First, it rained. Of course it rained. It wouldn’t have been a rainy Wednesday night without the rain. Rain delayed the start of the Mets-Cubs game twelve minutes, which was fine, because my pal Rob texted me that he was stuck in traffic and hence wasn’t going to meet me by the Apple as arranged in time for us to see first pitch. It’s been the summer of first pitches missed. Five weeks ago, my pal Matt was stuck in traffic and we missed the entire first inning. For someone who has never driven to Citi Field, I certainly find myself affected by pregame traffic. That hot day in July, the Mets scored four runs off San Diego while Matt snaked his way into the parking lot, and nobody scored during the eight innings of the resulting Mets 4-0 win while we were present. A seven-game winning streak ensued, followed by a loss, followed by eight more wins in a row. Missing that first inning versus the Padres was what you call a pleasant problem.
The twelve-minute delay wasn’t long enough to ward off the Cubs, apparently. I say “apparently” because I’m not certain of all the details of the first inning in Flushing Wednesday night. Rob showed up with the game in progress. We hoofed it ASAP to the Seaver entrance, a privilege afforded by our uncommonly swanky tickets. Rob was impressed with the accommodations. “I usually go in the Gl@v!ne entrance,” he noted.
Rob had no idea how prescient he was.
Once inside the Seaver entrance, we grabbed a glance of a monitor. The Cubs had already scored a run off Noah Syndergaard and had a couple of runners on. While we lined up for the elevator, we noticed the score was suddenly 2-0, Cubs. Then we realized lining up for an elevator was a fool’s errand when all we needed was a staircase for the one flight up to the seats our uncommonly swanky tickets afforded us. The decision to climb was also facilitated by some Seaver entrance patron who had barked at me when he thought I was trying to cut his precious elevator line when, in fact, I had no idea New Yorkers waited on (or in) line for an elevator and I thought we were all bunching up like normal people. “Screw this guy,” I more or less said, “let’s take the stairs.”
Rob suggested that when we beat this guy upstairs by taking the stairs, we should wait where he’d be getting off the elevator and make it clear we made it up there first despite the order he imposed on his spiffy queue. But that wasn’t our mission. We had seats to sit in and a game to catch up to. It would take some doing to understand what we were missing, because right about the time a few Cubs fans graciously stood long enough to permit passage into our row, it was becoming 4-0. Later encounters with those Cubs fans would indicate they weren’t the most gracious sorts. Perhaps they were standing to applaud their team. I still wasn’t sure what exactly was taking place on the field, except that it wasn’t good.
Seated, Rob and I got our bearings. Great seats, thanks to another pal, Brian, who had furnished us with these tickets. Brian and Mitch were inside enjoying a quick first-inning dinner without the agita of what we were digesting in front of us: the Cubs extending their top-of-the-first inning lead to 6-0, runner after runner, run upon run. By the time all four of us were together in the tenth row from home plate, basically directly behind home plate (seriously swanky), the reality of the situation set in: we had all filtered in via the Gl@v!ne entrance.
Seven runs in the top of the first twelve years ago as a season’s fate died on the vine. Rob brought it up when it hit 6-0. Brian brought it up when he and Mitch sat down. The worst beginning to any Mets game ever invoked twice, independently, in a span of maybe two minutes. Infamy was in the air. Also, rain. That dainty delay of twelve minutes would seem inadequate as Morton’s Salt signed a sponsorship deal for the innings to come. “When it rains, it pours.” I pulled from my security-imposed tote bag my trusty blue SiriusXM disposable poncho. It was handed to me on Mets Plaza prior to the Home Opener in 2011. I never disposed of it. It dries quite nicely. It got quite a workout during the summer of 2015 and we won a pennant. It got quite a workout Wednesday night as it began to hit me in full that we probably won’t win another this year.
Say, I still haven’t mentioned how exactly the Mets fell behind, 6-0, in the first, or, for that matter, 8-1 in the second or 10-1 in the third. I never really absorbed that top of the first. My poncho absorbed rain better than I absorbed normally pertinent details. The tops of the second and third, I can definitively report, seemed to involve hard-hit balls and plays not made and, in the literal middle of the wet field, Syndergaard. Still pitching, eh? Even Willie Randolph knew enough to take out T#m Gl@v!ne on September 30, 2007, after Gl@v!ne was down, 5-0, with the bases loaded one-third of an inning into Shea Stadium’s longest afternoon . Jorge Sosa would come in and give up two more runs in the first. They’d be charged to Gl@v!ne. Good. It wasn’t like we were ever gonna see that guy in our uniform again.
Syndergaard we’ll be seeing in a few days. Gotta care for and feed the sometimes delicate ecosystem that is Thor. Noah can dominate a game like nobody else. He can also pitch into the teeth of a struggle. He’s never 10 runs in 3 innings bad. Nobody is. Yet he was. Mickey left him in there to find himself at various intervals when there seemed good reason to remove him. I say “seemed” because the first inning was a rumor to me and the second and third were rainy blurs.
Still, this may have been the first recorded case of Mets fans asking one another, “What’s the matter with Callaway leaving Syndergaard in and not going to his bullpen sooner?” Oh, that Mets bullpen! When its first representative appeared in the person of Paul Sewald (0-13 lifetime, but let’s not mention that every time he pokes his head into the action, though that’s exactly what I do), I was just relieved that Noah was being relieved. Per Bob Murphy’s always useful instructions, I fastened my seatbelt for further Cubbie onslaught.
It never came. We received two highly competent innings from a heretofore inept pitcher, aided mightily by the outstanding defensive center fielder Juan Lagares, who a) should be stationed in center every single game and b) never bat if at all possible. Lagares led off the fifth and grounded out to keep the game 10-1. Then the Mets promotions people descended en masse from the mists of my always active memory to hand out a passel of bumper stickers left over from 1983, the ones that read, “NOW THE FUN STARTS.”
