What to do with a 1-0 loss? Throw stuff? Suck it up? Shrug? There are no wrong answers. It is the baseball epitome of close but no cigar.
I’m not sure of the appeal of cigars, but one run sure sounded good on Wednesday. One Met run, that is. There was one National run, and it sounded, if you’ll excuse the expression, devastating. Wilson Ramos hit a solo home run off Fernando Salas in the seventh inning in Washington and it felt like we had just gotten our ash kicked beyond the point of surgical repair. All that was required of the Mets in their subsequent two innings of batting was a single run to change the tenor of the late afternoon, but some days a molehill is a mountain.
One-nothing doesn’t imply insurmountability in the long term. In 1986, the Mets lost each of their postseason Game Ones by that score and it didn’t stop them from taking both best-of-sevens. For that matter, their last regular-season setback was of the 1-0 variety, Ron Darling not quite beating Montreal’s Bob Sebra. (It dropped the Mets’ mark to 103-54; if you couldn’t shrug that one off, baseball might not have been the game for you.) On the final day of the 1973 schedule, the Sunday when it was conceivable five teams could finish tied for first, the Mets dropped the opener of their doubleheader at Wrigley Field, 1-0. Jon Matlack pitched great, nicked for one lousy run in the eighth inning while otherwise striking out nine and going the distance. Alas, the Mets couldn’t push one lousy run across against Rick Reuschel and Bob Locker, and there went as crucial a late-September game as you could imagine.
In the nightcap, the Mets won, 9-2, and the next day, Makeup Monday, if you will, they eliminated everybody who was still standing to clinch the division title. The only impact from the previous day’s 1-0 defeat was that it survived in allegory form to be retold reassuringly during a somewhat similar September more than four decades into the future.
Thanks to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool, we know the Mets have lost 118 regular-season games by a score of 1-0. Comparatively, they’ve won 131 games in the same fashion, the most recent of them June 25 in Atlanta. For a team better known historically for its pitching than hitting, it makes sense we’d be more successful than not in this particular subgenre of results. You’d like to think if you give a Seaver, a Gooden, a Gsellman one run that they could make it stand up.
OK, maybe not Robert Gsellman, but then again, the rookie held the Mets aloft for five-and-two-thirds innings, aided by a pair of strike-’em-out/throw-’em-out double plays (René Rivera with the gun twice) plus one conventional 4-6-3 twin-killing. The Mets gave Robert nothing. Or Tanner Roark, Blake Treinen and Mark Melancon gave the Mets nothing. You can look at it from both sides, though you rarely do when you can’t believe your team couldn’t score one freaking run in nine innings. To some degree, however, you enter cap-tipping territory when you partake of the wrong end of a 1-0 game.
Or helmet-throwing. Again, there are no wrong answers.
For a franchise that has existed in its current guise only twelve seasons, the Nationals have demonstrated an unhappy talent for winning 1-0 games from the Mets. Wednesday’s was their fifth, as many as their Expo forebears notched across 36 campaigns. The one-nothing whitewashing that stands out as most aggravating is the first, which was tossed at Shea Stadium on May 15, 2008, while Gary, Keith and Ron broadcast from the Upper Deck and I stifled my screams on Field Level. Mike Pelfrey, who hadn’t pitched too many games of his life to that point, was pitching the game of his life. Big Pelf went seven-and-two-thirds, blemished not at all until Wilson Ramos prototype Jesus Flores doubled, Willie Harris (aaauuuggghhh!!!) bunted and Felipe Lopez sank a sac fly from one-run range in the eighth. The Mets made Jason Bergmann and his extraneous ‘n’ look like Jon Matlack for seven innings, striking out nine times, and then did so little against Luis Ayala in the eighth that they apparently jotted a note to themselves to “Go get Luis Ayala for the stretch drive should we be in one this year and find ourselves incredibly desperate for relief pitching.”
Come the ninth, the Mets were coming on as if they planned to assert themselves once and for all in what had been the wheels-spinning aftermath of the 2007 devastation. Carlos Beltran singled. Ryan Church didn’t, so Beltran stole second while Carlos Delgado batted and took third on Flores’s errant throw. Now this was more like it: one Carlos on third with one out, the other at the plate prepared to cut overgrown tattoo parlor pole Jon Rauch down to size.
Delgado lined to first. One out. Beltran was caught off third. Nationals first baseman Aaron Boone (aaauuuggghhh!!!) threw to Ryan Zimmerman. Two out. Added to what Church didn’t do a batter earlier, three out.
Now that was a one-nothing loss to throw things at because the ending was so, well, aaauuuggghhh!!! (Four months later, Pelfrey and the Mets would lose 1-0 to the Nats again, in Washington. Score a couple of runs in each of those games, and there are playoffs at Shea before it is torn down, I just now realized…aaauuu…ah, whaddaya gonna do?) The game in which Mr. Roark was no Mets fan’s fantasy took a different trajectory. Its missed opportunity arose as early as possible, in the top of the first. Jose Reyes singled. Asdrubal Cabrera singled. Yoenis Cespedes popped out, but Ramos whiffed on a passed ball and Curtis Granderson recovered from a one-and-two count to walk and load the bases.
Jay Bruce was up for the next three pitches and back on the bench seconds after the third pitch. Two out. The offensive hero of Tuesday night, T.J. Rivera, fouled out to Bryce Harper on a ball Harper had to dive, slide and not slam into the right field sidewall in order to hold onto. Three out.
Everything about that inning told me we were probably screwed, starting with the setup of Reyes and Cabrera getting on base. Seriously. It was one of those “this should be great, but it won’t be” sensations I’m sometimes overcome by. A younger version of myself would have salivated over having exactly the guy up who I want up in that situation. Of course I want Cespedes up with two on and nobody out.
I AM GOING TO HAVE AN INTERLUDE NOW.
On August 14, 1985, the Mets trailed the Phillies, 2-0, going to the bottom of the ninth at Shea. They had been as hot as they’d been at any time since 1969, winning 30 of 37, including their previous nine. I was 22 and almost always believed the Mets would, never mind could, come back. It was that kind of season and I was that kind of fan.
Howard Johnson led off and drew a walk from Kevin Gross, who was going for the shutout (good lord, I miss starters pitching in the ninth). Davey Johnson enlisted Rusty Staub to pinch-hit for Rafael Santana (good lord, I also miss having a pinch-hitter deluxe batting in the ninth). Rusty walked. Rick Aguilera pinch-ran for Rusty because the only thing you’d ask Staub to do in the last year of his star-spangled career, if you could help it, was pinch-hit. Clint Hurdle was going to pinch-hit for Roger McDowell, who had replaced Darling in the eighth and given up the second Phillie run in the ninth to Gross (see — some pitchers could pitch and hit late in games). Righty Gross was pulled in favor of lefty Don Carman. Lefty Hurdle was pulled in favor of righty Ron Gardenhire. So much chess!
Gardenhire, who was a fine manager but mostly let me down as a player, bunted. Carman, whose name is the one I hear when I listen in my mind to Harry Kalas doing Phillies games, threw the ball past first baseman Mike Schmidt (not a misprint; Schmitty played some first). The error placed Gardy on second, Aggie on third and HoJo across the plate. These Mets who we knew on a nickname basis were within one. Veteran Tom Paciorek, obtained to be sort of a righthanded Rusty, pinch-hit for rookie Lenny Dykstra. More righty-lefty stuff. Paciorek was intentionally passed to load the bases. There was nobody out. The Mets, according to 22-year-old me, could not lose.
Wally Backman, who maybe deserved more respect as a manager but was definitely deservedly revered as a player, faced a tough assignment in Carman. The Mets had recently given up on Kelvin Chapman, who had been getting the starts at second against lefties, the ones in which Wally clearly didn’t excel (a situation that led to the acquisition of Tim Teufel in the ensuing offseason). Wally was a switch-hitter, but not to great effect. For 1985, he is listed as having batted .324 as a lefty, .122 as a righty. With no better option at hand, southpaw Carman got righty-swinging Wally to ground to third baseman Rick Schu, who threw home to Ozzie Virgil, who, instead of calling his aunt, forced Aguilera.
That was OK, though. Keith Hernandez was up next. Keith Hernandez, for all you kids out there, was everything in the summer of 1985. During the 30-7 stretch alluded to above, Keith had slashed .382/.449/.583 and had grilled forty of those “ribeye steaks” he so favors. Bases still loaded, only one out, the Mets trailing by Twiggyesque run. Of course I salivated over having exactly the guy up who I wanted up in that situation. Of course I wanted Hernandez up.
The Mets could not lose, yet they did. After “seven pitches and four minutes,” as the Times put it, Keith grounded to second baseman Juan Samuel. Samuel flipped to shortstop Tom Foley for one out, and Foley relayed to Schmidt for the second out. The game was over. The Mets lost by one run. It was frustrating, but not devastating, since it was the middle of August and the Mets remained in first place. “You’ve carried us for a month, Mex, can’t do it every night,” is how Hernandez remembered his teammates patting him on the back afterwards in his 1985 diary If At First…
That 2-1 loss didn’t sting nearly as badly in the moment as, say, the 1-0 loss at Shea to Washington in 2008 (or, to be honest, that 1-0 loss in Montreal after everything was clinched in 1986, which somehow still annoys me), yet it’s stayed with me for 31 years because it taught me that even though you have up exactly the guy who you can’t imagine not carrying you, sometimes the guy can only lift so much. If Keith Hernandez at the peak of his clutchness couldn’t deliver on demand, how could I expect anybody else to do so every single time?
I AM DONE WITH MY INTERLUDE NOW.
Cespedes didn’t come through against Roark. Neither did the formerly Red white elephant in the room, Bruce, who needs a pat on his back, a rub on his shoulders, a kick in his decidedly unsmoldering ash, something. I prescribe a little faith and a ton of encouragement. I’m predicting my prescription will be ignored. Somehow I don’t think giving up and heaping abuse is the answer where a struggling human being we wish to succeed is concerned. The ol’ “he can’t be this bad” song from the Bay days is playing in my head. That was an extended mix went on for three years. We need a change of tune for two weeks. Jay’s due. Let’s hope. Or let’s see De Aza. Or Conforto. Or Nimmo. Or Tom Paciorek, who wasn’t much of an answer in 1985, but did more down the stretch than Bruce has thus far in 2016.
