Congratulations to the ballclub that just broke a 71-year pennant drought. Let us rejoice that its dry spell wasn’t snapped after only 70 years.
The National League has a new champion that is no longer us. It feels as if there should have been some sort of formal ceremony to mark the transfer of grandeur, maybe Terry Collins congenially turning his tiara and sash over to a tearful Joe Maddon. The passing of the torch from the Mets to the Cubs via a defeat of the Dodgers was only figurative, yet it was nevertheless pretty impressive to witness on whichever channel MLB attempts to carefully hide these events. Momentous, too. I hope Nationals fans woke their children to let them watch the last outs so that when they grow up, they’ll be able to say they saw yet another team that isn’t theirs advance.
Alas, we knew the day was coming when a team that isn’t ours would have affixed to their head what so proudly we hailed a year ago. Somebody else has been due to hoist the prestigious Warren C. Giles Trophy once the Mets bowed out of the single-elimination portion of the 2016 Autumnal Invitational on October 5. If it wasn’t going to be the Cubs, it was going to be the Dodgers. If it wasn’t going to be either of them, it was going to be two subjectively worse options.
It definitely wasn’t going to be us, yet there was a slight emeritus feel to the Mets’ 2015 accomplishment lingering in this fall’s air. It helped that we were around (briefly) at the beginning of these proceedings and it helped even more that the two teams battling to succeed ours upon the senior circuit throne were those the Mets cast aside in the previous tourney, as if our imprint was an official wrinkle in the system now. How the Cubs or Dodgers got as far as the 2016 NLCS could not be fully explained without retracing their steps from 2015, and whenever some cable-network announcer went that route, he had to note who tripped them up the last time each attempted to make a World Series.
I doubt the rest of the continent has been watching this postseason through precisely that prism, but we are ever-reluctant to remove our Howie Rose-colored glasses. Everybody else’s obvious angle, that the Chicago Cubs have won a pennant for the first time since 1945, can further be folded into our parochial view that not only do they have the honor of succeeding the 2015 Mets, but they have a chance to do what only one baseball team has ever done: get knocked out by the Mets one postseason, go all the way the next.
Everywhere else you’ll hear about 1908. We know the real feat the Cubs are after is one accomplished solely to date by the 1970 Orioles, the last team to have fully learned its lesson twelve months after the Mets took them to school. If the Cubs do indeed win their first world championship in 108 years, perhaps they can thank the Mets for toughening them up.
They probably won’t, but injecting a tenuous Metsian backstory into Cubfest ’16 guarantees us a proprietary interest in what’s going on. Then again, it shouldn’t take much to suck a (lower-case) catholic baseball fan into the upcoming World Series. If you like glimpsing at something you’ve never seen before, how can you not like the Cubs-Indians matchup that lies ahead? If you like a sure historic thing, how can you not salivate at the prospect of cashing in a winning ticket no matter who comes out on top? If you remember that the Mets compiled a combined 7-3 record over the two World Series teams in 2016, how can you not believe that on some vague level we have already proven our championship timber?
Good luck scheduling a parade based on convenient cherrypicking, but it is fun to stay involved. Sorting out the emotions attached to the Not Since 1908 Cubs and the Not Since 1948 Indians should be fun anyway. Unless antipathy for Cleveland’s unfortunately enduring secondary logo gets the best of you or you hold some other private grudge toward the denizens of America’s North Coast, I don’t detect an obvious beef with the A.L. Champion Tribe. The Cubs, meanwhile, are as close as we have to an ancient if recurring rival, but I’m all out of Sheadenfreude where everything from 1969 to 1984 to 2015 and obscure points in between is concerned. “Ha-ha, you’re without the ultimate prize for 109 years!” doesn’t really carry much more punch than the 108-years version as long as we weren’t directly trampled over in service to the potential erasure of 1908.
And we weren’t, although I’m sure there would have been a bounty of eyeteeth given all around Flushing to have had the opportunity to throw ourselves in the Cubs’ path. Like you, I still have my eyeteeth.
Like my NLDS refund, that’s modest consolation.
When the National League Wild Card Game came and went, I needed a couple of days. The Toronto-Texas ALDS transpired without my grabbing more than a gander of its sweeping Canadian activities. Cleveland and Boston drew my attention toward the end, mostly because there was a rainout and thus an extra day that allowed my psyche’s Bumgarnerian bruises to heal. Nonetheless, as with the Jays and Rangers, I was happy the Red Sox and Indians were done in three games. I preferred resolution over drama — just get everything over with already. No Game Four for Big Papi? Boo-bleeping-hoo. Where the hell was our Game Two? (Also, hearing Ron Darling on TBS doing any games that aren’t ours always makes me suspect he’s cheating on us.)
The NLDSes took longer and encompassed stronger biases, so once I was ready to partake, I wasn’t necessarily in the same kind of rush to brush them aside. The team that ended our postseason, naturally, needed to be dispatched after what they did to us. Forming an ad hoc alliance with the Cubs was easy for me despite the three Octobers in this decade when I allowed an affinity for all things Giant to sublet my baseball affections. I nurtured a cache of warm memories from San Francisco’s runs to glory in 2010, 2012 and 2014, codas to seasons when the Mets were nowhere to be found after 162 games. In 2016, all residual vicarious fondnesses from those orange-and-black dalliances were tossed into the nearest Dumpster-brand trash receptacle. Conor Fuck That Guy and Madison Can Go Screw Himself put the kibosh on what had heretofore been a perfectly lovely platonic postseason relationship.
The Cubs and Giants wound up producing a riveting quartet of contests, and I watched as many of their climactic scenes as I could when not nodding off (because a West Coast game is a West Coast game no matter the time of first pitch). Since I didn’t get to use my tickets for NLDS Games Three and Four, seeing the team that phantomized them go down in front of their home crowd was as satisfying as this October figured to get.
Until the Nationals lost their series in five, that is, which was more awesome than I would have guessed. A little piece of me wanted to see a sequel to Daniel in the Cubbies’ Den, and a larger chunk of me wanted to learn Chase Utley had been shoved from the top of the Washington Monument with only a cement trampoline below, but I could live with the Dodgers advancing as long as it was at the Nats’ expense.
Utley is now gone, which is splendid, as is the tableau that remains in the wake of his demise. The Cubs, a team I’m certain I don’t despise anymore, and the Indians, a team a good friend of mine has boosted loyally since the days of Daddy Wags, are on the cusp of meeting in a space they’ve rarely gathered on their own let alone in the company of each other. You could say both sides’ fans have suffered enough to each earn a ring, and you wouldn’t get an argument. Proper appraisal of the magnitude of 108 years and 68 years free of fulfillment will rub your empathy glands raw, but after a while, those figures amount to little more than vicious Fun Facts. For those who are truly Cubbed Up as well as those who were initiated as legitimate members of the Tribe from 1949 forward, the experiential equivalent of “never” is long enough.
Let’s be honest, though. If it’s your team, ten minutes without winning something substantial is too long. The laurels of 1986 were still fresh in memory when the names “Terry Pendleton” and “Mike Scioscia” planted and replenished a bad taste in our mouths that nearly three decades’ worth of Listerine has failed completely washed out. All of our 2015 N.L. Champs merch and “The Pennant Will Rise” apparel is still within easy reach, yet Fuck Conor Gillaspie now and forever. It’s not about suffering. It’s about the incandescent desire to do the opposite. Winning something substantial is a drug of the most addictive sort. Being deprived of winning something substantial after having very recently won something substantial brings on the DTs. The Wild Card provided a nice hit of methadone. It let us feel like we were a part of all this even if our prescription expired mere innings after it was filled. It certainly gave us a healthy jones for the smiting of our enemies, and on that count we were sated, albeit via hands that were not our own.