Yes! Fun! It was 10-1, I was all wet, I was silently composing today’s column about how the Mets’ improbable charge at a 2019 Wild Card died on the moist grass of Citi Field this sodden Wednesday night (prospective headline: “Requiem for a Contender”)…and Fun! Upper-case that bad boy! Exclamation point! That’s how much Fun! we were in for.
Todd Frazier pinch-hit for Sewald. Todd Frazier is from Toms River and is known as the Toddfather. Those facts were handy to an enthusiastic fellow in the row behind us who repeatedly blurted out (reblurted?) whatever one or two things he knew about any given Met over and over again as he urged each and every one of them to “GET A BASE KNOCK!” Dude also knew his baseball slang. But, hey, that’s OK, because we’re not at a baseball game to be silent, to stew, to invoke T#m Gl@v!ne, to self-appoint ourselves captain of the elevator line, to not stand to let somebody into your row (go back to Joliet, you dullards). We’re at a ballgame to tell the “TODDFATHER!” to “DO IT FOR TOMS RIVER!”
Frazier did as he was told, bopping a Kyle Hendricks 86 MPH sinker off the top of the left field wall, where it struck the orange line. I know it was an 86 MPH sinker because it’s amazing the things you can look up the day after the game. The orange line thing was more mysterious. The Toddfather landed at second with a double. Brian wanted to know why it wasn’t a homer, given the orange line’s role in its destination. Isn’t the orange line there to denote a home run? Perhaps, I pondered, but then how is it Dave Augustine’s ball off the top of the wall on September 20, 1973 (no orange line in those days, but same basic spot), wasn’t ruled a home run? Instead, as every schoolchild in the Metropolitan Area recounted at the bus stop the next morning, it popped into Cleon Jones’s glove, Jones relayed it to Garrett and Garrett zipped it to Ron Hodges, and Richie Zisk, no match in a foot race for Wilson Ramos, was out at the plate.
Four innings after we all fished Gl@v!ne out of our shared Mets fan experience, we were square inside You Gotta Believe territory . Isn’t being a Mets fan baseball like it oughta be?
Mickey Callaway saw Frazier’s double as Brian did. He challenged the call so that it could be converted into a home run. Somebody in Chelsea watched multiple angles and said, “nah, Augustine,” or something like that. Frazier was on second.
Then he was across the plate because Jeff McNeil homered directly after him. J.D. Davis homered directly after McNeil. The rest of the fifth inning would encompass a single from Michael Conforto, an inadvertent plunking of Ramos (hitting streak already up to 21), an RBI single from Joe Panik, Joe Maddon’s seen-enough dismissal of Hendricks despite a large lead and a decision within one out’s reach (because winning the game is the thing in late August, Mickey) and an Amed Rosario single that drove in deceptively swift Ramos.
Holy fudge, the Mets, so recently hopeless at 10-1, were back in the game at 10-6 and shoving hope in our eager faces. It was only the fifth inning, but what a fifth inning. This was a fifth inning you could shake off your poncho during and luxuriate in. This was the second half of the Mets season writ microcosmically — the good part, the part when the Mets won seven in a row, fifteen of sixteen, twenty-one of twenty-six. Not the part where we were swept by the Braves, lost Tuesday night to the Cubs , and trailed Chicago by nine to prematurely entomb Wednesday.
The guy behind us kept yelling encouraging messages at the Mets and unflattering descriptions of each Cub. The Cubs fans nearby wore punims that meshed nicely with their blue jerseys. Baserunner after baserunner emerged for the home team. Maddon and his lieutenants trudged to the mound so often that they used up every visit the silly rule governing such temperature-takings allotted them. Sewald’s successors were every bit as effective as Sewald, which sounds like a terrible insult, but I swear I mean it as a compliment. Brad Brach, Edwin Diaz (three swinging strikeouts!!!), Luis Avilán…each was awesome, each kept the Cubs from coming close to scoring ever again. Rainy, depressing Wednesday had morphed into a zesty evening brimming with vim and vigor. You never would have guessed the Mets were once down, 10-1. You might have guessed the Mets were going to win, 11-10.
The actual answer amid all those guesses was the Mets lost, 10-7 . So many baserunners, so few key base knocks after the fifth. The fifth became the sixth through ninth. One run on five hits, two walks and a Cubs error. The very guy you wanted up in any inning always seemed to be left standing in the on-deck circle. With two out in the ninth, McNeil (3-for-5 and in possession of the National League’s highest batting average) indeed stood nearby as Frazier flied out to end the game. At least the Cubs and their fans, having hung on for dear life, didn’t seem to revel in their victory. All hail scant consolation!
It was fun there for a while, yet the same four-game deficit that loomed when Syndergaard departed was now set in stone. The same Wild Card bid looked more improbable than it had at any time since that golden 21-5 stretch got snarled in traffic out on the Whitestone Expressway. Lose this game, I thought throughout the dreary afternoon, and we’re about done. Well, we lost it. But we’re not done, I don’t think. I mean, yeah, maybe we are, but I don’t think it. Not after that fifth inning. Not after making up most of that margin. Not with deGrom going tonight. Not with Gl@vine leaving the psychic premises so soon and Zisk getting thrown out at the plate seeming relevant. Brian judged this game we had sat and soaked through among the Mets’ most stinging ever. “Not even in our bottom thousand,” I countered.
Did I mention deGrom is going tonight and if we win we can move back to within three of the lead for the second Wild Card? Once you dry off, you really do gotta believe at least a little.