The one guy who’s worrying me more than Jay Bruce is Wilmer Flores, because he’s not playing at all (an option that sounds pretty good where Bruce has been concerned). Wilmer’s not having been pinch-run for in Atlanta not only potentially cost the Mets a critical run, it has definitely cost them a Wilmer. We were told his neck was bothering him after his collision with A.J. Obnoxious. It turns out his wrist is a bigger deal. He wasn’t available to swing a bat in the Nationals series. That’s an absence you begin to notice, no matter how many times SNY replays T.J. Rivera’s homer. Injuries are what have us in a three-way tug-of-pacificity at present. If we were a little healthier, yesterday’s 1-0 loss would have damaged our charge at first place, not a Wild Card. But we’ve got who we’ve got and we’ve got to go from there.
To bring this thing semi-circle, I’m brought back once more to 2008, to the part where we survived the 1-0 losses to Washington and were hanging in there in the last week of the season. The top of our order was sublime: Reyes, Beltran, Wright, Delgado twice, with Beltran fifth otherwise and an innocent rookie who’d never hurt us named Daniel Murphy batting second. Then the bottom dropped out. Those were the days and nights marked by Ramon Martinez at second, Robinson Cancel catching, whoever wherever else. Sometimes it worked. Often enough it didn’t. Despite a midseason surge (40-19) that elevated crazy ’08 above the wreckage of despicable ’07, the division and the Wild Card both got away. Even with extra bodies in September, we always seemed short of players.
Currently, the top half of the Met order is imposing: Revived Reyes, Capable Cabrera, Scary Cespedes, Evergreen Granderson. It goes a long way toward explaining the 17-7 record in effect since August 20. After them, though, I feel the earth disappear under my feet. It’s a mosh pit of moving parts five through eight. The bench strength is stretched to fill the starting lineup. The second wave of projected starters need to be plugged into a wall outlet. Losing Flores for any length of time much past the four games he’s already missed isn’t a torpedo, but all these voids become contiguous, latching onto one another and forming a season-swallowing sinkhole. In the second half of 2008, Tatis, Easley, Maine, Wagner…before you knew it, yeesh.
We don’t know “yeesh” yet and we don’t have to. Because we are by necessity at least a little bit a Cardinal and Giant blog these days, it is my pleasure to repeat what you already know, that each Met competitor lost Wednesday, so it’s still SFG and NYM in the playoffs that don’t start today, with the STL Redbirds flying a touch below radar. Half-games are wild in the Wild Card race. A St. Louis win tonight at San Francisco ties all three teams with a 77-69 record and sixteen left to play. If you’re a chaos theory fan, the kind who reserved your salivation in 1973 for everybody finishing 80-82, that’s your preferred temporary outcome. If you’re a Mets fan, I’m not sure. A pox on both their houses is instinctively appealing, but I think I just want somebody to get swept and go away. Three to make two hasn’t worked in the NBA since 1981, and it won’t work on October 5.
That’s a ways off. Let’s concentrate on scoring more runs than the last-place Twins this weekend. The Twins used to be the Washington Senators. The Washington Nationals used to be the Expos. Anybody can beat anybody. Take no games for granted.
Why am I telling you this? Somebody tell the Mets.
I’ve invested so much of my life into loving baseball that it would have been a shame to have completely given up the game, but as Jerry Blevins prepared to face Daniel Murphy in the bottom of the tenth inning Tuesday night with two out, a runner on first and the Mets up by one, I realized that if things went astoundingly awry (and it wouldn’t be that astounding, considering the identity of the antagonist), I might have to overhaul everything I’d previously held dear. If Murphy did to Blevins what Murphy does to all Mets pitchers, and the Nationals completed in the tenth what they nearly finished in the ninth, how could I continue to love baseball? I couldn’t even fathom liking it.
I went through a similar washing my hands of the whole thing at the conclusion of the last three-way Wild Card race in which the Mets vigorously competed. That was eighteen years ago. The Mets’ vigor vanished at the worst possible juncture. They dropped their final five games and failed to capture the only at-large playoff spot then available. I was so disgusted by the outcome of the 1998 season that I swore I would no longer have anything to do with either that team or their sport ever again.
My retirement from the game lasted about a day. But I meant it when I said it in ’98 and I meant it when I thought it in the tenth inning Tuesday. Here were the Mets, not more than a half-hour removed from the cusp of a highly satisfying victory over the Nationals. Noah Syndergaard had been his lately typical extraordinary self: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 10 SO and only 1 SB. Thor controlled the tops of innings, while his teammates did just enough in the bottom of two of them to stake him to a 3-1 lead. After 99 exquisite pitches, the ball was handed to Addison Reed and Reed registered his team-record 36th hold, whatever that is.
All that remained was one of the great more-or-less automatics that baseball has to offer, a Jeurys Familia ninth inning. He hiccups and we jump, but have you gotten antsy to the point of clinically anxious over Familia during the Mets’ charge into Wild Card territory? I mean really anxious? In his eleven appearances since spit got real and the season turned serious, he’d thrown ten-and-a-third innings, scattered four hits, allowed a lone walk and struck out fourteen. Saves are about as dopey as holds, but Jeurys had gathered eight of those to up his season total to 48, substantially more than any Met before him.
Despite decade upon decade of watching the Mets and their closers and the ninth-leads assigned to their particular skill sets, I was relaxed, confident and anticipating the best.
You’d think I’d know better by now.
Murphy led off the ninth for the Nats. That was at least a little unsettling. Every time the Mets play Washington, another way to say he kills us is formulated and expressed. On Tuesday, it was a comparison to Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer with whom I’m fairly certain Daniel Murphy had previously never in life had been compared. In 1965, according to Elias, Brock hit safely in each of the seventeen games he played against his shall we say alma matter from the year prior. Lou became a Cardinal in 1964 after the Cubs dealt him in what has long been referred to as one of the best/worst trades in baseball history. Your characterization of Brock-for-Ernie Broglio depends on which side of the Missouri-Illinois border you sit. In any event, long before Sweet Lou blazed a trail of stolen bases to Cooperstown, that seventeen-game performance represented a record for revenge.
Guess who tied Brock’s vengeful mark Monday and shattered it Tuesday. To paraphrase what was said in Brooklyn of another Cardinal legend, here comes that Dan again. Murphy versus the Mets in 2016 has been legendary since May. Or poison. Take your pick. He had doubled against Syndergaard in the sixth but didn’t score, which in itself could have counted as a win for Thor. Overall through eight, three at-bats, no lasting damage. Yet here we were in the ninth, with the modern-day incarnation of Stan Musial presenting the first obstacle to Familia and, maybe, the unmovable object in the path of our happiness. Get by Murph (as we called him when we were young and innocent) and we’d be fine.
Getting by Murph suggests trying to weave in and out of traffic in the Midtown Tunnel. It’s all you can do to stay in your lane with everything whooshing by. Familia gripped the wheel as tightly as he could. He threw seven pitches. Two were balls. Three were fouled off. I seem to recall Sandy Alderson wanting Murphy to adjust his approach so he would hunt and peck and take and attack and I don’t remember what anymore at the plate. Somewhere along the line while growing into a feared power hitter and a fixture on the terror watch list, Daniel got good at all of that, too. No plate appearance ends until Murphy is ready to end it. So far in September, he’s getting on base at a .469 clip.
No wonder, then, Murphy connected fair on the seventh pitch he saw from Familia and did something with it. He grounded it sharply up the middle to a spot that a second baseman like Murph probably wouldn’t get to, but a second baseman like T.J. Rivera could and did, diving, smothering, grabbing and throwing as quickly as he could. Rivera, a Tuesday starter so Kelly Johnson’s batteries don’t run down and Wilmer Flores’s neck might continue to heal (I’m wondering if Wilmer’s lingering discomfort from his contact with A.J. Pierzynski’s shin guards Saturday night will be Turner Field’s final legacy unto us), made a terrific play, but not terrific enough. Murphy beat it out for an infield single.
The hit raised Murphy’s average against the Mets in 2016 to .417. Musial hit .468 against the Mets in 1962, Brock .468 versus the Cubs in 1965. So it’s not like Murph is that great.
Bryce Harper is the National whose name is supposed to be in the same conversation with baseball immortals. He hasn’t been as nearly as valuable a player to Washington this year as his New York-import teammate, but you still have to go after him like he’s the reigning MVP. Familia got two quick strikes on Harper, then a ball, then a grounder that required shortstop-turned-third baseman Jose Reyes to charge — which he didn’t do fluidly; pick up — which he did hurriedly; and fire — which he did wildly. Jose’s throw sailed past James Loney, who stretched to no avail as the ball landed in the stands. Murphy was on third. Harper, hustling just as Jonathan Papelbon lovingly taught him, was on second. Nobody was out.
Familia was having his worst money inning in a month. If your closer has no more than one of those every thirty days, you’re probably doing all right. Alas, this was no time to count our blessings. Anthony Rendon, who slew a far less tough customer the night before, came up and grounded a ball past a diving Reyes to score Murphy and send Harper to third.
One-run game. And nobody out. And Wilson Ramos, who owns the portion of the Mets pitching staff Murphy hasn’t already bought up, grounding to Rivera, another difficultly placed ball on which there was no play. Harper scores. Rendon moves to second. Wilmer Difo goes to first to run for Ramos.
Tie game. And still nobody out. Familia didn’t excel, but he didn’t do badly. He gave up balls on the ground that hit their spots, one of which flummoxed his third baseman. But a jam is a jam and Jeurys was up to his jelly in this one. Ryan Zimmerman, the syndicated-for-Washington version of David Wright (it’s like when you stay in a motel for the first time as a kid and are puzzled why all the NBC shows you know air on Channel 8), was up to either bunt compliantly or swing away heroically. The bunting didn’t work, and neither did the swinging. Zimmerman lined out to Loney softly, allowing Familia and me to breathe slightly. Then came pinch-hitter Clint Robinson, who isn’t Frank Robinson, though I always assume he is based on some fleetingly big hit he got against us last year.
C. Robby didn’t go all Frank or Brooks on our asses, thankfully. He lined to Rivera in just a confusing enough manner — T.J. plucked it inches above the dirt — to instigate a double play, with pinch-runner Difo caught off first after Rendon rushed back to second. Irrelevant of how it happened, three outs had been secured after two runs had been scored.