It’s been said losing feels worse than winning feels good. I’d contend not winning feels worst of all. You don’t realize there’s a difference between losing and not winning until you are reminded how good winning feels for those who have made it to the World Series and still not lost it one year after you had that feeling for yourself.
I’d prefer the Mets be taking on the Indians Tuesday night at Progressive Field (which is a funny name for a place where Chief Wahoo continues to hold sentimental sway). I’d prefer we had elbowed aside the Cubs in the NLDS and Dodgers in the NLCS, reversing the order in which we vanquished them last year. My preferences, however, were not given special consideration by the baseball gods. No particular fan’s are, which is why sooner or later or — in the case of the Cubs — much later everybody gets the kind of shot the two teams left standing have coming to them.
Though, as of this writing, not the Nationals, which remains awesome.
There I sat, an unaffiliated baseball fan, watching the game because it was the only game that was on, the final game that would be on, Game Seven of the World Series, October 29, 2014, the Royals playing the Giants for the championship of the sport I loved. Those teams and that circumstance had nothing to do with my team and where it sat that year and the several years before it.
If you had told me what the next two Octobers had in store for my team, and that those two teams on the television would transform from admirable strangers to final obstacles, I would have suggested, depending on my mood of the moment, that you have another drink or perhaps put down the booze. You’re drunk, you’re nuts, stop saying silly things.
You weren’t silly, hypothetical you. You knew what I couldn’t have conceived. Twenty-four months ago, I straight up lacked the imagination to believe that in 2015 the Mets would play in the World Series and in 2016 return to the postseason. I did not look at the Royals and Giants in that Game Seven and see a scintilla of the Mets’ future.
Yet that future came without warning — not so much as a push notification appeared in 2014 to indicate how 2015 and 2016 would unfold. One season led us into ultimate conflict with the Kansas City Royals, the next, an urgent entanglement with the San Francisco Giants. Two teams I had nothing against have come to represent bitter ends to otherwise beautiful stories surrounding our New York Mets.
Had I bothered to set my preferences, I assure you I would have tapped on a better conclusion.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Still, I’ll take it. Or, should I say, I took it and I shall be back for more. Less bitter, more better, I hope. I was back for more in 2015 when all I was doing was doing what I always did. I came back for more Mets and to hope they’d get better. I had no concrete expectations. I generally hoped blindly before 2015. A year later, after a thrill ride dropped the National League pennant off on our porch, my hopes and expectations were heightened. Then lowered. Then raised. Then crushed. Now they’re gone for 2016.
But, oh boy, will they be back in 2017, and not just because I’ll be doing what I always do. I will come back for more Mets and I will come back to hope. Technically, I will be activating what is always there. It was there, lying dormant, when teams like the Royals and Giants were playing on a plane far above ours, and it was there, crackling through every last pitch and missed opportunity, when we rooted against the Royals and then the Giants because the games and the circumstances in October had everything to do with us and our team.
The 2016 postseason party goes on without the New York Mets now, our invitation to this grand autumnal festival quietly rescinded. It was fun while it lasted. Well, it was fun for eight innings, then it turned into the stuff of “I’ll get the coats, you bring the car around, let’s get out of here before anybody notices we’re gone” in the ninth. Pretty soon, everybody else still at the ball won’t remember we were honored guests when the gala began. It used to be they’d let you stick around, get used to your surroundings, make a nuisance of yourself before showing you the door. This Wild Card RSVP didn’t work like that.
Instinct tells us that after losing an entrancing Game One, we’re gonna be fine, it’s a long series, we’ll go get ’em in Game Two. But, of course, it’s not a long series. It wasn’t a series at all. It was one-shot, a one-off, a one-and-done. Appropriate to how we classify it, we were shot, off and done in one night.
The nihilistic and tempting view the morning after is we went to a lot of trouble to lose 3-0 and go home. Had the Mets, who flailed helplessly through so much of the summer, floundered just a little longer and not recovered their mojo in late August, we could have been spared the ceremonial execution of our hope. It would have continued to fizzle and eventually evaporated like it always used to, privately, with only a relative few of us serving as witnesses. Our winter would have arrived on what was its usual schedule, same as it did in 2014 and 2013 and 2012 and so on. We could have dismissed 2015 as an aberration and watched a new episode of Modern Family or whatever else was airing Wednesday night.
Happily — yes, happily — 2015 was not an aberration. It did alter our expectations. We did enter 2016 conceiving that the new season would somehow outdo the last season. “World Series or bust” was a phrase thrown around with a straight face, as if the options following almost winning it all were limited to going one step further or failing completely.
Perhaps you remember the sharpest zinger from the film version of Moneyball. GM Billy Beane and coach Ron Washington visit Scott Hatteberg in the offseason to convince him to sign with the A’s and play first base for them. Thing is, Hatteberg’s been a catcher his entire major league career. Brad Pitt’s Beane assures Chris Pratt’s Hatteberg, “It’s not that hard, Scott,” and then turns confidently to his stonefaced coach (Brent Jennings) for backup.
“Tell ’em, Wash.”
“It’s incredibly hard.”
That’s just first base in the movies. Now consider trying to approximate one year’s unexpected success the very next year, yet with the burden of expectations, but without the participation of all kinds of key contributors from the year before. Imagine you’re asked to make the playoffs twice in two years when making the playoffs just once in a while is a historical rarity in your organization. Imagine you fall almost hopelessly out of the race remarkably late in that second season. Then go and do what you set out to do when the season commenced, when your goal was no mean feat to begin with.
Yeah, it’s incredibly hard. But the New York Mets just did it. They were postseason qualifiers for the second time in two years, busting past the 162nd-game barrier just as they did in 2015, yet nothing at all like they did in 2015. They made it, though. Not as division champions, and not with ninety victories, and not on the glittering arms of a golden rotation, but they made it just the same.
Somehow, the portion of the journey that defined this season felt even more Amazin’ than the season that preceded it. This wasn’t 2015 2.0, which is not to say that wouldn’t have been splendid had such a reproduction been available to us. This was 2016, its very own chapter in our ongoing family history and a worthy descendant of a season we’ve been invoking for decades every time summer was down to a wisp and the contemporary campaign was circling the drain.
We had to believe, we’d been telling each other since 1973. This year, 43 years after the seminal surge that confirmed faith doesn’t have to be futile, we saw again what can happen when we consent to believe. That year faith carried us almost all the way. This year it got us only so far, but certainly further than could have been rationally projected a blink ago. As play began on August 20, our Mets were 60-62 and five-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot (those are coordinates we will be repeating as long as we root, which is to say as long as we live). As play continued on October 5, so did we. In between, the Mets did everything they had to in order to deliver us to the doorstep of possibility, a place we had to squint to see from where we seemed stranded less than seven weeks before.
The Mets won 27 games from August 20 to October 1. Almost every one of them felt like The Game of the Year until it was supplanted by a victory even more astounding. Whenever faith threatened to revert to folly, something we needed to happen would happen. A home run was hit. A strike was thrown. A catch was made. A player we’d barely heard of or thought of before this season took up residence in our hearts. In the middle of 2016, the Mets were comprised to an alarming extent by guys who essentially wandered in off the street. How were we supposed to get behind them if we could barely remember who they were?
