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.
The Mets are fun again.
Before we wax rhapsodic about that, let’s be honest in a eye-rolling, way-to-be-a-bringdown way: the Mets are mostly fun again because they’re winning, leading us to attach all sorts of significance to those wins.
But it’s not all fan rationalization. Tonight I found myself thinking something I thought last September, as the Mets kicked aside the crumpled husk of the Nationals and marched to the playoffs: they’re playing with house money. Nobody expected this, so it just gets to be fun.
And last year was fun, right up until they botched three winnable games that just happened to be in the World Series. Ah, so what: even with that record-scratch of an ending, it was still pretty great. Looking back, I find myself smiling about Daniel Murphy scampering to an unguarded third and Noah Syndergaard entering in relief and Yoenis Cespedes hitting a ball to Mars and Sandy Alderson sitting incognito in the Wrigley Field stands; and I shake off images of quick pitches and errors and what might have been and get back to smiling.
Over the last two weeks this seemingly lost season has become a funhouse mirror of last season. No, the Mets aren’t going to storm past the Nats this time — satisfying Sunday wins notwithstanding — or get to fine-tune their rotation for October. They’re going to have to scrap and claw and make stuff up, and they might well come up short.
But I didn’t think they’d get this far. Finding them with something to play for in September feels like house money. Maybe the bills are in smaller denominations than last year, but the feeling’s sure similar.
House money is sending Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman — call ’em the ReplaceMets, the ReplaceMatts or the ReplaceMatz the way things are going — and having them pitch with poise and aplomb. The baby-faced Lugo looks like a reincarnation of Jason Isringhausen 1.0 when we couldn’t watch his debut because of the stupid Baseball Network, but he’s got a fastball with run and bite and sink and somehow it’s working. Gsellman looks like the middle stage of a morph between Jacob deGrom and the GEICO Caveman imitating Jacob deGrom, but he’s got both good stuff and guts, as he showed when he turned the world’s least fair major-league debut into a win. Can they keep it up? Hell if I know, but then I didn’t think they’d get this far.
House money is a lineup of one-legged guys, reclamation projects paid by other teams, players we wanted to get rid of and are now glad we didn’t, prospects turned suspects and reacquisitions playing a crazy carousel of positions and somehow getting the job done.
House money is guys you might have given up on seeing come through doing exactly that — Curtis Granderson had three RBIs tonight and Jay Bruce had the other two. Suddenly it no longer feels so crazy to think Curtis might regress to the mean and Bruce might relax and those processes might be glorious things.
Hell, let yourself dream a little more — dreaming is free, after all. Lucas Duda‘s back to baseball activities, and Steven Matz is going to throw again, and maybe those multiple starts missed will mean a stronger deGrom. It’s not crazier than the things that have worked over the last two weeks.
It’s house money. May as well bet it all.
In light of recent staff-depleting events, I’ve found myself thinking of two names embedded in my baseball consciousness as very specific avatars relevant to our current situation: Marty Bystrom and John Candelaria. Candelaria you might recognize as a veteran pitcher who was acquired by the Mets under stressful circumstances. It was the middle of September 1987, the Mets trying to keep pace with a Cardinal team they had let slip from their grasp in direct confrontation. Ron Darling, their only pitcher who had not missed time at some point during the season, was lost for the remainder of the schedule after tearing ligaments in his pitching thumb fielding a Vince Coleman bunt in what became forever after known as the Terry Pendleton game.
Enter Candelaria, accomplished lefty since 1975, a Brooklyn boy no less. A year earlier, he, like the Mets, was immersed in October’s cauldron, pitching twice and winning once against the Red Sox in the ’86 ALCS. Eleven months later, toward the tail end of a tough season for him and the no longer defending division champion Angels, California and its impending free agent hurler had had enough of each other. A veteran southpaw who had won 149 games was available for the asking, and the Mets put in a successful request. They sent to Anaheim two minor leaguer pitchers (Shane Young and Jeff Richardson) who’d never turn into Nolan Ryan and received the best short-term fix possible. Frank Cashen’s deputy Joe McIlvaine unironically called Candelaria “a seasoned veteran,” as if to underscore the kind of character actor you’d want to thrust into the role of September starter. The Candy Man wouldn’t be eligible for postseason use, but the point was to make the postseason. Rare has been the acquisition whose immediate charge was clearer: take the ball and get us where we need to be ASAP.
