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Jordan Vu All Over Again

On a scale of 1 to 10, Tuesday night’s inarguably epic Mets defeat [1] at Washington, in which for the first time in their history they gave up a ninth-inning lead of six runs to lose ASAP, was a Brian Jordan. The second Brian Jordan Game, to be exact, September 29, 2001, Mets leading the Braves, 5-1, heading to the bottom of the ninth at Turner Field, about to trim Atlanta’s lead to three games in the National League East with the series finale the next day and one more week to go in the exhilarating race to make something out of the big nothing that had been the 2001 season not to mention inject that particular autumn in New York with a shot of joy it could really use.

That’s all that was going on when Armando Benitez took the ball in a non-save situation after Al Leiter threw eight four-hit innings, his only blemish a third-inning solo home run to Julio Franco. Closers in non-save situations could be dicey — and Benitez was Benitez — but c’mon. The Mets were winning by four a game they had to win. The Mets had gotten to this weekend by winning 25 of 31 games. It was 25 of 32 after Steve Trachsel lost Friday night, but that was all right. The Mets were resilient (an irresistible metaphor for a New York team at that moment). Brian Jordan had engineered a briefly dispiriting defeat the previous Sunday at Shea: a homer off Benitez in the ninth as part of a three-run rally that tied what also seemed like a sure Mets win that had been started and steered expertly by Leiter for eight innings; and a homer in the eleventh off Jerrod Riggan that gave John Smoltz a lead to lock down. The season seemed all but over when the former NL Cy Young awardee, rejuvenated as an elite reliever, flied out pinch-hitter Mark Johnson to end a 5-4 momentum-squelching debacle.

Yet those Mets had been all about momentum, beginning on August 18, clear up to September 9, then — after a week when baseball wasn’t played because are you kidding? — somehow picking up all over again on September 17, even if baseball seemed incredibly unimportant. Seemed? Was. But the Mets played and the Mets won before the first Brian Jordan Game, September 23, and after the first Brian Jordan Game. They went to Montreal and swept the Expos, allowing them to arrive in Atlanta three games from first place, a week-and-a-half from conceivably forging a miracle that would take its place alongside 1969 and 1973, maybe above it. The Mets were winning for New York in September 2001. It still wasn’t important, but there they were, doing it. How could it not be important?

On Saturday, September 29, 2001, at Turner Field, which was well-established as “Turner Field” in the Met mindset, Benitez began the ninth by giving up a single to Andruw Jones. Jones took second on defensive indifference. Armando then struck out Ken Caminiti. True, Javy Lopez singled in Jones to make it 5-2, but Armando followed the RBI by striking out pinch-hitter Dave Martinez. Two outs, runner on first, three-run lead.

Keith Lockhart walked.

Marcus Giles doubled, scoring Lopez and Lockhart. It was 5-4.

Julio Franco was intentionally walked to set up a double play; Bobby Cox pinch-ran Jesse Garcia.

Bobby Valentine replaced Benitez with John Franco, the Mets closer from 1990 until an injury and Armando’s subsequent lights-out work nudged him to a setup role in the middle of 1999. Franco, as of September 29, 2001, had accumulated 422 major league saves, albeit only two of them that year.

Pinch-hitter Wes Helms walked on a full count to load the bases.

Jordan was up. Franco got two strikes on him. All it would take was one more strike to preserve the 5-4 win, move the Mets to within three games of first place with seven games to go, maybe send the Braves reeling and the Mets surging. Anything was possible.

Including, as it turned out, the second Brian Jordan Game, so named because Jordan belted Franco’s next and last pitch over the Turner Field wall for a grand slam, accounting for the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh runs of the bottom of the ninth inning. The Braves only needed the first two, but they all crossed the plate. The Mets lost, 8-5.

And, like Diana Morales in A Chorus Line, I felt nothing. Nothing [2]. It was as if a vital organ had been removed from inside of me. All that I had poured into being a Mets fan over the previous five seasons, dating back to the renaissance of 1997; through the replenishing successes that were laced with agonizing near-misses in 1998, 1999 and 2000; and this season when the Mets buried themselves early and often yet somehow emerged a legitimate September contender against the most horrible municipal backdrop imaginable, had all dissipated into a void.