When it came to selecting retreads and promoting obscurities, Sandy Alderson proved himself, à la Hatteberg in the movies, a pickin’ machine. We know who these Gsellmans and Lugos and Loneys and Riveras and Kellys are now, and if they listen closely, they can hear us do our best impression of Gerry and the Pacemakers, regardless that their ferry didn’t cross all the way into the NLDS:
We don’t care what your name is, boy
We’ll never turn you away
Not after a finish to the regular season like they and their teammates gave us, not even after the lone postseason night that ended their trip sooner than we’d hoped.
In the only Wild Card Game the National League had to offer us, we couldn’t furnish our ferryman, Noah Syndergaard, with nearly enough offense to get us to the other side. Syndergaard was brilliant. Ten strikeouts, two hits, three walks, one stolen base, one not so stolen base (thanks, replay) and one gargantuan Grandersonian grab at the wall added up to a shutout in progress. The Giants did nothing against him for seven innings and never appeared on the verge of doing anything irreversible against him. The only way Noah’s night would go for naught is if there happened to be on the Citi Field premises somebody in a San Francisco uniform matching him pitch for pitch.
That could be a problem. It was. The Giants brought Madison Bumgarner to Queens; why the TSA didn’t detect this deadly weapon I don’t know. Bumgarner owned that seventh game versus the Royals in 2014. He’s excelled in game after game versus everybody in every postseason he’s pitched in since 2010. He’s been in a lot of them and never been rousted from any of them.
That track record holds. Whereas Thor was epic over seven, Bumgarner was Bumgarner for nine. The Mets put six baserunners on across nine innings. None neared home plate. Once or twice the “Mad” in Madison appeared poised to overtake the visiting starter — the strike zone was not a constant by Mike Winters’s reckoning — but there is, unfortunately, no bum in Bumgarner, not in October. (Not that I didn’t hurl far worse epithets at his televised image over the course of the Wild Card evening.)
Bumgarner barely bent and didn’t come close to breaking. Syndergaard departed and left the Mets’ chances of outlasting his counterpart to the best of his bullpen. Addison Reed wriggled from a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, making it 26 consecutive innings of the Giants not scoring against the Mets in postseason play, a string that dated back to October 7, 2000. Maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of Benny Agbayani and Bobby Jones would be kind enough to kindle some friendly spirits for us.
Instead, Jeurys Familia turned the ninth inning into a haunted house. A double to Brandon Crawford. A one-out walk to Joe Panik. A three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie. A three-nothing Giant lead. When these SOBs break a scoreless streak, they don’t mess around.
Familia, who saved 51 games in 2016 on top of 43 in 2015, but was charged with three blown saves in last year’s World Series and now has this loss emblazoned on his ledger forever, was booed as he left the mound after completing the rest of the ninth inning to Mrs. Lincoln’s satisfaction. I thought the reaction was tacky. I also thought it was a helluva spot to give up a three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie, only the second home run Jeurys allowed this entire year.
The last three Met batters of 2016 were Yoenis Cespedes (flied to right), Curtis Granderson (flied to left) and T.J. Rivera (flied to center). The Mets’ final out was recorded at 11:21 PM. When the projected time of first pitch is announced for Opening Day 2017, I’ll be back around to let you know when we’ll be reaching the Baseball Equinox, that instant after which we will be closer to the coming season than we are to the last one. Until then, we drift involuntarily away from the Mets, at least in the active sense. They will stay with us without playing as they tend to do, ever more so in this era, a period that commenced in 2015, endured with challenge in 2016 and, because pessimism is as big a bummer as Bumgarner, has every chance of going forward in the foreseeable future…if there is such a creature.
We foresaw a 2016 fronted by more than Thor. We foresaw Harvey and deGrom and Matz and Wheeler. Have you seen them lately? We foresaw Neil Walker holding down second and Wilmer Flores coming off the bench. We foresaw Lucas Duda socking long balls, Juan Lagares tracking down most other balls and, if physically handled wisely, David Wright dispensing captainly wisdom and the occasional double into the gap. We foresaw a quantum leap ahead for Michael Conforto. We foresaw the necessary last step in the development of Travis d’Arnaud.
Tell me more about foreseeable futures. We foresaw the Mets as a contender and a playoff team when we were foreseeing all of the above, before actually seeing no more than a fraction of it. Yet we wound up contending and in the playoffs. We got there, as noted, via a team made up of Gsellmans and Lugos and Loneys and Riveras and Kellys (both Johnson and Ty), but also Granderson in his indispensable mode for a month; and Cabrera as invaluable all year; and Cespedes as explosive in indelible bursts; and Reyes as the prodigal infielder you grudgingly gave a chance and weren’t sorry you did; and Colon as Colon, which needs little delineation but inspires a mountain of appreciation; and De Aza and Reynolds and Ruggiano and Nimmo and Jay Bruce of all people filling vital roles; and Blevins and Edgin and Robles and Smoker and Salas, not to mention Reed, to say nothing (not that you’d want to at present) of Familia, providing relief.
And stirring together this unlikely goop mélange until it qualified as postseason pudding, Terry Collins. They don’t always supply him with the freshest or most appetizing ingredients, yet somehow he whips up a feast and manages to come up with something Amazin’ for dessert. Our second consecutive trip to the Viennese Table didn’t last long, but just getting us a seat that table took some fancy doing.
We could have danced all month, but we won’t. Nevertheless, 2016 will stand forever as an affair to remember. Thanks to all who joined me in taking part. I hope you had as wonderful a time as I did.
Earl Weaver, were he still among us, would likely be impatiently reaching inside his custom-made jersey for another cigarette, and not because his successor in Baltimore held out his best reliever in Toronto while the Orioles’ season went up in smoke. Weaver, between puffs of his filthy nicotine habit (having to stressfully rely on Don Stanhouse when he didn’t have a Zach Britton available probably clouded his otherwise Hall of Fame managerial judgment), was famously heard to say of baseball’s rhythms, “This ain’t a football game, we do this every day.”
It’s hard to remember that truism when the National League Wild Card Game has been making us wait around for kickoff like it’s the last week in January.
Going an extended period without baseball between baseball games is already unnatural. especially when it’s not raining. A year ago around this time, we were enduring four sunny Metless days as we transitioned from the regular season to the Division Series. The reward for our patience, however, was bountiful: a best-of-five set to determine who would play for the pennant. When this year began, there was an ESPN-instigated glitch that had us playing on a Tuesday and Friday, yet idling on a Wednesday and Thursday. But that was also ultimately all right, because the Friday in question was the third game of the season, and it had 159 games beyond it.
This thing we’re going through until nine minutes after eight o’clock tonight is off-kilter. We’re waiting around so we can play exactly one game of mammoth consequence and then find out if there will be more baseball in our immediate future.
Weird. We’ll take it, mind you, because we couldn’t get the same see-ya-in-the-NLDS deal as last year, and it’s inarguably preferable to counting down to April 3, 2017. Still weird, though. This ain’t a football game, but after 48 hours exposed to lineup projections, first baseman debates and a little too much starting pitcher mythology, I’m beginning to wonder.
This isn’t how baseball functions, except for whichever Wild Card game they save for second. So I guess this is how baseball functions, at least for us and our San Francisco Giant counterparts. One group of devotees will wait a little less than 48 hours for another three or more baseball games, the other will wait close to six months.
I hear San Francisco is lovely for waiting this time of year. They should go do that there. We should keep playing. That’s a load of should, which doesn’t translate to will. We will know our respective fates tonight.