The tie that was a horror show moments before was now a lucky-stars-thanked situation. Yay, we get to play some more, starting with taking on Mark Melancon, the top-notch closer the Pirates traded in an effort to confound their fans regarding their contention intentions. Melancon is headed to the playoffs. The Pirates almost aren’t. Whether the Mets were aimed truly in that direction would depend, at least for a half-inning, on how well they handled Papelbon’s successor.
Jay Bruce, whose name has been mostly absent from Met pennant race accounts, led off and grounded out. Rivera, whose name was all over the bottom of the ninth in the field and had imprinted itself upon the box score with two hits and two ribbies in regulation, batted second. As he came up, I found myself sorting through his brief MLB career to date and wondering, “Has he homered yet? I don’t think he has…has he?”
I can now answer definitively that he has. The rookie from Lehman High School showed Melancon the Bronx the best way possible, via the left field grandstand. That’s where T.J. (or “T.” as his friends call him) deposited the Washington closer’s two-strike delivery for his first major league home run. The Mets were ahead again, 4-3.
That’s where it stood in the bottom of the tenth, an inning entrusted for three batters to Fernando Salas, who has been a nifty pickup. The only helpful thing Salas hasn’t done for us is go back to the beginning of his career and train as a starter, because we could really use an extra one of those this month, but bloggers can’t be choosers. Salas’s first batter, Chris Heisey — as in that ditty of yore, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamz Chris Heisey — struck out. Trea Turner, who sources have finally confirmed for me isn’t Michael Taylor, popped out to Asdrubal Cabrera. All Salas had to do from there was take care of Jayson Werth.
Like Jeff Francoeur, Jayson Werth is mysteriously still a thing, and the thing named Jayson Werth singled to left. The de facto closer had done two-thirds of his job. Fernando still had one batter to get.
He wasn’t going to get him. Maybe if he was the actual closer, yes, he’d stay in. But Salas on the edge of the ensuing encounter did not receive the benefit of the doubt that a fully pedigreed saves artist would. He was removed in deference to a desired matchup.
Daniel Murphy, meet your match in Jerry Blevins.
Or was it going to be Blevins meeting his match? That wasn’t the idea behind Terry Collins’s decision to stride to the mound rather than let it ride. Blevins versus Murphy loomed as a mismatch in the pitcher’s favor: ten at-bats, one hit when Murph was a Met. But that was before Dani-El left his home planet of Krypton and became SuperNat.
As my mind raced back to 1998, it made a pit stop in 2012 to refuel my leaded-memory tank with visions of another extra-inning game at Nationals Park. This was June 5 four years ago, four short days removed from one of the most joyous nights in Mets history. Baseball being baseball, there was little time to rest, reflect and relax after Johan Santana’s no-hitter. More games keep coming. The one on the Fifth turned in great part on shoddy infield play. Jordany Valdespin, not really a shortstop, had been moved to shortstop in the eighth. This was the harsh post-Reyes era that didn’t fully cease until Cabrera came along. JV made an error on the first chance he saw in the tenth. A couple of batters later, another E-6. There’d be some back-and-forth with the Nats until the Mets ultimately lost in twelve. It was worse than what befell Familia artistically, though there was less to lose. It was June. It was 2012. The Mets, despite a brief uptick in first-half fortunes highlighted by Nohan, were going nowhere.
These Mets of ours right now, the September 2016 Mets, have been on the road to somewhere. It’s been one of the most scintillating trips I can remember. To have it turned around by a few balls that couldn’t quite be handled in the bottom of the ninth, then to get it back on a ball that flew off an August callup’s bat in the top of tenth, only to consider what Murphy might do in the bottom of the tenth given all he’d been doing since he donned his red cape…
If this went wrong, I could not continue to tolerate baseball. I mean I would, but I was dreading the unshakable fealty I would demonstrate in the hopes that it was just one loss, there are still seventeen to play, the Cardinals and Giants are still right there. You know — all those things we tell ourselves when a season goes to hell for a third or fourth or final time.
Blevins got two strikes on Murphy. It can’t possibly be this easy. Then followed three balls. Why does it have to be this hard? Finally, a curve that curved beautifully, away from Daniel, who swung through it an instant before it landed in René Rivera’s mitt for the third out of a 4-3 Mets win. When René dug the ball out, he may have noticed continued sole possession of the second Wild Card attached to it. St. Louis would win a bit later, but San Francisco would lose in the wee West Coast hours, leaving us a half-game from each of them in either direction as the sun rose Wednesday.
That’s absolutely critical, but somehow not quite as emotionally significant as this not having become that game we’d always remember losing. We may even remember winning it for a while. That’s probably dependent on what happens this afternoon and this weekend and clear through to October 2 and perhaps beyond.
For now, gee, it’s a wonderful game.
Terry Collins could have removed Rafael Montero at several junctures of his outing against the Washington Nationals Monday night, which speaks to what seems to be Terry’s managing philosophy: a preference to do nothing versus an inclination to do something. Montero wasn’t in the game very long by conventional measures (though it felt like hours). When you’re around for only one-and-two-thirds innings, you wouldn’t think there are multiple inflection points.
Montero was the epitome of Didn’t Have It from jump at Nationals Park. It doesn’t reflect well on the former phenom, but it happens, particularly to a No. 5 starter who was in nobody’s plans until a few weeks ago, and who displayed, at best, flashes of adequacy until Monday. Monday he had problems with the strike zone, both when he was missing it and finding it.
Still, the young pitcher (not quite 26, even after all these years) persevered across a nightmarish first inning. He was fooling nobody, retiring nobody, yet escaped with merely two runs surrendered. The Mets were down only 2-1. What a break in the midst of this improbable playoff spurt. Gabriel Ynoa was fully warmed and we could start almost fresh in the second. “Cut your losses” was never a more apt phrase from which to take heed. The gods were smiling upon us.
Collins told the gods to wipe that smirk off their faces. Despite Montero showing next to nothing, and despite the perfect exit opportunity presenting itself when the pitcher’s spot came up in the top of the second with two on and two out and a Shriners convention worth of pinch-hitters milling in the dugout, Collins did what he tends to do in these situations.
Nothing. He let Montero bat. Montero struck out. Then he came out to pitch the top of the second, and the gods told us to go screw ourselves. Rafael was hit hard and often. Opposing starter Mat Latos homered to lead off. After generating two outs in the air, Daniel Murphy doubled (Daniel Murphy is the reincarnation of Turner Field). An intentional walk to Bryce Harper was issued because you can’t let Bryce Harper beat you…not when Anthony Rendon can. And he did, with a three-run bomb that ended Montero’s night and, presumably, his tenure as a Met starting pitcher, at least for what’s left of 2016.
Sixty pitches, fourteen batters, six runs, five outs. It began badly, it kept getting worse. What was Collins waiting for?
Terry didn’t offer much of an explanation afterwards beyond he hoped the kid would find a way out of whatever was plaguing him, a concept that played better in the first several Septembers of Collins’s managerial stay here than it does in this one. If a, say, Chris Schwinden went “splat” on the mound, it would be frustrating, but it would also be 2011. Nothing was doing anyway. Monday night, the Mets were attempting to push the Cardinals further behind them and the pull the Giants significantly closer to them. That was the idea. It didn’t quite work out.
The Cardinals lost. The Giants lost. The baseball gods took a modicum of pity on us after Terry rejected their assistance in what became an 8-1 blowout. He could’ve removed Montero at 2-1, or 3-1. He could’ve summoned Ynoa. Ynoa would have…well, we don’t know’a. Gabriel walked the first batter he saw when he finally got the call after Rendon’s homer, pitched a spotless third, then gave up a couple of runs in the fourth. There’s a saying that the most popular person in any NFL city is the second-string quarterback. New York’s a baseball town, and we love whoever Terry Collins doesn’t use when we want him used. That guy can never do any wrong.
Collins can do wrong, and he did Monday night. There’s no pretending his faith in Montero wasn’t misplaced. Dents appear in every manager’s armor. Terry’s suit needs to be taken to the silversmith to have Monday’s crease taken out.
This is generally what Terry does. He does nothing if at all possible. If that sounds like an insult, it is not intended as such. There is something to be said sometimes, perhaps ofttimes, for leaving things be. Maybe not when your emergencyesque starter is melting down. Maybe not when the potential tying run is being carried by someone who just took his molasses pill. Maybe not at lots of moments when keen foresight or legitimate hindsight suggests otherwise.
But probably more than we realize. Dancing with them what brung ya lends an air of stability to a chaotic endeavor. It’s an easier sell competing for the postseason than it is trying to hold on to fourth place, but the Mets have gotten this far this year with Terry doing a little more nothing than we might like. They got very far last year on the strength of trusting his players long enough for it to pay off. The itchy telephone fingers that would have exchanged Jacob deGrom for Noah Syndergaard in Game Five of the 2015 NLDS could not be blamed for going through tube after tube of Lanacane. But Terry stuck with deGrom, despite the trouble he was courting early at Dodger Stadium, and not too many innings later, the Mets were in the NLCS.
That’s an extreme anecdotal example, but it seemed typical of Terry. Now and then, panic is advisable. Probably not too often, however, not when you’re responsible for the emotional care and feeding of 25 professionals who are more talented than we can imagine yet likely more insecure than they let on. It’s a combustible mix in any clubhouse and a major league manager has to be a master chemist. Mix and match lineups. Mix and match personalities. Mix and match the philosophical with the strategic with the tactical. Mix and match a merry-go-round of outfielders who have bobbed up and down all season long. Mix and match the struggling starter who might give you sufficient length and maybe momentum if he can just get out of the second with the fresh long reliever who might rescue you just in time when the starter seemingly obviously can’t.
Every move that isn’t made but doesn’t go wrong generally goes uncommented upon; it’s just business as usual. The moves that aren’t made that blow up by dint of their not being made are the fodder that feeds our “I knew it!” instinct. So are the moves that implode. Enough goes awry in the course of 162 games to make simultaneous cases against doing nothing, doing something, doing anything. All of it can and will make a manager look bad on occasion, especially the occasion of a September when everything is magnified.
