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One-Game Playoff

The knots [1] were back Sunday night. Troops of Boy Scouts, fleets of fishermen and stomachs belonging to Mets fans watching their team in the playoffs — these are the entities that know knots well. Except the Mets weren’t in the playoffs on Sunday night. It was the middle of September. Too soon for playoffs, but not too soon for a playoff atmosphere among the acids, which the truly initiated understand is where the real playoff atmosphere gurgles. Never mind the folderol about bright lights and cheering crowds. Your gut tells you when it’s go time.

If the series finale versus the Dodgers at Citi Field didn’t technically represent a play-in game, it felt like something more than a standard rubber match. Even at a juncture of the schedule when every outcome is important, this one loomed as crucial with a capital CRU. Mathematical elimination wasn’t at stake. Mathematical viability was.

Plus, the game aired on ESPN, which is capital CRUEL usually, but lent to the feeling that this was a dress rehearsal for October, when national telecasts take over and the volume on the television heads south. Howie Rose and Wayne Randazzo were thrust into a starring role for the evening, talking about a dozen seconds ahead of the network announcers, which was fitting, since I’m certain Howie and Wayne are far faster on the draw when it comes to the Mets than anybody parachuting into our storyline for a few hours.

Brandon Nimmo [2] did his best to ease the knotty nature of the night with a two-run triple in the second off Walker Buehler, no small task. Nimmo, we were reminded on Saturday [3], knows how to attract a pitch to his person. Good to see he hasn’t forgotten how to make contact with a ball via his bat.

Unfortunately, that was it for Met scoring. The lead was 2-0, which was halved in the fourth inning to 2-1, after which it stayed 2-1 seemingly forever, though deep in my gut, I knew forever was incapable of lasting without the lead lengthening. Game Five of the 2015 World Series was like that. I probably didn’t have to say the “2015” part, because it’s the only Game Five of a World Series (or a World Series at all) we’ve known from lately. Matt Harvey [4] went eight before Terry Collins decided to take him out with the Mets ahead, 2-0, then decided to keep him in. I probably didn’t have to spell that part out, either. We’re good at remembering the parts we wish we hadn’t learned to begin with.

The prime inflection point of Matt Harvey’s career is neither here nor there in 2019, except it segues into Zack Wheeler [5] and the game I think we’d all been waiting for him to pitch since July 28, 2011, when most of us heard of him for the first time. We were giving up Carlos Beltran, in the waning weeks of his Met contract, for a single-A pitcher in the Giants system. Carlos loomed as catnip for a contender. What we got back needed to be golden. Just wait, we were told. Wheeler’s a get.

So we waited. We waited two years for Wheeler’s major league debut, which was fine. We waited through two seasons of Wheeler’s further development, which was promising enough if not incredibly tantalizing. We waited through two years of injury and rehabilitation, which was unfortunate, but the way these things go sometimes. We waited through a choppy comeback year curtailed by another physical setback, which was frustrating. We waited until the latter half of yet another year to see, once and for all, the Zack Wheeler for whom the Mets traded a likely future Hall of Famer. That was uplifting in a downbeat kind of year, which meant Zack’s excellent last three months of 2018 got us and him only so far.

On September 15, 2019, the Zack Wheeler we heard about and imagined on July 28, 2011, arrived in full at Citi Field. Not that he hadn’t pitched wonderfully before, but he’d never had a stage like this before. The Wheeler who dominated in the shadow of Jacob deGrom in the second half of 2018 was doing his thing in a vacuum. It mattered that he pitch well, but it wasn’t CRUcial. The Wheeler who was a little up and down the way the 2019 Mets were for months could operate below the radar. On Sunday night, however, we had a game that had to be pitched beautifully against an intimidating opponent that had to be tamed in a circumstance where the fate of the season potentially rode on every last detail.

A pitcher suited to this moment was the bounty said to be worthy of Beltran eight years ago. A pitcher suited to this moment was who we got. We know that now. If nothing else is left for us from 2019 when the regular season is history two weeks hence, we have Zack Wheeler who stymied the Western Division champion Dodgers for seven innings, sometimes getting in trouble, every time getting out of it in front, keeping that game 2-1 forever for as long as he could.

