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Something Wheeler This Way Comes

My preferences have little impact on determining the outcome of baseball games I sit down to watch, or maybe you’ve noticed the unbroken winning streak the Mets haven’t been on for the past five decades. Nevertheless, I decided I was going to be reasonably content with a Mets loss Wednesday night provided Zack Wheeler [1] and I got out of it what we needed. We didn’t need Yu Darvish [2] mowing down the Met lineup, but I took that as a given. What wasn’t so obvious going in was what Zack would do. In 2017, we’ve learned to expect nothing from Mets starting pitching. Get any more than nothing, and how can you not be sort of satisfied?

Darvish was Darvish for the first nine Met batters, each of whom politely took a turn and made an out across the first three innings. Wheeler was the Wheeler we anxiously clench our fists over in his initial inning on the mound. We don’t shake these fists, but we do clutch our anxieties inside of them. How many balls, Zack? How many baserunners? How many gosh darn pitches you gonna throw? For other Met starters, the pitch count might get your attention if it appears alarming. For Zack, we automatically keep track.

The bottom of the first in Arlington was vintage Zack, which is to say borderline agony. Four pitches for a single. Six pitches for a walk. A first-pitch single to Elvis Andrus [3], which was good news/bad news. Only one pitch and the runners only moved up a base, but oy, the bases are loaded, nobody is out, Zack is in trouble. After Jacob deGrom [4], the putative ace of the staff, was shellacked the night before, how could the bad news not overwhelm the good news in a matter of pitches?

Wheeler would answer. He’d need six pitches to produce a fielder’s choice groundout that scored the first Texas run, and then exactly one more for a double play grounder that curtailed the damage. Every other Mets pitcher, I’d be thinking, all right, we gave up one run. With Wheeler, I was an adding machine: let’s see, eighteen pitches…if he can rein it in, he can go at least five, maybe six.

Count Zackula had me paying less attention to my fingers and toes as the innings went by, because it was no longer about how many pitches he was throwing, but how well he was throwing them. That he did very well. Zack was in command in a way I’ve seen few Mets steer a start this year. He knew what he was doing on the inside of the plate. He fooled Texas hitters when he had to. He was economical, even. He was what he had to be, maybe what he is about to be. Six years since he was traded to the Mets and hailed as an ace-in-waiting, perhaps his future has arrived.

Zack Wheeler is the best starting pitcher the Mets have right now. Until his start against the Rangers, that was by default. For the moment, in the wake of a start where he got better the longer he went, it is a title rightly bestowed. Zack gave the Mets seven full innings on 108 pitches. Over the final six he threw, he allowed only four hits (three of them singles), two walks and no runs. He transcended serviceable and veered toward masterful.

Darvish, meanwhile, continued to be very good, but decidedly imperfect when it came to facing, if you’ll excuse the expression, the Mets’ designated hitter, Jay Bruce [5]. For the first eight innings, our gloveless native Texan was also our lone star on offense, belting two home runs, one with a man on. We had a 3-1 lead through seven marvelous Wheeler innings. The outstanding outing I’d hoped for didn’t have to be mutually exclusive from defeating Darvish.

As long as they insist on silly rules in American League parks, maybe we could have ended it there, neat and tidy. But no, junior circuit baseball encompasses nine innings, however bastardized their lineups, so it came to pass that when Wheeler was removed and Jerry Blevins [6] entered, the game was still up for grabs. Alas, in the bottom of the eighth, good ol’ Jer’ gave up a single to Nomar Mazara [7] and a home run to Robinson Chirinos [8]. This revolting development fit snugly within the prevailing sense that nothing ever goes right for the Mets, yet somehow I didn’t feel overly distressed about the bottom line. Wheeler was still wonderful during his seven innings. No, they couldn’t take that away from him. Or me.

And, surprise of surprises, the Mets didn’t proceed to find a way to lose. Blevins got out of the eighth and the Mets did something constructive with the ninth. With one out, Lucas Duda [9] doubled authoritatively down the right field line off Matt Bush [10] and immediately gave way to pinch-runner Matt Reynolds [11]. With two out, Curtis Granderson [12] patiently elicited a seven-pitch walk after being down oh-and-two to the Rangers’ closer. Jose Reyes [13], whose major league career commenced in this very same facility fourteen Junes and who knows how many corporate identities ago, was up next, attempting to wring a little more life from what remains of his professional tenure. Jose has earned his way to the bench, but he was in the lineup Wednesday night. Prior to the ninth, he’d done little to liberate himself from the pine on a going basis, par for the sad course of late.

On Tuesday, SNY showed a delightful flashback to the evening in 2003 when a highly touted 19-year-old shortstop alighted in Arlington to make his Met debut, the Amed Rosario of his time, you might say. You couldn’t miss the smile or the potential on Kid Jose. Then the 2017 camera spotted a reserve infielder, on the edge of 34, sitting forlornly in the dugout, not hitting, not happy. You could have penciled in your own thought bubble of despair. Jose’s looked slow in the field, lost at bat and head up his ass jogging to first, but — and this is not intended as faint praise — he still appears to be a helluva teammate. When another Met scores, he’s the most animated of fans. He greeted Bruce like a brother when he went deep. He does it with everybody. Nobody is more ebullient in congratulating a colleague, nobody seems to enjoy his fellow Mets’ successes as much. It reminds me warmly not only of vintage Jose from 2006 (when he was regularly on the receiving end of enthusiastic handshakes and hugs), but of the late summer of 2016. It wasn’t so long ago that Reyes was hailed as the veteran team leader [14], he and Asdrubal Cabrera [15] praised for getting and staying on Yoenis Cespedes [16], and the three of them setting an example for all to Do Your Thing [17], as the clubhouse slogan went.