As the regular season was winding down, and I was giving Stephanie (whether she was dying to hear it or not) my quarter-hourly update on how the Met/Giant/Cardinal dynamic was unfolding and where it seemed to be heading, my lovely wife said she remembered that one time the Mets were in this situation previously. Ah, I said, 1999 — yeah, that wasn’t the same thing. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. See, the Mets and Reds tied and had to play a one-game playoff to move on to the first round, but now, there’s a one-game playoff, and we have to get there and win it so we can move on to the first round…which sounds like the same thing, but it’s not, even though it is, even though it’s not, mostly because MLB prints and sells t-shirts for getting this far.
I could have Metsplained the differences in greater granular detail, but I realized delineating between a sudden-death regular-season play-in game and a scheduled postseason play-in game was like navigating Penn Station. I know how to get where I’m going, but despites decades of commuting, I’ve yet to develop the language to clearly express foolproof directions to anybody else.
We did win that 1999 game, though, and we did go on to play Arizona for four games and Atlanta for six. Though we would have liked to have played more that fall, it was a representative sample. In eight previous postseasons, the Mets have never played fewer than seven games. That’s a pretty substantial proving ground.
This is one isolated game, which we’ve been told all our lives proves little, but it will have to do. When we were three games in back of the Marlins, three-and-a-half behind the Pirates and five-and-a-half to the rear of the usually unassailable Cardinals, the concept of making it to October 5 loomed as quite attractive. It was just a concept then. The idea that the Mets could host this win-or-go-home one-off, never mind play in it, was practically fantasy. For that honor, we sat seven-and-a-half games behind the Dodgers, who were then the First Wild Card of record.
As you know, we reincarnated the spirit of 1973 and passed everybody in the aforementioned paragraph, except for the Dodgers, who traded places with the Giants, and we passed them, too. Now we have to pass them one more time in order to play three or more games against the Cubs.
Got that? I knew that you would.
My projection for tonight is I don’t know. This ain’t football. We aren’t conditioned to project single games that aren’t flanked on at least one side by something contiguous. Within a series, you can draw conclusions. Without one, you can shoot craps. There’s no such thing as an “upset” over the course of one baseball game, just as there’s no such thing as what’s “supposed” to happen, regardless of the identities of the participants. I’ll have faith in Noah Syndergaard and whoever plays first base and everybody else who’s a Met, and I won’t be frightened by Madison Bumgarner and the tales of postseason invincibility that accompany him wherever he alights on a given October evening.
We have Thor. We will cede nothing when it comes to starting pitcher mythology.
Otherwise, there is no sign to guide us. There is no precedent worth the pixels they are typed in. Al Leiter shut out the Reds in 1999. The Jays, wearing blue caps in their own ballpark, turned away Wild Card visitors clad in black and orange Tuesday night. Encouraging examples, but probably not useful, certainly no more telling than 2016 being an even year and what that is alleged to imply where Giant patterns are concerned. Nobody’s eliminated the San Franciscans from the business end of October since Luis Castillo’s Marlins in 2003. Maybe we should invite him to throw out the first ball. Or catch it for a change.
Mets in one. Wrigley on Friday. Or, at worst, t-shirts on discount at Modell’s on Thursday. All I know for sure is it’s good to be playing ball tonight.
The Mets’ Closing Day Preemption Tour touched down in Philadelphia on Sunday. One week after the final regular-season home game didn’t feel particularly final, the last date on the previously published schedule gave way to one more afternoon that didn’t jibe with the customary rhythms of the baseball calendar. Game 162 is supposed to be the end of all that is right and good in our lives, unless things went overwhelmingly well in the previous 161 games, in which case, rightness and goodness live another day.
So they do, literally, one more day. That day is Wednesday, 8:08 PM at Citi Field, ESPN on your device of choice. It’s us and the Giants, for all the marble…singular. Only one is manufactured in each league, redeemable at the MLB postseason popup shop following conclusion of the extra-bucks contrivance otherwise known as the Wild Card Game. Here’s hoping our team grabs said marble and turns it into a voucher valid for admission into the series of five within the round of eight. All the marble will permit us to continue postponing our goodbyes until we’re damn well ready to express them.
Until then, here’s to the Ultimate Fate TBD Mets of 2016, who won three fewer regular-season games than their direct predecessors, tying the 2000 Mets for slightest franchise falloff from the playoff year just before it. No “Year After” Mets have ever outwon the postseason team that set their bar vexingly high. The 1970, 1974, 1987, 1989, 2001 and 2007 Mets each delivered at least nine fewer wins than, respectively, the 1969, 1973, 1986, 1988, 2000 and 2006 Mets. But by minimizing their stumbles following 1999 (97-66) and 2015 (90-72), the 2000 (94-68) and 2016 (87-75) Mets returned to the playoffs. Though in our hearts they never registered as quite as beautiful a creation, the 2000 Mets went further than the 1999 team. If the 2016 Mets can outpoint the 2015 gang — with whom they seem to have surprisingly little in common — then, boy, are we gonna be happy a month or so from now.
But one marble at a time.
This still-active team of ours got hot for a concentrated spell in April and then went on a lengthier jag that covered late August, all of September and the First of October. The spectacular 13-2 and 27-12 stretches were the Bachman and Turner of our season, providing the Overdrive necessary to take care of business. At the outer edges and in between, the Mets went 47-61. All the pieces added up optimally after 162, which was the only math that mattered.
Notify the MLB Network programming department that by qualifying to keep on keepin’ on, the 2016 season elevates itself into the Top 9 of all Met campaigns. Nine Mets teams have made the postseason, this one included. If you’re just going by records, ’16 wasn’t as sweet as a whole bunch of seasons that preceded it. In fact, it ties 1989 for 16th-best record in club history. The 87-75 Mets of 1989 were a mostly sour experience to have lived through (despite the acquisition of a pitcher nicknamed Sweet Music), as were several Mets teams with larger victory totals. It’s all about context and — let’s face it — expanded postseason eligibility. The 2016 Mets made the most of the former and took advantage of the latter. They’ve earned commemorative apparel, a champagne shower, a prime time slot on national television and, forever more, at least a mention in the chronological procession of pride that until Saturday began with 1969 and ended with 2015. How emphatic a mention we’ll find out soon enough.
Your 1985, 1987, 1990, 2008, 2007, 1998, 1997 and 1989 Mets had more or as many regular-season wins as 2016, but they don’t get to be in the same conversation. Sorry, fellas. Some of you were actually pretty sweet seasons, but your Closing Days wound up as definitive.
Not 2016’s, as perfunctory a 162nd game as the Mets have played and lost in ages. The Mets hadn’t ended a regular season on the road since 2012 and hadn’t finished up on the road on a Sunday — which works much better than midweek for Closing Day — since 2006 (when they also had bonus baseball in Flushing directly ahead of them). The last time the Mets put one of their seasons in the books in Philadelphia, they weren’t done writing it yet. That was August 11, 1994, the eve of the strike that wiped away 49 never-played games and a postseason in which the Mets weren’t on track to participate. Given the lack of familiar parameters, perhaps it’s not surprising that October 2, 2016’s 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Phillies didn’t fire on many traditional emotional cylinders.
We almost certainly saw somebody perform as a Met for the last time yesterday, but unlike Ryan Howard where we were tuning up for the Giants or Vin Scully where the Giants were knocking out the Cardinals, we can’t yet identify who is leaving us for good. Reflection will have to be retroactive, which is a leading indicator that this regular season was put to splendid use.
