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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Rockabye Sweet Baby Jake

Like Red on the bus to Fort Hancock, Tex., in The Shawshank Redemption, I found I was so excited at Citi Field as the Mets game wore on Wednesday night, I could barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it was the excitement only a Mets fan could feel, a Mets fan at the end of a long journey whose conclusion is certain.

We knew our team wasn’t going anywhere in the traditional sense. We’ve known that for months. Yet we were rolling along, late in an otherwise lost season, clinging to a purpose all our own: meeting our friend Jake in Zihuatanejo, where we hoped to find him buffing and polishing his Cy Young Award.

We hoped. And we made it, I’m pretty sure.

If we can keep two thoughts in our head, it’s that 1) you can keep the Mets’ 2018; and 2) they can’t take Jacob deGrom’s 2018 away from us. A great individual campaign executed as part and parcel of a team’s quest for greater glory doesn’t take much understanding. As illustrious as Doc Gooden’s oft-referenced 1985 was, you almost didn’t fully appreciate it while it ensued because you always kept one eye on the out-of-town scoreboard to track what the Cardinals were doing. Doc was other-worldly, no question, but so were Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry, and we didn’t limit our immersion in what they and their teammates were doing to one night out of every five.

By contrast, Jacob pitching practically on his own has represented a phenomenon in a vacuum. Four nights out of every five, no disrespect to any other Met starting pitcher of the moment, we’re just slobs on the couch looking up from our phones from time to time. On the fifth night — culminating in the fifth-to-last night of 2018, as it turned out — we’re puttin’ on our top hat, tyin’ up our white tie, brushin’ off our tails. We’re the belle of the ball, the toast of the Met Gala. Everybody playing in deGrom’s orchestra strives to look sharp and tries to hit notes higher than they are accustomed to reaching. They don’t want to let down their conductor. Neither do we.

One could imagine the post-fete dialogue as we temporary Cinderellas return to our humdrum existences.

“Where’ve you been?”
“At the Mets game. It was magical!”
“The Mets? Don’t they suck?”
“Not when deGrom is pitching.”
“So they won?”
“Not necessarily.”

You’d have to be a Mets fan, a Mets fan in 2018, to understand. You’d have to be a Mets fan to understand what it means to show up on a late September night, threat of rain in the forecast, to sit outside and treat the 158th game the fourth-place Mets were mandated to play as if it was the 32nd game of a six-month World Series. We had to make Jake’s going-away party the best it could be. We knew Jake would. We didn’t know if he would win or if the Mets would win, but we knew there was no way any of us could lose.

Jacob deGrom has spent 2018 redefining for us what a great season looks like. If you’ve grown up reciting sets of numbers like 25-and-7 and grown older pairing it with 24-and-4, you’ve trained yourself to reflexively dismiss plebian digits like 10-and-9. Or 9-and-9. Or 8-and-9. Yet in 2018, as informed as our habits may have been by the successes of Seaver and Gooden at their winningest, we learned how much beauty can blossom if you have the sense to peek beyond the most obvious, least revealing numerals.

Nothing about deGrom’s already resplendent season was going to look substantively different whether or not Jake “beat the Braves” on Wednesday night. We still use that kind of language. He beat them; they beat him. One man versus nine batters, as if the game is designed for the pitcher to control every possibly outcome, including that which is memorialized in the standings every morning. As silly as it sounds, we’ve institutionally bought into it forever. Even if we let our logic flag fly in theory, we’d rally around the W’s if there were enough of them for a couple of minyans. Six Septembers ago, when the Mets were similarly closer to last place than first, we flocked to Citi Field to urge R.A. Dickey on to his 20th win. It’s not like we didn’t already know wins were of limited utility in measuring the full effectiveness of a pitcher, but we finally had somebody sitting on 19 of them and, goddammit, we wanted that 20th for him and us.

This September, within the context of deGrom and the Cy we seek in his name, 10 sort of became of the new 20 — though even that formulation is a reach. We knew when Jake’s won-lost record was 8-9 that it didn’t reflect his truth. How would 10-9 somehow certify that the best pitcher in the sport had gotten exponentially better over a span of less that two weeks? It wouldn’t, but superficiality doesn’t probe that deeply. We wanted Jake to have the best possible record, no matter how ultimately pointless a pitching metric “record” is.

For generations we dwelled unquestioningly in the valley of decisions. Wins. Losses. No-decisions either desperately bargained for or grudgingly accepted as the cost of doing business. It’s been the hardest of habits to break. I don’t know that we’ll ever fully rid ourselves of the inclination to overvalue the W’s and cringe too hard at the L’s. As long as the former is available, we will want them for our pitchers. As long as the latter loom as possibilities, we will recoil at their intrusion. And we’ll still treat no-decisions as fickly as we can, welcoming or resenting them on a purely situational basis.

Jacob deGrom is a winner in practically every inning he pitches, the victor in virtually every mano-a-mano in which he’s engaged. Evaluating him by the game seems inadequate. Seaver and Gooden and others threw great games. DeGrom prevails batter after batter after batter. You’re surprised when somebody reaches base. You’re shocked when anybody comes around to score. In the universe he has created, the aberration upsets your soul. The stray RBI hit stands out as the act of a vandal. Madison Bumgarner, Lewis Brinson, Brock Holt…they might as well have been the Scioscias and Pendletons of the sputtering summer of 2018. They didn’t knock the Mets perilously off stride amid a pennant push. They didn’t rewrite the narrative of a would-be world champion.

No, they had the temerity to tick Jacob deGrom’s earned run average ever so slightly upward. When that would happen, we were all Ralph Branca burying our face in the nearest cement staircase.

Yet not for long, because Jake was resilient, taking on another batter and another inning and emerging victorious in those encounters. It showed up everywhere in the box score except maybe where they print the W’s…which should be marked as a loss for the win, because it simply doesn’t reflect the greatness of deGrom.

Wednesday night was for the fans who hadn’t had enough of the 2018 Mets and couldn’t get enough of 2018 Jacob deGrom. Those of us who showed up at Citi Field (a dedicated cohort that included Jason and me if not tens and tens of thousands of others) received an evening that reflected accurately everything that has made deGrom synonymous with greatness. There was a Brave base hit to begin the game. There was another to begin the second inning.

And that was it where Brave hitting not to mention walking was concerned. One Brave got to first on a wild pitch and misguided heave after a strikeout, but he didn’t stay long. Jacob, ever the maestro, saw the runner, Ronald Acuña, had rounded first as the ball Devin Mesoraco flung had trickled away. The pitcher directed Jeff McNeil to throw to first, where Dom Smith tagged him out, thus transforming the evening’s only audible groan into a cheer.

Jacob struck out ten Braves in eight innings. The tenth was the thousandth of his career, which seemed to make the pitcher uncommonly happy. Good for him — he should be happy enough so that we can pick up on it. What Jay Bruce said about deGrom after his previous start, that he’s “very, very boring in the best way possible,” extends to his answers about how very, very excellent he is in the best way possible. Jake’s affable as all get out, cooperating to the fullest extent of politeness with every inquiry of what it was like out there tonight, et al, but his responses generally don’t change speeds like his pitches do. Yes, he felt good. Sure, he’d like to have won. No, he can only control so much and looks forward to his next start.

I didn’t realize until the video boards flashed the bulletin that Jake had been one strikeout away from 1,000 when he fired the last of his 2018 pitches past Ozzie Albies. He sure knew, though. No. 1,000 brought the biggest smile I’ve seen from him since he lowered Daniel Murphy’s chair while Murph attempted to address the media at Dodger Stadium during the 2015 NLDS. He was sneaky fast after the game that night, just as he was overwhelming during the game that preceded it.

Jake was a really good pitcher in 2014 and 2015, pretty darn beguiling even when dogged by injury in 2016. He was among the best anywhere in 2017. And he’s gotten better. He was more or less at the top of his craft by the All-Star break and has improved since then. Not only was it fitting that he walked off the mound for presumably the final time this year on a strikeout that left Albies looking at air, it was apropos that the called strike three made it twenty consecutive batters making an out. DeGrom may have been one start away from throwing a perfect game. Or one month away from throwing a perfect month.

For a change of pace, he had help. McNeil didn’t require deGrom pointing which way to go in the seventh when on the hardest-hit Brave ball of the night, off the bat of the perennially treacherous Ender Inciarte, Jeff dove into the middle of the diamond and snagged the closest thing Atlanta would manage to a base hit post-second inning. And two Mets — Smith and Michael Conforto — conjured actual offense. Conforto doubled down the right field line in the sixth and Smith singled him home for a 1-0 lead. In the eighth, Conforto rearranged the deck chairs on the Citi Pavilion, the branded seating area just south of Shea Bridge. One out later, Smith went opposite field for another solo homer.

It was 3-0, Mets, yet the crowd soon expressed its displeasure. Not for the score but for the on-deck circle, where Bruce stood instead of deGrom. One-hundred ten pitches were in the books. We’d see no more of Jacob on the mound. When the perfectly likable and usually effective Seth Lugo came trotting out of the bullpen in advance of the ninth, we booed. Nothing personal, Seth. Surely you understand.

