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

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

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

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Jake at 15, R.A. in Absentia

Two Met aces swapped half-innings on the mound at SunTrust Park Saturday night, arguably the two most effective aces the Mets have had in this decade. R.A. Dickey didn’t wear the ace title all that long, but nobody used it to greater effect than the knuckleballer did in the latter portions of 2012. Johan Santana was on the shelf, Matt Harvey had just arrived and Dickey became the shiningest object of our affections every fifth day. He was working toward 20 wins and a Cy Young, both of which he captured by the time the most magical of his three ethereal seasons as a Met was through.

And then he was, Metwise, traded at the height of his powers and popularity in an exchange of present for future that looks great when it works perfectly and has yet to look bad even when not every piece that came in return has proven optimally functional. R.A. didn’t get better (let alone grow more colorful) as a Blue Jay, which was thoughtful of him, because if he had, we’d be required to sneer at the sight of him the way we do when other Met alumni dare succeed from a distance or, worse, at our direct expense. When he signed with the Braves, Dickey could have entered nuisance territory, but New York and Atlanta have avoided reigniting their ancient rivalry. I’d reckon if a Mets fan had to grudgingly allow any ex-Met to prevail over the current Mets (give or take a Bartolo Colon), it would be R.A. Dickey.

That is unless Dickey had the ill-timed fortune of facing Jacob deGrom, once considered an ace among aces, now indisputably the only ace in town. Jacob’s in his fourth season, and has rarely been any less than the second-best pitcher the Mets are packing. This year he’s been the best from start to almost finish. Rumors to the contrary, there is no Noah Syndergaard — he who is ours because Dickey was sent to Canada — on the active roster. Harvey wears a jersey with his last name on the back, but is otherwise unrecognizable from his brightest Dark Knight days. Nobody else answering to the description of ace, actual or potential, lurks within what can be referred to loosely as the Mets rotation. No Steven Matz. No Zack Wheeler. No, it’s just Jacob deGrom, and on Saturday night, it was Jacob deGrom going for his 15th win.

Sorry, R.A. Our heart necessarily belonged to Jake. As did the ballgame, an easy win for the pitcher who came to the Mets with little fanfare and delivered big results. That description would apply to R.A. in his time, too, but that time was a while ago. There’s so little contemporary for Mets fans to get jazzed for. We had to be jazzed for Jacob going seven, giving up only one run and cruising to a 7-3 victory. Against a more randomly slotted Mets starter, we might have looked the other way and permitted ourselves a round of applause for Robert Allen had he shut down the 2017 Mets as he so often shut down the Mets’ 2012 opponents. But deGrom isn’t random. DeGrom is our reigning righthander of record. He pitches and his teammates regularly bestow on his well-tressed head a crown. Jacob’s been the king of the clubhouse eleven separate times this year. He rules and everybody knows it.

Maybe deGrom will find a 16th and 17th win in his two remaining starts. If he doesn’t, then we’ll call 15 wins a monumental achievement on these 64-84 Mets. On these Mets, 15 wins might as well be the 20 Dickey racked up for the 2012 Mets, whose second-half collapse spiraled into a 74-88 finish. On these Mets, 15 wins feel almost like the 27 Steve Carlton pulled down for the 59-97 Phillies of 1972. When you’re a highly achieving starting pitcher on a relentlessly dreadful team, the gap between you and your mates could fill the Grand Canyon.

That trade, the one in which Dickey, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas became Jays while Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, John Buck and Wuilmer Becerra became Mets and/or Mets prospects remains golden if not precisely as platinum as it appeared a couple of years ago. We’re willing to believe, with fingers tightly crossed, that Thor will reemerge relatively intact in 2018. Even a somewhat diminished blond warrior would be better than every nondeGrominational starter the Mets feature right now. D’Arnaud struggles to maintain adequacy, but he’s still here, can still claim half a regular role and continues to inspire the front office’s confidence, at least in public. Buck became Dilson Herrera and Vic Black, which didn’t turn into quite the secondary bounty as we giddily projected it would circa 2013, but Herrera became Jay Bruce, and Jay Bruce, en route to gulps of champagne in Cleveland, became Ryder Ryan, who threw some good innings for the Columbia Fireflies, which can be taken optimistically if you are inclined. I occasionally see Becerra’s name in the prospect listings, so the full quantity of juice to be squeezed from the multifaceted December 2012 transaction is as yet unknown.

Putting aside what we received in return for R.A., the key to the trade never tarnishing may simply be that Dickey left. I didn’t want him to leave. I doubt any Mets fan was happy with the concept of going Dickeyless so soon after he brought us joy and honors and a reason to cheer in an era when there was little that thrilled us on contact. But by expediting his au revoir, R.A. never had a chance to diminish before our eyes. There was little likelihood that he was gonna win another Cy Young or go to another All-Star game or win close to 20 games again. Hence, we would have watched Dickey succeed less than we had previously witnessed; and we would have regularly measured him against his highest standard; and he would have come up short; and we would have reflexively held it against him, whether benignly or with malice.