John Candelaria did not pitch the 1987 Mets into the playoffs. He didn’t pitch them out of it, either. The almost 34-year-old lefty with more than 2,000 innings behind him gave his new club more or less what could have been hoped for: three starts of varying quality. The first was abysmal, the second was adequate, the third bordered on stupendous. They were three starts that were going to be taken by god only knew who, so the Candelaria flyer was definitely worth the investment. In a year when the projected starting rotation of Gooden, Ojeda, Darling, Fernandez and Aguilera accounted for only two-thirds of the team’s starts, you were happy anybody you’d heard of took the ball.
Sure would be nice, I’ve been thinking lately, to somehow land a John Candelaria out of the blue. Deep track record, a still viable arm, no long-term commitment — can somebody just send us somebody like that? Does that still happen in September? Can it happen this September?
September’s barely started, so maybe. Or maybe we have our Marty Bystrom, thus negating the necessity to cast about for a Candelaria. Bystrom was not a Met, though he made his first impression against the Mets for the short-armed Phillies on September 10, 1980. In his second major league appearance, his debut as a starter, he shut out our boys at Shea, 5-0. “You can never have enough pitching,” teammate Garry Maddox observed, “and when you bring up a young guy from the minors like that at this point in the pennant race, it always helps.” The Phillies were fiercely battling the Expos for first. Any and all lightning that could be captured in a bottle was worth uncorking until it went flat. Bystrom, an undrafted free agent, never did: five starts, five wins, an ERA of 1.50 and, ultimately, a division title that led to a pennant and the first world championship in Phillies history. Marty was a part of it all.
Yeah, we could use a guy like that. If we already have one or two, all the better.
Robert Gsellman is crafting an archetype for himself: that unheralded Met (thirteenth-round pick five years before) who came up late in that season when the Mets were barely hanging on, losing one starting pitcher after another, and placed our team on his previously obscure shoulders. We’ll see how the rest of the story goes, but the beginning sure is promising. Gsellman is three appearances and two starts into his big league career. He hasn’t done a darn thing wrong yet.
On Saturday night, his was the fresh face to shine brightest in a potentially harsh spotlight, halting Tanner Roark and the Washington Nationals, 3-1. Two timely hits (Curtis Granderson’s two-run single and James Loney’s RBI double), one clutch catch (Michael Conforto’s diving grab in center emerging as the long-sought antidote to Daniel Murphy’s bottomless well of vengeance) and an impenetrable bullpen (Smoker to Reed to Familia) sustained his fine work, which yielded only one run on six hits over six innings. I got a particular kick out of what his catcher, Travis d’Arnaud, had to say about him after the game. The neophyte gave the team “young energy,” old man backstop said. Travis is 27. Robert is 23. Trying to win a Wild Card will age a fella.
If Gsellman isn’t overpowering, he is effective. And the effect is electric. Instead of woe-is-us’ing the days away, we move up in the standings. What was more unlikely — the Mets being one game out of playoff qualification or knowing who the Gs-hell Robert Gsellman is at all? Given the pallor left behind by the previous 48 hours, focused mostly on Jacob deGrom and his mysteriously barking forearm, how could you not embrace this shaggy incarnation of vintage Bystrom?
Funny, I was hoping Seth Lugo, Sunday night’s starter, would meet that description, hairstyle notwithstanding. Lugo was also a rookie not on the Met radar when the season began and has also been thrust into what we shall, for lack of a better phrase, refer to as the rotation. Seth, too, has acquitted himself with aplomb. With Jake missing at least one start, Steven Matz’s shoulder in soreness purgatory and Ray Ramirez continuing to lurk menacingly in the dugout shadows, we’ll need a couple of Bystroms. And maybe a Candelaria if one shows up on Craigslist.