Three outs later, we and Jake got his 10th win of the season. A perfect 10th. Incidental to the other numbers, to be sure. The strikeout total had topped out at 269, one more than Doc K’d in 1985, fourth-most in Mets history. The ERA had plunged to 1.70, six-hundredths less than Tom posted in 1971, second-best in Mets history. It took me a while to realize why 1.70 seemed so familiar. It eventually registered that 1.70 was Tug McGraw’s ERA in 1971 and 1972, the seasons that established him as one of the best relievers in the league, the seasons that made his struggles through most of 1973 so unbelievable. Tug put up his twin 1.70’s a little bit at a time, albeit with a workload that a modern closer couldn’t comprehend: 111 IP in ’71, 106 IP in ’72. Over two seasons and 217 innings, in 105 appearances (one of them a start), Tug could hardly be touched.

Jacob deGrom threw exactly that many innings in 2018, 217. After that one game on May 2 when he left after four with a hyperextended elbow (and we all hyperventilated) and the game after that when he test-drove the elbow for one excruciatingly stressful inning (45 pitches, three walks, no runs), he never stayed out there less than six innings. Just one complete game, which is a shame for the romantics among us, but in contemporary baseball we understand how closely managers and coaches count pitches. During eleven August and September starts, Jacob never threw fewer than 98 of them. The earned run average that dazzled at 1.68 in advance of the All-Star break barely budged.

We’ve got stats in our eyes when it comes to Jacob deGrom. The Mets media department transmitted a sheath of notes attesting to his achievements a little more than half-an-hour after the ink had dried on them. Some, but not all, are…

• Three runs or fewer allowed in 29 consecutive starts

• 24 consecutive quality starts

• Allowed one or no runs in 18 starts

• ERA of 0.88 in six starts versus the division champion Braves

• Only season in modern major league history to encompass at least 260 strikeouts, 50 or fewer walks, 10 or fewer home runs allowed and a sub-2.00 ERA.

And so on.

The statistics do neatly encapsulate his case for the Cy Young, if that’s your priority. Who are we kidding? Of course we want it for him and us, and it seems highly likely he’ll be collecting it come November. What’s at least as rewarding as any award, however, is the feeling we got from Jacob deGrom pitching. Anytime, any start, but especially Wednesday night in his last start if you were at Citi Field.

It wasn’t just the season Jake had. It was the season the Mets had. One of those seasons. You didn’t need a reason to remain on top of things in 1969 when Tom was going 25-7 and the Mets were en route to 100-62 and so much more. You didn’t need to explain yourself to yourself as Doc was building up to 24-4 in service to the Mets pulling up just short of a division title at 98-64. Empty seats were the exception in those Septembers. This September, they are in abundance. Even last night they were plentiful. But those of us filling the minority of Citi’s chairs…we got it. We got Jake. We got what it means to have one Met excel regardless of what the other Mets have been doing.

Conforto. McNeil. Rosario. Nimmo and, on a good night, Smith. If you squint, you can almost make out a team around Jake. Don’t look too closely at center field or third base. Imagine a catcher who can do more than receive. Dream of a bullpen you aren’t by instinct moved to boo. Yet the Mets have been getting incrementally less bad as a rule. No longer does it seem Jacob and the rest of the rotation would be better off hiring their own hitters and taking off on a barnstorming tour. No longer does Jake necessarily resemble a Big Brother graciously volunteering his time with the neighborhood kids, stepping off the rubber and watching them try their best despite knowing that they’ll never really get the hang of the sport he mastered many moons ago.

When a season of overall disappointment winds down, we Mets fans who seek out nights like Jacob deGrom’s final start can’t say what the next season will bring for the team, but we can isolate what has been most special about the season somehow still in progress, expressing our appreciation forcefully and reveling in it jubilantly. No question we’d go last night. No wonder we stood and applauded as long as we could. No wonder we remained giddy as we departed, arrival of that anticipated rain be damned. As with Jake getting batters out, it’s just what we do, it’s just how we are.

Homeward Bound

When David Wright and his employers announced his projected return to active duty, I did what I assume many Mets fans did: I checked StubHub. The cheapest tickets available for Saturday, September 29, were priced at about eight times what the cheapest tickets for every other game I’ve shopped in the second half of 2018. I decided my dream of No. 5 jogging out to third base — accompanied by No. 7 heading for shortstop — coming to fruition would have to be experienced via television. That’s OK. A lot of Mets fans share the same dream and Mets television, as is documented regularly, is pretty Amazin’. The important thing is it’s supposed to happen. David Wright is supposed to play third base in a few days. Play third base and bat. We and he got a good deal of advance notice because it’s an occasion. The last of its kind.

Mickey Callaway allowed several times in the runup to David’s actual activation Tuesday that the most accomplished position player the Mets ever developed and held on to throughout a long career would also be available to pinch-hit. Maybe once. Maybe twice. Made sense to give him at least one at-bat along the way, I figured. Given that he hasn’t faced a major league pitcher in a major league game in twenty-eight months, a reintroductory period seemed in order. A few pitches here, a few pitches there, let him get used to the feeling again. Plus, if he’s well enough to swing a bat, the bat could possibly find its way to the ball. David Wright recorded 1,777 base hits as a New York Met between 2004 and 2016. Muscle memory alone might generate a single into shallow left field.

Considering the entire 2018 Mets season has been a bucket of cold water, the first opportunity Callaway had to insert David into a game came and went with inaction. It wasn’t surprising. Before Tuesday’s game, co-co-co-GM John Ricco said the sanctity of the race for home field advantage, in which the opposition Braves are competing, would somehow be violated if an active player with 1,777 career base hits was allowed to bat. Instead, the dreary game the Mets played went on predictably sans Wright. Noah Syndergaard pitched very well for six innings while he was sick with some undefined malady (hands, feet and mouth not reported complicit) and then several members of the bullpen came along to undo his fine work. The Mets led, 3-0, through six, yet lost, 7-3. Oh, and it rained some. The story of Citi Field in its tenth season…the rainy season in more ways than one.

Seeing Wright be a ballplayer, even for an instant (provided he was feeling up for it), would have been a treat for the hundreds in attendance as well as the dead-enders like myself viewing from home. It’s not a crime against baseball that it didn’t happen — it’s understood that this whole thing is a weird situation — but looking forward to David Wright makes a Mets fan look forward to David Wright.

I got to thinking about when seeing David Wright play for the Mets was no big whoop. The whoop was large on July 22, 2004, the first time I saw him in person. It was his second game. He got the first of those 1,777 hits, a double off Zach Day of the Montreal Expos. You remember the Expos? Our most recently activated Met played against them. We have two guys who did so, counting Reyes. Next to having Bartolo Colon, the last extant ex-Expo, on your roster, that’s a pretty good Montreal memorial for 2018.

The great part about seeing young David Wright that midsummer midweek afternoon was knowing this was the beginning of something. We had waited for David to come up through the first half of ’04, and then, at last, he appeared. Now we knew he would keep appearing, keep being penciled in by Art Howe (one thing Howe could manage without self-inflicted controversy). We had our third baseman of the future in the present.

The present went on and on like that, No. 5, the third baseman, David Wright. Crowds surged and ebbed. Other Mets came and went. David Wright stayed and stayed, played and played. You came to see David Wright like you came to see the blue walls and the red Apple and the green, green grass of Shea. They were all part of the attraction if not something that necessarily grabbed your attention after a while. He was more than “just there,” but he also wasn’t going anywhere.

A dive into The Log, the steno notebook I began keeping fairly early in my Sheagoing experience so I’d always be able to accurately identify which games I attended, supplemented by Baseball-Reference’s handy guide to daily defensive lineups, has confirmed a hunch for me. When I went to Shea from July 22, 2004, until September 28, 2008, after which I could go to Shea no more (happy melancholy tenth anniversary, by the way), I pretty much couldn’t look at third base in the top of an inning without seeing David Wright. The Log tells me I was at 129 regular-season home games during this stretch. Baseball-Reference tells me David Wright started 125 of them at third base, including the first 48 when he and I were active at Shea at the same time.

There wasn’t a game that didn’t start with Wright at third and me at or hustling to my seat until September 24, 2006. The date checks out as logical. The Mets had clinched the National League East earlier that week. Skipper Willie Randolph was strategically resting his regulars, whether they wanted the pine or not. On that Sunday, grizzled veteran David, about three months shy of twenty-four years old, was directed to a seat in the dugout. Chris Woodward, a superutility supernova in the mid-2000s Met narrative, got the start instead. The Mets lost to the Nationals, many of whom had recently been Expos.

On a sunny afternoon the following May, Randolph dared give his three standout stalwarts a simultaneous breather. No Wright, Reyes or Beltran for those of us who showed up at Shea. Reyes had aggravated a hammy the night before. The other stars, Willie decided, simply needed a blow. Then, in the ninth, with the visiting Cubs up by four, the Mets needed a couple of blows, so the two of them pinch-hit. Carlos walked. David singled. The Mets scored five and won. It remains intensely memorable to me for how it ended, and maybe a touch for who didn’t start.