It’s difficult to not turn every misstep into a recall referendum on managerial competence, just as it’s easy to not notice when things are rolling along as we like. We blame the manager because we can imagine we’d make the right move. His job is more accessible than seeing ourselves throwing the right pitch or laying off the wrong pitch. I couldn’t get out Anthony Rendon. I couldn’t get out Mat Latos. I could tell Dan Warthen to get on the horn to Ricky Bones and send Gabriel Ynoa in from the bullpen. In theory, I could. In theory, we all could.
We’re fans. We’re entitled to our opinions. We’re better off informing them as much as we can before we release them into the atmosphere. My opinion is Terry should have taken Montero out after the first inning, whether his spot in the order came up in the second or not. My opinion is also that the starting pitcher depth chart is in tatters and sooner or later it was gonna show (it showed on a night that the Mets scored one lone run off Latos and three relievers, so maybe we’re going nuts over naught). Hopefully deGrom returns eventually, and in the interim somebody else can throw five effective innings. There are myriad options on the roster, none of them optimal. All are better than Montero at this point, but even Terry acknowledged that tacitly after Monday night’s game.
You can’t always do nothing, no matter how appealing that sounds.
The Mets won their 67th game ever at Turner Field on Sunday, or as reliable sources continue to insist, “They never won there; even if you present me with a list of occasionally stirring Met victories in that ballpark, I refuse to acknowledge it.” Mets fans who prefer misery as company (and there are a few) shall forever dwell mentally in Mr. Kenny Rogers’ neighborhood, where unfriendly postal carrier Angel Hernandez is regularly misdelivering the mail, and the local public works department won’t send a crew out to fix that pothole-size strike zone on Maddux Lane no matter how many petitions we sign, and can’t somebody do something about that offensive music they keep playing while encouraging everybody to partake in that equally offensive hand gesture?
Turner Field was a town built on perceptions as much as it was the home of the Braves for twenty years. The perceptions it ingrained in most of us veered to the permanently horrible side of the street, thus the common shorthand, “house of horrors”. Can’t argue with perceptions. You can throw the occasional counterintuitive fact at them, but as we’ve seen in this political season, facts that don’t match preconceived narratives tend to be chewed up without ever being fully digested.
Pleasant to speak of Turner Field in the past tense, though. The Braves still have home games scheduled and the building will be retrofitted for other purposes, but it’s dead to us, providing a rare episode of wish fulfillment. True, the request was filed before the turn of the current century, but these things have to go through channels, and I don’t mean TBS, yet another former home of the Braves.
The visitors departed departing Turner Field 10-3 winners, taking two of three in their unlikely quest to secure a playoff berth. They are in sole possession of the second National League Wild Card, while Turner Field remains in soul-possession of Satan. The Mets shoved the Braves into the officially eliminated pile, which was an incidental benefit of their romp. The real prize was pushing themselves past the Cardinals and continuing to shadow the Giants.
Despite flubbing the ballgame aspect of Shea Goodbye, the Mets have proven adept at final farewells to other people’s ballparks. They’re on a six-game winning streak where definitive au revoirs are concerned, making the most of their parting encounters at the Ted, Joe Robbie (2011), the renovated version of the original Yankee Stadium (2008), RFK (2007), circular Busch Stadium (2005) and the Big O (2004). Unlike the subsequent last roundups, Olympic Stadium probably deserves an asterisk since it wasn’t officially announced that the Expos were vamoosing to Washington when the Mets played them for the last time in Montreal, but the bilingual writing was on the wall.
When the Mets kissed off Turner predecessor Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on the second Sunday of September 1996, they did it in style as well, defeating the defending world champions, 6-2. Mark Clark bested Greg Maddux, with each of their records revising to 13-11. The headline from that September 8 contest was Todd Hundley blasting his 40th homer of the year, setting a new Met single-season standard (Darryl Strawberry twice hit 39) and tying Roy Campanella for the catchers’ power plateau six days before establishing a new mark at Shea. The 9/8/96 memory that stays with me most two decades hence is a conversation between Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen. Murph marveled at how many different streets in Atlanta carry the name Peachtree. Cohen commenced quoting the contemporary Presidents of the United States of America song, “Peaches.”
“Millions of peaches, peaches for me,” Gary impishly told Bob. “Millions of peaches, peaches for free.”
“Yes, Georgia is certainly famous for its wonderful peaches,” or something like that was Bob’s response before the next pitch was thrown.
1996 was a long season. 2016, however, has become quite peachy. Seth Lugo’s seven innings of six-hit ball was as sweet and juicy as could have been asked. Yoenis Cespedes crushed the cream out of a bases-loaded pitch from Brave starter Williams Perez to catapult the Mets to a 5-0 lead that made Lugo’s path down Atlanta’s many similarly dubbed thoroughfares a veritable walk in the soon-to-be-vacated park. Cespedes declined to embellish his hitting with insights afterwards. A Mets spokesman told waiting reporters, “His bat will do his talking.”
When asked to clarify, Yoenis’s lumber elaborated, through an interpreter, “OH YEAH!!!!”
Cespedes’s third-inning grand slam gave him the thirty-first 30+ HR season in Mets history, the first since Lucas Duda delivered his thirtieth on the final day of 2014, the first by a righthanded batter since David Wright in 2008, the first by someone whose default position is left field since Cliff Floyd in 2005. Those seasons all took place during the Turner Field era, when nothing good ever happened to the Mets, except for when it did. Like yesterday and this month.
That’s what I was thinking in the 10th inning, with the Mets trying everything in their bag of tricks to keep the Braves from winning the game and kicking them — let’s hope temporarily — out of the second wild-card spot. I’m not sure I’m emotionally tall enough to ride this attraction.
In the early going, Saturday night’s game looked like it would be another blissful stop on the Mets’ suddenly magical journey. In the first, with one out and a runner on first, the Braves pulled off the remarkable feat of inducing three consecutive double-play balls and converting them into two enemy runs. They made errors, they didn’t challenge when they had a case, they did everything but dip the game in gilt and hand it over.
Unfortunately, they weren’t feeling so generous after that. Former Met farmhand John Gant pitched well despite being treated shabbily by his teammates, and Bartolo Colon was imperturbable as always but not untouchable.
Still, all seemed well: in the fifth, with the score tied at 2-2, Yoenis Cespedes connected. At the moment of contact I wasn’t sure the ball was out, but my opinion was less important than Cespy’s. He went into a classic slugger’s Cadillac trot as the ball sailed into the night, promising happy endings and a Sunday bounce in our stride.
But then it always feels that way during a walk-on-water winning streak, up to the moment everything changes.
Matt Kemp retied the game with a bolt into the stands that Cespedes barely bothered looking at, and then it was a battle of the bullpens, with first blink determining the winner.
Not to kick the hornets’ nest, but Terry Collins detractors have what strikes me as evidence for the prosecution: with two outs in the eighth and a bench population to rival that of a small village, Terry left the go-ahead run dependent on the less-than-winged heels of Wilmer Flores. Terry’s decision to pinch-hit T.J. Rivera for Friday night hero Kelly Johnson came up aces, as the minor-league batting champ stroked a single, but Wilmer was rounding third like a mammoth in a tar pit and A.J. Pierzynski was waiting at home with the ball and uh-oh. The list of Mets who would have been safe … well, let’s just say it’s long. Wilmer was not safe, not in the sense of scoring a run and not in the sense of avoiding bouncing his head off Pierzynski’s leg. Tie game, still.
The game ground on. Hansel Robles found his way past Kemp; Jerry Blevins was blameless; on the other hand, the Cardinals had won and the Giants were winning. In the tenth, Erik Goeddel came in and I felt something I hadn’t experienced in a week or so: doubt.
It’s probably unfair to observe that Goeddel looks a bit like Aaron Heilman. It may also be untrue, and I’m just projecting. Goeddel gave up a sharp single to Dansby Swanson, a Brave I’d hoped wouldn’t start breaking our hearts until 2017, followed that with a hit-the-Bull-level wild pitch, then surrendered a single to Pierzynski, who threw up his arms in celebration.
The veteran was the one who was overeager; Swanson’s just a kid but he obeyed his third-base coach and didn’t test Cespedes’s arm. Goeddel, to his mild credit, fanned Tyler Flowers, then departed in favor of Josh Smoker, who pitched with Ty Kelly summoned from the outfield to play whatever the position of awkward extra guy is called. (How about Awkward Extra Guy?)
Ender Inciarte has an ill-omened name, as my blog partner noted on Twitter. Ender’s also got game. This is where I got to worrying not just about the Mets, but also about myself and my ability to endure more thrills and chills.
But Smoker coaxed a pop-up from Ender and my goodness, it looked like the Mets were going to get out of it. Hooray the Mets! We’re resilient, courageous, indefatigable, unstoppable, unbeatable! Perhaps Jay Bruce would be the hero — he’s got to be one of these days, right? Or maybe James Loney would prove a trifle faster than the departed, hopefully not concussed Wilmer. Or who knows, Rivera or Kelly might…
Except Adonis Garcia — whom you may remember from this melancholy affair — rapped a single through the suddenly (and perfectly sensibly) less-crowded infield, and that was that. It was cruel, in a way that Inciarte beating out a ground ball or hitting a sac fly or dropping a ball over the infield frankly wouldn’t have been. But then you had to figure Turner Field had one more set of ghostly chains to rattle before its unlamented end. Let’s just hope it’s the not-so-old rattletrap’s last thing that goes bump in our night.
And if you don’t believe in ghosts, well, baseball’s cruel whatever the venue. If you didn’t know that before, you know it now. Like all of us, you’ll forget it during the next charmed-life winning streak. That’s OK — you’ll be reminded.
Addison Reed looked tired. Travis d’Arnaud looked lost. Asdrubal Cabrera looked determined. Jeurys Familia at first looked vulnerable, then unbeatable. Eric Campbell looked happy to be there. Josh Smoker looked ecstatic to be there.
It’s not enough for me to watch the players on my team play ball. I now find myself thinking along with them, or thinking along with what I think they’re thinking, as if I’ve developed Extra Metsory Perception. That’s how locked in I am to these Mets and this playoff chase.
I can’t read minds, and analysis of facial expressions amounts to no more than a wild guess, but I have to do something to help/not hurt the cause. My contribution is thinking hard about what should happen next in the course of a game, but not prematurely concluding what will happen, because then I’d be ruining what could happen next. Surely I don’t say out loud too much about what I’d prefer to happen, lest it change what will happen.