OK, try this:
Oh man, what a horrible game. What a horrible DAY. Jacob deGrom‘s pitching elbow is inflamed, he’s going to miss a start, and Terry Collins apparently knew nothing about it. And then the Mets went out and did NOTHING against the Nats.
Ugh, the Nats! They make me want to break things!
I mean, I have to watch Daniel Murphy playing like every game is the playoffs against the Dodgers or Cubs, and meanwhile Neil Walker‘s done not being Daniel Murphy and done for the season. And then there’s Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon, and now they have NEW GUYS who kill us too. Like this Trea Turner, and Koda Glover. WHAT THE HELL KIND OF NAME IS KODA GLOVER? That sounds like something you read on the preschool roster and you and your wife roll your eyes at what people name children these days and then you feel bad and one of you says “Koda’s parents might be really nice” but you don’t really mean it.
We’re 10 1/2 behind the Nats now — what a total disappointment. And the wild card, OH MAN. The chance to gain a game was sitting right there in front of us: every team we’re chasing lost and every team that’s chasing us lost, and we BLEW IT. Noah Syndergaard allowed a billion stolen bases and none of the Mets hit and Hansel Robles was crummy in relief again. Stupid Hansel — Sandy ought to make like the Brothers Grimm and abandon Hansel and any siblings he has in a forest somewhere.
I can’t stand it, I just can’t stand it. This team is killing me. What a complete bummer.
Do something else for a couple of minutes — walk around the block or something. OK? Glad you’re back! Now try this:
It’s funny how little playing the Nats means right now. I mean, sure, they’re the team ahead of us in the NL East standings. But that race ended a long time ago, and we all know it. That means the Nats are just another team as far as we’re concerned — and remember they’re the best team left on our 2016 schedule. In fact, they’re the only good team left on that schedule.
Speaking of good, how about Syndergaard tonight? Yeah, he’s got to work on holding runners in spring training, but he’s still a beast and we’re lucky to have him. The deGrom news made you hold your breath, but there was no structural damage. About time we got a bit of good news in the pitching department. So let him rest — Rafael Montero looked pretty good the other day, didn’t he? And hey, how about Asdrubal Cabrera going deep on one leg? That guy’s been amazing in the field and at the plate. What a pickup!
And let’s not forget that we got super-lucky. Yeah, we lost, and that was a bummer. But you know what? The Giants lost! The Cardinals lost! We laid an egg and didn’t lose any ground in the standings! And you know what else? The Pirates lost! And the Marlins lost! Everybody lost!
We’ve only got five games left with the Nats. Those aren’t gonna be fun, but the rest of the schedule is basically angel-food cake. I know that doesn’t guarantee anything — we’re Mets fans, we know better than that — but it’s a big help. We got beat by the Nats and it didn’t do us a lick of harm in the only race that matters. So exhale! Keep hope alive! Back at ’em tomorrow!
A penny for my thoughts? The team for whose chances I wouldn’t have given you a plug nickel a few weeks ago proceeded to turn on a dime and play like a million bucks, yet on Thursday night my paid admission entitled me only to watch them not amount to two bits for most of the evening, yet I was willing to gamble that they might cash in on a couple of late opportunities and hit the jackpot.
That and $2.75 deducted from my Metrocard will get me on the 7 Super Express amidst the decidedly more upscale U.S. Open crowd, albeit without a win rattling around in my pocket.
To coin a translation for those who do everything via debit these days: The Mets lost to the Marlins, an entity comprised of characters you wouldn’t want to get stuck on an elevator with, 6-4. The score indicates a close affair. It was closer to close enough; not blown out, not really in it. It was a game to be grinned and borne. Our boys weren’t going to reel off 32 in a row to close the campaign. The series had already been secured. A sweep would have been sweet. Two behind the Cardinals with 28 remaining will do.