A couple of weeks later, Wright experienced pregame back spasms. Foreshadowing? It didn’t seem like anything alarming on June 1, 2007. Julio Franco, speaking of grizzled, trotted out to third base. The Mets lost to the Diamondbacks. On September 9 of that season, just as the Mets were preparing to pull away from the Phillies and salt away a second consecutive division title, Randolph insisted on resting Wright one more time during the stretch run. It wasn’t the storyline of the day in the stands. Pedro Martinez was. Pedro was making his first home start of the season, having just come off the disabled list in Cincinnati to fortify the rotation ahead of the postseason. Pedro gripped us all in his palm as he defeated the Astros, then a member of the National League Central.

Wright would be in the lineup every day the rest of 2007, including all those days I’d be on hand for. Best laid plans went awry that September, but not the ones that included No. 5 at third base, doing his best to ward off bad vibes. He didn’t yield a whit of starting time at third in 2008 during my 44 visits, either. Every day at Shea, right down to Shea Goodbye, was day to say hello again to David Wright.

They opened a new ballpark in 2009. The walls weren’t blue. The original red Apple was stashed in a dark corner. Yet the grass was still green and the third baseman was still all Wright virtually all the time. I went to 36 games during Citi Field’s inaugural season. Wright started 33 of them. The outliers were Matt Cain’s fault, a fastball of his that got too up and too in and relegated the third baseman to the DL for the first time in our lives. David wasn’t quite the same batter when he came back, but he came back ASAP. And he stayed put in 2010, business more or less usual. I went to 27 games at Citi Field that second year. One time Mike Hessman started at third. Twenty-six other times, including Closing Day, David’s domain remained sacrosanct. Jerry Manuel was managing by then, calling the shots of his last game on October 3. In the midst of a tie, in a late inning, Jerry made a show of removing Wright from third and Reyes from short. We stood to applaud then sat to endure. The game went into extras, with Hessman in relief of Wright and Joaquin Arias taking over at second so Ruben Tejada could shift to shortstop. Eventually we had a fourteenth inning, an unlikely Oliver Perez sighting and a final loss for Ollie & Jerry and us to take home for winter.

The first eight games I attended in 2011 were unremarkable in the third base sense. David Wright started there. He always had, he always would. Remarkable player, remarkable consistency, but nobody and nothing you didn’t expect to see. No. 5, exactly where you were conditioned to look for him in his eighth season. Through May 8, 2011, in the previous 200 regular-season Mets home games I saw, David Wright had started 192 of them. Two stadiums, one third baseman.

Then, on May 28, 2011, I went to a game when something wasn’t Wright. It was third base, as ascertained from a seat down the line left field. I clearly remember peering straight ahead at the Met going into a defensive crouch. He was wearing No. 2. No. 2, I decided there and then, was a strange number for a baseball player to wear. Marv Throneberry. Jim Fregosi. Wayne Housie. It was fine for Bobby Valentine to manage in, but what were we doing with a No. 2 at third?

The third baseman of the moment was Justin Turner. He wasn’t exactly new. He’d been tearing it up for a spell at second base. He could play there while Daniel Murphy played first, a necessity because Ike Davis, the first baseman of the future, had a mysterious run-in with an infield fly in Colorado. But once David felt something in his back that May, more than a spasm, he was DL-bound again and a void developed at third. On the team whose birth pangs delivered us Don Zimmer and eight immediate 1962 successors, no such thing had materialized in forever, yet this was the new reality of 2011. Of course No. 2 looked strange. Any number that wasn’t No. 5 would have at third base.

May 28’s was the first of ten consecutive games I attended in 2011 when David Wright didn’t start at third base. It took some getting used to. Then it got shaken off, because he was whole again, starting at third at Citi Field through August and September. I went to eleven games; he started ten of them. Normality reigned in 2012: twenty-eight games I went to, twenty-eight games Wright started at third. The first twenty I hit in 2013 as well, until early August. A hamstring issue arose. Wright was gone from my sight until the final game of the year, the Captain returning to his station as the Mets inducted Mike Piazza into their Hall of Fame. David had played with Mike. By 2013, it was bracing to realize how far David’s career reached in the backward direction. Piazza. Franco. Leiter. Zeile. They were all 2004 Mets alongside Wright, a 2013 Met by now alone in his engagement with franchise history. The 2000 Mets had one final connection through which they could touch the present: No. 5, the third baseman.

It would have been bracing to realize how little David’s career would lunge forward. David had been signed in 2012 to remain a Met through 2020. A dicey proposition in theory, but c’mon. David Wright wasn’t all that old and he was definitely all that Met. Games weren’t so different to go at first in 2014. Wright was at third base for the first eighteen I saw. August, however, would lay him low again. He’d peek his sore neck and shoulder into the lineup a couple more times between inactive stints, but proved mostly done in another year that was mostly done from its beginning.

Finally, 2015, the year the Mets began to look like something different. A 2-3 launch on the road, but a homestand taking on a life of its own directly thereafter. David started at third on the home version of Opening Day. I wasn’t there. I was there the next night, though. So was David…until the ever present third baseman had to exit the game of April 14, 2015, having done something unfortunate to a hamstring while stealing second base. Terry Collins was out of legitimate third base substitutes, so catcher Anthony Recker replaced him for the rest of the game. Recker became the 154th third baseman in Mets history, as asterisky as he could be. Songs had been written to celebrate the revolving door of Mets third basemen during their first quarter-century. Wright, the 129th in the line of Zimmerian succession, stuck his foot in the door early in the franchise’s fifth decade. Enough, he said. You’d get the odd Woodward or Turner or Hessman passing through now and then, but it barely meaningfully nudged from 2004 until 2015.

Twenty Fifteen changed our perception of third base forever more. The hamstring absence revealed something more insidious, a spinal condition that had entered David’s anatomy in 2011, when he first missed a significant chunk of time. Stenosis it was called. You didn’t say you wanted a revolution, but revolve the door would. The third baseman you saw at Citi Field if you attended games as 2015 wore on depended on the day of the week. I saw Eric Campbell. I saw Daniel Murphy. I saw Ruben Tejada. I seem to have missed Danny Muno, but he was around. Juan Uribe, too. Him I saw. For old times’ sake, on September 15 and October 4, I saw David Wright start. Suddenly, provided the Captain didn’t push himself irresponsibly, he could be our third baseman again. He’d be our third baseman in the postseason. Yes, that was back, too, for the first time since 2006. I attended my and Citi Field’s first World Series game on October 30, 2015. I and everybody else there saw David Wright hit his and the ballpark’s first World Series home run. It was beautiful.

It couldn’t last. It didn’t. We lost the World Series. We kept David Wright. He was ours on a very long-term contract. He couldn’t imagine leaving us and we would have had to have gone on the disabled list with a conniption fit had he been permitted to depart. In 2016, David was the Opening Day third baseman, Away and Home, as he’d been every Opening Day since 2005. Collins said he’d handle Wright’s body with kid gloves. Stenosis demanded it. Wright seemed to play whenever I showed up anyway. Other than a day game after a night game when Wilmer Flores got the start, David and I were together at Citi Field like always as defense of our National League pennant got rolling.

I went to the Saturday afternoon affair of May 21, 2016, Mets versus Brewers. Nothing unusual there. As can be inferred, I’ve gone to a lot of Mets games. David Wright started at third base. It wasn’t as automatic a fact of life as it had been when Shea was closing and Citi was opening, but there he was. It was my seventh game of the season, my sixth time seeing David. That was a 2006-level rate, except David was deep into his thirties and some lesser third baseman spelling him was no longer a novelty. Still, he was in the lineup on May 21 and, come the ninth inning, he’d get the game-winning hit. It was cause for high-fives and hugs but not that unusual. David was always good for a game-winning hit.

I had to leave the game early that Saturday — a whole other story — so I didn’t see David drive in Eric Campbell with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. I experienced my own raft of high-fives and hugs when he came through, because I was in the company of Mets fans somewhere west of Citi Field. It wasn’t the same as being there to take it in live, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d seen so much David Wright in my life. What was one more game?

Haven’t seen him play third at Citi Field since. I was on my way to the ballpark a week later when I learned via Twitter that he’d been scratched. Oh well, next time, I figured. As you’ve no doubt calculated, there was no next time. There was only the disabled list and a trickling of dispiriting bulletins that 2016 was over where David Wright was concerned. At third there was Campbell or Flores or Ty Kelly or Kelly Johnson or T.J. Rivera or, as if out of a twilight sleep, Jose Reyes. Wrightlessly we hung in there and made it to the playoffs. One of game of them, to be precise.

David would be back in 2017. That was the word. He played in Spring Training. Surely we’d see him at third base on Opening Day. Third base on Opening Day was where we knew we could find No. 5. Alas, he never got past the first base foul line, another non-playing member of the home team, getting introduced in the company of assistant trainers, clubhouse staff and fungible relievers before disappearing into the netherworld of rehab. Wright received a warmer ovation than Fernando Salas and Josh Smoker, but nothing that shook Flushing to its foundation. The Captain would be back soon, we assumed.

