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Ghost of a Chance

Perhaps they showed up better on TV, but from Promenade at Citi Field, those Casper the Friendly Ghost tribute togs the Mets wore Friday night in deference to Players Weekend marketing concerns were hard to make out. White pants. White shirts. White caps. White numbers. An offensive attack that amounted to a collective white flag. (The visiting Braves wore very dark black; my buddy Kevin confessed he thought several of the umpires had joined them in an elaborate infield shift.) The Mets we’ve come to know and love were also hard to make out. What happened to the players who rally brilliantly at least once per game? Where did our beautiful winning streak slip off to? And as long as we’re posing pertinent questions, when did summer’s heat morph into autumnal chill?

The Flushing Bay breeze, which probably would have felt delightful had your correspondent not been tethered to the idea that shorts and short sleeves are seasonably suitable for August 23, was no doubt amplified by the surfeit of swinging and missing down below. If you liked strikeouts and didn’t care about context, this was the game for you. Mets pitchers struck out Braves hitters 26 times, setting a franchise record, tying the major league mark and cramming the matrix board fronting the Porsche Grill with thinly sliced K after K after K. Such an accumulation would have been astounding to contemplate in a nine-inning game. Instead, it wound up a footnote to a fourteen-inning loss [1]. The Mets batters, who for the most part could not accurately be called hitters, struck out 14 times themselves. They likewise put nine runners on base and drove not a one of them home.

Except for Jacob deGrom [2]. He put himself on all the bases simultaneously via a sixth-inning home run whose only shortcoming was that Jacob (or “deGrom,” per his chosen Players Weekend nickname, bless his no-nonsense soul) couldn’t bat in front of himself as well and therefore couldn’t serve as his own ghost runner [3]. If he could have, I don’t doubt deGrom would have driven in as many of him who were on base as possible. Alas, deGrom’s dinger off Mike Foltynewicz was a solo job, which seems appropriate in light of how much Jacob still has to do for himself with this team.

It could have been 2018 out there at Citi Field. It was a lot like June 2, 2018, to be exact, the night Mets pitchers, led by their leader, struck out 24 Cubs in fourteen innings [4], establishing a milestone that would last not quite fifteen months. Then, Jacob went seven innings, was responsible for thirteen of those K’s, and the Mets went on to lose, 7-1. The Mets also intended to give out Todd Frazier fleeces that night, but the items the Mets were sent from their supplier weren’t up to their lofty standards, so they gave out rainchecks instead.

Friday, we got the thirteen strikeouts in seven innings again from deGrom. We got the fourteen innings again. We got the one run scored again. Oh, we got the loss again. We could have used the fleece. Seriously, it was chilly up in 508.

The difference between a frustrating no-decision for deGrom from 2018 and a current-year model was the Mets were falling into an abyss last season and have risen high above the one where they appeared permanently mired this season. This made Friday’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Atlanta both more maddening and less miserable. Of course we who stuck around for all fourteen innings wanted a reward beyond the giveaway POLAR BEAR 20 t-shirts that never comfortably fit us full-figured types. We wanted to continue gaining ground in the Wild Card race. We wanted to win a sixth in a row. I wanted to win a sixth in a row in terms of my personal Citi Field attendance. Our sights are elevated these days. That there’s something substantial to play for might make an individual loss sting worse, but it’s also perversely satisfying to know in your bones that it matters. Losing a fairly big game beats losing a relatively meaningless game.

But losing is losing, and the Braves did the beating, so, really, we’re splitting hairs, which, coincidentally, are what most of the Mets could have used in lieu of bats Friday night. There were a couple of golden opportunities to send the Braves back to the Grand Hyatt grumbling that these Mets are just impossible right now. We loaded the bases off frigging Anthony Swarzak [5] in the tenth; Wilson Ramos [6], in for a possibly concussed Tomás Nido [7], stole a bag for the first time in his plodding career…though maybe the official scorer simply thought he saw a ghost. Whatever it was, it was to no ultimate avail. We got Joe Panik [8] to third base with one out in the eleventh, yet abandoned him there. The heart of the order, the guys whose shirts we’ve either seen torn from their torsos in celebration (Conforto, Davis) or whose shirts we were wrapping ourselves in as we sought extra-inning warmth (Alonso), went a combined 1-for-16. We ran through just about everybody we had — every reliever but Chris Flexen pitched, plus Steven Matz pinch-hit — yet all the Mick’s horses and all the Mick’s men couldn’t measure up to deGrom.

A homer hit and more than a dozen hitters fanned. Jacob accomplished those dual feats in Miami in April [9] and he did it again Friday. He passed 200 strikeouts for the season…again. If he’s not a Cy Young winner for a second consecutive campaign, he’ll finish in the top tier. If we’re not playing ball in October, it won’t be because of him.

Our potential playoff absence will likely have something to do with the rest of what transpires on nights like these, when magic isn’t so easily conjured by a lineup that usually seems naturally supernatural and when the bullpen can hold and hold for only so long until it is bound to break. Our pitchers were clever enough to wear black caps to offset the brightness of the rest of their Players Weekend ensemble, so hats off to not only their fashion sense, but all the relievers did to keep the Mets’ collective pulse beating from the eighth until the fourteenth (7 IP, 13 SO). Edwin Diaz [10] and Paul Sewald [11], unusual suspects when it comes to confidence and competence, deserve special praise for not imploding on contact. I also have to hand it to the fans a few sections over who urged on our deposed closer with a non-sarcastic chant of “ED-WIN DI-AZ!” Everybody’s a beloved Met when the Mets are going well.

Not so beloved when all was said and done: Jeurys Familia [12], lately pretty good, Friday night not so much. A leadoff walk, a ground-rule double that wasn’t an RBI triple thanks to a helpful center field fence crevice that caught one of the few balls Juan Lagares couldn’t (whacked, natch, by a predictably vengeful Adeiny Hechavarría [13]) and a lousy little single just past a drawn-in-infield created all the havoc the Braves required. Familia keeping it 2-1 headed to the fourteenth-inning stretch was a small miracle, one destined to go unappreciated on the Rotunda stairs, where a clever man announced to all who involuntarily overheard him this Players Weekend:

“HIS NICKNAME SHOULD BE TURD! FAMILIA SHOULD CHANGE HIS NUMBER TO THREE SO HIS NICKNAME CAN BE TURD! THAT’S WHAT HE PITCHED LIKE! A TURD! HE PITCHED LIKE A TURD!”

Yeah, I suppose, but the overall tenor emanating from those filing out of Citi Field wasn’t really angry as all that. Mostly, it was quiet. The last five times I’ve exited the ballpark, it was raucous, LET’S GO METS! and the like blanketing most attempts at conversation. Perhaps I was hearing raucousness’s inevitable inverse. We — Mets and Mets fans — have generated a ton of noise of late. Friday, the Met motif was ghostly uniforms, invisible offense and eerie silence as the clock neared midnight. Saturday is Fireworks Night. Maybe we’ll explode once more.