We’re now in the month when the bottom line grows firm. Good signs, bad signs…that’s for when you’re feeling your way into summer. On September 1, when night games are suddenly taking place almost all in darkness and light bay breezes portend heavy sweaters, there’s no time for figuring out how the hell we’re gonna get where we need to wind up.
Yet our Super Express is being held at the station by a signal problem, and not just Tim Teufel’s. The state of second base. The state of starting pitching. The state of the quads, knees and shoulders that aren’t necessarily officially disabled but in a less stakes-driven month would be. It’s September. You’re two games out. You use as many limbs and joints as you can. If they bark in the park, you give them a belly rub and let them nap for no more than a few innings.
The phrase “hot mess” would seem appropriate if it didn’t carry negative connotations. The Mets are still hot. They’ve won 9 of 12 and made up admirable and serious ground in their quest to return to the playoffs. But how are they not declared a Metropolitan disaster area? The litany of injuries is familiar and depressing enough to not require repeating the identities of all those who have left us for the duration. Of most concern in the present are those who are trying to play and whose play is literally being managed by a manager who has no better options than massaging partial off days out of a demanding schedule.
In real life, the one where we’re trying to catch one more team after passing two, you think you’d not start Yoenis Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera — arguably your two most vital “everyday” players — in a game against one of your primary rivals? In a different real life, the one before the 9 of 12, you think you’d play them and their aching bodies at all? Terry Collins has little depth and no choice, yet he is compelled to stretch the former and parse the latter.
Rosters were expanded Thursday, and the Mets still don’t seem to have enough players. Until further figurings, Neil Walker’s absence looms as a very serious impediment to roster dexterity, though potentially a boon to Peyton Manning’s Sunday get-togethers, for if brother Eli can’t make it, there’s an overflow contingent of unoccupied Mets who can gingerly come over and partake of his nachos and DirecTV Sunday Ticket — and Peyton really does seem kind of lonely.
(They do show that commercial a lot.)
Kelly Johnson, a wonderful asset off the bench, is now half an everyday player. If a blow is needed around the infield (and Terry is the East Coast distributor of giving his players a blow), Kelly won’t be there because he’s otherwise engaged at second. Ditto for Wilmer Flores, whose versatility may not be as finely honed as Johnson’s but is intrinsic to his value. René Rivera finished the game as Met first baseman for the first time. Didn’t see that developing. Ty Kelly has returned. T.J. Rivera and Matt Reynolds presumably will soon. The pennant chase will be either their proving ground or our chances’ burial ground.
And speaking of Jacob deGrom (talk about burying the lede), geez Louise we’re likely screwed if he can’t be fixed. Not as simple as fixing a cat, I’ll bet. The bit in Thursday’s game where Jacob motioned to grim reaper Ray Ramirez provided the buzziest in-the-stands moment I can recall since Wilmer was and wasn’t traded thirteen months ago. From my perch in 410, I saw a pitcher with neither velocity nor command nearly escape with five innings of one-run ball on his ledger. Had he eluded the lights of the guard towers for just a few more feet, we’d be telling each other how he struggled but persevered and it was a step in the right direction (I memorized that speech from one of Matt Harvey’s more encouraging starts). Instead, with two outs in the fifth, Christian Yelich, who must be stopped before he multiplies, snuck an innocent ground ball into right field. It found a hole that opened into a chasm that swallowed deGrom’s outing in one forty-ounce Big Gulp.
Yelich was on first. Then Yelich was on second (Travis d’Arnaud must be a hoarder, ’cause he never throws anyone out). Then wildly swinging Jeff Francoeur wildly swung and doubled, leading to a second Marlin run and the burning question, “How is Jeff Francoeur still a thing?” Next, Xavier Scruggs flattened another deGrom delivery into another double and it was 3-0, by which time Jake had thrown about a thousand pitches, six of them for strikes. Ah, the perverse pleasures of exaggeration after an earnestly aggravating defeat.
