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Countdown to the Final Four

The Mets are 84-74. They have never, in the history of the franchise, been 84-74 before. There is no inherent significance to having achieved this statistical milestone. It’s simply something I deduced after staring at their record for a moment.

To have ever been 84-74, the Mets would have — in the segments of their past that were less than illustrious but more than intolerable — had to have ended a season with between 84 and 88 wins.

They’ve never ended with 84.

They’ve never ended with 85.

They’ve ended 86-76 once, in 1976, but after 158 games were 86-72, on their second of five consecutive losses that took a bit of the shine off an otherwise rousing finishing kick (34-16 in their previous 50) that was, sadly, a harbinger of absolutely nothing where the immediate future was concerned.

They’ve ended 87-75 once, in 1989, but after 158 games were 83-75, letting down everybody in sight before sweeping a four-game series in Pittsburgh to make the year look better than it felt.

They’ve ended 88-74 three times. Once, in 1997, it couldn’t have been sweeter [1]; twice, in 1998 and 2007, it couldn’t have been more sour, proving perhaps that numbers are only numbers until they are cast into context. The 1997 team was a scrappy unit that rose from the depths of a theretofore dismal decade and delighted us diehards with provisional progress that promised even better days ahead. The 1998 and 2007 teams crafted and carried expectations that wound up crushing them in their respective final weeks. 1997’s quiet ascension is rarely broadly invoked despite the invigorating leap forward it encompassed. 1998’s fast fade lingers a little louder in the collective subconscious, though ultimately its generational pain was eased by the rewarding seasons that lay directly ahead of it. Historically, it was consigned to also-collapsed status by the next 88-74 season to come along. 2007 endures as a legend of the genre.

What binds the three 88-74 finishes in Mets history, for our current observational purposes, is none of them occurred after an 84-74 pit stop. I clearly remember how each of those years’ final four games played out: 3-1 in ’97, 0-4 (80% of an 0-5 free fall) in ’98, 1-3 in ’07. Because I know how those endings unspooled and can do a little Base 162 arithmetic, I know no Mets team that could have been 84-74 ever was 84-74.

And? And I guess it goes to show that when you get to this juncture of a very long season, you realize that though the vast majority of games are put in the books, it’s the palmful yet to be played that can still define what the season was and how it will be recalled.

After 158 games of 1976, 1989 and 1997, all that was left to be determined was which numbers would be written in ink. Those Mets’ seasons were already defined as whatever they were. Their spurts of contention, whether illusory or exhilarating, were over. But after 158 games of 1998 and 2007 — plus a few other years when the records may have been markedly different but the stakes at hand were essentially the same — we didn’t know what we had and required the entire schedule to play out.

Which returns us to our present 84-74 circumstances, elevated from 83-74 following a rollicking Tuesday night victory in Miami. The Mets beat the Marlins, 12-1 [2], pitching wonderfully and hitting spectacularly. Noah Syndergaard [3] was back on the hill and strepless as could be for six innings: no walks, five hits, eight strikeouts. Jay Bruce [4]’s bat, recently thawed from cold storage [5], continued to scald. He landed a two-run homer in Dee Gordon [6] territory in the second and whacked everything with authority all night. Yoenis Cespedes [7], whose slumps last only as long as it takes to realize they’re occurring, launched a ball past the adorably garish monstrosity in center (no, not you, Christian Yelich [8]) and presumably sculpted a hole in the ozone layer with his third-inning missile into space.

Yo’s blast made the score 4-1, where it stayed stuck for much of the evening, but like a 158-game record in the midst of a 162-game season, it was bound to change. After hitting into a bit of bad luck here and there, the Mets plowed through another National League East bullpen in the late innings, adding five runs in the eighth and three in the ninth. The most encouraging contributions were elicited from Lucas Duda [9], 2-for-3 with three RBIs and perhaps emerging as the starting first baseman he used to be before four months of injury inactivity, and Juan Lagares [10], a barely distinguishable speck on the DL radar who is suddenly revealing he can not only run, catch and throw, but swing. Juan chipped in a tack-on sacrifice fly that would rate zero mention, except Juan and his surgically repaired thumb ligaments weren’t supposed to be able to grip a stick of lumber for any purpose larger than bunting.

In the words of Curt Gowdy from the 1969 World Series highlight film, “Some bunt.” No, Lagares in Game 158 at Marlins Park didn’t go yard like Dave McNally [11] (let alone Donn Clendenon [12] or Al Weis [13]) in Game Five at Shea Stadium, but just the thought that he might be a capable righthanded bat in the four games ahead…and any games beyond that…is a small miracle unto itself. Duda, too. Didn’t see either of them coming, or coming back, but that’s been the Mets’ way in 2016. After this chronically decimated [14] team took the last two of four in San Francisco in August to put them at exactly .500, the goal — in my head, at any rate — was win every series. Do that, and they could conceivably compete for a playoff slot. Given how they’d performed most of the summer, that kind of output would be a miracle.

Twelve series remained, ten with three games, two with four. My aspiration for them was therefore a 26-12 record over their final 38 games, which would land them at 88-74. In 1997, 1998 and 2007, that was enough to book passage directly into the offseason. It wouldn’t have done them any good in 1976 or 1989, either. But this is the age of the Second Wild Card. 88-74 looked pretty solid from the vantage point of 62-62 considering where all other prospective foes stood five weeks ago.

Here we are, 84-74, with not quite every series thus far taken, but enough contests captured in the interim to catapult the Mets into a slim yet stubborn lead for the First Wild Card: a half-game ahead of the Giants, a game-and-half better than the Cardinals. Each contender scored twelve runs on Tuesday and each put pressure on the others. The Mets may have to win 88 games to ensure playing more than 162. It’s possible a slightly lesser number will take care of business, but that’s not desirable to consider. We need every available win just as we need every available body. We need Duda. We need Lagares. We need Bruce and Cespedes and tonight’s starting pitcher Seth Lugo [15]. We could use Wilmer Flores [16], but probably won’t be able to [17], which is why noticing Juan’s refreshed skill set provided such a pleasant revelation. We will definitely need Thor again, maybe this Sunday, maybe next Wednesday. We may need a starting pitcher between Sunday and Wednesday if things shake out weirdly enough [18].

We need the Mets to excel over their final four games, the four games that will define what kind of story we will eventually tell about 2016. I’m hesitant to put a precise number on it, but 88-74 certainly sounds like a happy ending.