We haven’t seen much of Cespedes lately; Cabrera of these days isn’t the Cabrera of those days; and Reyes is back to craning his neck to get a gander at .200. You can’t as effectively urge others to Do Their Thing when you can’t do a thing at all.

As the ninth unfolded, I had the sense it would be slumping Jose up with the game on the line, aging Jose in the spotlight in the stadium where it all began for him. I had a sense Granderson would find his way on base to unintentionally pass the buck, the baton and the responsibility for Wednesday’s result to Reyes. I had no sense of whether this would be good for him or us. On instinct, I stood and I paced in small circles as I don’t think I’ve done before this season. It hadn’t previously seemed worth the trouble.

On a two-oh pitch, Jose lined a ball past Bush. Could he have actually driven in the go-ahead run? The liner up the middle wasn’t struck terribly hard and the Ranger defense was positioned to corral it. From the outfield grass to the right of second base, Rougned Odor [18] picked it off the ground on one hop. It was a just difficult enough play to make so that Odor wound up bouncing his throw to Andrus, covering second. Andrus went about gathering it in ahead of Granderson’s slide. With Elvis’s back to us and his glove obscured by his body, it looked like Curtis was going to be out to end the threat and the inning.

Looks were deceiving. Texas’s shortstop had a hotter potato on his hands than we at home could discern. Slowly but assuredly, second base umpire Chris Guccione determined Andrus never fully controlled the ball before dropping it altogether. As Guccione went about declaring something had gone horribly awry for a Mets opponent for a change, Reynolds — too callow to know any better — kept running until he crossed home plate. Replay review was deployed, but to no avail for the Rangers. The Mets led, 4-3, on a modestly vexing fielder’s choice facilitated by a .187 hitter who came through barely by not coming up empty.

Buoyed by the unlikely circumstance of some other team imploding to the Mets’ advantage, Addison Reed [19] retired the Rangers in order in the bottom of the ninth. Reed recorded his ninth save, Blevins — whose gopher to Chirinos rendered Wheeler’s effort non-decisive — his third win. It was every bit the W that Clayton Kershaw [20] was awarded earlier Wednesday for going seven and fanning nine in vanquishing Washington [21]. Kershaw pitched lengthily and brilliantly. Blevins had a bad blip that negated Wheeler’s efforts within the box score. Yet Kershaw and Blevins were both victors in the ancient statistical sense. Assignation of pitcher wins can be as ridiculous as the designation of a player to do no more than hit and sit, but when it all works out for what we consider the best [22], we’ll quietly ride our high horse out of Texas with a split in our saddle bag and try not to raise too much of a ruckus regarding what we find objectionable in the details.

Between you and me, though, pitcher wins are rather inane and the DH remains an absolute travesty.

For one ultimately pleasant evening, the Mets paused their ongoing re-enactment of 1974, the year this year is most reminding me of (also, the last year I paid rapt attention to the Texas Rangers [23]). Nineteen Seventy-Four represented the comedown from the adrenaline rush of 1973. The only significant change those Mets made after their near-impossible surge into the postseason was cutting ties with an iconic quadragenarian. The post-Willie Mays [24] Mets were stuck in the kind of mud these Mets, post-Bartolo Colon [25], have been. After 57 games in 1974, the Mets were 23-34. After 57 games in 2017, the Mets are 25-32. Wayne Garrett [26], a .422 hitter down the ’73 stretch, was batting .176, eleven points lower than Reyes. Tom Seaver [27]’s ERA was 3.61, which for 1974 — and Seaver — was as unsightly as 4.75 is for deGrom. Hell, Tom, following his second Cy Young [28] season, had only three wins…or as many as Blevins does at present.

One September’s inspiring heroes were the next June’s mere mortals. The pitching didn’t nearly match its reputation. Roster replenishment was mostly eschewed. Sound familiar? For what it’s worth, those Mets had no You Gotta Believe encore in them. They were in fifth place and eight games out of first at this juncture 43 years ago en route to finishing in fifth, seventeen behind the division-winning Pirates. The only NL East team the Mets led after 57 games in 1974, however, was that very same Pittsburgh crew, which wallowed nine games from first. Like the Mets the season before, they didn’t lay down and die just because they were pretty much dead. Not every cause apparently lost in June stays irretrievably lost until October. If you choose to Believe as we did in 1973 and 2016, you may wish to take note that the 2017 Mets are, as of today, nine games out of a Wild Card spot.

Nah, I’m not buying it, either, but you never know.

You are cordially invited to Bergino Baseball Clubhouse on Thursday, June 15, 7 PM, where I will be discussing my book Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star and other matters related to New York Mets history. Details are here [29]. I hope to see you there.