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Round and Round

Oh, those beautiful round numbers coming out of the most roundly spelled state in the union, O-H-I-O…

10 wins for the preeminent pitcher in the league.
50 homers for the most prodigious slugger in the world.
80 wins for the team that still allows us to dream.

Three-and-a-half out of where we wanna be with nine to play. That’s less a round number than a big block of Wisconsin cheese in our way, but you can’t have everything. Isn’t it enough that we have Jacob deGrom [1], Pete Alonso [2] and the continuously contending New York Mets?

Not really, but we’ll take what we can get ’round here. Especially when you consider how true this description of the Mets season, as published in the September 21 edition of the New York Times, rings:

The Mets now have only nine games left in a season that has seen them hurt, slumping, vilified and resurrected at various stages.

Thing is, that perspective on a Met season hanging in the balance at a very late hour in the schedule was written not after the 153rd game of 2019, but the 153rd game of 1973, which happened to have occurred on the same date forty-six years earlier.

That’s right, kindred history-minded spirits, September 20, 1973, which we immediately recognize as the “when” in the legendary Ball Off the Top of the Wall play, which some refer to as simply the Ball off the Wall, but that doesn’t do it justice, for it was the peak of the left field fence where Dave Augustine’s almost-certain two-run home run landed for a second split so finely that, before the clock struck :01 in the top of the thirteenth at Shea, that non-home run bounced up and into Cleon Jones’s glove.

Cleon wasted no time in relaying the ball to shortstop Wayne Garrett — not third baseman Wayne Garrett, nor shortstop Bud Harrelson (Buddy had been pinch-hit for) — and Garrett turned and fired said Wall Ball to catcher Ron Hodges (Jerry Grote had been pinch-hit for, too). Hodges used it to tag Richie Zisk, the runner/lumberer from first, out at the plate.

Seven. Six. Two. Not round numbers, but Amazin’ ones. The Ball Off the Top of the Wall play kept the Mets tied in that game, a game they would win, 4-3, when rookie Hodges singled home John Milner in the bottom of the inning. As the Times went on to report on September 21, 1973 [3], in the wake of the 153rd game of that season, “[W]ith all their adventures, they will probably remember last night’s four-hour thriller as one of the soap operas of the year.”

We will, or certainly should, remember last night’s 8-1 thumping of the Reds [4] in Cincinnati as one of this year’s most satisfying triumphs, considering it featured sizable contributions from our preeminent pitcher, deGrom; our prodigious slugger, Alonso; and the other among their teammates to have been dubbed an All-Star in 2019, versatile player of multiple talents Jeff McNeil [5]. The trio traveled together to Ohio in July, Cleveland, and together they constituted the brightest lights in the Metropolitan galaxy. We’re in a different month, they are in a different section of the Buckeye State, and the Mets are in a far better place than they were at the break, but when these three come together do their best, it is inevitably a starry, starry night.

Start with deGrom. Always start with deGrom if you can. Finish with deGrom should the pitch count stars align. They never do, but wishing upon a star never goes out of style. When deGrom is pitching, you feel like you can have whatever Met eventuality you seek. For seven innings, we could have a shutout going that — despite the presence of a pretty prolific power source on the other side (Eugenio Suarez and his not so parenthetical 48 HRs) — you sensed could go on forever if need be. Consider that within deGrom’s Friday night 9-K universe, our ace induced strike three four times on a slider, three times on a four-seam fastball, and twice via changeup. Jake’s out pitch is basically whatever he feels like throwing.

His mound opponent, Luis Castillo, was no easy customer. The game stayed scoreless through five (another symptom of a deGrom start). It would be left to Met All-Star McNeil, whose face presumably appeared accurately on the Great American Ball Park scoreboard [6], to get the Mets off the schneid as effectively as Cleon got Augustine’s ball off the top of the Shea wall, blasting a Castillo changeup where no Red outfielder could hope to perform miracles with it. Jeff thrust us in front, 1-0, which isn’t enough for most pitchers, and not a fair margin to depend on deGrom to flawlessly defend, but it was better than 0-0.

Better still, in the seventh, with Castillo still throwing, Amed Rosario [7], a second-half All-Star candidate if such a thing existed, belted one of Luis’s sliders even further for even more runs, as J.D. Davis had walked just ahead of him. Now it was 3-0 and deGrom could more or less cruise along the banks of the Ohio. After the home seventh was complete, however, so was deGrom’s evening. Jake had thrown fewer than a hundred pitches, but he revealed later he wasn’t feeling all that great. Imagine deGrom against the Reds in the pink.

Before we had much chance to experience discomfort from deGrom not feeling his best — THERE ARE STILL SIX OUTS TO GET!!!!!! — Jacob’s fellow All-Stars made us feel all better. With one out and Castillo replaced by stylish Sal Romano, McNeil made an artistic choice to single to right. That brought up Alonso, and that brought the house down.

