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Only Mostly Dead

When is taking an 11-1 lead to the ninth inning not a laugher?

The answer isn’t “when you give the ball to Chris Mazza [1] and wind up wondering if he can get three outs before the other guys score 10,” though Friday night’s game felt that way for a fidgety spell. No, the answer is when that 11-1 score masks the fact that the game was 1-0 Phils going to the seventh and then tied going to the eighth, before the Mets put up five spots in the last two innings, with Todd Frazier [2] connecting for three-run homers in each.

Call it an exhaler, maybe.

Much of Friday night’s game [3] was a taut pitcher’s duel between Zack Wheeler [4], armed with a high, riding fastball, and Aaron Nola [5], armed with an evil change-up. Both used those key pitches to great effect. Wheeler was scratched for a run in the fifth, when J.T. Realmuto [6] hit a bloop that Michael Conforto [7] skidded on his belly to catch, with the annoyingly competent Adam Haseley [8] just beating his desperate heave home. After a spell of by now familiar frustration, the Mets countered in the seventh, when Wilson Ramos [9] came off the bench with the bases loaded and one out and smacked a liner over the head of Cesar Hernandez [10] at second. (That’s a 23-game hitting streak for the Buffalo, made even more impressive by the fact that he’s kept it alive by collecting hits in four games that he didn’t start.)

Wheeler is impressive when he has all the pitches in his formidable arsenal in hand, but that goes without saying. He was even more impressive Friday night because he had to battle, stranding leadoff runners in the first, third, and sixth.

The same fate awaited Justin Wilson [11], who entered a 1-1 game in the seventh and promptly surrendered a single to Corey Dickerson [12]. But Wilson went to work, fanning Realmuto and coaxing a double-play ball from Bryce Harper [13]. (Harper had the kind of night that can make even young fans feel grumpy and old, striking out twice and hitting into a double play before collecting an RBI double off Mazza while everyone in the Mets dugout was studiously averting their eyes.) In the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, Amed Rosario [14] — who’d missed a hanging curve from Nola an inning earlier — walloped a Mike Morin [15] slider up the middle for two runs. Frazier was next, and connected with a Jared Hughes [16] sinker for a low line drive over the left-field fence.

That sound you heard from a decent-sized minority in Citizens Bank Park and from a fair number of couches in the tri-state area was the whoops and yells of a fan base that could finally exhale after a week of hopes that curdled into frustration and despair.

It felt like an echo of a night that’s somehow become 20 years ago [17]. In September 1999, the Mets dropped seven in a row, one of those awful stretches in which your favorite team has seemingly forgotten how to play baseball. Into Shea came the Braves and Greg Maddux [18], looking to extinguish the Mets’ hopes. Emily and Greg and I were in the park, so tight with anxiety that we could barely cheer. The Mets trailed 2-1 in the fourth, because of course they did, and then came an avalanche of unthinkables: Darryl Hamilton single, Roger Cedeno [19] single, Rey Ordonez [20] single, Al Leiter [21] bloop single (yes really — and it tied the game too), Rickey Henderson [22] two-run single, Edgardo Alfonzo [23] single. Now it was 4-2, the bases were loaded, and we were howling — but the game was still tight and nothing had gone right for a week, leaving us still worried and begging for release. Then John Olerud [24] hit an 0-1 pitch over the fence for a grand slam, popping the cork on a week’s worth of emotions and unleashing bedlam, pandemonium and about a million stored-up furies.

That Mets team went on to play in October, fighting bravely until the last in an amazing though ultimately agonizing NLCS. This team’s fate is uncertain, but it faces a hard road. With the Cubs and Diamondbacks both winning, the Mets’ rewards were scant for a Friday night well spent: They drew even with the Brewers and to within two of the Phillies, remaining five out of that second wild card.

But such are the perils of squandering opportunities as time dwindles. However hard the road, the Mets won and let us all exhale. And maybe start to believe again, just a little. (Did you see J.D. Davis [25]‘s great throw to the plate? Didn’t Edwin Diaz [26] look like his old self?)

Why not? After all, this is a franchise that’s known a fairy tale or two. Remember The Princess Bride? Westley gets killed, but his friends bring his body to a healer (played by annoying mercenary Billy Crystal, but never mind that for a moment), who proclaims that Westley’s only mostly dead. All dead, he explains, means there’s nothing that can be done, but mostly dead is slightly alive.

Mostly dead is slightly alive. Maybe that doesn’t scream out to be a t-shirt slogan, but when you’re five out on the eve of September you take what you can get, and see what tomorrow might bring.