This is how I behave in September when it’s really September. This is 1999-, 1985-, 1973-level behavior. This is, at heart, who I really am as a Mets fan, a layer of me I’d sort of forgotten existed. This surpasses whatever I was thinking/doing last September, a relative cakewalk once the 2015 Mets flipped the switch and script in August. There’s no cakewalk now. The cake is up the road a piece. A brisk pace and a discernible route are advised if cake is truly desired.
Do you see what I’m doing? I’m tempering my words and expectations, because if I get too carried away (like this isn’t carried away?), I might disturb some grand baseball plan.
Let the Mets do that. They’ve performed a phenomenal act of disruption these past three weeks, emerging from almost-certain demise to clutch a valuable Wild Card. The latest evidence was provided Friday night when they came back from a 4-0 deficit to defeat Julio Teheran’s Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, 6-4. Both Teheran and Turner traditionally bewitch, bother and bewilder our Mets (though Turner’s rep, we have learned, is a little out of code). My credo since the resurrection of 2016 is Win Every Series. Two out of three, three out of four. Sweeps strike me as gravy. You sop it up on your roll and savor every drop, but you don’t plan to make a meal out of it. No, your meat and potatoes in September is series win after series win.
Hence, I, in my benevolence, could allow a loss to Teheran, who’d allowed the Mets one hit over nine innings the last time we saw him in New York and no runs for a very long time anywhere. Lose to Teheran, you still have two games to win. Not impossible to beat the Braves when they don’t have their ace going. Not possible to beat everybody every day and every night. It will be all right if we don’t prevail.
But we did, either because I tempered my words and expectations once Teheran commenced to mowing down Mets and Robert Gsellman wasn’t quite as baffling as he’d been previously, or because the Mets are playing very well regardless of my mental machinations.
They also have good aim. I don’t think it was a coincidence that 4-0 became 4-2 shortly after Yoenis Cespedes’s sixth-inning liner grazed Teheran’s elbow before confounding Atlanta’s middle infield. We arrived in that uncomfortable moment where you want to be a human being and root for the athlete to keep competing and you’re a fan of the team he’s not on and you’re hoping that he’s not hurt, but, you know, maybe go in the clubhouse and put some ice on it, Julio. As it happened, Teheran stayed in the game and, whether he was officially affected by it or not, gave up a two-run homer to Curtis Granderson.
When that baby cleared the right field fence, I snapped out of my ridiculous “it’s OK if they lose tonight” posture, because I remembered these Mets are capable of overcoming four-run deficits, same as they were capable of overcoming five-and-a-half game-deficits. Besides, it wasn’t four runs anymore. It was just two. You can trust these Mets to reduce two to zero and then go ahead by at least one. Elbowing Julio out of the ballyard was the vital first step.
The first post-Granderson step was a stumble. Jim Henderson was directed to hold the fort. He was trampled. We may be at that point where Henderson must be Parnelled, nudged aside in the mixing and matching of relievers. Jim worked hard to return from injury and has some key outs to his credit, but if we’re gonna default to the hot hands on offense, I don’t see how we rely on arms that don’t consistently rise to room temperature to give them every possible chance. (Assessment subject to change, because what the hell do I know?) Henderson put two Braves on and gave way to Josh Smoker, and he’s, well, Smokin’ hot. Josh faced two hitters who have bruised the Mets badly, A.J. Pierzynski and Ender Inciarte. The first guy he struck out, the second guy he grounded into a nifty 3-6-3 double play. No wonder he emoted so effusively. Calm enough to throw into a big spot, excitable enough to appreciate his accomplishment. You gotta believe we love lefties who are like that amid pressure-cooked Septembers.
Six outs remained in which to make something happen. Our fort was held. Now to storm theirs. Alejandro De Aza, who used to walk down the street and hear people say, “There goes the greatest sub-.200 hitter who ever lived,” but is lately batting a robust .204, started the top of the eighth with a base on balls. De Aza, who was batting for Hansel Robles, who had succeed Smoker, is often walking if he’s not hitting. Sure, his batting average has wallowed all year, but surely his on-base percentage must be in the stratosphere.
It’s .293. That’s not extraordinary. Maybe it was less characteristic than it seemed that De Aza accepted a walk from Mauricio Cabrera and the Mets got the leadoff man on. The point is he was on. Alejandro can run, as can Jose Reyes, which is a good skill to have when you aggressively bounce a pitch up the middle, as Jose did. Balls up the middle used to automatically mean base hit, but these days, with shifts, shadings and loads of video, you’re guaranteed of nothing. Both runners here were fast. The shortstop, who I’m still surprised isn’t Andrelton Simmons, seemed conscious of their speed. Dansby Swanson appeared poised to attempt to turn two. Instead, he turned none, letting an admittedly tricky ball clank off his person. The Mets had two on and nobody out.
Cabrera, who you’d trust with your life if not your hair, walked. Cespedes, who you’d trust with the bases loaded and nobody out if you weren’t worried it was one enormous setup (tempered in-game expectations and all that), walloped a mighty helpful fly ball to deep right. It went for a sacrifice fly. De Aza had no trouble scoring and Reyes took care to scoot to third. Cabrera and his cranky knee tagged, too, which should earn Asdrubal a best supporting actor nomination. He drew the throw that let Reyes arrive at third unaccosted. Heady stuff from the man with the dyed blonde head.
Granderson, who you trusted for five months to not muss up his RBI total but is suddenly driving in runs on demand, dunked a single into left. In came Reyes to tie the game. Over to third darted Cabrera, knee and all. That guys comes to play. As does Granderson. As does everybody on this team, even the fellas who don’t always or often succeed.
Kelly Johnson came on to pinch-hit, which is logical in the sense that he wasn’t in the starting lineup, but I swear I’ve so adjusted my view of the Mets that sometimes I forget who’s already in the game and who’s coming off the bench. This isn’t inattentiveness so much as my judgment that on the Mets, nobody’s a scrub, nobody’s a fill-in, nobody’s part-time, nobody’s full-time, there are no “B” lineups at all. Everybody’s an element of the whole. You know who’s getting it done for the Mets? The Mets, that’s who.
Johnson’s one of those Mets, we are delighted to report, and he did what he’s been doing from whatever role he is assigned. He doubled to right to drive home Asdrubal and put the Mets up, 5-4. The game the Mets were permitted to lose was now one they led, albeit by not enough for sheer comfort. Therefore, they were required to tack on some more runs. With Kelly on second and Grandy on third, the Braves opted to walk Jay Bruce (sound tactic, but have they scouted him since he left Cincinnati?) and pitch to T.J. Rivera, except Rivera was pinch-hit for by Michael Conforto, and Michael Conforto Mauricio Cabrera hit with a pitch. Our MC won that rap battle. Granderson trotted in to make it, 6-4.
The bases were still loaded, there was still only one out and one more hit would have broken this affair wide open. D’Arnaud was up next and, like Bruce, he’s still struggling as a 2016 Met. The Mets have as many outfielders as the 7 Line Army has acolytes, so you can almost overlook Jay’s difficulties. Travis’s travails are a little more troubling. He’s going to be in there more often than not. He appears out of it at the plate most at-bats. This time up, he struck out. So did De Aza, but De Aza was on his second go-round in the eighth, so he can be excused.
A two-run lead is better than a two-run deficit. The Mets’ back end was summoned. I got a little antsy at the sight of Reed, who has pitched so much and so well. Would have Fernando Salas, a little hotter and a little fresher, been a better bet? I don’t dabble all that much in bullpen management, but Reed made me nervous. I wished it was 9-4. I settled for 6-4. It stayed 6-4 on Reed’s watch, despite his giving up a hit. It took some swift defense around the first base bag to keep the score in place. It took Eric Campbell.
Yes, Soup is on again. He’s been chilling in the shadows for several days since his unlikely callup from Las Vegas. The Mets called everybody up once the Triple-A season ended. It would have been impolite to leave Eric behind. After the copious pinch-hitting and pitching changes, somebody needed to play first. Soup played it with aplomb. Good for him. Great for us.
The top of the order — Reyes, Cabrera, Cespedes — was up in the ninth. It went down suspiciously quickly and quietly. Really could have used those extra runs in the eighth. Then again, we have Jeurys Familia. Shouldn’t he be able to maintain a two-run lead over a three-out span?
He should. Despite a double, a productive groundout and a walk, he did. Familia’s probably also tired, but he perked up at just the right junctures. Freddie Freeman, for instance, struck out instead of tying the game. So did Tyler Flowers (if not Madame). I had each of them in my “they’re gonna ruin everything” pool in my head. I also had Familia in my “nah, he’s gonna be fine” pool. So I broke even once Jeurys nailed down his 48th save and the Mets won their sixth in a row and the Wild Card race stayed exactly where it was.
I’m in a little deeper, but that’s what happens in Septembers like these.
If the season had ended on July 9, the New York Mets would have been the undisputed second Wild Card in the National League, a status that could not be applied to them again until nearly two months later, last night, September 8. So it’s good thing the season didn’t end, because it would have deprived us of the thrill of coming back after falling behind. Plus, we’re kind of sticklers about getting all of our 162 games.
When the Milwaukee Brewers — swell fellas, every last one of ’em — demolished the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, 12-5, it shoved the Redbirds one half-game behind the idle Mets. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Cohen, was quite impressed that I knew what idle meant. I learned it from radio sportscasts. “And the Mets were idle last night,” they’d say the mornings after the Mets didn’t play. I didn’t need much more tutelage from there to put four halves and four halves together.
We also studied fractions in second grade, but I had a leg up on my classmates on that subject from my immersion in the standings. How was it the Mets, Cubs and Pirates could be separated by a half-game? I knew nobody was quitting in the fifth inning. I figured something complex was going on. Sure enough, two teams had the same amount of wins, but somebody had one fewer loss. Or same number of losses, but the wins didn’t align. Something like that. With a little guidance from my dad, who was good at explaining and great at never condescending, I got it: you averaged the distance in wins and the distance in losses and got Games Behind (or, if we were lucky, Games Ahead). Eventually 162 evened everything out, but while the Mets and their rivals were in the midst of fulfilling their schedules, half-games would dangle like participles.