Why exactly deGrom motioned for Ramirez became the stuff of urban legend. All of us whose lack of x-ray vision prevented us from seeing through the dugout walls imagined not so much the worst but perhaps an explanation. DeGrom kept the season aloft every fifth day and now he was crumpling it up and leaving it by the curb for recycling. If it was physical, at least we could have a logical point from whence our darkest fears could overtake our imaginations.
But no such, uh, luck. Terry didn’t know what his interrogators were talking about after the game. Jake and Ray Who? Nah, never heard of either of ’em. Jake said something about mechanics and not falling off the mound the way he wanted to. Whatever. Nothing was mentioned about the cribbage match he and the team trainer had to get back to pronto. That had to be it, since Jacob swore he was fine.
The Mets trailed, 3-0, when deGrom was done, but they kept pushing. Josh Smoker pitched a perfect top of the sixth. Jay Bruce hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the sixth, which I called, not out of deeply held faith that Bruce was gonna come through for us and begin a monster September every bit as big as his August was small, but because, “Watch this, he’s gonna hit one now with the bases empty after all the times he’s done nothing with runners on.”
And people call me the optimistic one.
Bruce’s bomb to right ignited the BRUUUUUCE graphics package Citi Field’s A/V squad probably forgot it had created. We were back in the game, and if Smoker could be as good in the seventh as he was in the sixth…nah, that didn’t happen. He put the first two Marlins on before Yelich — who overcame a Brant Brown faux pas pretty quickly, damn it — hit a fly ball that might have been caught a couple of iterations of Citi Field ago, but we now play in something of a band box. Great when it works for us. Sucks when it works for others. The Marlins led, 6-1.
These 2016 Mets, though, they don’t fade to black like those 2016 Mets were known to (say, how is it we never see these 2016 Mets and those 2016 Mets in the same stadium?). New York newcomer Fernando Salas picked up for Smoker despite one of the diehard true believers behind me greeting his arrival with, “GREAT, ANOTHER WILPON SPECIAL. THEY GET THREE DAYS TO REPORT AND HE’S HERE TONIGHT, PROBABLY BECAUSE THE ANGELS COULDN’T WAIT TO PUT HIM ON A PLANE. I’LL BET THEY PAID THE METS TO TAKE HIM, THAT’S HOW BAD THIS GUY IS.”
Now that’s a scouting report you can take to the winter meetings.
Salas was fine, as was Sean Gilmartin and his 88 MPH fastball, which got us to the bottom of the eighth, which encompassed the great tease of Thursday night. Curtis Granderson doubled. Johnson singled. Bruce singled with a man on. The deficit was reduced to four runs, which is possible to eliminate with one swing under the right circumstances. When Flores walked, those circumstances arose. Michael Conforto, all crispy after his stay in Las Vegas, was the batter, having doubled in his first plate appearance and briefly embarrassed a clanking Yelich in his third. Man, how perfect would it be if Conforto laced into a Kyle Barraclough pitch and put a crooked number on the board?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know how perfect it would be because it failed to occur. Michael, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America. Instead of doing anything that would have been remotely helpful, he grounded to Barraclough, who took a big bite out of our rally by turning it into a 1-2-3 double play. We still had second and third, and still had Cespedes the Lion King pinch-hitting, but even Send In The Clowns, Official Party Provider of the New York Mets, suggested we could follow Dandy Don Meredith’s advice and turn out the lights. Cespedes went down swinging.
The great tease was over, though a modest tease loitered in the ninth. D’Arnaud reached on an overturned call at first — do umpires even watch plays anymore? — and Cabrera, temporarily cast as a pinch-hitter, homered. It was 6-4. I looked forward to Bruce coming up with a runner on and making me eat my fatalistic words, but our last glimpse at him was in the on-deck circle as the third of three hasty outs was recorded.