Assume nothing. I went to seventeen games at Citi Field in 2017. The Mets won ten of them. David Wright played in none of them. None away from home, either. There were a few late-summer stabs at third base in Port St. Lucie. All they told the Captain was he wasn’t ready to reboard his ship. Come 2018, the wayward vessel sailed on without him. A new full-time third baseman, Todd Frazier, was signed. He wasn’t a stopgap. He was present-day reality, the 167th third baseman in Mets history, a tally that reached 171 in August with the emergence of Jack Reinheimer. We’ve had McNeil, Bautista and Guillorme make debuts there this year as well. And Evans, d’Arnaud, Walker and Cabrera last year. Mostly Frazier this year, though. The Mets needed a third baseman for the season ahead because, we had to face it, the face of the franchise…the face of baseball, per the results of a silly Twitter exercise…wasn’t going to be showing his face anytime soon at third base for us.

Now he will. For a night at the end of September. Maybe for a cameo at the plate if the Riccos and Callaways can align their strategies with David’s spine. Give him a chance to get loose. Maybe give him a chance to swing tonight. I’ll be there tonight. I don’t really expect to see David play. The grass may still be green, the red Apple from Shea may be more prominently placed, the walls may have been returned to blue, but times have irreversibly changed.

The Wheeler Lesson (And Trying to Learn It)

On Sunday afternoon the Mets and Nationals played their last game against each other in 2018, and it turned out to be an ordeal: more than four hours of bad baseball played in a continuous rain before irritated Nats fans. The Mets bashed not-ready-for-prime-time Nats pitchers about for eight runs, the Nats did the same to Mets pitchers for six runs, nobody could find the plate, and it was just a mess. When it was finally over, if you’d told me the time of game had been three weeks I wouldn’t have doubted it — it was like the Donner Party with baseballs (and worse pitching).

Maybe it didn’t actually take three weeks, but the game really was the longest nine-inning game in history for both clubs, counting the Nats’ time as the Expos. Which was highly relevant here, because if you squinted a bit you would have believed that was, say, Bruce Boisclair and Barry Foote out there, wailing away pointlessly in front of a tiny, chilled crowd.

I spent much of the game trying not to be too annoyed with Steven Matz. Matz imploded in the third inning in very Matzian fashion. He gave up a home run to Victor Robles which clearly left him pissed at himself and out of sorts. That led, in domino-like fashion, to his walking Trea Turner, paying zero attention to Turner and allowing him to swipe second, missing his location badly against Bryce Harper for an RBI double, giving up an unlucky dunker to Anthony Rendon, hitting Mark Reynolds and walking Spencer Kieboom with the bases loaded. Matz is best friends with Jacob deGrom, and badly needs to learn his pal’s techniques for shaking off misfortune and keeping focus.

So why was I trying not be too annoyed with Matz? Because I was thinking about what’s happened to Zack Wheeler this season. Wheeler’s breakthrough season couldn’t develop without a foundation, and in his case that foundation began with having a sound arm again. That let Wheeler shed post-surgical rust and get into a rhythm where he could develop routines and habits, and those routines and habits, in turn, allowed him enough self-confidence to start putting Dave Eiland‘s lessons into practice. That last link is useless without the rest of the chain, even though it was only at the end of the process that Wheeler got positive results.

Matz is finally healthy, or at least healthyish. That’s the first step and the one without which nothing else can happen. Which is what I kept reminding myself. For Matz to develop the way Wheeler has, he likely needs a couple of months in which he can go about his business as a pitcher without worrying about pain or injury, at least as much as any pitcher can avoid such worries. He needs a routine that will allow him to tinker and learn how to become a pitcher instead of a thrower. Wheeler looks like he’s made that leap; there’s no reason Matz can’t as well. But it’s not a quick or painless a process as anyone would wish.

As for the rest of the game, well, Michael Conforto keeps hitting and Jeff McNeil does nothing else and Anthony Swarzak did yeoman work despite being pushed beyond what should have been fairly expected of him. And the Mets won. They won and here we are at the last off-day before we have 180-odd off-days in a row to endure. That ought to count for something, even when it’s raining walks and plain old rain.

The 710 Split

The Mets played the Nationals Saturday and the Nationals were eliminated from postseason contention. Unfortunately, the two events were completely disconnected from one another. The final blow to Washington’s mathematical prayers was struck in St. Louis by Tyler O’Neill, whose walkoff home run put an end to whatever infinitesimal chance the Nats had of losing another NLDS.

That was just bookkeeping. The Nats have been out of all races for a good long while. Not as long a while as the Mets have been, but long nonetheless. Also freshly plucked from the prospective October picture are the Phillies, whose amalgam of feisty youth and experienced pickups dropped the ball (literally and figuratively) as September wore on. Left standing in the East are our new champions, the Atlanta Braves. Congratulations to the team that outclassed all its generally sad sack competition. Saying nice things about the Braves doesn’t come easy, but I do appreciate that they got the celebrating out of their system before their next stop, which is Citi Field. Plus they have Lucas Duda. Good luck to our old first baseman in his strange new uniform.

Three paragraphs in and I haven’t bothered mentioning the Mets lost, 6-0, to the Nationals on Saturday, which seems fair considering the Mets barely bothered showing up Saturday. The Nats didn’t exactly play inspired “we’ll get ’em next year!” ball, but the Mets raised indifference to a whole new level. In a battle between starters who were chosen for their existence, Austin Voth outdueled Corey Oswalt. Maybe not so much a duel as a sharing of a hill in the middle of a diamond, each of them taking turns throwing for a spell. Oswalt was OK over five innings, giving up only two runs while not being Zack Wheeler. Voth was either dynamite in allowing merely a lone infield hit over five innings as a substitute for Tanner Roark, or the Mets batting order, unlike Oswalt, didn’t really exist.

No disrespect to Voth, but I’m going with the latter. The Mets played as if they were the ones hungover from toasting a division title. Perhaps they were carried away by the stat the club’s press notes spotlighted Saturday, the accurate though questionably relevant grip the Mets held on first place in the NL East, if one was to pretend the season began July 1. Alas, with the Braves’ win and the Mets’ loss on Saturday, we have ceded the top spot in that highly mythical division; don’t expect a dogfight to the wire with Atlanta, which might still believe the season includes games from prior to July 1. Despite the Mets’ indisputable if limited success of late, the pesky Nats can still make them look very first-half. Six-nothing was uncompetitive, for sure, but merely an appetizer of a beatdown compared to how the Nats feasted on the Mets’ carcass on July 31 (25-4) and August 26 (15-0). Somehow we’ve won the season series from our alleged archrivals anyway.

The game may have been Sominex on its own merits at Nationals Park, yet it came across as more fun than a barrel of McNeils in living rooms across the New York Metropolitan Area. SNY almost always makes a good time out of bad baseball. Saturday’s was a particularly cheeky telecast because Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez were able to focus on three things that had zero to do with the wan action itself.

• A pigeon wandering the circumference of the mound, oblivious to the machinations of Voth and Oswalt.

• A kid in the stands dressed as and acting like a major league umpire, except he demonstrated professionalism for nine innings

• Two adult men dressed in what were described alternately as snuggies or onesies. It was Mets-themed garb, mind you. Otherwise they would have looked ridiculous.

I don’t know exactly what the game sounded like on the radio because I was tuned into the television, but I am confident that Howie Rose and Josh Lewin made the day every bit as entertaining sans pictures. Those are our guys up in that booth. You know you’re listening to the voices of the Mets when you hear their homey, playful and empathetic tones. Howie and Josh are not an interchangeable unit. You wouldn’t swap them out with voices from any other franchise. Howie has ascended to Bob Murphy status in his synonymity with Mets baseball. Josh is the ideal companion when Howie is anchoring and a singular presence in his own right on play-by-play. Like those commercials for nectarines used to suggest, it wouldn’t be summer without them. Or spring. Or a generous helping of autumn when we’re really lucky.

Mets games are moving to WCBS on your AM dial next season. Different parent company, different executives, maybe somebody who has some idea that “we have to put our own imprint and/or a fresh spin on the broadcasts.” Word to the radio wise at Entercom and 880 AM: don’t. Don’t mess with Howie and Josh. They are ours. They and the immortal Chris Majkowski, who’s been producing Mets radio without pause for a quarter-century, and the pregame and postgame master of ceremonies Wayne Randazzo. Wayne, who joined the crew in 2015, emerged quickly as not only a true talent but an intrinsic part of the family, which is extremely commendable for someone who entered our midst from the foreign land known as Chicago. Yet he’s blended in beautifully. As much as I miss the regulars on a given night off, Wayne makes up for their short-term absences with enthusiasm, intelligence and outstanding chops. He does the same on TV, making the occasional Gary Cohen breather borderline bearable. I definitely want Wayne at WCBS, too.

In a perfect Metsian world, Pete McCarthy shifts frequencies with his compadres. I don’t know if that’s in the offing because WCBS doesn’t seem as likely to devote additional blocks of programming to sports talk. That projected void would be a loss for Mets fans. Pete has been sensational since creating the Mets On Deck show at WOR in 2014 and leading out of games with the Sports Zone. Pete reminds me of Howie Rose hosting in his 1050 days: smart, committed, a fan at heart but a journalist in approach. He respects his audience and has a knack for not overly indulging the dopiest of callers. I’ve anticipated listening to Pete after a terrific Mets win and have found his perspective essential after a terrible Mets loss.

