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Knots Landing

Five Sundays prior to the most recent Sunday, I went to Citi Field. It was the last game before the All-Star break. The Mets weren’t going anywhere, so when they continued to go nowhere, it made me no never mind. Zack Wheeler gave up four runs in the first; Aaron Nola flirted with a no-hitter; I got a little too much sun; and the Mets lost to the Phillies, 8-3, to fall ten games under .500. My companion for the afternoon, statistical guru Mark Simon, noted when the final out was made that the Mets had never so much as brought the tying run to the plate. He called the game “depressing”. I considered it Mets baseball business as usual. I didn’t write about it because it wasn’t my Sunday to recap, but if I had, I would have told you I had a nice time at the ballpark with my friend, it was too bad the Mets didn’t have quite as nice a time, and I would have moved on.

Three Sundays prior to the most recent Sunday, I watched the Mets on TV from San Francisco. The Mets had shown a few signs of life in the week following the All-Star break, but this series they were completing seemed to suck it all out of them. When they lost the finale, the third game they dropped to the Giants in extra innings, I sort of snapped [1]. It wasn’t that I thought they were going to go anywhere had they won this game or the other games their opponents celebrated in walkoff fashion. It was just that I was sick of Mets baseball business as usual. I didn’t have it in me to write about it in any depth even though it was my Sunday to recap. What could have I told you other than the Mets lost, 3-2, in twelve; had fallen nine games under .500; and I couldn’t wait for this season to move on to the next one?

The most recent Sunday, yesterday if you’re reading this on Monday, might as well have been from a season entirely apart from the one in which those Sundays took place. I wouldn’t have recognized this Sunday from the vantage point of five Sundays or three Sundays earlier. It was as if the Mets had gone into an entirely different baseball business. Experientially, they had. It was the business of contending for a playoff spot. They entered this Sunday five games over .500. The Wild Card lead was conceivably within nine innings’ reach. Even the division lead could be seen over the horizon without a surfeit of squinting. The Mets, since the Sunday I stewed over their San Francisco shortcomings, had done nothing but win series. They’d already clinched this one versus the Nationals. They could very well sweep it, just as they had swept the series before it and two of the three series before that.

Of course this shaped up as a better Sunday than those aforementioned Sundays to be a Mets fan. It’s always a better Sunday to be a Mets fan when what the Mets are doing matters beyond the baseline measurement of a Mets game is occurring, it would sure be nice if they won it. For the bulk of two-and-a-half seasons that seemed like two-and-a-half decades (because bad Met years groan on forever), the Mets did little more than show up. We watched out of habit. I did, anyway. If anything good happened, good. If nothing came of it, fine. The Mets of 2017 and 2018 and close to two-thirds of 2019 had made an art of eliminating expectations. They could have held an exhibition of blank canvases and called it their tribute to an era.

But now we are in the thick of a race and sodden with expectations. The Mets had won eight games in a row, fifteen of sixteen, 21 of 26 — including those three crummy defeats in San Francisco. The Mets ceased being the Mets we couldn’t stand anymore and commenced becoming the Mets we couldn’t get enough of, the Mets we embraced every waking hour, the Mets we remembered we loved. Just like September 2016…and August 2015…and the final few seasons at Shea, save for their murderous endings…and the relentlessly electric campaigns running up to and out of the turn of the century…and the golden age of the 1980s we thought would never tarnish until it did in the early 1990s…and, for those of us who go back far enough, the formative experiences of 1973 and 1969. In those times, Mets baseball business as usual was a whole other line of work. It traded on joy and possibility, albeit with an undercurrent of constant anxiety because when possibility positions you so close to joy, how can you not be constantly anxious that it may elude your grasp?

Which, I suppose, explains why my stomach was in knots throughout Sunday’s game against the Nationals, taken in from the couch — the one in my living room, not a therapist’s office, though that might have been equally appropriate.

The Mets are never more dangerous to my mental health than when my fellow Mets fans have decided there’s no way the Mets can lose. That’s the vibe that seemed to have emanated from the way the Mets didn’t lose Saturday or Friday or any of the recent days preceding those days. Winning streaks are to be caressed and cajoled. You ask the winning streak if it needs anything. Can I get you a cold drink? A hot towel? A warm compress? Just let me know. Winning streaks don’t stream. They aren’t available on demand. You can’t fast-forward to the next episode. Don’t dare try to binge them.