Nevertheless, the baseball equivalent of the 28-hour Texarkana-to-Atlanta trail from Smokey and the Bandit is in progress. You don’t need GPS to understand the logistics. We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there. Maybe we can still make it if we can keep the Trans Am in one piece.
For another perspective on this very same game that no doubt you can’t get enough of, I recommend a visit to the exceedingly excellent Shea Bridge Report, whose gifted resident author, James Schapiro, joined me Thursday at Citi Field. We spent much of our pregame sorting through the detritus of imploded relievers from the previous decade, but unlike our rear-row neighbor, at least we waited for them to implode before picking over their bones. I don’t know what Fernando Salas will do for the Mets between now and October 2 (or beyond, knock wood), but based on recollections raised from James’s and my conversation, I’d already rank him ahead of Ricardo Rincon, Aaron Sele and Ambiorix Burgos, with Luis Ayala and Scott Schoeneweis in plain sight.
Shortly after the Mets wrapped up their third straight win over the Marlins Wednesday night, I had an odd vision: Alejandro De Aza hits the home run that proves to be the difference in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He’s mobbed by 24 Mets, all of them emergency call-ups from the minors. Shortly after accepting the award as World Series MVP, De Aza steps on a land mine.
Hey, it’s not much odder than what’s currently happening in Met Land, where the team seems to win a big game every night and announce the loss of another player who’s key to the team’s hopes. After Wednesday night’s game Terry Collins pulled another of his press-conference bombshells, adding in an oh-by-the-way tone that Neil Walker would be available the next day to explain his decision to have season-ending surgery for a herniated disc.
So if you’re keeping track at home, the lone survivor of the Mets’ Opening Day infield is Asdrubal Cabrera, currently playing on one leg. Travis d’Arnaud is still behind the plate, though he missed a good chunk of the year and that faint crack I just heard down here in Jersey was probably related to an important TdA body part. In the outfield the original cast is down to some percentage of Yoenis Cespedes; the hale but not always reliably hearty Curtis Granderson; and De Aza, whose dizzying year has seen him gone from expected full-time outfielder to guy without a position to fans’ whipping boy to anointed savior to who knows what. Your guys missing until 2017: David Wright, Lucas Duda, Walker, Juan Lagares, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, Oh, and Justin Ruggiano and Jonathon Niese, guys who weren’t part of the plan until they suddenly were, only now they’re history too.
And yet the Mets are still hanging around, making it impossible to rule out an October return. They’ve now passed not only the Marlins but also the Pirates in the hunt for that second wild card, and stand just 1.5 games behind the Cardinals. On Wednesday night, they did it behind the arm of wily, portly Bartolo Colon, the bat of Wilmer Flores (off a right-hander, no less, even though Wilmer’s not supposed to hit them yet at this early stage of his evolution into a Proven Veteran™ who gets to play against everybody) and the bat of Kelly Johnson.
It was Johnson — a castoff turned callback — whose two-out, bases-loaded double brought home three runs and turned a 2-2 tie into a chance for Jeurys Familia to set a new Mets single-season saves mark, pushing Armando Benitez out of the record books without the added effort needed to push him out of our hearts, since he never resided there in the first place. Johnson worked A.J. Ramos to a 3-2 count, got a slider that didn’t slide and rifled it down the right-field line.
Wednesday was Johnson’s night; Tuesday was a group effort led by late-to-the-party Granderson; Monday belonged to Cespedes. It’s good that there’s a different hero every night, because there’s no guarantee that tonight’s valedictorian will be able to limp into tomorrow’s classroom.
And yet here we are. The Mets may be a bizarre agglomeration that’s added the likes of Johnson, James Loney, Jose Reyes, Jay Bruce and now Fernando Salas in addition to a decent-sized chunk of Las Vegas’s starting rotation, but they’re facing a September schedule that’s two-thirds tomato cans.