The radio business made the imminent departure of the Mets from WOR as inevitable as their arrival was nearly five seasons ago. I had my doubts about 710 AM. It wasn’t a naturally baseball-friendly environment, but to iHeart’s credit, they carved the Mets a very nice niche. Save for a few promos, you could avoid altogether any hint of the objectionable non-Mets programming on the station (which was basically all of it) unless you forgot you left your radio tuned to their frequency the night before. If planting the Mets on WOR was designed to heighten the crossover appeal for their other offerings, I doubt it worked, incessant nudges that I could wake up to Len Berman and partner of the moment notwithstanding. But for those several hours a day when we needed WOR, WOR was there for us in a meaningful way. The reception could have been a lot better, but the sense that the Mets mattered on 710 was genuine. It felt like they mattered more on WOR more than they did the previous twenty years on WFAN, a station devoted to sports, a station that was founded on the backs of the Mets. I’ll forever fondly associate the WOR era with the run to glory in 2015, just as I smile thinking about WHN announcing it was home of the World Champion Mets in 1986.

The games will go on at otherwise all-news 88 and the broadcasts will evolve to some extent. They always do. At their core, it’s Mets baseball, and that figures to come through no matter what. Still, there was a certain personality, an identifiable flair to the WOR years, 2014 to 2018, and I will always appreciate the best of it. Here’s wishing everybody who made them a great listen only good.

The Mets That Didn't Mets

Jacob deGrom was wonderful, and Jacob deGrom … won?

No really, he did, and it wasn’t even that bumpy. Which isn’t to say it was entirely smooth sailing: the Nats brought the tying run to the plate against Seth Lugo in the eighth and again against Robert Gsellman in the ninth, causing warning klaxons to blare all over Metland. But these were just scares. The eighth ended with a ground ball to Todd Frazier, who converted it into your run-of-the-mill 5-4-5 double play. Gsellman looked weary in letting in a run in the ninth, but set Juan Soto up with change-ups before finishing him with a 98 MPH high fastball and then got Ryan Zimmerman — who exactly no one wanted to see batting with a chance to wreck things for the Mets — to hit a long but not particularly dangerous foul fly that Brandon Nimmo secured in right. And that was it: the Mets had won and so had Jake.

Perhaps helping a bit is that the Nationals look ready to go home, and who can blame them after this smoking crater of a year? A couple of things happened to the Nats Friday night: they secured a losing season against the Mets and were eliminated from the division chase. Bryce Harper looks completely checked out, as SNY dissected at length, and there’s an air of sour resignation around his teammates. The Nats’ talent pipeline is far from empty, what with Soto and Victor Robles having arrived, but this year may get recorded in franchise history as the last X’ed-out line of a paper dynasty.

But enough about the competition. DeGrom was great, and if that seems a rather unadorned way of putting it, it’s because I’ve run out of superlatives. The man’s had the grand total of one lousy start in 2018, and even that wasn’t that bad: on April 10 he gave up four runs to the Marlins in six innings. That’s the sub total of deGrom being lousy this season. Otherwise he’s combined hellacious pitches with cerebral tactics to forge a season that’s been historically dominant, yielding comparisons to Gooden and Seaver and Gibson. He’s the front-runner for the Cy Young award and a credible candidate to be MVP, particularly if you poll those familiar with WAR as a measure of a player’s value.

Alas, his teammates’ contributions have turned a historically dominant year into a historically weird one. DeGrom is now 9-9 and the Mets are 13-18 in his starts, which is absurd — with numbers like those you’d expect him to be knocking on the door of a 20-win season. (And for the Mets to be about 10 games better, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole of regret.) You probably knew all that and didn’t need me to tell you, but it bears repeating, because you get to cheer for a year like this only every baseball generation or so.

DeGrom’s been almost invariably great and the Mets have often been frustratingly lousy, and you’ve been able to see it on the field and probably also on your own couch — his teammates have sometimes seemed to be walking on eggshells, trying desperately not to fail, and sometimes I’ve felt like I should apologize myself when things have gone wrong, as if I cheered poorly or otherwise failed him from my post miles away from the actual game. Through it all deGrom has been admirably imperturbable, though there are exceptions — at one point early Friday, deGrom spread his arms questioningly after not getting a call, which Sam Holbrook put up with because, hey, that was deGrom out there.

Barring some ill-advised rotation shenanigans, deGrom will take the mound one last time in 2018, on Wednesday night at Citi Field against the Braves. In the excitement of his finishing kick, Greg and I started firing off Twitter DMs, and convened an impromptu Faith & Fear summit to see our ace deliver his valedictory address. We’ll be there to bear witness; if you can do it, you should be there too. It may be a long time before we see such a campaign again.

Do Not Read This Recap of a Bad Baseball Game

At the beginning of the year I meticulously record the Mets in order of appearance, a bit of ceremony that sustains me until everyone from that initial version of the 25-man roster has stepped between the lines. (Met No. 25 usually comes down to the fifth starter, the reliever whose role is least defined, or the position player whose role is least defined.)

I attend to the end of the year with far less ceremony, but I’m still always conscious of players’ final bows — starting pitchers whose next turn will require a new calendar, guys exiting from Game 162, and players whose nagging injuries and/or workload preclude further work as a cautionary measure. We’re already into that part of the year: Zack Wheeler will start no more, while Wilmer Flores has been shut down with early-onset arthritis in both knees. Wheeler’s being excused further duty is nothing to fret about: he looked gassed early in his last two starts, understandable after his big jump in innings, and can begin the winter justifiably excited about having crafted a breakout season. Wilmer’s case is more frettable: arthritis can be a career-wrecker, and it’s already uncertain how he fits on a 2019 roster that will likely be clogged with first basemen natural and otherwise.

But those are stories to explore later; for now, guys and games are both coming off the board and the finish line is not just in sight but approaching rapidly.

All that kept bumping its way into mind as the Mets and Nationals played what started as an unlikely pitchers’ duel and degenerated into a hide-your-eyes farce on Thursday night.

It started elegantly enough: Max Scherzer was marvelous, fanning Mets left and right, but made bad pitches to Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce that proved worth three runs. And meanwhile Jason Vargas‘s good doppelganger had shown up to shut down the Nats.

Except then the Mets’ bullpen got involved. This time the culprits weren’t any of the baby relievers, but Anthony Swarzak and Robert Gsellman. (Are the rest of you as excited about another year of watching Swarzak as I am?) When they completed their work the game was tied, Scherzer and Vargas were long gone, and nothing that followed was any kind of advertisement for spending your night at the ballpark.

This is about the time of year that I get wistful knowing the curtain’s going to come down. But I’d rather stare out the window and wait for spring than see anything resembling what the Mets and Nats inflicted on us in extra innings. The added shame of it is that back in March or April, you could have looked at the calendar and plausibly circled NYM at WAS 9/20 as a potentially important game; when that date arrived, you got two crummy teams flailing spastically away at each other in an empty stadium.

The lowlights have smeared together into a merciful haze, but wow there were a lot of them. Jack Reinheimer being sent to the plate to deliver a fly ball against a pitcher who’d just walked two guys and meekly tapping the second pitch back to the mound for a double play. Jose Reyes proving utterly inept at bunting, making it official that he is now terrible at everything. The Mets insisting on having Jeff McNeil bunt multiple times, a risible idea considering he can actually hit and success would just mean the Nats walking Conforto. Austin Jackson, whose one marketable skill is camouflaging his inability to do anything, striking out and freezing in center on contact. I could go on, but I’m getting annoyed all over again.

There are games where you can sense the inevitable coming and wait grimly for it to arrive, but extra-inning farces have no blueprint — you’re trapped in them, sometimes happily and sometimes not, until they spit you out. So of course the Mets got that long-sought run by sending Jose Lobaton — last seen showing questionable judgment by trying to drive a rat out of hiding in the Fenway dugout — to the plate. And of course the Mets, having somehow already survived Jacob Rhame on the mound, sent Paul Sewald to secure the save.

The record books will show that the Mets won and the Nationals lost. But honestly, the L belongs to all of us who stuck with this one, including you for revisiting it from the safety of the next day and getting all the way to these words. Go sit somewhere and think about what you’ve done.

The Champale of Years

I haven’t had many complaints with Mickey Callaway of late, but I do not believe he properly prepared his team on Wednesday night in Philadelphia coming off of the Yom Kippur fast, for they played as if lightheaded and starved for offense. Perhaps Rabbi Callaway or Cantor DiSarcina was confused by the 6:05 start time preceding sunset by nearly an hour. Whatever the nature of the Mets’ observance, Mickey clearly should have been handing out challah slices on the bench prior to first pitch. Where’s Shawn Green’s favorite clubhouse snack when you need it?

Whether it was High Holy Day low blood sugar or just a case of the secular blahs, the Mets (with the exceptions of three-hit/two-steal Amed Rosario and the heretofore disappeared Tim Peterson) ran on empty in their Citizens Bank Park finale, dragging for nine innings and bowing, 4-0. Noah Syndergaard continued in his late-era M*A*S*H mode, performing not all that impressively yet reminding you, as critics would of the formerly great sitcom in its latter stages, he’s still one of the best shows on television. Not too many pitchers could seem so uninspiring in so many starts and yet leave his team in position to win almost every time out. Unlike M*A*S*H in the early ’80s, N*O*A*H projects to have many scintillating seasons in front of him.

