear to be contending mostly with mastering the basics of baseball.

Terry’s press conference on Saturday wound from the word on Reyes and Ruggiano, through an endorsement of Piazza (“it’s always fun to have him in Spring Training”), and back to whatever was ailing the Mets after Friday’s loss. “We’re not out of any race,” the manager insisted. “We keep getting some blips, but we still have a clubhouse full of good players.”

That phrase has stayed with me: “a clubhouse full of good players”. Terry knows his players better than you or I do. So does Sandy Alderson. Those who make the decisions keep the faith in those they’ve made decisions about (or at least don’t publicly betray a lack of faith in their players or decisions). Most nights, the Mets continue to present a lineup comprised predominantly of good players, or certainly players who have played well in the relatively recent past. I watch players who have not come through again and again over the past three months — Curtis Granderson [17], Neil Walker [18], Travis d’Arnaud [19], to name three — and I’m a little baffled that they have not been, to use the manager’s description, all that good. Perhaps the problem is other teams are also packing clubhouses full of good players, negating whatever fine qualities our fellas are bringing to the field.

Granderson, Walker and d’Arnaud each did something helpful in the course of Monday night’s soul-numbing Citi Field loss to the Yankees (the identity of the opponent barely mattering in this case, for the numbness transcended any sense of crosstown rivalry). Grandy played a superb right field, running hither and yon to track down deep fly balls. Walker and d’Arnaud teamed up very early to cut down a greedy Brett Gardner [20] in his quest to turn a first-inning triple into an inside-the-park home run. Neil made an exquisite relay throw and Travis blocked the plate legally and effectively. In a fairer scenario, we’d be toasting their contributions to an extraordinary 5-3 or 7-6 win instead of cursing the parts they played in an aggravating 6-5 defeat.

Each man came up in what you’d call a game situation and did not deliver. Walker had been scalding hot for several days before Monday. With the bases loaded in the sixth, after shortstop Matt Reynolds [21], who had, in the manner these things unfold, replaced Antonio Bastardo [22] and not shortstop Cabrera on the roster, launched an adrenalizing three-run homer, the Mets kept coming. The depleted Yankees were about to be drained of hope for the evening. Walker, the big bopper from Sunday [23], was up. He worked the count to three-and-oh versus the Yankees’ third pitcher of the inning. How on earth could the Mets not break this thing open?

I don’t know, but they didn’t. The count went to three-and-one. Then Walker swung. He flied out. The Met lead of 5-3 stayed 5-3. It stayed as such into the eighth when the Mets’ lockdown bullpen — the only one left in town once the Yankees traded off two of their three lethal weapons — loosened. Hansel Robles [24] was perfect in the seventh, but Jerry Blevins [25] put Gardner (the last of the truly irritating old Yankees) on to start the eighth. After Blevins struck out his next batter, Addison Reed [26] came on. Another strikeout, but then a single from Brian McCann [27] to move Gardner to third. A pinch-runner is inserted and advances on a wild pitch. It’s enough to set up the Charlie Brown [28] Turning Point of the Game, the one in which you wail “AAUUGGHH!!” Didi Gregorius [29] dunks a ball into left field, Gardner and the pinch-runner score and a tie that didn’t have to be suddenly was.

In this first game after the trading deadline chips fell where they may, it would have been apropos for a couple of different Mets to have delivered the big hit in the ninth. We would have settled for Michael Conforto [30], who, subbing for the hamstrung Ruggiano, drove in Brandon Nimmo [31] earlier (thus making a fan who invests anticipation in top prospects believe the hype), but he flied out. We would have taken something from Walker, soon to be literally on the move, since the guy he’s subletting his apartment from — Niese — was just unexpectedly transferred back to town on business, but Neil’s bat just wasn’t in it. He, too, flied out.

OK, two out, bottom of the ninth, who ya gonna call after a heavy transaction day? Wilmer Flores [32], of course. Wilmer had homered in the second and, of more spiritual significance, Wilmer homered in the twelfth on the same occasion a year and a day before. Let’s let Flores unleash more Tears of Joy, making us forget the Tears of Jon [33] some among us shed just after 4 o’clock. Wilmer worked out a walk. Not decisive, but acceptable.

D’Arnaud could play the hero. D’Arnaud was framed as trade bait. He was gonna maybe get us Jonathan Lucroy [34]. It turned out Lucroy wasn’t so easily gettable. Cleveland thought they had him, but he wound up in Texas, alongside Carlos Beltran [35] (the Yankees went all in on getting all out of their modest potential playoff positioning). Td’A, as much the catcher of the future for several seasons as Dilson Herrera [36] was second baseman of the same future, has been having a spotty present at best. He seems so capable. If only he’d stay healthy, you tell yourself, he’d come through. Lately he’s been healthy. He hasn’t been coming through.