In September, they tend to be the object of our desire. Thanks to those wonderful Brewers, we eyed a half-game advance Thursday and we took it — that and sole possession of something that is necessarily temporary while the season is still in progress. If we’re not owners, we are determined renters of the second Wild Card spot. Movin’ on up to the first one is more desirable, and son of a gun, we’re only a half-game from that adorable split-level, which at the moment is being lived in by the San Francisco Giants, who were also idle last night. Tonight, in addition to toasting the Brewers, we shall idolize the Arizona Diamondbacks, who when last we saw them we demonized for having all but euthanized our quest for these very prizes.
That was a different season. That was 2016. This, the one we’re presently soaking in as if dispensed from a bottle of Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid by Madge the Manicurist…this season is 2016. You get the difference. You feel the difference. You know that the Mets, so dead in Phoenix a few weeks ago, have risen from their ashes in that city to be alive and hissing at whoever dares cross their path. This week it was the Reds physically and the Cardinals numerically. This weekend (with a little help from our serpentine friends) it can be the Braves and Giants. Forty-seven years ago tonight, a black cat who liked us strolled in front of an ursine pack on our behalf. Those particular Cubs were never heard from again.
Whatever is done to the Giants or Cardinals, including by one to the other when they get together for four games that will only aid the cause we hold dear, it is ultimately up to the Mets to commune with their inner BTO and go into overdrive. Only the Mets can take care of the business that requires their signature.
It must be written with the figurative blood of Atlanta Braves, signed on a dotted line constructed of bricks from the rapidly disintegrating structure known as Robert Edward “Ted” Turner III Fieldiseum. That’s not really its official name, but Turner Field — christened for the man and not the network — really is where the Mets will play a series for the final time. There was a time when that kind of scheduling fact instinctively struck terror into our souls as prelude to stuffing games inside our loss column.
No more, no more, as the Braves decided a while ago that not competing is the better part of valor. Atlanta is tanked solidly in last place and will soon not even be in Atlanta, or at least the part of Atlanta that’s actually Atlanta, though they will still be the Atlanta Braves. Confused? Join the club of those who view a perfectly viable twenty-year-old facility and can’t grasp that it’s being abandoned.
Of course, the Mets fan of even modest tenure is dancing on Peachtree Street (of which Atlanta boasts 71) at the thought that the ballpark that is inevitably billed on second reference as “the house of horrors” will be extracted from the National League map in 2017. Indeed, if this were 1998 (0-6), 1999 (1-5, plus 0-3 in the NLCS), 2000 (2-4), 2001 (5-5, accented by an extraordinarily painful fifth loss), 2002 (3-6), 2003 (3-7), 2004 (2-7) or 2005 (1-8), I’d be quivering like Quilvio Veras getting a big lead off first. For that matter, if it were 2008 (1-8), 2009 (3-6), 2010 (3-6) or 2012 (2-7), and the echoes were awakened by jeering Eddie Perez’s name, I would be clenching for the worst.
The big secret of Turner Field as it approached its end is that except for small bursts of retro ineptitude (three-game sweeps in the summers of 2014 and 2015) the Mets have done all right for themselves there. Over the past four seasons, they’ve compiled a record of 20-16 at the Ted. For that matter, throughout their history of submitting themselves to the cringiest of punishments, they’ve often prevailed. The Mets have won 65 games at Turner Field since their first visit in 1997. True, it doesn’t negate the 105 losses, but if you had to guess at the particulars of the all-time Mets’ Turner Field ledger, you’d probably have gone with 6-817.
According to Ultimate Mets Database, there are actually thirteen ballparks in which the Mets have played to lower winning percentages than they have at Turner (.382). Several exist in the realm of small sample sizes, but if you’re going to assume the Mets “never” win somewhere, know your data. The Mets literally never won at the Metrodome (0-3 in 2004) and Tiger Stadium (0-3 in 1997) and won little at Mile High Stadium (3-6), Safeco Field (2-4) and Estadio Monterrey (1-2, where San Diego set up shop for a weekend in 1996). They won less at Colt Stadium in Houston, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan and, for that matter, the Polo Grounds in Manhattan (56-105; home was where the harsh was in 1962 and ’63). They’ve managed to lose more briskly at Petco Park, where they play the Padres about as badly (.364) as they did that one series in Mexico.
It’s an urban myth — soon to be a suburban myth when the Brave scene shifts to Cobb County — that the Mets couldn’t win at Turner Field. They could and they did. Just not that often. But when they did, it was memorable. Or it should have been. It’s easier to go with the “house of horrors” line. It saves a person the trouble of remembering with accuracy.
The den of delights. The teepee of triumphs. The house of honors. Go ahead, try those on for size. These are heady days in Metsopotamia, where the bright side shines in through the kitchen window. Things are going so well, that you can look at Turner Field through Howie Rose-colored glasses and put it in the books after Sunday without necessarily wanting to burn every page to a crisp.
In acknowledgement of turning off our share of the dim lights and hopefully leaving the Braves in the dark at Turner Field this weekend, here are the twenty greatest Mets wins at the place we’ll never have to dread again.
20) April 6, 2004: Mets 7 Braves 2
Kaz Matsui and T#m Gl@v!ne were terrible ideas, but they both get 2004 off to a rollicking start. On Opening Night, Matsui belts the very first MLB pitch he sees for a home run and Gl@v!ne — who’d been too busy setting up Mike Glavine at first base the year before to do anything versus his old team — earns the win with six innings of two-run ball. Would wonders ever cease? Of course they would, but not after one game.
19) September 1, 2007: Mets 5 Braves 1
Sure, September 2007 doesn’t end well, but how about that beginning? Mike Pelfrey gets his first win of the year, Lastings Milledge hits his fourth homer and the Mets extend their lead over second-place Philadelphia to three games. The next day, the Mets sweep and get on their way to putting the Phillies seven games in their rearview mirror with just seventeen to go. Ah, good times.
18) June 25, 1999: Mets 10 Braves 2
Mets snap an eight-game losing skein at Turner Field while stretching their real-time winning streak to five. Rick Reed gets the first win credited to any Met pitcher in the state of Georgia in 23 months. It remained lonely for the rest of 1999, but a fun Friday night in Dixie cannot be denied.
17) September 2, 2010: Mets 4 Braves 2
Johan Santana pitches five effective innings, but leaves in discomfort. Santana is termed day-to-day afterwards. The days pile up. His next start will also be against Atlanta…on April 5, 2012 at Citi Field. But at least he goes out the first time he has to go out for a long time a winner.
16) September 11, 2002: Mets 5 Braves 0
An attempt to annoy the Mets by scheduling a day-night doubleheader on the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks backfires. The Mets get a small measure of satisfaction by taking the night half of the twinbill, Al Leiter throwing the shutout, the visitors wearing their first-responder caps in memory of the fallen heroes back home.
15) June 25, 2016: Mets 1 Braves 0
Kelly Johnson is an old friend to everybody at the Ted tonight. He’s been a Brave three times. He’s a Met for the second time, having been traded back from Atlanta a few weeks earlier. He’s at home in Georgia, but his uniform says New York. His loyalties lie across his chest. Kelly steps to the plate in a scoreless duel to start the eleventh and homers off former Met teammate Dario Alvarez to put his old/new club ahead by a run. Jeurys Familia makes the sole tally hold up. In addition to exposing Southern bullpens and making Northern friends, Johnson does something unusual. The Mets have won three 1-0 games on the road in their history on extra-inning solo home runs. There was the one Johnny Lewis pulled off in 1965 when Jim Maloney was no-hitting them, the one Darryl Strawberry clocked against Ken Dayley in a pennant race in 1985 and, now, Kelly, coming up with the one that shows there is only one team on which he truly belongs.
14) September 18, 2011: Mets 7 Braves 5
The Braves’ comfortable Wild Card lead over the Cardinals keeps dwindling, so every game is important. This one they lead, 5-4, going to the eighth. The Mets score two in that inning, another in the ninth. Braves lose, Cardinals pick up a game. Ten days later, St. Louis wins the Wild Card by a game. This, as much as any, can be identified as that game.
13) April 12, 2015: Mets 4 Braves 3
The Mets are in modest turmoil. They’ve lost two in a row. They’ve lost their closer, Jenrry Mejia, to a positive PED test. They are under .500. They could really use a win. They get one, from Bartolo Colon. From Atlanta, they fly home and win their next ten to tie a club record and push this no longer murky season in a sparkling direction.
12) May 3, 2013: Mets 7 Braves 5
Who says you can’t touch Craig Kimbrel? The reigning best closer in the National League is hammered by David Wright for a game-tying home run in the ninth. Jordan Walden gives up two more in the tenth. The save — his first in the majors — is picked up cleanly by rookie Jeurys Familia.
11) April 3, 2001: Mets 6 Braves 4
Robin Ventura can’t hit John Rocker…or so it is assumed by Bobby Cox, who sends the shall we say controversial lefty to the mound with one on and one out in the eighth to replace Tom Gl@v!ne, who’d been locked in a 2-2 tie with Al Leiter. One on, one out. The next item to be described as out is the second pitch Rocker throws Robin. It is OUTTA Turner Field, as the Mets take a 4-2 lead. Sadly, John Franco and Turk Wendell give up two runs in the bottom of the eighth, but there’s a reason Newsday’s back page the next day hypes “The First Robins of Spring,” plural. Ventura socks another two-run homer, this baby off Kerry Ligtenberg to put the Mets ahead in the tenth. Armando Benitez comes in to set down the Braves in order, saving an Opening Night victory that portends well for the defending N.L. champs.
10) July 10, 1997: Mets 10 Braves 7
The Mets and Braves are 0-0 against each other at Turner Field. It’s their first ballgame in the former Centennial Olympic Stadium. It turns into a 3:24 marathon, the Mets falling behind, 5-1, in the fifth, but sprinting to lead, 7-5, in the eighth, and breaking the tape, 10-7 in the ninth. Manny Alexander, just off the DL, triples, homers and scores three. Todd Hundley smashes a three-run home run off Mark Wohlers. John Franco strikes out the side to ensure the gold medal. The Mets are literally unbeatable in this joint.
9) April 17, 2011: Mets 3 Braves 2
How badly does new manager Terry Collins want/need this game? Bad enough to insert not one, but two starters — Chris Capuano and R.A. Dickey — in relief to fend off further futility. The Mets enter this Sunday 4-11. Collins isn’t going to let them leave town mired any deeper in last place. They hold on for dear life and slowly but surely begin to generate a little more life. From this game forward until late July, the Mets go 51-40 and resemble a major league team. Maybe Collins can manage more than a meat market after all.