The postseason’s applications can be extraordinary. Let’s run as many as we can.
Mr. 1973, you can come in now. It’s time for you to meet your grandseason. His name is 2016. Do you see the resemblance? Yes, right there, it’s in his trajectory. Pick him up. Hold him. Have a gander at his late August. Normally for a bouncing baby playoff team, it would be much higher. But on 2016 here, it was set much lower. Uh-huh, just like on you.
Don’t be alarmed, though. That’s nothing to worry about. You of all seasons should know. You had a very low late August, but you turned out Amazin’. So has 2016. Look closer. Look at his September. Yes, it’s way up there, just like yours. I don’t think there’s been anybody in your family since you were born to have quite the kind of trajectory that you can trace upward so sharply from late August to the end of September to…yup, he has the exact same October 1 as you do. A Game 161 clinch and everything.
You gotta believe he’s incredibly healthy. I can show you reams of data you wouldn’t immediately grasp, but all you have to know is this key set of numbers: 27-12 from August 20 forward. For you, it was 21-8 from August 31 on. Like you, he had to pass through a very narrow canal of possibility, but we can see in hindsight that as long as you both kept pushing, everything was going to be fine.
He showed up just in time, as if he knew the gestation period wasn’t over until it was over.
I know you adore all the playoff seasons that came after you, but I can’t blame you for thinking this one is particularly special. Everybody fretted you weren’t going to make it, and I guess it’s fair to say there were some concerns about 2016 getting this far. Yet here we are, at the same stage of life, and we have every reason to kvell.
His arms? Frankly, I don’t think they’re quite as robust as yours, but sometimes you can’t tell at first glance. We took an MRI as a precaution…yes, we do that a lot these days. Anyway, in that space where you had a Seaver, a Koosman and a Matlack, we don’t see very much similar in him beyond the Thor. But don’t worry. They’ve done studies recently, and they’ve found a Lugo and a Gsellman can provide nearly as strong a foundation. And the Colon on this one is very durable. It can process innings sort of like the Stone that was never properly extracted from your system did for a while, assuming that it’s managed wisely and not ignored. It’s 43 years later, so we know a lot more about these things than they did back then.
I think what makes this youngster very special is his heart. You and I know where he gets it from, huh? Oh, and the guts. No, that’s not a sanctioned medical term, but you’re in all those scientific journals for the same reason he ought to be someday. Go ahead, place your finger in his palm. He Tugs at it. A kid like this should be able to handle anything. Doesn’t recoil, doesn’t give up. That indicates the presence of heart and guts not every season has.
The DNA suggests his hair could be a little Rust-colored eventually, but for now it seems to be coming in platinum blonde. Nature can be wild that way.
He leans a little to the left like you did. The shortstop, the third baseman and the left fielder are his dominant traits, kind of like yours when we examined your stretch run, except he generates far more power from that side. Those positions make all the difference for him, just like they did for you. I don’t know that his backstop is as sturdy as yours, but he’s blessed with a very resilient back end in his bullpen. Where you had one essential reliever, he has several. Why is that? Stretch runs simply didn’t require as much relief when you were born, but seasons come out differently today. Attribute it to evolution.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that he was nearly born without an optimally functioning Bruce. It wouldn’t have necessarily harmed him, but having a good one, if I may use a technical term, surely couldn’t hurt. All in all, 2016 is made up of a lot of parts that are easy to take for granted: a Loney, a Rivera, another Rivera, a Granderson…put them all together and you find yourself hugging an absolutely beautiful playoff season. Just another miracle brought into this world when we could definitely use one.
Would you get a load of that? He’s making a little fist, as if he’s going to be ready for anything or anybody who stands in his path in the coming days. Another family trait. It’s too soon to project much about where he’ll go from here, other than he can go home on Wednesday, but he’s definitely got the autumnal gene.
We’re as excited as you are to welcome 2016 to the postseason, Mr. 1973. We’ve been waiting for another one like you for a long time. But we better let him get a little rest now. Pretty soon he’s gonna have to say hello to America.
The 2016 New York Mets will play a 163rd game.
We know that much, even as we’re desperate to know more.
The Mets beat a lifeless-looking Phillie team on an odd night at Citizens Bank Park, with a brisk, chilly wind knocking down anything hit to center or right. In the early going Ryan Howard tried to hit one out and failed, as did Lucas Duda. When behemoths like that come up short, you realize a different game is afoot.
Fortunately, the Mets have diversified their offensive portfolio in recent weeks. In the fourth, after three innings of working Alec Asher into hitters’ counts with nothing to show for it, they broke through with four straight singles by Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce and T.J. Rivera for a 2-1 lead. Add in a home run by Bruce and some late-inning slapstick and five runs was more than enough to support Robert Gsellman, who turned in six innings of fine work before handing the ball off to Fernando Salas, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia.
Extra credit goes to Granderson, who ran down Jimmy Paredes‘s drive at the center-field fence in the sixth, squelching the Phils’ best bet to come back in the game. And a tip of the hat to the baseball gods for whatever that was in the eighth. With runners on the corners and one out, Cespedes hit a pop into the wind behind first, above Howard’s head. The breeze didn’t drag the ball very far away from Howard, but by now he’s become a sessile fielder, and it was enough. The ball just missed plunking a retreating Jose Reyes in the helmet and caromed off first base. A befuddled Cespedes wound up on first, a wide-eyed Reyes was forced at second, but meanwhile Alejandro De Aza was scooting home for a run. No one in the booth could recall such a play in their collective decades of experience; from the expressions on the faces of Reyes and Cespedes, it was new to them too. Come to the park and you really might see something you’ve never seen before.
Before we move ahead to ponder a rather important weekend, let’s stop for a moment and appreciate the key personnel behind what would have been a ho-hum win if not for the intersection of the calendar and the standings.
- If you’d heard of Gsellman before his big-league debut in late August, you’re probably also named Gsellman. If Jacob deGrom is Snoopy, the bulkier, shaggier Gsellman is Spike — a real-life version of GEICO’s mistaken-identity gag. But he’s not a cameo character anymore: he’s got a plus fastball and good breaking stuff, throws strikes and doesn’t scare. That’s a remarkable discovery at any time, let alone when the Mets needed it the most.
- The offensive star was Bruce, whom you may recall being pinch-hit for by Eric Campbell and unable to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem without someone booing him. No, not at some painful-to-recall but now distant time earlier this summer. That happened last week.
- The key defensive play was turned in by Granderson, whose reassignment to center field was greeted with a collective gulp, given the mileage on his 35-year-old legs and the small-caliber bore of his arm. I’m not quite sure how, but he’s been fine. Hell, he’s been pretty darn good.
- Supporting roles were played by Reyes, Salas, T.J. Rivera and De Aza. Taking them one by one, that’s a guy released by Colorado and free for the taking, a guy who’d been toiling anonymously in the Angels’ pen, an undrafted free agent turned minor-league batting champ, and a spare-part outfielder any of us would have gladly driven to the airport to be rid of in June.
And yet this band of irregulars, deployed in ever-shifting combinations through Terry Collins audibles, not only beat the Phillies but has the Mets guaranteed of playing extra baseball this year.
So who do we play and when? We can’t answer that one, not with the Mets, Giants and Cardinals stacked up like 86-, 85- and 84-win airplanes trying to land on a runway with two spots. We could play the Giants, play the Cardinals, or watch as those two teams play each other in a play-in game for the play-in game. We could play in San Francisco, in St. Louis, or at Citi Field. We could even join a modern barnstorming campaign to break a three-way tie, a spectacle that would end with the surviving team staggering into Chicago and activating its bat boy to pitch against the Cubs.