With the winning run on first, Travis struck out. The catcher who became an online cult hero one year earlier for getting caught on camera phone affirming the enthusiasm of some fans in the parking lot in the midst of the Mets sweeping the Nats (“let’s take this shit,” d’Arnaud said with all earnestness) did not enhance his legend. The Mets would have to go to extras, relying on Seth Lugo [37] after having gone through every other available reliever behind Logan Verrett [38]. It was a short pen without Bastardo and a short bench with Cabrera and Cespedes; Steven Matz [39] pinch-walked at one point.

Lugo and his batterymate René Rivera [40] — a lot of double-switching in your National League park like it oughta be — created a bit of a situation in the tenth. Seth walked Jacob Ellsbury (a recurring Subway Series irritant), after which Mark Teixeira [41], presumed retired, singled and Ben Gamel [42] lay/laid/lain down a bunt that, with René providing guidance, Seth threw to third instead of first, not throwing it perfectly and creating as much of a mess on the basepaths as whoever came up with three past-tenses for lay. There were three runners, there were no outs and Seth Lugo was not designed to get out of this unscathed. A simple fly ball was needed and the Yankees got one from Starlin Castro [43] two batters after the bunt.

Could the Mets come back on Dellin Betances [44] in the bottom of the tenth? They didn’t have to face Andrew Miller [45] or Aroldis Chapman [46]. That should have been to their advantage already, yet they couldn’t do anything against their replacements Tyler Clippard [47] (!) or Adam Warren [48]. Yet somehow Betances immediately allowed a double to James Loney [49], which was fantastic. Reynolds, author of that three-run homer and another extra-base hit besides, was asked to bunt. You could feel it being a bad idea despite the admirable intent. Betances apparently isn’t a fan of handling bunts, but he did the bare minimum and tossed the ball to first to cut down Matt. He could’ve almost certainly had leadfooted Loney at third, but Dellin don’t play that.

Well, whaddaya know? All we required was one of those simple fly balls. It looked so easy to produce when Castro managed to loft one. Alejandro De Aza [50], who’s been having his long-awaited hot streak an ounce at a time for weeks, didn’t seem like a bad choice to deliver it. Surely he was due for a highlight reel clip. Surely “AL DE AZA!” could pass for “MIKE PI-AZZ-A!” chantwise as long as the 31 was still emblazoned on the center field grass.

After building an eerily familiar three-and-oh count, De Aza took a strike and then got hit in the leg. Yay for the extra baserunner in theory, though you harkened (or perhaps just harked) back to a night in 1986 when the last thing you wanted in the tenth inning was your batter getting hit on the leg. De Aza may sort of rhyme with Piazza, but he apparently has nothing to do with Mookie Wilson [51]’s ability to jump out of harm’s way for wild pitch purposes with a man on third. Alejandro took his base with two outs and Loney still ninety feet away.

Granderson was the final hope. Granderson had been a defensive star. He can’t throw, but he can do everything else, and if he could do something here at bat, what a statement it would make to the incoming right fielder Bruce. “Not so fast, bub,” the game-tying single might say. “Get in line, pal,” a walkoff double would emphasize.

Strike three was all we heard blowing by Curtis. Betances nailed him and the save. For all the towel-throwing the Yankees did in advance of the deadline, they saved one sterling pitcher for one crucial inning, though the way the Mets have been hitting with runners in scoring position, the Yankees could have solicited volunteers to do the throwing. Or so it seems, despite the clubhouse full of good players who returned to their enclave as one-run losers [52].

Should have the Mets not done what they did Monday afternoon? Should they have not acted as contenders, despite the standings? They didn’t have quite the same towel to throw in as the Yankees did. They didn’t have too many obvious rentals to arrange for teams with more serious championship aspirations. Besides, the Mets just arrived in the ranks of contenders in 2015. Prospects galore are great when you’re heading nowhere or worse, as the Yankees judged they were, but the Mets are supposed to be reaping, not sowing, in 2016. Jay Bruce and his 80 RBIs — whether collected through wizard’s luck, buzzard’s luck or luck of the draw (I’m not sophisticated enough to dismiss every goddamn thing in this world as random; maybe sometimes somebody actually has a knack for driving in runs) — provides, in theory, some of what the Mets need now and maybe next year. Maybe unembraceable Niese pitching a tenth inning is a better bet than Lugo. I don’t warm to the thought of Jonathon 2.0, but he also once tripled as a pinch-hitter and we need all the help we can get if we’re gonna stay afloat.

Or we might sink regardless. Fifty-seven games to go, at least a few more nominally meaningful. Let’s Go Mets.

Will the Mets be rising, falling or still muddling by Monday night? I don’t know, but let’s try to figure it out together at Little City Books in Hoboken, 7 PM, August 8. Details here [53].