On Sunday, the Mets gave up three horrible runs in the top of the first inning. They were worse than the four runs they allowed the Phillies in the first inning five Sundays before. They were worse than any of the walkoff runs they allowed the Giants in San Francisco three weekends earlier. They were happening now. They were mattering now. And they were ugly. Jacob deGrom [2], lauded on SNY as Sunshine Superman, had apparently just visited with a contingent from the Planet Krypton and hadn’t properly decontaminated before taking the mound. The Nationals nicked him for a couple of hits that weren’t hit hard. There was a full-count walk with one out, then a bases-loaded strikeout that spoke well of deGrom’s ability to wriggle from trouble.

Then there was Asdrubal Cabrera [3], whose name used to be spoken of here in reverent Grandersonian tones. For the duration of 2019 hostilities, he will be considered a vengeful villain. The Mets and Cabrera seemed ripe for a reunion once Texas let him go and Robinson Cano was ruled out for the long haul. Though Recidivist Mets have lately been letting us down, I would have welcomed the Ass Man back to town, for he would have filled a need at second base and likely would have done it well. Cabrera was still plenty productive when the Mets exported him last July to make room for Jeff McNeil. He figured to be reasonably productive upon return. One never knows, for contingency is laced with mystery, but I would have taken my chances with Asdrubal Cabrera 2.0.

What you don’t want is an ex-Met who considers himself scorned —Cabby apparently thought the Mets were going to re-sign him in the offseason when they instead opted for urban myth Jed Lowrie — going to a main rival who is coming to play you ASAP. Cabrera the National figured to be bad news at some point in a series that, until the first inning, had garnered notices that were universally bright and bouncy. All Asdrubal did in Sunday’s first inning, really, was get his bat on the ball, grounding it toward the hole between first and second. That was OK, maybe, because Pete Alonso was covering the ground. Cabrera’s not that fast, Alonso is certainly able, and deGrom? DeGrom is a Gold Glove fielder in everything but hardware. This is the bases-loaded situation a Cy Young winner gets out of. This is the first inning the opposition looks back on and rues. We had deGrom on the ropes, but we couldn’t break through, and you know what they say about elite pitchers and getting to them early if you want to get to them at all.

That would have been a great thing for the Nationals to say, but the thought didn’t need to cross their minds, because Alonso didn’t quite make the throw he needed to make and deGrom definitely didn’t make the grab he needed to make. Pete wasn’t wholly on target, Jake wasn’t completely fluid getting to the base and, as a result, the ball clanked off the pitcher’s glove and into foul territory. Two Nationals scored before deGrom could recover Alonso’s errant toss. Jake delivered the ball to Wilson Ramos, where a tag of Juan Soto would stanch the damage and end the inning. Except Ramos, maybe thinking of UPS, didn’t believe there was such a thing as Sunday delivery. He wouldn’t or at least couldn’t cleanly accept the throw, which allowed Soto to bring in a third Washington run.

Someone I know and like tweeted that down, 3-0, the Mets had the Nats right where they wanted them. My stomach tied another knot. That’s the sort of thing you NEVER express out loud, not while it’s still 3-0. Say it later. Say it AFTER the Mets have overcome deficits of 3-0 and 6-3 on Friday to win, 7-6. Say it AFTER the Mets have overcome a 3-2 deficit on Saturday to win, 4-3.

But never on a Sunday down, 3-0.

That said, the Mets tied the game in the bottom of the second. Two who were largely responsible for Saturday’s win and had quite a bit to do with Friday’s, J.D. Davis and Ramos, singled with one out off Anibal Sanchez. With two out, Joe Panik [4] — the Mets’ contingency second base solution instead of Cabrera — singled in Davis. I am moderately satisfied to have a middle infielder of Panik’s pedigree among us. I was also moderately satisfied to have had middle infielders of Panik’s pedigree among us in other playoff chases: Tommy Herr in 1990; Mike Bordick in 2000; Luis Castillo in 2007. None of those names jump off the page as net Met positives a million or so years later, but at the moment of their respective acquisitions, they filled in nicely and filled holes ably. Panik probably isn’t a panacea, but for the time being, he’s all right.

DeGrom, who’s more than all right, bunted his way on, making up aesthetically for the lousy play at first in the first. Alonso was charged with an error, but it was deGrom who should have snared his throw. Once Jake laid down his bunt, though, that was history as ancient as Tommy Herr. He had kept our rally alive long enough for Jeff McNeil to extend it some more via a double that sent home Ramos and Panik. We were knotted at three. My stomach was knotted without pause.

I kept waiting for deGrom to absolutely take command of the game. He didn’t. Talk about expecting too much. Sorry, I’ve been watching Jake for six seasons. I just assume he’ll carry the Mets, even when they fuss that they don’t want to go anywhere. Given the load of pitches he had to throw in the first, maybe it wasn’t surprising that he surpassed triple-digits in volume by the fifth. Five innings was gonna do it for deGrom; so much for Sunny de’. He left a tie game in the hands of his bullpen.