(Hey, if that’s the way forward, we’ll take it.)
But right now we know one thing the Giants and Cardinals don’t — we’re getting a 163rd game. After the dismay of August, I won’t call that a miracle — we only bring that word out for once-in-a-generation events — but it sure is amazin’.
The forces of good were temporarily foiled Thursday night in St. Louis by Yadier Molina and dunderheaded officiating. Like havoc wreaked by rain on the late-September schedule, hardy perennials are hard to avoid.
The Cardinals and Reds were locked in a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth. The Cards had Matt Carpenter on first with two out. Molina, who is a hero in his native Hades, lashed a double to deep left, where it took a hop over the wall, bounced off an advertising sign set several feet behind and above the fence, and then caromed back onto the field, meaning Carpenter had to stop at third…in a just world that abides by the concept of ground rules. Instead, Bill Miller’s umpiring crew responded to an onlooker’s apparent suggestion of “hey, look over here!” and they all missed what was fairly visible to the television-viewing audience. Reds left fielder Adam Duvall dutifully played the ball and threw it in to the infield; it wasn’t up to him to decide he was enabling a ground-rule double to go uncalled. Carpenter kept running because nobody told him not to. He slid across the plate and was called safe. The Cardinals jumped up and down, showered each other with liquids and picked up a half-game in the Wild Card standings, freezing the idle Mets’ magical numeral at 2.
During my sole summer of watching professional wrestling, I was regularly flummoxed by referees who somehow missed illegal moves and foreign objects that inevitably affected the outcomes of matches. I was twelve then, yet could plainly delineate one blown call after another. I gave up on wrestling. I stuck with baseball. Baseball continued blowing calls, but not every night and, eventually, not very often for keeps once video replay review was implemented. It’s a cumbersome process, but it usually makes up for the proliferation of human error that has come to define major league umpiring in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
It didn’t work this time, either. As the Cardinals celebrated, Bryan Price was ultimately declared to have fatally dawdled. Every game in September takes approximately three eternities and forty forevers, but because Price wasn’t up the dugout steps and waving his arms like a madman in an instant, Miller assumed the Reds weren’t concerned with the final score. It turned out the Reds’ manager was gathering his wits and evidence before demanding justice in a noisy pool hall. By the precise second he emerged to flag down an umpire — any umpire — all the umpires had vamoosed.
Because baseball is such a stickler for keeping a snappy pace, Price was supposed to have signaled his intent to challenge within ten seconds, or challenged within thirty seconds, or, because the call on the field ended the game, make his displeasure known simultaneous to the manifestation of the event that displeased him. He didn’t do that, by Miller’s reckoning. Miller, as crew chief, could have instigated his own review since it was the ninth inning, but he was too busy a) glancing at Price not staring forcefully enough at him; and b) skedaddling from sight in the company of his colleagues, most notably Scott Barry, the third base umpire who blew the ground-rule call in the first place.
If this were the 1925 World Series, when Sam Rice of the Washington Senators may have or may have not caught a ball while diving into a friendly crowd, the mystery would be the stuff of enduring legend. In the playoff chase of 2016, we have solutions to clear up confusion. We have the thing with the headsets and the angles and the definitive call. They would have used it in 1925 had it been available. They found a way not to do in 2016. Ah, progress.
Had the correct call been made, and Carpenter been halted at third, perhaps Stephen Piscotty, the next Cardinal due up, would have driven in the winning run. Or Piscotty would have been walked, leaving it up to Kolten Wong. Wong might have ended the game, or the Reds might have wriggled out of the jam and into extra innings. Hypotheticals can’t be rewound and reviewed. What stands (unless somebody files a protest and the protest is upheld, which all seems pretty unimaginable at this point) is the Cardinals were credited with a win they didn’t win, and therefore stand two games behind the Mets and one game behind the Giants, who also unfortunately, if legitimately, won on Thursday night.
Bottom line where our Met myopia is concerned: the same combination of Met wins and Cardinal losses adding to two that we looked forward to as play began Thursday night remains our math here on Friday. We win and they lose and we’ve got a Wild Card. Who we play and where we play would remain up in the air (the groundless ground-rule double episode has mostly been addressed as a detriment only to the Giants, as if the Mets are leisurely lounging about their penthouse apartment complacently awaiting a telegram containing their October itinerary), but making the postseason would be accomplished and, oh by the way, what an accomplishment…once it’s accomplished…if it’s accomplished.
It must be accomplished before conditional language is altered.
Scoreboard watching behooves us, but the scoreboard of primary interest is the one at Citizens Bank Park. If the Mets keep winning in Philadelphia, we are free of worry where wild scenarios are concerned. Win twice and we’re in on our own. We also clinch home field regardless of impending opponent, thanks to the Cardinals’ resulting inability to catch us — we’d have 87 wins, they can attain no more than 86 — and the head-to-head edge we hold over the Giants. A little help from our new friends the Pirates (in St. Louis) and Dodgers (at San Francisco) will be much appreciated, but the Mets can handle this themselves, weather permitting.
It might very well rain. It rained hard enough in Detroit on Thursday afternoon to postpone — not exactly cancel — a critical Tigers-Indians matchup. It rained hard enough in Pittsburgh on Thursday night to suspend — and officially tie — a relatively superfluous Pirates-Cubs game. You rarely see postponements of contests with playoff implications at this stage of the season (Cleveland would return to Detroit on Monday if the American League Wild Card hangs in the balance) and you basically never see ties anymore (it takes a last scheduled meeting, ceaseless precipitation and no playoff implications to not pick up a suspended game). The last sanctioned tie in MLB came eleven years ago. The Mets haven’t played one to inconclusion since the ass end of 1981. Rain can do crazy things that lax umpires can only daydream of while not following the flights of balls that bounce over walls and back onto fields of play.
Rain, for example, tends to move from west to east. If you’re following the bouncing cloud, you can track its path from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and draw your own conclusion. The Mets and Phillies will almost certainly play as much baseball as they are scheduled to this weekend, but they may have to wait out steady showers and puzzle out vexing pitching decisions to do so. It’s not the ideal setup in advance of potential playoff rotation alignment, but that’s a problem we should be overjoyed to contemplate. Not every team playing this time of year is burdened by such concerns. The Phillies aren’t. The heretofore defending world champion Kansas City Royals (despite their implacably relentless nature) no longer are. And somebody else whose identity escapes me also qualifies in this realm. Local team, other league…
Oh yes, now I remember.
I know there are more pressing matters on our rainy radar, but a moment of Sheadenfreude should always be taken to observe Elimination Day when it rolls around. Call me a sentimentalist, but a grand old tradition marking an indisputably cheerful annual event shouldn’t be allowed to pass without a word of thanksgiving. In these modern times, Elimination Day may not be as relevant as it once was, but let us never forget those autumns when it never came, and therefore count the one additional blessing with which we were bestowed when the Baltimore Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday night and officially eliminated from postseason contention the New York Yankees.
Consider it counted. Now on to counting bigger and even better things.
Wednesday night’s win over the Marlins was full of encouraging signs for the Mets, and left me feeling something I’ve rarely felt in a tight race’s last few days: a sense of calm.