We had won 25 of 33. We were four out with seven to play. We could still pick up a game on the Braves on Sunday. The Pirates and Expos, two very beatable teams, were due at Shea. Anything had been possible. Anything, technically, was still possible.

“But I felt nothing. Except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd.”

The Mets did indeed beat the Braves on Sunday, September 30, 2001, 9-6. It had been 9-3 in the eighth, but Brian Jordan swatted a three-run homer off Grant Roberts to close the gap. Armando Benitez, in his 73rd appearance of an incredibly long season, struck out the Atlanta side — Julio Franco looking, Keith Lockhart swinging, Dave Martinez swinging — to record his 43rd save, the most by any Met reliever until Jeurys Familia surpassed his record fifteen years later. It was the last time Benitez would pitch in 2001, the last time he’d come to the mound in a cap bearing the FDNY logo. Every Met paid homage to the first responders that way every game. Major League Baseball didn’t necessarily approve the gesture. The Mets didn’t care. Or the Mets cared too much for their city and those who gave their lives in an effort to rescue its citizens to bother heeding directives from MLB.

The caps and the thought behind them were hard to miss. You could get riled up at Benitez and John Franco (who was done pitching until 2003, thanks to impending Tommy John surgery) and all the other relievers who gave up home runs to Brian Jordan. You could fume that the Mets, as was regularly the case in the tumultuous Bobby V era, couldn’t beat the Braves when it really, really mattered. But you couldn’t stay mad at them.

When they returned to Shea, the Mets went quietly. They were eliminated by Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, October 2. They completed their appointed rounds against Montreal on Sunday afternoon, October 7. They finished the 2001 season 82-80, six games out with none to play. The same day they stopped playing baseball, America went to war in Afghanistan. On Thursday, September 20, one night before baseball would be played in New York for the first time since September 11, President Bush went before a joint session of Congress and signaled his intentions for taking on the terrorists behind the deadly attacks on four commercial airliners, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes,” Bush said. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” Eighteen years later, America’s military involvement in Afghanistan is not finished.

Bush’s speech was well-received. On the same Sunday that his words would be put into action — as the Mets were bowing to the Expos to close out their schedule — the New York Times Magazine ran a behind-the-scenes piece examining how the address came together. In “The Making of the Speech [3],” it was revealed that a quote from Franklin Roosevelt was suggested for inclusion: “We defend and we build a way of life, not for America alone, but for all mankind.” But it was discarded, according to those in the room because, “The president didn’t want to quote anyone else.” I found that choice curious, given the opportunity to draw a parallel between the challenges that faced the United States in World War II after Pearl Harbor created a global conflict the nation could no longer avoid and the current situation. Yet I also kind of saw what I hoped was Bush’s point beyond personal hubris: that not every current situation necessarily arrives equipped with an easily analogous precedent…and that every calamity and the challenges it presents is unique unto itself.

The 2019 Mets could have been construed as done on Thursday, August 29, when Jacob deGrom [4] pitched effectively against the Chicago Cubs for six innings, only to surrender a three-run homer to the previously obscure Victor Caratini in the seventh. Caratini had reached deGrom for a home run earlier, a solo shot. The Mets, as they generally don’t, didn’t score for deGrom all night, save for a J.D. Davis dinger in the first. The three-run job was decisive. The Mets lost, 4-1, and we were swept three straight by the team they were ostensibly chasing for the second Wild Card in the National League. It was their sixth loss in a row overall, dropping them five games behind Chicago with three teams between them besides. “Good night, sweet Metsies”, I tweeted as Caratini’s second home run left the yard, carrying with it, I believed in my bones, our dwindling playoff hopes.

Yet the truth was our hopes hadn’t fully dwindled. Twenty-nine games remained. The Mets traveled to Philadelphia and took two of three from one of the teams directly in their Wild Card path. On Labor Day, they alighted in Washington and trounced the Nats, possessors of the first Wild Card and their likely foe in the Wild Card Game should the Mets make it that far. They had picked up a game on the Cubs since the previous Thursday. It wasn’t much, and they hadn’t passed anybody among the Phillies, Brewers or Diamondbacks, but September was young and twenty-five games remained as of Tuesday, September 3. Just keep winning, and the hopes that once appeared dwindled could just as easily reverse and grow.