Ten games remain in 2018, so we’re probably beyond proving ground territory for any given Met. The string has been in the process of being played out for ages, but we’ve been able to enjoy the particularly unknotty portions and frame some lengths as significant in terms of who’s getting the hang of what. Now, a few sentimental flourishes aside, we’re mostly preparing to swap out pencil for pen and ink in this season’s final numbers.

We know we are officially prohibited from entering the playoffs. For those who weren’t hanging breathlessly on the standings, the Mets were eliminated from Wild Card consideration on Monday night, a little after they beat the Phillies, when the Cardinals defeated the Braves. The Braves had ousted us from divisional contention over the weekend. I don’t think there’s an At Large bid coming from the selection committee. We lasted 150 games until mathematical elimination this year, a four-game improvement in endurance over last year, though I doubt that was the goal. The 150 figure suggests a team that fell out of the race early and played what some would call meaningless games often. If anything, it means we didn’t get our hearts broken — just our souls battered.

Wednesday night’s loss being the 82nd of 2018 guaranteed a losing record in the mathematical sense, making it two straight under .500, eight of ten and 32 of 57 overall in Mets history (or 32 of 58 if you’re a 1981 split season stickler as I tend to be). Callaway was asked about the L’s outnumbering the W’s and didn’t seem too concerned: “We don’t want to have a losing season, that’s for sure. I don’t want to be one game over .500 and not make the playoffs, either. I think the playoffs and winning a World Series is the ultimate goal and we fell short of that.”

Well, yeah. Nevertheless, 82 wins is a gateway to more, and it doesn’t take that many more to vie for the playoffs in these five-berth times, and you can’t win a World Series without entry to the postseason. After 70 wins in 2017, any sign of an upward trajectory is welcome. Two signs I will high-five will be the team’s 71st win, which should it occur at any time between now and September 30, will outdo last year, and the chip-shot combination of one Met win and Marlin loss, for it will ensure the Mets won’t finish in any semblance of last place for the fifteenth consecutive season.

Let me clarify that: the Mets last finished last in 2003. This stone cold fact buzzes in the face of the widely held and disseminated perception among those seeking cheap and easy storylines that “the Mets always finish in last place.” It only seems that way, but we’re extending a franchise record here. The longest non-last stretch in Mets history prior to 2004 was nine seasons (1984-1992). Since 2004, we’ve finished not last every single year.

Not something to print on the cover of a pocket schedule, but we could have been worse all these years and we haven’t been. Feel free to pop Champale if not champagne over this modest development.

When it’s all over in ten games, barring cancellations, the Mets will complete their schedule with a record somewhere between 70-92 at worst and 80-82 at best. Other than preferring as many wins as possible, I find myself rooting at this time of otherwise hopeless year for a record we’ve never had before, just for variety’s sake. In case you haven’t committed all the Mets’ semi-respectable or slightly lesser sub-.500 records to memory, here are the still-possible-for-2018 finishes on which the Mets have previously landed:

79-83 — 2010, 2014
77-85 — 2011
74-88 — 2012, 2013
73-89 — 1968
72-90 — 1992
71-91 — 1974, 1996, 2004
70-92 — 2009, 2017

Also present in this realm are 161-game wonders 1991 (77-84) and 2002 (75-86). It would presumably take Olympic Stadium falling apart or a whole lot of rain to bring these into play.

Conversely, no Mets team has finished a full slate by posting a 75-87, 76-86, 78-84 or 80-82. My inclination is to wish for one of these fresh marks. While I’d applaud a ten-game winning streak taking us into winter, I think 80-82 would drive me batty into eternity. I’d accept it graciously, but that sense of “just one more win and we’d have been .500” has the potential to gnaw harmfully at my statistical well-being. 78-84 would be particularly appealing to me (and likely only me) because I’ve already ascertained that 78-84 would represent the 29th-best winning percentage in Mets history, slotting 2018 between 1994 and 1995, each of which were shortened by an almost endless strike. Prorated for 162 games, which is all one can do in considering them here, 1994’s 55-58 projected to 78.84 or not quite 79 wins, 1995’s 69-75 to 77.62 or a shade under 78 wins.

Who cares? Nobody but me, I assume, yet here I am elaborating on it. Why? Remember those halcyon days of April when the Mets surged to their best start ever after ten games? And eleven games? And twelve games, even? That lofty status evaporated pretty quickly, but throughout the season, I’ve continued to track out of curiosity where the Mets’ record after ‘x’ number of games has rated among all of its predecessors. I haven’t done it for all 152 games to date, but I have checked in on a series-by-basis throughout the second half and done a little backfilling besides.

In brief, the 2018 Mets were one of the worst Mets teams on a game-by-game basis at the midpoint of this season and kept getting worse until the two-thirds mark. After 108 games, they held the 48th-best record of any Mets team — and there had been only 55 other Mets teams to which to compare them (asterisk-besieged 1981 was on the sidelines by then). Since then, though, they’ve been climbing my imaginary ladder. No. 42 after 118 games. No. 40 after 127 games. No. 36 after 136 games. Since the 146th game, they’ve been holding steady at No. 31.

Meaning? Probably nothing, but for my and history’s purposes, they’re no longer nearly as relatively bad as they can be. They have shaken off the truly godawful 1962-1965, 1967, 1977-1979 and 1993 teams. They are a cut above the abysmal 1966, 1980, 1982 and 1983 renditions. 2003, our most recent last-place finisher, has taken a definitive backseat. A few more wins puts a bunch more losing teams behind them. A few beyond that? It doesn’t catapult us into those playoffs Callaway and we crave, but after 162 games of commitment to the cause, it would be something.

A very little something, a.k.a. better than absolutely nothing. Put that on your pocket schedule.

Great Isringhausen’s Ghost!

You don’t have to be from east of Queens to know Long Island’s Own Steven Matz can do only so much for us. Tuesday night in Philadelphia, LIOSM did more than Mets fans from Montauk to Great Neck (and beyond) could have possibly asked.

• Did he throw five scoreless innings despite walking five Phillies? Yes.

• Did he make a behind-the-back grab of a sizzling line drive, practically deploying his glove as a cesta in manner that would fill a jai-alai player with envy? Yes — or bai, which is yes in Basque.

• Did he turn that sparkling catch of Roman Quinn’s liner into a double play by alertly throwing to first to eliminate baserunner Rhys Hoskins, whose own name is Dutch for Rosh Hashanah, on Erev Yom Kippur? Yes — and good yontif to all.

• Did he go deep for a second consecutive start just as the most recent Mets pitcher to do so was discussing that time he went deep over two consecutive games nearly three decades ago? Yes, LIOSM was the master of third-inning timing for SNY viewers who heard Ron Darling recalling, at Gary Cohen’s behest, that pair of swings when Darling homered two outings in a row 29 years prior mere moments before Steven equaled Ronnie’s 1989 (and Tom Seaver’s 1972) feat. Matz indeed blasted a ball that landed over Citizens Bank Park’s florally accented left field wall five days after he distributed a souvenir to scattered patrons in a comparable vicinity at Citi Field.

So if LIOSM checked all those boxes, surely he must have been the WP…or at least the Mets must have been the WT, as in winning team.

Right?

Alas, you can’t always check what you want, for no, the Mets did not win the game Steven starred in on multiple sides of the ball. The 5-2 loss surely wasn’t on Matz, however. We’ve taken a master class in masterful starting pitching not necessarily accruing to the credit of the masterful starting pitcher this season. Jacob deGrom hasn’t homered, but he has hit and fielded well and pitched better than any living being. Other than leadership in earned run average and plethora of peripherals, see where it’s gotten him. Steven has. LIOSM had the presence of mind during his postgame media chat to dedicate his home run to deGrom’s star-crossed Cy Young quest, seeing as how it was hit off of Aaron Nola, one of Jake’s two prime award rivals.

Matzie isn’t going to be nominated for any pitching-related accolades, but he did give us one entertaining half-game that won’t show up in the standings. The more decisive half-game was forged when the bullpen — specifically Jerry Blevins and Drew Smith — imploding in the sixth, following Steven’s departure. Smith and Blevins allowed five consecutive Phillie baserunners, all of whom grew up to become Phillie runs. Why no more Matz as early as the sixth? The starter had thrown 91 pitches (oh those bases on balls), and loaded bases in the top of the sixth tempted Mickey Callaway to send up a pinch-hitter in place of Slugging Steven. He could have removed Tuesday’s objectively finest Mets power hitter after letting him hit, but maybe that would have been pushing everybody’s luck.