Oh, that Mets bullpen. It hasn’t been that bad, actually. How bad could any aspect of the Mets be when they’re winning eight in a row and fifteen of sixteen? Nevertheless, they are the Mets bullpen. Perfectly nice fellas, I’m sure, yet I wouldn’t implicitly trust any of them to not place the watermelon directly atop the eggs at the checkout lane.

The first reliever was Luis Avilán. He struck out a Nat, allowed Cabrera to single (as if anybody was gonna stop Asdrubal on Sunday), struck out another Nat, then gave up a hit to Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki, I suddenly noticed, is a low-profile Met-killer. He killed us with Atlanta. He killed us one night when he was with Oakland (it was a veritable eon ago, but I have receipts [5]). The Nationals, like the Mets and every Wild Card wannabe, have their flaws, but between the genuine talent (Rendon, Soto), the certified Met-killing (Suzuki) and now Cabrera imagining the need to get even, they have enough of a critical mass to make a Mets fan antsy.

Good thing, then, that Mickey Callaway was able to turn to a Mets fan who clearly recognized what was going on, namely his second reliever, Brad Brach [6]. Brach is a Mets fan from way back. Not one of those locally sourced “I rooted for the New York teams as a kid” diplomatic-answerers who doesn’t want to piss off his new fans by admitting he didn’t care or preferred another nearby team, but somebody who, had he not been preoccupied getting outs for other staffs in recent years, would have recognized Kurt Suzuki kills us. Brad from Freehold put his Mets fan instinct to good use and flied out Brian Dozier to get us out of the sixth still tied.

Just as the Nats outlasted deGrom, the Mets outlasted Sanchez, which meant their bullpen was in play. The Nationals bullpen makes the Mets bullpen look like…oh no, I’m not going there. Again, that’s the kind of thing you say after the game. Respect your opponent, for crissake. Don’t assume that the flaws of others will rescue your own. Davey Martinez needed two of his relievers to navigate the sixth. Panik walked with two outs. Callaway sent up Luis Guillorme to pinch-hit for Brach. On Saturday, Guillorme took to extremes the notion that in a winning streak everybody is a hero. Luis sure was then. Not this time, striking out against Matt Grace.

That Met bench is kind of a flaw, too, Saturday night heroics notwithstanding.

The knots from the first inning remained tight inside my abdomen going to the seventh. That’s a pennant race for you. Glorious discomfort. Energizing agony. Exquisite torture. I guess. It’s preferable to the que sera, sera Sunday of an 8-3 loss or the I’ve had bleeping had it Sunday of another extra-inning debacle. But it surely angries up the acids.

“If your stomach disputes you,” Satchel Paige advised, “lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.” Good luck if you’re keeping tabs on the Mets bullpen. The seventh inning was in the hands first of Robert Gsellman. Gsellman’s hands can be slippery bastards, particularly the one connected to his right arm. One out, two on. Exit Gsellman. Enter Justin Wilson, thoroughly useful throughout the Mets’ communiqué to the rest of the National League that they shouldn’t look back, something orange and blue might be gaining on them. Wilson walked Soto. Not useful, but at least not an RBI double. Wilson then struck out Adams. Adams strikes out like clockwork Serval Zippers would have admired.

Oh look, Cabrera is up. This can’t possibly be good. I mean it could be, for if Asdrubal Cabrera were invincible, the Rangers might have held on to him, but this is his day of jubilee, his Sunday to show the Mets what they had and what they don’t got no more. Asdrubal doubles. In comes Adam Eaton. In comes Anthony Rendon. To a halt comes Soto, spraining an ankle jetting around third, attributable to the brakes being put on a tad too suddenly by Nationals third base coach Bob Henley. I remind myself sternly to take no pleasure that the most threatening non-Cabrera player on the Nationals is leaving the game. I actively wish him no pain. Get well, Juan. No, really. Deriving anything resembling relief from an injury to another is far worse than “got ’em where we want ’em.” It’s bad karma and bad humanity.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Mets fight back as we wish them to. That’s our theme. Never out of the fight. We weren’t out of the fight several Sundays ago, even when we were sure we were nowhere near it, and here we are, down two runs but still on the edge of grabbing the Wild Card lead. Aren’t these crazy times? Jeff McNeil doubles. Amed Rosario singles. McNeil races to third. Michael Conforto flies out effectively. McNeil runs home. It’s 5-4. Maybe we really do win every game like this. Alonso is up. He’s hit by a pitch, according to sight-impaired home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn. He’s not, according to informal replay review. Martinez, however, doesn’t request an official version, so Alonso trots to first. I don’t like it. It takes the bat out of Alonso’s hands. I have more confidence in him as a hitter than as a gift baserunner. I have even more confidence in the next hitter, J.D. Davis, the revelation of the weekend, than I do in Alonso or anybody in this suddenly stacked Mets lineup, but this doesn’t feel right. I’m not playing. I’m not managing. I’m feeling. My gut is in a pennant race, too.