DeGrom was starting again. Despite everything we say about the Mets inevitably finding a way not to take advantage of the presence of their defending Cy Young award-winner, you couldn’t have asked for a better chance. You also couldn’t have asked for a more implacable starting pitcher on the other end. The Nationals were going with Max Scherzer, who has a few Cy Youngs himself. Scherzer flashed the Cy Young form more convincingly, keeping the Mets hitless through three. DeGrom was in scuffle mode. Not struggling, but definitely scuffling, looking uncomfortable and allowing extra-base hits accurately described as ringing. A lesser pitcher would have melted. Jacob hung tough and kept the Mets within one run of Scherzer.

In the fourth, the Mets jumped on Max, first-pitch swinging and connecting. Pete Alonso [5] singled. Michael Conforto [6] singled. Wilson Ramos [7], hitting streak climbing to 26, doubled to tie the game. Brandon Nimmo [8] needed four pitches to deliver a sac fly that put the Mets ahead. Joe Panik [9] needed just one to crush his first Met homer and furnish deGrom with a 4-1 lead.

Jake hung in. Still not at his finest, but good enough. He produced a pair of double-play balls as needed. Kurt Suzuki reached him for an RBI single in the sixth, but that was it (tip of the cap to Matt Adams running the bases in a back-and-forth motion and therefore short-circuiting further damage). The Mets got through seven with a 4-2 lead, then increased it when Jeff McNeil [10] homered off Roenis Elias to lead off the eighth. Ninety-five pitches of scuffling in, Mickey Callaway couldn’t have asked for a better transition to sufficiently rested Seth Lugo [11].

Instead, deGrom was sent out to start the eighth. I thought of Grady Little extending Pedro Martinez a bit too far in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, but precedent is neither exact nor everything. Jacob deGrom, like Pedro Martinez, is never the worst bet in the house.

Jake gave up a little ground ball to Anthony Rendon that Todd Frazier [12] couldn’t wrap a hand around. It became an infield hit. There are worse things that Rendon can do. Juan Soto could do no worse than smash a two-run homer to bring the Nats to within 5-4. That’s exactly what he did on deGrom’s hundredth and final pitch. Out went the ace of our rotation, in came the ace of our bullpen. Seth needed ten pitches to create three popouts.

Machinations over who would pitch for the Mets quickly morphed into a state of superfluousness, because in the top of the ninth, the visitors battered those who pitched for the Nats. Elias was the victim of another leadoff homer, this one to the resuscitated Nimmo. After Panik singled, Davey Martinez — who was the Dave Martinez in the middle of the bottom of the ninth of the second Brian Jordan Game — brought in Daniel Hudson. The Mets proceeded to sail on Hudson. A wild pitch. An error. A walk. An incredibly baffling error of omission by Trea Turner who didn’t turn an easily turnable 6-4-3 double play, instead throwing to first with one out. McNeil responded by singling in two more runs and Alonso followed with his 44th home run of the season, the Polar Bear marking Nationals Park as his territory for the first time since the 2018 Futures Game. Heading to the bottom of the ninth, the Mets held a lead of 10-4.

In a parallel universe, we question the wisdom of Callaway wasting Lugo’s precious pitches with a six-run lead. Mickey won’t use Seth on consecutive days. He has to be careful with his de facto closer’s right shoulder. The six-run lead provided the skipper with an excuse for removing Lugo at once and returning him to his glass case. Still, this was September. These were important games. If the manager were tempted to stretch Lugo, this was the month to do it. A day game awaited Wednesday. It would sure be nice to have Seth available had he thrown just those ten pitches in the eighth inning Tuesday. But nailing down a win that isn’t yet won is also important. Could you really blame Callaway for keeping Lugo in with a six-run lead? So what if it was Mets 10 Nats 4? Three outs are three outs. Better to let Seth get them and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

That’s a helluva parallel universe. I don’t know how we get there other than in theory. In the only universe we’ve got, Mickey did, in fact, remove Seth Lugo with a six-run lead, entrusting it instead to Paul Sewald [13]. Sewald had pitched well enough upon his latest promotion from Triple-A to earn trust. “Owns a 1.23 ERA (one earned run/7.1 innings) with a walk and 13 strikeouts over his last six appearances,” per the game notes the Mets communications staff e-mailed on Tuesday afternoon.

Sewald’s first batter was Victor Robles, who led off with an infield single. Pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick next sent a ball to deep right, but Conforto caught it for the first out. Turner, making amends for his botched DP in the top of the inning, hit one Conforto couldn’t catch. It went for a double that scored Robles to make it 10-5. No biggie, I figured. All it cost us was an easy CB radio joke.