Those moved to overconfidence by a slate filled with Reds, Braves, Twins and Phillies should, of course, remember the Mets making the Diamondbacks and Padres look like world-beaters. But those were the Mets before the latest bolt-on aftermarket part, the most recent frantic software patch, yesterday’s roll of duct tape and snarl of baling wire and blob of spit. Pick your metaphor, but ditch your crystal ball — they’ve been useless all year with this bunch.
September’s here; all we can do is hold on and see where the ride takes us. And, OK, hope it doesn’t break down and collapse before we get somewhere good.
Meet the Mets. Meet the Mets. Step right up and meet these Mets. These Mets who we didn’t quite know not very long ago, but who are presently playing their way into our hearts and imprinting themselves on our brains.
Meet Seth Lugo. He’s our new somewhere from No. 1 to No. 4 starter. It doesn’t really matter, since everybody’s gotta be an ace on the night they take the ball. Lugo takes the ball, throws it for a bunch of innings, records a bunch of outs and keeps our team in games. He did that Tuesday night against the Marlins, and now the Mets are ahead of the Marlins and essentially tied with the Pirates. If he’s doing this for “our” team, Seth must be one of “our” guys. True, a few months ago I’d never heard of Seth Lugo, but that’s never stopped me from first-person pluralizing.
Every pitcher who was unfamiliar or forgotten is acey enough of late. Lugo. Gsellman. Montero. Throw in the relievers Smoker, who is here, and Ynoa, who is not. Four of them recently picked up their first major league wins as Mets, so we welcome them warmly into our ranks (even if pitcher wins are often misleading and should probably be replaced by a more rational system of merit-based recognition). Oh, and Rafael Montero from Monday night, not new, but still sitting on exactly one major league win back from when he was new.
A few nights before Montero returned from Eastern League purgatory, the Mets distributed to the first 15,000 fans who turned up at Citi Field a Matt Harvey bobblehead. It looked nothing like Matt Harvey, but that’s all right, considering nobody in the rotationlike blob from which our nightly starter is extracted looks like Matt Harvey. Harvey — along with Duda, Wright, Lagares, Wheeler and Niese — has disappeared from view for 2016. To be handed a box with Matt’s name and image in late August was an anachronistic reminder of who the Mets are not at the moment.
A gander at Montero taking the mound 48 hours later felt even more detached from the space-time continuum as we’d come to understand it. Rafael was presumed hot stuff in 2014, revealed lukewarm in 2015, barely a component of our consciousness in 2016. Yet Montero took the ball, threw it for a bunch of innings, recorded a bunch of outs and kept our team in his game. He did that Monday night against the Marlins. He’s back in the minors at the moment, but he left an impression while nudging us a step forward.
Good to meet Rafael again, just as it’s been good to meet or stay in touch with the seven different pitchers who started seven consecutive games between August 23 and August 29 (give or take a Niese). You don’t usually throw a different guy out there every single game for a week unless you’re playing out the frayed end of the string, loaded down with doubleheaders or beset by injuries. You know Lugo and friends weren’t chosen by choice. Too many arms have ached. Fortunately, a few are making us feel super, thanks for asking.
Good to have met Asdrubal Cabrera way back in April and reacquainted ourselves with one of the few indispensable Mets upon his August return from the disabled list. Asdrabsence made our hearts grow fonder, even if Asdrubal’s knee didn’t grow altogether healthier. Like most Mets, he can barely put his pants on one leg at a time. Like many Mets, he’s putting them on anyway and strapping on everything else besides. Tuesday night, last week’s National League Player of the Week answered two early Marlin runs with his 17th homer of the year, good for two runs and a temporary tie. We’d be out in front soon enough and there we’d stay.
Good old Asdrubal. Remember when he was a total stranger? Me neither. Baseball seasons make hail Met fellows of us all, fans and players, especially when the players give us fans what we’d been begging for and dreaming of. Cabrera was pretty much doing that all along, but it was hard to appreciate in the vacuum that was sucking 2016 into near-certain obscurity. Neil Walker and Steven Matz are inches from the wrong end of that hose, the one that pulled in Harvey and all those other Mets who have been Hoovered from our midst. Hang in there, fellas. We need everybody we can get.