Davis strikes out looking. Another pitching change is made. Ramos lines out to left field. He got good wood on it, but that’s one of the stories of Sunday. Balls the Mets hit aren’t carrying as far as we think they might or landing where they’d do us the most good. Balls the Nats hit are eluding our gloves and refusing to be handled with care. Some days are just like that. One is tempted to go overboard and add, “…but this wasn’t just any day.” This was the Sunday when we could sweep the Nats and leap the pack. This was the prospective ninth victory in a row. This was momentum incarnate on the line. But, honestly, it was just one day.

Is winning better than losing is worse? The answer is not winning is worst of all. We’d been gorging on winning for more than a week. We had a taste for triumph. To go unsated at this point was practically cruel in our skewed view of the new world in which we contended. Despite the pile of manure this game was leaving behind, it was only 5-4. There must be a pony of a tying run in there somewhere.

Jeurys Familia, the fifth Met reliever of the day was very good in the eighth, striking out the side. It could have been 2014 again, except the Mets weren’t contending for anything then, so we had to content ourselves with our good-looking setup man looking better and better with every outing. He looked so good going into 2015 that when Jenrry Mejia, our closer of record, accidentally ingested some performance-enhancing substances (it’s always by accident), no Mets fan flinched at the idea of Familia hunting saves. He bagged a slew of them for two years. He’d been mostly lost in the wild ever since. Good to have a glimpse of the Jeurys we knew and didn’t automatically cringe at.

In the home eighth, the Mets did nothing. Nothing at all. Not a hint of a rally. Not a wisp of offense. There was still another inning to go, but in that active gut of mine, I mixed metaphors and sort of threw in the towel. You could overstuff washers and dryers with all the metaphorical towels I’d thrown in from this team, but sometimes you know deep in your knots that it’s not your day. I was willing to be shocked from my certainty (I also thought Friday night was hopeless going to the bottom of the ninth), but another resurrection would have really surprised me.

Not quite stunning but extremely disappointing was Edwin Diaz not following forcefully in the encouraging footsteps of Familia. He struck out the pesky Trea Turner, needlessly walked Eaton, struck out 2020 Mets third baseman Rendon (if only) and appeared poised to emerge unscathed in his first ninth inning in ages. He didn’t even have to face Soto. Victor Robles had replaced him since the ankle sprain.

Alas, Robles took Diaz deep to up the Nationals’ lead to 7-4, and that was basically that. I didn’t care that Sean Doolittle, the gift that had kept on giving Friday night, was going to attempt to close out the Mets and that Doolittle is this generation’s Dave Smith. Smith was a dynamite closer for the Astros in 1986 yet blew up when having to quell the Mets in the NLCS. My mother would get very smug at the sight of Dave Smith. I urged her to cool it with that, that the baseball gods don’t care for such attitude. I would have urged Mets fans at Citi Field the same thing on Sunday, except I was already unknotting and disengaging. We had McNeil, Rosario and Conforto due up. Most days I have faith in them against anybody. But karma was due up in the other dugout. Doolittle wasn’t going to blow every lead. Cabrera wasn’t going to leave unjustified in his mind. Soto could ice his ankle in peace. Whatever. I don’t care for the Nationals, but they don’t lose on command. The Mets went down in order and their beautiful winning streak was a thing of the past [7].

When Sunday was all sorted out, the Cardinals had stormed from behind to crush the Pirates. The Brewers were blanked by the Sans-drubal Rangers. Philadelphia fell apart in San Fran. Arizona couldn’t touch L.A. Cincinnati…do we care what Cincinnati does? There are too many teams to track diligently, but the bottom line is the Mets weren’t in first place for the second Wild Card, yet they were still pretty close to it, just a game from postseason access if the season ended Sunday. The season, as you are keenly aware, keeps going beyond Sunday. There are seven weeks left, 44 Mets games in all, a whole bunch whose machinations are as likely as not to wrench guts all over Metsopotamia.

In other words, baseball like it oughta be.