8) September 21, 2014: Mets 10 Braves 2
Nail meet coffin. By kicking the Braves when they are down (20 losses in 30 games), the Mets eliminate Atlanta from their last wisp of a prayer of postseason contention. And in sweeping their once-mighty nemeses, the once-humble Metsies pull to within a half-game of second place, which isn’t much, considering that both teams are destined to finish under .500, but it’s a step up for New York, which will finish tied with those now-discredited Braves one week later. Completing his season’s work on this Sunday is Jacob deGrom, who strikes out ten and basically seals his forthcoming Rookie of the Year award.
7) May 23, 2003: Mets 6 Braves 5
Chipper Jones can kill the Mets in so many ways, but not with his feet. No, siree Larry. Almost, but not quite. It’s the ninth inning. The Mets are clinging to a 6-5 lead. Armando Benitez, closer for the visitors since 1999, does what he does. He gets an out. He gets another out. He walks a Jones (Chipper). He walks another Jones (Andruw). He gives up a hit to Julio Franco. Into center it rolls. Charging the ball is 2001 cult figure Tsuyoshi Shinjo, now in his second tour as a Met, the one in which nothing transcendent has happened yet and nothing transcendent will happen again. But on this Friday night, Shinjo — who came on for defense in the eighth — charges Chipper’s ball and throws it. It doesn’t occur to the first Mr. Jones that anything will stop him from scoring. But Shinjo does. Tsuyoshi fires a one-hop strike to Vance Wilson and it results an 8-2 putout, Chipper and the Braves OUT at the plate.
6) April 6, 2002: Mets 11 Braves 2
For all the years that were gonna be the year the Mets dethroned the Braves, you couldn’t blame them for believing 2002 was gonna be the year. It’s a 2-2 game in the ninth early in the season. Bobby Cox deploys his closer, John Smoltz, to preserve the tie. Bobby Valentine unleashes waves of Metsian fury. A triple. A single. Two more singles. A balk. An intentional walk. A single. A bases-loaded walk. Cox sees enough of Smoltz, who gets two outs but surrenders four runs. In comes Aaron Small who comes up not big. Rey Ordoñez and Joe McEwing deliver back-to-back doubles and the Mets take an 11-2 lead. Nine runs in the top of the inning Armandoproof the evening. The reloaded 3-2 Mets open a one-game lead on the stale 2-3 Braves.
5) July 13, 1997: Mets 7 Braves 6
It is time for America to meet the contenders. In the Sunday Night Baseball finale of their inaugural four-game series at Turner Field, the thus far surprising Mets (50-39) trail 6-0 after one as Bobby Jones doesn’t show his All-Star form. Yet Bobby Valentine leaves him in and his starter shows All-Star grit…and tells Atlanta the Braves can kiss his…grits, that is. While Jones hangs in for seven innings and gives up absolutely nothing more, the Mets’ bats roar back. With Todd Hundley on first, Butch Huskey homers versus Denny Neagle in the second. Huskey homers off him again in the fourth, this time with two runners on. In the fifth, Manny Alexander doubles and John Olerud grounds to second baseman Mark Lemke who doesn’t make a play. Alexander scores. The feisty Mets, nipping at the Wild Card-leading Marlins, tie it at six. We go to the tenth, which is when Alex Ochoa takes Mike Bielecki deep. The Mets lead, 7-6, and hand the outcome to John Franco. A couple of runners find their way on base, but neither make it home. The Mets hold on, keeping within one-and-a-half of Florida and capturing three of four at the hospitable new stadium.
4) June 18, 2013: Mets 6 Braves 1
The afternoon half of the split doubleheader was essentially billed as an opening act. Matt Harvey, in his Harvey Day prime, got the matinee as prelude to the much anticipated debut of locally sourced sensation Zack Wheeler. Harvey whetted appetites suitably, holding the Braves hitless through seven. He wouldn’t get a win, but the Mets would, 4-3. Then the night comes, and Zack from Smyrna lives up to the excitement he’d been stirring for two years since the Mets obtained him from San Francisco for Carlos Beltran. Six innings, seven strikeouts, four hits. Five walks, too, but Rome (neither Italy’s nor Georgia’s) was built in a day. On this day, however the downtrodden Mets sweep a pair of games and position a pair of phenoms as the aces for, hopefully, an imminently and eminently brighter future.
3) September 13, 2015: Mets 10 Braves 7
The division title is just a matter of magic-number reduction at this point, but why get into bad habits? After winning the first three games of this quartet in Atlanta, the Mets appear sluggish before turning into sluggers. Down to their last out in the ninth and trailing by three runs, Juan Lagares lofts a fly ball to center fielder Cameron Maybin. Maybin seven Septembers earlier caught the final out ever at Shea Stadium. The ballpark gods get even: Maybin fails to catch a catchable ball and Juan is credited with a double. Next, Curtis Granderson walks and Daniel Murphy homers. Just like that, the Mets have tied the damn thing at seven. Gary Cohen frames the red hot Mets’ modus operandi perfectly: “You’ve gotta be kidding me! This team just doesn’t know how to lose!” No kidding, Gary. To confirm the announcer’s exclusive report, the Mets score three in the tenth and leave Atlanta with a sweep of four and a magic number of eleven.
2) April 10, 2005: Mets 6 Braves 1
First it is a classic because of how good both pitchers are: John Smoltz, restored to the starting rotation toys with the Mets, strikes out fifteen through seven innings, yet leads only 1-0 because glamour import Pedro Martinez has struck out and given up only two hits in the same span. His only faux pas was a run-scoring double served up to Johnny Estrada in the fourth. Martinez has command, but Smoltz is in command. Until the eighth, that is, when it morphs into a different kind of classic. Jose Reyes singles to lead off. Miguel Cairo bunts him to second. Carlos Beltran — the other enormous investment the Mets made in the offseason — belts Smoltz’s 113th pitch of the day over the wall. The Mets take a 2-1 lead and dispatch Smoltz from the proceedings. Ex-Met Tom Martin comes on and surrenders a homer to Cliff Floyd, then a double to Doug Mientkiewicz. Roman Colon comes into pitch next, lets loose a wild pitch and then a gopher ball that finds David Wright’s bat. The three homers and five runs provide plenty of cushion for Pedro, a veteran who does not depart on a day like this. He finishes what he started, a two-hitter that can be said in a very real sense to have changed everything. The Mets came in to this Sunday 0-5, the worst they’d started a season since 1964. Though it’s not a perfectly vertical rise, better days are ahead, and the Mets end 2005 with their best record since 2000. Pedro will be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Smoltz in 2015. The Mets will wait longer than that (possibly forever) for another April complete game victory on the road.
1) July 28-30, 2006: Mets 27 Braves 13
This is technically three games, but the combined effect is that of one long, ecstatic Metgasm. Even before this Atlanta weekend, the Met-Brave tables had been turned in the National League East. The 2006 Mets built a five-game lead after twelve games — unprecedented in divisional play — by beating the Braves at Shea on April 17. They underscored how different the season was going to be when Paul Lo Duca’s solo shot provided the only run in a 1-0 victory on April 29, ensuring the Mets their first Turner series win since 2003. They took back-to-back one-run games in Queens on May 5 and 6, the first an 8-7 fourteen-inning seesaw affair, the second barely thirteen hours later, 6-5, almost all of it on amazingly resilient bullpen strength (Victor Zambrano left with an injury in the second). But this, the three-game series at the end of July in Atlanta, is something most special. This is the first sweep the Mets ever execute at Turner Field, and make no mistake: it is an execution.
• Friday night, 6-4, Pedro Martinez emerges from the DL and, after a rough first inning, looks as good as ever over the next five. Jose Reyes and David Wright each homer.
• Saturday afternoon, 11-3, punctuated by a seven-run seventh, highlighted by Carlos Beltran’s three-run bomb.
• Sunday afternoon, 10-6, with the Carloses — Beltran and Delgado — joining forces for six hits, three homers and eight RBIs.
When it is done, every last ghost of Turner Field past is buried, at least for the time being, because some ghosts make a habit of loitering in baseball subconscious. Still, it is clearly high noon amid the new day that dawned in 2006. The Mets lead second-place Philadelphia by 13½ games and third-place Atlanta by fifteen. At this moment, nothing is wrong in the Mets’ world.
Then they go to Miami, and Duaner Sanchez gets a hankering for some Dominican food, but that’s another story involving another dratted franchise and another stadium we never have to look at again.
For now, goodbye Ted. It’s been nice knowing you 65, perhaps going on as many as 68 times.
Let’s get the late news in first: this time the Pirates did the job, stifling the Cardinals to move the Mets into a virtual tie for the second wild-card slot. (It’s virtual because St. Louis has somehow played three fewer games than we have.) Then the Rockies walked off the Giants. Your NL wild-card race is now a hairball, with three teams separated by half a game for two spots.
And somehow, we’re one of those teams. Amazin’!
If Wednesday night’s scoreboard-watching was bliss, Tuesday night’s was agony. We sagged to see Tony Watson get undone in cruel fashion: it was bad enough that Matt Carpenter hit a two-out, two-strike pitch over the fence to tie the game, but then Randall Grichuk and Jhonny Peralta followed with homers of their own. Watson didn’t just look stunned — he looked like a man caught in a nightmare from which he couldn’t awaken himself. A few minutes later, the Pirates had lost their eighth straight, in about as miserable a fashion as one could imagine.
I thought of that game today as the Mets played the Reds under sultry conditions in Cincinnati before a very large number of empty red seats. Not because of what it had meant for the Mets — though that was part of it, of course — but because the Reds were subjecting their loyalists to a different though equally awful form of torture.
If Keith Hernandez hadn’t been on hand for this one the Mets would have had to send the Concorde to get him, because today needed his signature mix of disbelief and disdain. The Reds played about as badly as a team could play, deserving every sublative one could throw at them.
Where to start? In the second, Brandon Phillips was called out trying to steal second. Phillips was pretty clearly safe, but the normally voluble veteran displayed not the slightest interest in arguing his case, trotting back to the dugout. The Reds didn’t challenge.
Scott Schebler then walked, and Tyler Holt seemed to miss a sign for a hit and run. Schebler probably would have stolen the base anyway, what with Noah Syndergaard being on the mound and all, but didn’t slide and was out.