Wilmer Flores was the pinch-hitter instead. Hey, remember Wilmer Flores? He’s on the Mets, just as he’s been for years, but he seems to have faded into the September background, getting about as much playing time as Tim Peterson (whose last appearance was in one of David Wright’s simulated games), Devin Mesoraco (who sits stoically in a hoodie as he tries to not any further aggravate his not so great neck) and Jose Lobaton (who was recalled to back up Mesoraco and whose only recent camera time was logged attempting to roust that rat from underneath the Mets bench at Fenway Park last Friday). Wilmer has often been the toast of Flushing, but right now he’s relegated to the final weeks’ crumbs. Jay Bruce needs first base time. Dom Smith — who doubled in a run in the fourth Tuesday — needs first base time. Jeff McNeil isn’t yielding second base time. This team isn’t big enough for two long-tenured, well-loved third basemen to be penciled in at the hot corner days in advance. And that outfield experiment Callaway discussed in Spring never seems to have taken hold.

There’d be no joy in Metville once little-used Wilmer struck out in Philly. He is a man without a National League position. The stock line is everybody knows what Flores can do. A helluva critique to apply to someone who’s only 27 and who’s never started as many as 100 games at any one spot in any one year. It’s not wrong to have set Wilmer aside at this stage of this season, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a little sad.

Happier thoughts arose when Matz connected for that home run off Nola because precedent indicated we had this game in the bag. In the previous nineteen games in which a Met pitcher had homered, the Mets won. The nineteenth of those games was Matz’s previous start, though it took two even more dramatic wallops — from Michael Conforto and Todd Frazier — to tie and win it for the Mets in the bottom of the ninth. Perhaps the streak was due to snap as all skeins inevitably will.

What a streak it was, though, encompassing a span of 23 seasons, a total of 20 homers and a virtual 16-man pitching staff comprised of both household names and semi-obscurities. The run began with Paul Wilson in September 1996, also in Philadelphia, also at the ass end of a season much like this one (even more disconsolate, but with good times in the offing). Wilson had no more homers ahead of him as a Met, which wasn’t particularly surprising, and only one more start, which would have been shocking to have known. Wilson wasn’t yet one-third of a cautionary tale against expectation. He really was the prospective ace of the future. And he could hit a little.

Come 1997, when Wilson and his promising right elbow were sidelined, the Met pursued several Gen K Plan B’s to fill their rotation. They may not have been power arms, but those bats packed some thunder. Armando Reynoso homered in May, Mark Clark in June, Rick Reed in July. Clark would be traded by August and Reynoso would be shelved much of the following year, but Reed proved a two-way keeper, homering in April 1998 en route to his first of two Met All-Star berths.

The last Mets Home Opener of the 20th Century was started by Bobby Jones, who chose the auspicious occasion of April 12, 1999, to deliver his first and only major league home run. Three seasons later, miscast avenger Shawn Estes failed to plunk Roger Clemens as widely desired, but did reach him for a home run, which represented a pretty good shot to the Rocket’s self-esteem. Four years would pass before the next Mets pitcher round-tripper, off the bat of Steve Trachsel, an authority on taking his time.

If you were a fan of slow, you should have seen John Maine circle the bases in 2007, the last instance of a Mets pitcher homering at Shea Stadium. Not normally much of a hitter, John probably didn’t know his way past first base. In 2010, Johan Santana, who you were convinced could do anything, found his way into the right field stands with a batted ball, the first Met hurler to hit one out at Citi Field. Two years after that, Jeremy Hefner, who we didn’t know from a hole in the head, drilled in our mind the image of a pitcher who could go yard.

Then came the modern era of Mets pitchers who thought deep. Noah Syndergaard versus the Phillies in May 2015; Matt Harvey versus the Diamondbacks in July 2015; Bartolo Colon (!) at San Diego, the first hurler road dinger since Wilson’s, in May 2016; Noah again (twice!), on the same West Coast road trip as Bartolo, at L.A.; Noah yet again that August in Arizona; and two cheerful respites from 2017’s pervasive gloom, via Jacob deGrom against the Nationals in June and Seth Lugo off the Rockies in July.

Finally, LIOSM did it to the Marlins on September 13, 2018, for the 19th consecutive game in which a Mets pitcher homered and the Mets won. Delightfully, all of the above were Mets wins. Of course they were. What’s the point of a Mets pitcher homering and the Mets not winning? For events to unfold otherwise would be like being served a glob of whipped cream and being notified there would be no sundae underneath it.

I guess we found out that not everything that goes great together always comes together. The Mets are now 19-1 in their last 20 games when one of their pitchers homers, 44-12 overall since 1962. It had been so long since a loss was attached to the long ball that it became difficult to remember victory wasn’t automatic. Prior to Matz, Wilson’s Generation K brother in arm misery Jason Isringhausen was the last Mets pitcher to homer in a game the Mets didn’t win, two months before Wilson started the streak that carried on for more than two decades. On July 24, 1996, Izzy experienced the quintessential Coors Field evening, belting a two-run homer (off future Met slugger Reynoso) and giving up six earned runs on fourteen hits over six innings. The Mets, in their own quintessential 1996 fashion, went on to lose, 7-6.

It was the second home run of Isringhausen’s season — and the ’96 Mets’ second loss despite an Isringhausen homer. In June, he rocked Zane Smith for a two-run job at Three Rivers Stadium to stake himself to a 5-2, fourth-inning lead. Still up by one in the eighth, Izzy loaded the bases full of Bucs before giving way to Doug Henry. Henry gave up the lead and the game. The loss, like the homer, belonged to Isringhausen. At least he got something for this trouble.

Now that you’re curious, the other Mets pitchers whose homers couldn’t prevent losses were:

Dwight Gooden twice (in 1990 and 1993; Doc also homered in five Mets wins);

Rick Aguilera (in 1986; Aggie also homered in a pair of Mets wins);

Seaver (in 1972, in the first of his consecutive homer games; Tom also homered in five Mets wins, including the second of those consecutive homer games);

Tug McGraw (in 1971; in relief, no less);

Jerry Koosman (in his otherwise stellar rookie campaign of 1968);

Don Cardwell (in 1968; Don also homered in Mets wins the last-place year before and the Miracle year after);

Jack Hamilton (a grand slam gone to waste versus the championship-bound Cardinals in 1967);

and Little Al Jackson (whose big fly off eventual teammate/Hall of Famer Warren Spahn couldn’t make a sufficient enough dent to defeat the Braves in 1964).

You can see Long Island’s Own Steven Matz is in good company. Win or lose, any Mets pitcher who homers is the kind of company we love to keep. And you can keep the designated hitter far, far from our lineup card, thank you very much.

Still Standing

I usually have a favorite player, but as a grown man how I acquire one has changed. It’s impossible, for instance, for me to make heroes out of young men who could quite literally be my own children. And I’ve learned too much else about the game and life to put anyone on a pedestal. These days, I look for a certain combination of precociousness, a willingness to work hard and the possibility of greatness — and then I wait for mysterious inspiration to select someone for me.

While I appreciate arriving veterans, they arrive too fully formed for me to embrace as favorites. I loved watching Carlos Beltran, and tirelessly defended him against the moron wing of Mets fandom, but he was Carlos Beltran before he got here. And I need to see my favorite player every day — a test even the most electric starting pitcher fails.

So. Young position player. Precocious, works hard, possibility of greatness.

The current Mets club has a few players with that combination: Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, and Amed Rosario come to mind. (If we’re being fair, any young player has those three things or they would have vanished before Double-A, but surely by now you’ve learned the heart isn’t fair.) But the position of favorite player is filled — Michael Conforto is the incumbent, with no sign of yielding his post or being supplanted.

Conforto, alas, gained bonus points with me for something all too common with the Mets of the 2010s and their young players: he succeeded despite his employers trying to ruin him. The Mets started off by doing the right thing for once, risking promoting him too early rather than far too late, but they then ignored his minor-league track record and declared that Conforto couldn’t hit lefties, based on some vague combination of his birthdate and shamanic lore that Terry Collins learned while hunting mastodons. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, culminating in Conforto’s banishment to the minors, where he learned a valuable lesson about looking within yourself and grew mentally stronger went back to hitting like his old self because Collins wasn’t around to screw him up. (I banged on about this at greater length here.)

The Mets stubbornly kept trying to screw him up, most notably by pressing him into service as a center fielder, a position he has worked very hard to play … adequately. None of it worked. And since playing for the Mets is like laboring in a particularly unsafe cotton mill, Conforto got playing time he might otherwise have been denied as those around him got hurt and were carted off to the bench or sometimes even the disabled list.

Last year he emerged as a star despite every attempt to dim his light — and then, on a swing that didn’t look different than any other, his shoulder came apart.

Conforto was expected to miss a couple of months of 2018 at least; instead, in what seemed like a rare dose of good Mets injury news, he was back in the first week of April. Though maybe that wasn’t good news, because he sure didn’t look like Conforto. His bat seemed sluggish, his batting eye unfocused, his approaches to pitchers all pretzeled up. Would he have been better served with a longer rehab and a stint shaking off the rust in Las Vegas? We’ll never know and Conforto will likely never say – the omerta of baseball injuries forbids it.

Whatever the case, Conforto wasn’t Conforto until after the All-Star break. But now he looks like he’s making up for lost time. On Monday night, he singled in McNeil and Zack Wheeler to give the Mets a 4-0 lead, doubled to give the Mets back the lead after Wheeler crumbled and surrendered it, and then iced the game with a three-run homer. He has an outside shot at finishing 30 home runs. More importantly, he’s showed that he’s healthy — and demonstrated that he needs to be in the lineup every single day, against righties and lefties and six-armed arrivals from another planet, should they appear to complicate matters.