Seth Lugo looked shaky early, struggling to command his pitches and reminding us that for all his meritorious service, he’s written an out-of-nowhere story that makes Jacob deGrom‘s ascent look like a sure thing. Lugo didn’t pitch well in any role in Las Vegas (though, to be fair, that’s about the last place you want to depend on a curveball) and various metrics, most notably his FIP and home run rate, suggest an unwelcome regression to the mean lies ahead.
But you know what? Come April, Lugo can regress all the way back to the Pacific Coast League — what’s important is he didn’t do it Wednesday night. He got rocked by a Martin Prado homer in the bottom of the first for a 2-0 deficit, but fanned Jeff Mathis with two men on to limit the damage. The Mets responded immediately, with T.J. Rivera doubling and James Loney hitting a high arcing drive that came down just above Giancarlo Stanton‘s station craning his neck at the right-field fence.
Lugo was in trouble again in the third, facing Stanton with one out and runners on first and second. He got squeezed on a 1-2 curve, though the ball broke so sharply it seemed to fool Rene Rivera as well as home-plate ump Bill Welke. Unlucky, but then Lugo got lucky on 2-2, running a fastball just outside enough to sap Stanton’s power. He popped it up; Lugo went to a 3-1 count on hulking Met nemesis Justin Bour, but got him to ground to second for a fairly gigantic whew.
The Marlins seemed spent after that, for which no person with an ounce of compassion could blame them. Meanwhile, the Mets were getting in gear. Jose Reyes doubled Lugo in to take the lead in the fourth and then Jay Bruce — yes, that Jay Bruce — drove a ball over the wall for insurance. Lugo, Hansel Robles, Fernando Salas, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia kept Miami at bay, and the Mets had won.
The Mets had won, and a little while later the Reds beat the Cardinals by a skinny run, surviving a leadoff triple in the ninth. And a little while after that the Rockies survived a scary ninth of their own to beat the Giants. Those aren’t the ingredients for a 163rd game quite yet, but the recipe’s become pretty simple: if the Mets win two in Philadelphia they’re guaranteed at least one night of extra baseball. (Yes, a three-way tie is still possible, but I’m not going to worry about it because my head would explode.)
I doubt I’ll be calm when I’m checking the out-of-town scores Thursday night, or while doing anything this weekend. But Wednesday night I was — I even lapsed into couchbound inattention for an inning or two, as if this were a pleasant evening in May. The difference: I was letting myself daydream about Lucas Duda looking revived and Curtis Granderson whacking balls from line to line and Bruce having escaped the back of the milk carton and T.J. Rivera continuing to get his Murph on and hey, if we get past next Wednesday maybe we could make some noise….
Normally I’d yank myself back to the beginning of that chain of hypotheticals, but this time, I let my mind keep wandering happily for a bit. I’ve lived through seasons in which magic numbers shrank to a certain point but no further, becoming tragic digits. I know that still might be. But, to steal a note from Mike Vaccaro, since their resurrection began on Aug. 20 the Mets have made up 8 games on St. Louis, 9 1/2 on San Francisco and 10 on the Pirates. And all that while pitchers and position players vanished from active duty at a rate normally seen in epidemics. Those are already pretty magic numbers, regardless of the outcome.
So I’ll sit back and enjoy it until the lights come up and it’s time to go, whether that’s after Game 162, 163 or — because you never know — Game 182. It’s part of being a fan to fret and sigh and see grim portents everywhere, but we have to also allow ourselves to imagine things going right.
The Mets are 84-74. They have never, in the history of the franchise, been 84-74 before. There is no inherent significance to having achieved this statistical milestone. It’s simply something I deduced after staring at their record for a moment.
To have ever been 84-74, the Mets would have — in the segments of their past that were less than illustrious but more than intolerable — had to have ended a season with between 84 and 88 wins.
They’ve never ended with 84.
They’ve never ended with 85.
They’ve ended 86-76 once, in 1976, but after 158 games were 86-72, on their second of five consecutive losses that took a bit of the shine off an otherwise rousing finishing kick (34-16 in their previous 50) that was, sadly, a harbinger of absolutely nothing where the immediate future was concerned.
They’ve ended 87-75 once, in 1989, but after 158 games were 83-75, letting down everybody in sight before sweeping a four-game series in Pittsburgh to make the year look better than it felt.
They’ve ended 88-74 three times. Once, in 1997, it couldn’t have been sweeter; twice, in 1998 and 2007, it couldn’t have been more sour, proving perhaps that numbers are only numbers until they are cast into context. The 1997 team was a scrappy unit that rose from the depths of a theretofore dismal decade and delighted us diehards with provisional progress that promised even better days ahead. The 1998 and 2007 teams crafted and carried expectations that wound up crushing them in their respective final weeks. 1997’s quiet ascension is rarely broadly invoked despite the invigorating leap forward it encompassed. 1998’s fast fade lingers a little louder in the collective subconscious, though ultimately its generational pain was eased by the rewarding seasons that lay directly ahead of it. Historically, it was consigned to also-collapsed status by the next 88-74 season to come along. 2007 endures as a legend of the genre.
What binds the three 88-74 finishes in Mets history, for our current observational purposes, is none of them occurred after an 84-74 pit stop. I clearly remember how each of those years’ final four games played out: 3-1 in ’97, 0-4 (80% of an 0-5 free fall) in ’98, 1-3 in ’07. Because I know how those endings unspooled and can do a little Base 162 arithmetic, I know no Mets team that could have been 84-74 ever was 84-74.
And? And I guess it goes to show that when you get to this juncture of a very long season, you realize that though the vast majority of games are put in the books, it’s the palmful yet to be played that can still define what the season was and how it will be recalled.
After 158 games of 1976, 1989 and 1997, all that was left to be determined was which numbers would be written in ink. Those Mets’ seasons were already defined as whatever they were. Their spurts of contention, whether illusory or exhilarating, were over. But after 158 games of 1998 and 2007 — plus a few other years when the records may have been markedly different but the stakes at hand were essentially the same — we didn’t know what we had and required the entire schedule to play out.
Which returns us to our present 84-74 circumstances, elevated from 83-74 following a rollicking Tuesday night victory in Miami. The Mets beat the Marlins, 12-1, pitching wonderfully and hitting spectacularly. Noah Syndergaard was back on the hill and strepless as could be for six innings: no walks, five hits, eight strikeouts. Jay Bruce’s bat, recently thawed from cold storage, continued to scald. He landed a two-run homer in Dee Gordon territory in the second and whacked everything with authority all night. Yoenis Cespedes, whose slumps last only as long as it takes to realize they’re occurring, launched a ball past the adorably garish monstrosity in center (no, not you, Christian Yelich) and presumably sculpted a hole in the ozone layer with his third-inning missile into space.
Yo’s blast made the score 4-1, where it stayed stuck for much of the evening, but like a 158-game record in the midst of a 162-game season, it was bound to change. After hitting into a bit of bad luck here and there, the Mets plowed through another National League East bullpen in the late innings, adding five runs in the eighth and three in the ninth. The most encouraging contributions were elicited from Lucas Duda, 2-for-3 with three RBIs and perhaps emerging as the starting first baseman he used to be before four months of injury inactivity, and Juan Lagares, a barely distinguishable speck on the DL radar who is suddenly revealing he can not only run, catch and throw, but swing. Juan chipped in a tack-on sacrifice fly that would rate zero mention, except Juan and his surgically repaired thumb ligaments weren’t supposed to be able to grip a stick of lumber for any purpose larger than bunting.