If you were listening to Howie Rose on the radio, here is what Gary Cohen said on SNY about what Alonso did to a Romano fastball:

“And Pete crashes one, deep right-center field, that’s headed toward the wall…it’s OUTTA HERE! NUMBER FIFTY — PETE ALONSO! Deep into the night! Only the second rookie in major league HISTORY to hit fifty home runs in a season! And Pete hit one outta SIGHT into the Ohio night.”

If you were listening to Gary Cohen on television, here is what Howie Rose said over WCBS about that very same swing:

“Two-two to Alonso. Fastball hit HIGH IN THE AIR! Deep to right center. Ervin goin’ back…ladies and gentlemen, the New York Mets have a FIFTY-HOME RUN HITTER! Pete ALONSO, the first player in franchise history to hit the magic FIFTY mark! He hit it into the stands in right-center field, NUMBER FIFTY, RBIs number one-hundred FOURTEEN and one-hundred FIFTEEN, the Mets have a FIVE-to-nothing lead, and Alonso is now just two home runs behind Aaron Judge’s rookie record of FIFTY-two! Congratulations PETE ALONSO on joining Major League Baseball’s hallowed FIFTY-home run club.”

Either way you heard it, it looked like it would never come down. It finally did, somewhere amid Great American’s kitschy riverboat backdrop, appropriate enough in that Pete has sailed away with every single-season Met home run record that used to seem impressive.

Geez, a Met has hit 50 home runs. Did you ever think such a total was possible from one of our guys?

Mets up 5-0 on Alonso’s big 5-0 was pure poetry, but with this bullpen, you don’t mind governing in prose. After a Mets trio less decorated than deGrom, McNeil and Alonso (Brach, Avilán and 2018 American League All-Star Edwin Diaz) wriggled us out of our bottom-of-the-eighth anxiety, the Mets tacked on three runs to make it 8-0, the kind of score we used to not so kiddingly refer to as Francoproof. Or Benitezproof. Or Looperproof. You get the idea.

I’m delighted to report 8-0 was Familiaproof, too, even if it did wind up 8-1. The important thing is we had the eight and picked up a game on the Cubs for second place in the very specific National League Second Wild Card standings. If only trailing Chicago by a game-and-a-half was the goal in all of this, then we could be digging deep for postseason fees right now. Instead, our 80-73 Mets are still looking up at the Brewers from a distance of three-and-half games. I’m less delighted to report the Brewers’ opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates, remain in the league and will continue to play Milwaukee this weekend. A predilection for believing the Mets aren’t too far back to charge at the playoff spot the Brew Crew is currently strangleholding prevents me from explicitly adding the Pirates will probably continue to play dead as well. If you’ve seen the Buccos of late, you can draw your own conclusions.

Three-and-a-half out with nine to go is by no means statistically impossible, but I gotta tell ya that no Mets team in this particular circumstance has navigated waters this choppy and discovered dry October land. Your wonder-of-wonders, miracle-of-miracles 1969 Mets were on the verge of clinching the NL East after 153 games. Your Ball off the Top of the Wall, balls to the wall 1973 Mets had moved practically into port, edging to within a half-game of those scurvy Pirates. The 2016 Mets, who made a mini-’73 [8] out of erasing a late-August deficit of 5½ games to win a Wild Card, were already tied at the top of their ad hoc division through Game 153 (an Asdrubally memorable affair [9] you hopefully still recall three years after the fact). As for the handful of teams we cheered on who were still reasonably alive yet not exactly well at this stage of previous schedules…their omission from the roll call of inspirational Metropolitan September stories tends to speak for itself.

If you’re thinking of deriving precedent and taking heart from beloved 1999, me too, of course, yet those Mets were saving both their worst and best for the final week of the season. We were actually in OK playoff shape twenty years ago at this very interval, two up on Cincy for the Wild Card following our 153rd game, despite getting ignominiously swept out of Turner Field. And if you’re contemplating karmic compensation via a 2007 or 2008 in reverse, those races had already tightened up in the wrong direction prior to Game 153 (and, besides, who wants to take inspiration from the Chase Utley Phillies?).

So we’ll have to do something unprecedented in Mets history. We’ll have to turn being 3½ GB into no worse than tied over the course of approximately 81 innings. We’ll need good teams to suddenly go bad, and bad teams to suddenly get good, and teams with nothing to play for play like nothing, and, oh yeah, we’ll definitely need the Mets, in a season that has seen them hurt, slumping, vilified and resurrected repeatedly at various stages, to be pretty much infallible over the nine games they have left.

And if not, we still have deGrom, Alonso and a ballclub that has won more than it’s lost keeping us engaged clear down to the nub of a year we assumed was over repeatedly at various stages. Beats the hell out of the parts where we were hurt, slumping and vilified.