Not even Conforto’s heroics could stop the Cardinals from winning last night, which eliminated the Mets from postseason play. That turn of events became inevitable around the time the Mets crawled out of the rubble of a 5-21 June, but I’ll record the formality nonetheless. Still, these days I find myself experiencing that most dangerous of Mets-fan emotions: hope. (Even more dangerous: it’s infectious.)

The Mets aren’t going to win anything — unless they’ve got a plus-sized miracle in them they’re not even going to be a .500 club — but for the last month or so they’ve been entertaining and exciting. And though garbage time can be a dangerous mirage, they’ve been entertaining and exciting in a way that makes me want to think about 2019.

McNeil will come back to earth, inevitably, and Jacob deGrom won’t put up a sub-2.00 ERA for the rest of his career. But there’s a lot more going on here than those two players’ heroics. We’ve covered Conforto, but Rosario has put up a very good second half in which it looks like he’s turning lessons into habits. Nimmo has done the same, baseballs to the hand notwithstanding. Wheeler looks like he’s running out of gas, but his breakthrough has been a wonderful thing to see. Noah Syndergaard looks healthy. Steven Matz looks healthyish, which may be about as good as it gets with him.

Put those things together and you’ve got the core of a good team. And in a division unlikely to have a monster club … well, you never know. But you can believe. As a wise man once said, you gotta.

As If I Care

The upset of the season occurred Sunday afternoon as I was upset — mildly, but palpably (if not Papelbon) — that the brink-of-elimination Mets were defeated by the cusp-of-clinching Red Sox. The two teams may play in the same quadrant of the country, but they’ve hardly competed inside the same universe in 2018. Yet the Mets played as if they could have won the finale and the series, and I found myself watching and rooting accordingly.

The first part shouldn’t be a big deal. Baseball allows for scattered aberrational results. For a game or three, lesser teams jump up and bite better teams. The second part, the caring…that was definitely different. I actually cared about the Mets winning this baby beyond mere default mode. It took 149 games, but I may have finally got my fan groove back.

It mattered to me more than it didn’t how this game came out. It wasn’t simply that the Mets and Red Sox had split two and that the third was in doubt down to the bitter end. It wasn’t even wholly another chorus of Let’s Not Lose One For Jake, our all too familiar rallying cry. Ultimately, the best we could do in that regard was not lose while Jacob deGrom held forth in the box score. We lost later. Jake, whose religion normally forbids the surrender of earned runs, inadvertently sinned in the third inning, allowing three of them. His Holiness didn’t quite locate as he wished over the span of a few batters. Bad on him for one very rare instant.

The instant could have been a killer. It wasn’t, as Jake was Jake in the other six innings he worked, striking out twelve altogether and allowing nothing else. The Mets might have been doomed by deGrom’s impression of a human being had his opposite number, Chris Sale, stayed to take full advantage. But ramping up for the postseason after an injury, the AL equivalent of deGrom was on a light pitch count. With no Sale, the Mets had a chance to be in business.

They attempted to go to market in earnest in the sixth versus the Boston bullpen. The inning’s highlight was a no-quit at-bat by Amed Rosario: eight determined pitches versus Drew Pomeranz, eventually achieving what he seemed intent on producing, a double off the Green Monster that shuttled Austin Jackson from first to third. Actually, Rosario probably wanted to hit it out, and in twenty-nine other ballparks probably would have done so. Still, it was a hellacious plate appearance for a hitter who probably would have gone down swinging not too many weeks ago.

A run was generated shortly thereafter on a one-out sac fly to right from Wilmer Flores. Mookie Betts aggravated his side making the unsuccessful throw home and left the game, which likely led to the second run. Jackie Bradley moved to right from center and Tzu-Wei Lin took over in center, arriving just in time to not quite run down an extraordinarily deep fly ball from Michael Conforto that also went for a run-scoring double, pulling the Mets to within one.

Rosario getting it done. Conforto getting it done. I’ll take Frick and Frack getting it done if they’re wearing Mets uniforms (Frack had a superb year in the minors, but mysteriously wasn’t added to the 40-man for September). Rosario and Conforto, though, that’s our immediate future. That’s our present, really, if you backdate it to evaporation of the deepest dismay and disgust of midsummer. The Mets have been a highly watchable unit most games. They certainly were in Boston. Our two under-26 potential stars are the primary non-pitching reasons we can convince ourselves this isn’t just a late-season illusion toying with our perceptions.

We could perceive another opportunity in the seventh inning, Jacob having continued to keep the Sox in their offensive drawer, the Mets hanging in and hanging on at 3-2. Jay Bruce walked on a three-two pitch to lead off. Brandon Nimmo offered his bruised body for advancement and Heath Hembree accepted, dinging he who grins through pain (21st HBP for Brandon this season). Joe Kelly replaced Hembree and retired the next two unremarkable batters. But Rosario, who has given hope to the heretofore hopeless, singled to center, scoring Bruce to knot things at three.

This was exciting. The Mets could possibly win. At the very least, deGrom could possibly not lose. Hooray for attainable goals! But tied with the best team in baseball, I sought more. I sought a win for all the Mets. I’m aspirational that way. Jeff McVail…er, McNeil seemed like the ideal sort to get the next big hit for us. Alas, clever defensive positioning on a grounder up the middle and absurd baserunning on a dive into first ended the threat.

Jake ended his day past a hundred pitches through seven, his mistakes confined to that one uncharacteristic dim early inning. His team’s mistakes, however, were still in the game. Wilmer Flores worked out a walk off Brandon Workman to commence the eighth. Mickey Callaway made use of his expanded roster and pinch-ran Jack Reinheimer for Mr. Molasses. Great move, I thought. Less great move: Reinheimer leaning so far toward second that he might as well have been in Waltham. Jack may be quick, but Jack wasn’t nimble…and Jack got picked off. The nascent threat was snuffed. DeGrom would have to settle for a no-decision. His ERA spiked to 1.79 from 1.71 in his latest quality start. Gussying up his won-lost record would have been welcome, yet Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes have already framed his Cy Young case accurately.

If you don’t know Jake by now, you will never, never, never know him at all. Leave grumblings about 8-9 or wherever his W-L winds up to the willfully ignorant. Jacob deGrom is to pitching what the Boston Red Sox are to all facets of baseball. Nobody’s better this year.

Yet the Mets were tied with the best there are clear through the top of the eighth inning, with good old reliable Seth Lugo, the Nathan Detroit of the Mets relief corps all year long, coming on to maintain the tie. Except when Jacob deGrom has started, Lugo isn’t necessarily good or reliable. No knock on Seth. Nobody on the Mets seems to wants to lend Jake a helping hand. Lugo gave up one run in the eighth, or one run too many. In the ninth, facing the sixth Red Sox reliever of the day — Steven Wright closing in lieu of Craig Kimbrel — the Mets continued to suggest life. Nimmo walked with one out. With two out, however, Austin Jackson was caught looking less by Wright than by Bill Miller, the umpire with a strike zone as wide as the Mass Pike. Thus, the Mets went down to grudging defeat, 4-3.

Losing this game, as noted above, annoyed me uncommonly within the context of 2018. I’ve recently grown used to the notion that the Mets aren’t comatose as a matter of course. I’ve come to really enjoy watching them do what they do well. The starting pitching we’ve known about. The second-half progress of Conforto and Rosario has been a delight (this was the ninth game this year in which both have registered at least two base hits apiece, albeit the second game the Mets have lost when they’ve done so). McNeil, dunderheaded dive into first notwithstanding, has been a genuine revelation. Nimmo takes a bruising but keeps on cruising. I’ve seeped into that mindset I remember from around this time, oh, 35 years ago. We have, I said then, Hernandez, Strawberry, Wilson, Brooks, Orosco, this kid Darling…how bad could we be next year?

We have, I say now, Rosario, Conforto, Nimmo, McNeil, deGrom, Wheeler, Syndergaard…how good could we be next year? There’s a long way to go before taking theoretical leaps of faith, never mind invoking comparisons that would take a loaded farm system and a savvy general manager to make foolproof. Yet I’m not instantly disgusted or discouraged by everything and everybody that isn’t deGrom anymore, and that’s a step up. I’m honestly irritated that we didn’t take two of three from the Red Sox, a state of being I couldn’t have imagined in June when we rolled over and over for a spectrum of competition that spanned the Cubs to the Orioles. I’m reflexively treating these Mets, even Reinheimer, as major league-caliber. I’m believing we should win games when the score is close, regardless of opponent.

I realize that could lead to letdown I don’t need as the sands run out on the schedule. But what the hell, we’re already mathematically eliminated from the NL East race, we’re a nudge from being disqualified from Wild Card contention and the calendar’s been mentally turned to 2019 for months. Why not get worked up just enough to be let down? I think we’ve earned that much.

Thanks to Mike Silva for inviting me on the Talkin’ Mets podcast to reflect on the career of David Wright. You can listen to us here.