All that talk about all the aces the Mets had brought through their system always rang a little hollow when it got to Wheeler. Zack was an ace in theory, on paper. Injuries were part of the explanation for why it never felt totally tangible. Context was, too. Either you’re so good you can’t be ignored regardless of how your team is going or you step up and carry your team where it needs to go. For seven innings, against the toughest opponent the league offers with as much on the line as there can be in the middle of September, Zack Wheeler was definitely who you trade a future Hall of Famer to get.

Those were seven extraordinary innings. One run; six hits; no walks; five Dodgers stranded on base; nine strikeouts; a lead held that had to be held; and, as with Wheeler’s old teammate Harvey on another Sunday night on another national telecast, the question of whether he had another inning in him.

To Harvey’s manager nearly four years ago, the answer was no, yes, no, yes, oh go ahead. To Wheeler’s manager, there didn’t seem to be much question. Wheeler was done after seven if you watched the dugout with the TV sound off as I did. I didn’t expect any different, honestly. The seventh was what they nowadays call a stressful inning. Corey Seager led off with a single. With one out, Gavin Lux singled Seager to second. An ace calls on something extra and ends an inning like that with the score unchanged. Wheeler struck out Kiké Hernandez and Matt Beaty, the last strike to Beaty his 97th pitch. The stuff of aces, to be sure.

“Zack’s done,” I thought. If this were some game in some year prior to Wheeler’s debut in 2013, or his birth in 1990, I wouldn’t have thought that. But in 2019, certain innings are defined as stressful and all pitches are counted. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have suggested leaving him in had Mickey Callaway for some strange reason asked me. I’m saying I had little expectation he’d be left in. That is just not done these days. Teams build bullpens on the foundation of a core belief that starting pitchers can’t be pushed beyond so many total pitches and so many stressful innings.

Well, teams try to build such bullpens. The Mets tried. I swear they did. What they wound up with instead was a coupla guys. The coupla guys, Justin Wilson [6] and Seth Lugo [7], have held the bullpen together essentially by themselves for weeks, most recently the night before. On Saturday, it was deGrom for seven, Lugo for one, Wilson for one. It worked perfectly. Now Callaway would ask it — them — to work perfectly again on no nights’ rest.

It didn’t work. The Dodgers reached Wilson for a run in the eighth to tie the game and Lugo for a run in the ninth to take the lead. The go-ahead hit, a Jedd Gyorko ground ball up the middle, appeared uncannily like balls hit substantially farther by men whose names still summer in our subconscious. Pendleton. Scioscia. Molina. Hosmer. None of the balls those fellows hit ended Mets games, seasons or postseasons. The one Eric Hosmer lined to left for a double to drive in Lorenzo Cain didn’t even tie its game, which was the one Harvey was pitching in the ninth, but in each instance, I could feel my knots giving up a little, as if they wondered if maybe getting a step on traffic wouldn’t be the worst the idea in the world. In every case, my stomach and the rest of me hung in there to the bitter end. But in every case the end was bitter.

Sunday night, the end gave us Dodgers 3 Mets 2 [8], the Mets never scoring after the second, thus slipping back to four behind the Cubs and three behind the Brewers with thirteen games to go. The Mets finished the previous weekend four out of that second Wild Card spot we didn’t spend a serious instant thinking about until late July yet have aspired to ceaselessly ever since, because these Mets raised our sights. Another week went by, encompassing a 5-2 stretch that included a muscular four-game sweep of Arizona and a thriller of a win over Los Angeles, and we’re still four out. The distance hasn’t changed, yet the calendar has turned relentless.

All the Mets can do, starting tonight in Colorado, is win a lot. All we as Mets fans can do is hope a lot that they do, and that the Cubs, the Brewers and anybody else who may present an obstacle to our happiness don’t. Should this brilliant strategy of mine not produce the desired effect, at least we had one night that felt like a playoff game. All the tension. All the anxiety. All the knots.

It’s hard to believe this is what we root for, but it is.