In the third, Yoenis Cespedes hit a bad-hop grounder up the middle with Jose Reyes — he of the very welcome first-pitch homer — on first and two out. Phillips and Jose Peraza got in each other’s airspace and Reyes hustled to third as the inning continued. Anthony DeSclafani then buried a curve ball for a wild pitch. The ball came back to catcher Tucker Barnhart, who whirled for a play on Reyes … and saw DeSclafani hadn’t covered the plate.
In the bottom of the inning, Syndergaard picked off Eugenio Suarez with Joey Votto at the plate. Peraza tried to come home and was thrown out by Asdrubal Cabrera. Syndergaard walked Votto — and Adam Duvall promptly hit the first pitch for a routine fly ball.
The Reds — particularly Phillips — played like they had zero interest in professional baseball. The irony was that they’d picked the right day to oppose Syndergaard: Noah had very little, with all his pitches sailing erratically away from Rene Rivera‘s target. Only the Reds’ serial incompetence kept them from sending Noah to an early shower — and even then, the Mets couldn’t build a big enough lead to make what felt like a laugher look like one on the scoreboard.
I went into the gory details because not so long ago, this was what it felt like to be us. The Mets weren’t hitting at all, they were painfully lead-footed on the basepaths, and if a starter didn’t spring a leak, you figured the bullpen or the defense would. The Mets couldn’t get out of their own way, it was dismal and depressing to watch, and it felt like it would never, ever end.
We take a Metscentric view of the world. Tony Watson has a nightmare game and we fume about his failing our cause. The Rockies make the punchless Giants look like hitters again and we decry their lousy timing. The Reds wander around like it’s already Honeydew Season and we see Metsian pluck and vigor.
It’s the way fandom works, but that doesn’t make it less silly. Our current streak of walking on air will end, sad to say. (Not until next April, one hopes, but still.) We’ll lose games we thought we should have won, maybe even several in a row, and we’ll groan that we’re the only fanbase sentenced to trudge around under its own monogrammed black cloud. It isn’t so. Sometimes it’s raining elsewhere, on other people, in relentless, mean-spirited sheets.
I happened to be standing when Yoenis Cespedes hit his tide-turning home run in the seventh inning Tuesday night, though I didn’t remain standing for long. In the instant it departed Great American Ball Park, I jumped up and — by necessity of gravity — down. I believe it was just one jump, but one jump is one more than the Mets had elicited from me previously in all of 2016.
This is a very different year now, of course. It’s a year when jumping up seems de rigueur. The Mets have been on a steady jump upward for approximately two-and-a-half weeks, elevating from the depths of about to fall out of it to the cusp of heights unknown. It’s a good direction to be heading in. May it continue.
The prior portion of the season, one underscored internally and externally by moaning and kvetching, felt very familiar. It was the theme of the years directly in front of 2015, to say nothing of an endlessly aggravating chunk of frustration embedded inside 2015. By late May of 2016, the groaning instinct had returned in full force. It was an appropriate response to a season in which as little as possible was going right. We situationally mock and dismiss the team we permanently embrace as a defense mechanism. It’s the emotional equivalent of putting on a shift.
Definitive statements where the Mets and their trajectories are concerned strike me as useless. It’s baseball. Baseball is subject to change. Thus, by late August of 2016, a different instinct began to take hold. Pure, unabated affection for an entity we always loved conceptually but were now licensed to actively adore. Sometimes there’s much to be said for being a weathervane. There’s nothing wrong with knowing which way the wind is blowing and taking it from there. Sometimes you just want a reminder that the entity you love is capable of reminding you what love is. Thirteen wins in seventeen games at the most critical time of the year is an effective reminder.
It’s the circle of life, you might say. It moves us all through despair and hope.
Just as I knew how to be disgusted and disappointed by the team that plunged from 47-38 to 60-62, Tuesday night’s Cespedes-fueled 5-3 victory over the Reds and its attendant rise to 73-66 (closing in on one or both of the Wild Cards, despite the respective unhelpful tendencies of the Pirates and Rockies displayed versus the Cardinals and Giants) provided me an easy cue of how to feel when my baseball team comes through for me. Technically they come through for themselves and I watch, but let’s not pick apart their motivations. We’re fans. We process as we see fit.
The Mets fit in this playoff chase. They have Cespedes, and Cespedes shapes the moment as well as any Met who’s ever been capable of levitating me six inches off the ground with one swing of the bat or one cannon of a throw. Yoenis delivered on offense and defense like UPS’s September Employee of the Month. The home run — his 28th of 2016 and his sixth since simultaneously returning from the DL and instigating this playoff chase for real — left the park in the seventh but appeared to land in the ninth. Yo doesn’t hit too many that leave doubt. Who could doubt the Mets would prevail when Ces took them from behind, 3-2, and catapulted them ahead, 4-3?
Except it was only the seventh, and that sense of “we can’t lose” is probably the most self-defeating of all. The seventh isn’t the ninth. The Reds, despite their recent accommodating ways where we’re concerned, were still capable of coming back themselves. Brandon Phillips, who usually does his killing of us at Citi Field (plus in the offseason when he’s rejecting trades to Washington, compelling the Nationals to scrounge about for a less appealing second baseman), positioned himself to break or at least scratch our hearts when he doubled to the left field wall with two out in the eighth.
Or he would have been had it actually been the double it appeared to be before Yoenis got his arm on the ball. Normally you’d say “his hands,” but Cespedes’s right arm should get the credit for the no-hop throw he delivered to Kelly Johnson to easily nail Phillips at second and generate the vital third out of the eighth inning. It kept the score 4-3, it sucked the night’s life out of Cincinnati, and it all but sealed what became a 5-3 win. Three outs in the ninth still had to be secured, but after the multifaceted Cespedes Show — with key supporting roles filled by the likes of Reyes, Granderson, De Aza, Salas, Reed and Familia — it was almost impossible to imagine a horrible ending.
With Yo on board, you can imagine anything wonderful. He is what Special Sauce is to the Big Mac, what Chemical X is to the Powerpuff Girls, what heaping helpings of Strawberry and Piazza once were to predecessor Mets, except the vital element of La Potencia is potentially more potent even while simultaneously seeming somehow less stable. In his eighth active month as a Met, there remains an air of mystery to Cespedes. He speaks only through an interpreter, and then primarily platitudinally. His long-term contractual status is forever unsettled. He’s inevitably one physical misstep from incapacitation. He doesn’t run hard until he switches gears and runs harder than everybody. He looks awful on outside pitches until absolutely murdering the low strike he likes. He’s indifferent in the outfield except when he’s taking your breath away. He comes across as vaguely distant. He comes across as the happiest guy in town. He golfs and smokes, one or both of which are bad for him, but if it prepares and relaxes him for hitting and throwing, who are we to say?
When he is larger than the circle of life he approaches the plate to at home and has games like he had Tuesday at Cincinnati and is on the roll he’s been mostly on since August 20, he is as spectacular a Met as you could ever ask for. It wouldn’t have even occurred to us to ask for him. We’re Mets fans. Since when do we have a Yoenis Cespedes to jump up and down over?
There was nothing particularly memorable about the Mets’ Labor Day matinee against the Reds: Bartolo Colon was really good, Matt Reynolds had a nice day, and the Reds played terrible baseball whenever it was helpful to the Mets for them to do so. That about covers it.
But this was a game that deserves to be remembered more than that. Because the ho-hum nature of the victory was itself pretty extraordinary.
The Mets were expected to lose this game, and most of us would have grumpily excused them for not just losing it but sleepwalking through it. When ESPN claimed Sunday’s finale of the Nats series for an 8 pm start, Major League Baseball should have moved Monday’s game to 4 pm. Instead, 1 pm stayed 1 pm, and the Mets were forced into a brutal turnaround. They didn’t get to their hotel in Cincinnati until after 3 am, and were at the park by mid-morning. That’s not a schedule those of us who do less than physically taxing stuff such as move money around or make PowerPoints or write stuff would have accepted; most of us would have rightly complained that it was a lousy recipe for effectiveness. Yet the Mets, with their five months of wear and tear and aches and pains, didn’t have a choice.
With his team having been screwed by MLB, Terry Collins‘s reaction was very stubbornly TC, however one might want to define that: he gave his frontline starters (or at least the ones not already lost for the season) a blow, sending out the JV in their stead. No Curtis Granderson, despite being one of Sunday’s heroes. No Jose Reyes, despite having become the sparkplug of the lineup. No Asdrubal Cabrera, despite having saved the Mets time and time again of late. No Yoenis Cespedes, despite being Yoenis Cespedes. Jay Bruce, one suspects, was only sent out for duty because his return meant so much to Reds fans, and came complete with a pregame ceremony that included his wife.
Put those things together and this didn’t look like much of a game to bet on.
But, well, there’s a reason they play ’em. Colon, one of the heroes, had at least arrived a day early — one likes to imagine delighted Mets fans stumbling across him in the Queen City on Sunday, snacking on chili and dispensing Zen wisdom. The other big hero, though, arrived even later than the rest of the Mets: Reynolds got on a plane in Salt Lake City around 11 pm Sunday, flying to Cincy via Boston (not recommended unless you’re on a mileage run) and arriving around 9 am. Reynolds played the matinee on two hours of sleep at best.
So of course Reynolds went out and collected three hits, including a home run.
Even the Mets’ failures came with pretty decent silver linings. Wilmer Flores seemed determined to turn his day into baserunning clinic, demonstrating for all you kids out there what not to do. In the first, Wilmer whistled a ball into the left-field corner, tried to stretch it into a double and was thrown out by Adam Duvall. In the fourth he cranked one to much the same spot, but higher. It just missed being a home run and bounded away from Duvall. Wilmer, who’d thought it was gone, now turned on the jets to reach third, except Wilmer doesn’t have jets. This time Duvall threw him out at third.
Such sounds like the stuff of tragedy or farce, depending on your philosophical bent, except both balls were socked off right-hander Robert Stephenson. For a guy who supposedly doesn’t hit right-handers, Wilmer’s doing pretty well of late at it — and his BABIP of .244 suggests he could be doing even better.
So there you have it: a sleepy hero, a day of rest for guys who needed it, a player making the case that he’s evolving as a hitter, and Bartolo being Bartolo. Oh, and a win. That’s not a bad holiday, not at all.