We need Jose Reyes. Good to have remet him, I’d say. Conveniently ignore the issue that lurks in the subconscious no matter how well he plays and you can’t believe how well he plays. You should, though. I think we’ve looked at Jose Reyes from a distance all wrong. When he bought whatever snake oil Jeffrey Loria was selling five winters ago, what did we tell ourselves so we could convince ourselves that Ruben Tejada was a reasonable cost-efficient replacement? That Jose wasn’t going to be worth nine figures because Jose couldn’t possibly continue to be the Jose that rated nine figures.
True then, true now. But for our purposes, the purposes that involve trying to mold a legitimate contender from spare parts, Reyes didn’t have to be 2011’s batting champ and he didn’t have to live up to somebody else’s absurd/obscene price tag (though who can tell any longer how much is too much on the open MLB market?). He just had to be better than whatever we had handy. He was and he is. Watch him hit from both sides of the plate, watch him run from home to second and occasionally third, watch him field at two positions, watch him adore being a Met, the last of which is a skill you can’t teach. If he’s not the star of yore, he’s a very good ballplayer, the way Cabrera is a very good ballplayer. They know how to field and throw and go mind-to-mind with the opposing pitcher.
You get a couple of guys like that hot, there’s no telling how far you’ll go. And if you get a guy with 20 home runs up to 22 and maybe one outstanding month from him to follow, then you’re really cooking with evil gas. Curtis Granderson is the constant on this team, which seems absurd, considering he wasn’t born a Met the way Reyes was. Yet the man has been active and mostly available every single day since he signed prior to the 2014 season. In the second half of 2016, his bat has been eerily quiet. He hasn’t been hitting within a fifty-mile radius of the clutch.
Tuesday night, in a literal pinch, he did. That was no ho-hum solo home run Curtis delivered to spur the sixth inning. It put the Mets up, 4-2, and gave you the idea Lugo’s fine work hadn’t been an exercise in futility. Grandy stuck around and hit another. There was even a man on base. It’s now 22 HRs and 38 RBIs for the outfielder so diplomatic that he can park anywhere he wants in Manhattan and never get a ticket. The totals don’t balance equitably, but it’s a nice change in the weather for someone who always tries to project professional sunniness. How nice to hear him interviewed postgame and not face one question that boiled down to, “What’s wrong, Curtis?”
Nothing’s wrong when the Mets win eight of ten. Nothing’s wrong when Yoenis Cespedes is on a roll. He didn’t do much Tuesday beside strike fear into Tom Koehler & Co., but oh, Monday, that home run to win it in ten. It was Piazzaesque. It was Strawberryan. It was so very Yo. How is it possible he hadn’t hit a walkoff something or other for the Mets until then? I suppose it felt as if he had, since August and September last year were, experientially, one ongoing Yoenis Cespedes walkoff home run.
What a group, huh? Guys who we know are hurting. Guys who are probably hurting more than we know. Guys we didn’t know but have rapidly grown intimate with in the baseball sense. Guys we want to know and embrace, like Jay Bruce, who had a big hit in the first inning, but otherwise continues to resemble Bay Bruce. Guys we have slowly learned to appreciate, like Alejandro De Aza, who must be the most dynamic .196 hitter the game has ever encountered (ah, batting average is overrated). Guys like James Loney, who has stopped hitting, but sure does scoop at first. Guys like Wilmer Flores, who doesn’t seem allergic to righthanded pitching anymore. Guys like René Rivera, who if blessed by an iota more of speed would be a genuine offensive threat. Guys like Kelly Johnson, who plays wherever asked and hits whenever needed.
They were strays we reluctantly adopted. They’ve managed to form a pack barking at the tails of a flock of Redbirds. Can we keep ’em? Please?