In the words of Curt Gowdy from the 1969 World Series highlight film, “Some bunt.” No, Lagares in Game 158 at Marlins Park didn’t go yard like Dave McNally (let alone Donn Clendenon or Al Weis) in Game Five at Shea Stadium, but just the thought that he might be a capable righthanded bat in the four games ahead…and any games beyond that…is a small miracle unto itself. Duda, too. Didn’t see either of them coming, or coming back, but that’s been the Mets’ way in 2016. After this chronically decimated team took the last two of four in San Francisco in August to put them at exactly .500, the goal — in my head, at any rate — was win every series. Do that, and they could conceivably compete for a playoff slot. Given how they’d performed most of the summer, that kind of output would be a miracle.
Twelve series remained, ten with three games, two with four. My aspiration for them was therefore a 26-12 record over their final 38 games, which would land them at 88-74. In 1997, 1998 and 2007, that was enough to book passage directly into the offseason. It wouldn’t have done them any good in 1976 or 1989, either. But this is the age of the Second Wild Card. 88-74 looked pretty solid from the vantage point of 62-62 considering where all other prospective foes stood five weeks ago.
Here we are, 84-74, with not quite every series thus far taken, but enough contests captured in the interim to catapult the Mets into a slim yet stubborn lead for the First Wild Card: a half-game ahead of the Giants, a game-and-half better than the Cardinals. Each contender scored twelve runs on Tuesday and each put pressure on the others. The Mets may have to win 88 games to ensure playing more than 162. It’s possible a slightly lesser number will take care of business, but that’s not desirable to consider. We need every available win just as we need every available body. We need Duda. We need Lagares. We need Bruce and Cespedes and tonight’s starting pitcher Seth Lugo. We could use Wilmer Flores, but probably won’t be able to, which is why noticing Juan’s refreshed skill set provided such a pleasant revelation. We will definitely need Thor again, maybe this Sunday, maybe next Wednesday. We may need a starting pitcher between Sunday and Wednesday if things shake out weirdly enough.
We need the Mets to excel over their final four games, the four games that will define what kind of story we will eventually tell about 2016. I’m hesitant to put a precise number on it, but 88-74 certainly sounds like a happy ending.
I knew Monday night’s game against the Marlins would be emotionally wrenching. I think we all did.
But I wasn’t prepared for just how tough it would be, and how tough it kept being.
There was the sight of every Marlin wearing Jose Fernandez‘s No. 16, and the knowledge that it would never be worn again.
There was the sound of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a grieving farewell, something I know my mind will come back to again and again on carefree summer days.
There were the red eyes and stricken faces of Martin Prado and Giancarlo Stanton, just minutes before game time.
There was tracking Yoenis Cespedes as the Mets and Marlins came together to exchange pregame hugs and back pats, and seeing how hard he was holding on to each opponent.
And there was the sight of the Marlins surrounding the mound where Fernandez had done so many amazing things, and the reminder that all of that was done, irrevocably ended in an unlucky second in the night.
Last week I called the Cespedes our-walkoff-turned-their-walkoff as cruel as baseball gets, and that was correct as far as sports go. But what a monster of a qualifying statement. That was a game and a pennant race. This was a young man killed at 24, a son and grandson gone in a blink, a father-to-be who’ll never see his child. There’s no comparison between the two, none at all. Watching the Marlins during the remembrances of their teammate and friend, I wondered how they could possibly play — how anyone could. Throwing ourselves into sports is grand fun — and sometimes its opposite — but what happened off Miami Beach in the early hours of Sunday morning was cruelty and tragedy in the true senses of those words, and it was devastating to see them transposed to the baseball diamond, where we get to obsess over the pretend versions.
If you’ve read us for a while you know that I’m not a fan of the Marlins’ ownership or their off-the-field personnel, to understate the case considerably. But they handled the unimaginable with grace, to use that word in the nearly-forgotten sense for which it was intended. So too did the Mets and the SNY crew. The open grief on the faces and in the voices of Gary, Keith and Ron was almost too intimate, and it was a relief — for us and I suspect for them as well — that they let the first minutes of the game speak for themselves. These weren’t things to talk over; for long TV stretches they simply let them be.
But unwelcome though it was, there was another aspect to Monday night’s game: within the parameters of baseball, however silly and ephemeral they might be, this was a game the Mets desperately needed. At first I felt queasy about this double vision, then I simply accepted that I wouldn’t be free of it and did the best I could.
It was astonishing seeing Dee Gordon, a baseball whippet with zero home runs on his 2016 resume, lash a Bartolo Colon fastball into the second deck, as if he’d become a quadruple-sized Stanton. As a Mets fan I winced — 1-0 Them. A moment later I was applauding, as a baseball fan and as a person, and wished I could help carry a crying Gordon around the bases and back to the embrace of his teammates.
And then I went back to wincing — with plenty to wince about. Colon didn’t have it at all, as sometimes happens to him — he was throwing in the mid-80s and everything was getting walloped. Terry Collins has had a quick hook in recent weeks, hauling starters off the mound without consideration of wins or their psyches or anything else. But he left Colon in. He let him hit in the third despite the Mets being in a 5-0 hole, an inning that ended with Cespedes looking at a borderline called third strike and leaving two runners on base. Colon faced three batters after that, surrendering a hit, surviving a rocket liner from Stanton and then yielding Justin Bour‘s triple. Only then did he come out.
Down 7-0, the Mets did little against a succession of Marlins relievers. Cespedes popped up with a chance to make it a game again; Lucas Duda got caught looking. The game, understandably, became an exhausted trudge for both teams, and wound up a 7-3 loss. The Mets are now half a game up on the idle Giants, and had to find solace in the Reds trouncing the Cardinals. Some folks noted that they didn’t mind the Mets losing this one, and I appreciate the sentiment. Applaud it, even. But I couldn’t second it: there’s no such thing as a game you don’t mind losing with six left and a postseason berth in the balance.
But accepting that you feel that way isn’t the same as letting it blind you to bigger things. As the Marlins gathered at the mound again, this time to leave their caps behind, my mind went back to the last batter Colon had faced — and then further back, to a game 15 years gone. I was in the stands with Greg and Emily on Sept. 21, 2001, when Mike Piazza‘s drive into the night transformed a shocked, tentative crowd into a bunch of cheering loons — the first moment in which we felt allowed to celebrate a little thing like it was a big thing.
Colon’s final pitch on Monday night was a flat fastball that Bour hammered into right-center, just under the glove of a tumbling Jay Bruce. Bour is a massive hulk of a man — perfectly named, really — and he careened around the bases and did a belly flop in the dirt in the vicinity of third, bouncing hard into the base. Then, finding himself safely in possession of his first career triple, he popped up and flexed at his teammates, who grinned and yelled and flexed back.
I realized that on the Monday night we all thought was coming, Jose Fernandez would have seen the ball get past Bruce, sprung to the top of the dugout railing, and hung over it so he had the best seat in the house. He would have been not just cheering Bour but also bouncing up and down, practically levitating with delight, with that million-watt smile attracting every eye in the park. I knew I would have hated that Justin Bour of all people had tripled, but wound up smiling at how much Fernandez loved it — like he seemed to love every moment in which he was part of the game he played with such irrepressible, contagious joy.
For that moment, on this shocked and sorrowful Monday night, the game had helped. It hadn’t fixed anything — nothing like that can ever be fixed — but it had allowed Bour and his teammates and their fans to let go, giving them permission to lose themselves in something small and silly. Small and silly — it’s just baseball, after all — but joyous and real for all that.