Asdrubal Cabrera, who had greeted his former teammate deGrom in the first with one of those ringing doubles, came through off Sewald, too, singling Turner to third. Rendon, the heart of any order, beat Paul with a single to left, bringing in Trea. It was 10-6. It was time for Sewald to go.

Luis Avilán [14] was called on for the express purpose of retiring Soto, who isn’t old enough to clearly remember Brian Jordan. Juan will turn 21 on Christmas Day. On Tuesday night, he stuffed his stocking with a single to right, loading the bases and ending Luis’s evening. The next batter for Washington would be Ryan Zimmerman, a part of their organization since shortly after it migrated from Montreal in 2005. He’d be facing Edwin Diaz [15], about whom I came to a swift decision: if he got out of this, I’d pretend to forget everything Edwin did wrong prior to getting out of this. Diaz blew saves left, right and center back when we still thought of Seth Lugo as one on his setup guys. But there’d been much talk about the erstwhile Seattle saver having gotten his slider back. Phil Regan worked with him diligently. DeGrom offered a valuable tip. During the Cubs series, in the rainy game when I had a very good look at him from behind home plate [16], I saw the Mariner monster I’d heard so much about last winter. He really did seem to have his act reconvened. Diaz was gonna be fine. This was gonna be fine. It was still Mets 10 Nats 6.

Except Zimmerman, David Wright’s good childhood friend (I wondered who the Captain was rooting for here if he was watching) doubled quite convincingly. Asdrubal scored. Anthony scored. Juan was on third. We see the Nats enough to be on a first-name basis with them. We were hoping to address them personally in early October in that Wild Card Game. That was a ways off, but at the very least, we had an appointment to try and sweep them Wednesday. That framework was in the bag at 10-4, good buddy. It still seemed reasonably certain at 10-6. But now it was 10-8, Nationals were on second and third and Suzuki was due up.

You know how you see one random player do one random thing in one random game and you never forget it and your impression of that player’s capabilities are forever more colored by that one random thing? I saw Kurt Suzuki homer off R.A. Dickey for the Oakland A’s at Citi Field on June 22, 2011. It was Suzuki’s only hit that night. He was batting .225 when the game was over, a game the Mets won in thirteen. Nevertheless, I became certain from there on out that Kurt Suzuki was put on this earth to kill the Mets. I seem to recall him doing so for the Braves the last couple of years. I seem to recall every Braves catcher since Javy Lopez doing so for the last couple of decades, actually, so I can’t say my impression fully meets reality. Kurt is a lifetime .244 hitter against the Mets.

That’s after last night. That’s after I thought, at the sight of him stepping in against Diaz, “Well, we’re screwed.” Which we were, because it’s also after Suzuki ended his eight-pitch, full-count at-bat by cranking Diaz’s last pitch into the left field grandstand for a three-run home run.

The Mets lost, 11-10. The score rang a bell. They’d lost 11-10 games six previous times, according to Baseball Reference. The first one was the one resonating in memory: Expos 11 Mets 10, April 8, 1969, the first game of the season fifty years ago, the first game the Expos ever played. Exactly five months later, Jerry Koosman would be knocking down Ron Santo and the Mets would be on the verge of taking first place from the Cubs, a feat they would accomplish two nights hence by sweeping the very same Expos in a twi-night doubleheader at Shea. In between April 8 and September 10 there was a black cat and plenty of time to make up for an 11-10 defeat.

This 11-10 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Expos once removed doesn’t have a lot of time on the other side of it. While the Mets were blowing the largest ninth-inning lead they’ve ever blown (after scoring five in the top of the ninth, no less), everybody they are chasing won, leaving the Mets five games back with twenty-four to go. Most post-Diaz games this year, the Mets have evinced an undisturbed attitude. Baseball, they explained in so many words, is one game after another, and you shake off the last game and go play the next game. It’s an attitude that’s served them well.

Some of the Mets said something like that Tuesday night, but not without implying this might be different. Brandon Nimmo, the heretofore happiest man in baseball, confessed, “It kind of seemed like a bad dream,” and for a change he wasn’t smiling.

Me, I felt nothing — except the feeling that this bullshit was absurd.