In the first ten years of Faith and Fear, we experienced four charismatic pitching aces at or close to the top of their capabilities: Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Matt Harvey. Writing about each pitcher at his peak was my favorite part of blogging when they were on, just like rooting for them was my favorite part of being a Mets fan during their respective peaks. But with Pedro, Johan and Matt, there came a downside. There was injury, there was age, there was inevitable disappointment and, ultimately, writing about them became an exercise in then versus now, then always getting the W, now taking, at best, a tough no-decision. Just the other day I framed Harvey’s latest start in that context. It’s almost impossible not to when you see a pitcher you saw be a wholly different pitcher. I prefer to think of Pedro Martinez in 2005, Johan Santana in 2008, Matt Harvey in 2013. When Pedro can’t get through five innings in 2008, Johan returns to the DL in 2012 and Harvey is lost in 2017, you can’t ignore it. Syndergaard carved his name among these pitching gods in 2016. We can only hope the signature won’t grow faint.

For R.A. Dickey, New York Mets ace, it will always be 2012, just like it oughta be. For Jacob deGrom, New York Mets ace, it’s generally start after start and year after year of excellence. Watching him pitch at the top of his capabilities is not quite the transcendent experience it’s been watching some others, but we’ll sign in an instant for him to roll on exactly as he has indefinitely.

The Faintest Idea

It will never supplant “cripes” at the top of the charts within the Terry Collins lexicon of frustration, but I’ve noticed another revealing phrase creep into his postgame repertoire of responses lately: “I haven’t the faintest idea.” He said it during the last homestand in regards to which pitcher was going to start the next game. He said it Friday night when asked to analyze what went wrong with his most recent starting pitcher’s unsatisfactory performance.

If we were in the heart of his managerial tenure, particularly one of those years during which his Mets had yet to win more games than they had lost in a given season, I’d find this type of #TerryTake discomfiting. You’re the manager, I’d grumble, you’re supposed to have the most substantial idea of anybody. But all evidence indicates we are at the ass end of TC’s time, so all I can do is shrug along with the skipper, shake my head and admit that when it comes to the specific nuances that distinguish this ballclub’s myriad setbacks from one another, I haven’t the faintest idea, either.

With a little more probing by a traveling press corps that can’t seem to believe it has to ask another question about another loss any more than he can’t believe he as to keep answering them, Terry said something about Rafael Montero throwing too many pitches. At least I think he did. I was so dumbfounded that I had stayed tuned to listen to these exchanges that it kept me from processing the gist of what the manager was saying. The whole of Friday night’s Mets’ 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Braves somewhere outside of Atlanta worked that way. I had the game on from first pitch to last (save for quick flips to monitor my alma mater’s first-ever conquest of a Big Ten opponent), I offered my own customary intermittent commentary to whoever would receive it (my wife, my cat, Twitter, the television) and I now and then could feel myself instinctively emoting to this play or that, yet when it was over, I could barely retain the details of what exactly had happened.

For example, after Montero was removed with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth, Collins brought in Chasen Bradford. Bradford extricated the Mets from Rafael’s jam, albeit after they had fallen behind by one. I saw that, I knew that, I remembered that. I also saw, knew and remembered Jerry Blevins pitching at some point. What completely escaped my notice was the participation of Tommy Milone and Paul Sewald in this very same game. Milone rescued Bradford with a double play ball in the sixth. Sewald pitched one of his cleanest innings in ages in the eighth. I saw them in the box score of the game with which I had engaged for more than three hours, yet I didn’t remember they’re having been involved whatsoever. And, I assure you, I have a pretty good Mets memory.

Dominic Smith went the other way against a lefthanded starter to knock in a run. Brandon Nimmo dove and caught what appeared off the bat to be a double in waiting. Asdrubal Cabrera continued to stroke base hits. Gavin Cecchini actually played. These events happened as well. Some of this stayed with me clear to 10:51 PM, when the final out of the Mets’ fifth consecutive loss was recorded. Yet if there’d been a quiz administered at eleven o’clock, I doubt I would have gotten any better than a C on these current events…though if graded on a curve based on how closely the rest of the world was watching these Mets in this game, I imagine I would have rated at least an A-.

I have more than the faintest idea that I will miss my nightly routine when it evaporates along with the rest of the lousy 2017 Mets in a couple of weeks. I could end here with something cute like, “I haven’t the faintest idea why,” but that would come up false in the true/false portion of the aforementioned hypothetical quiz. Even after the post-elimination, 21-under-.500 Mets have long ceased to be compelling — and, really, they were never compelling this year — I am compelled to actively stick with them. I don’t have a better reason than I’m a Mets fan and they’re the Mets and discernment has thoroughly eluded my skill set.

During the Cubs’ three-game thrashing that reminded us what a playoff contender does and doesn’t look like, I heard Gary Cohen suggest that once the Mets were done providing pennant race cannon fodder at Wrigley Field, Collins would find more opportunities to play his less proven players. My god, I thought, you mean who he’s using now is the best the Mets have to offer? The best the Mets have to offer at present were beaten by five, then twelve, then eight runs in Chicago. The best the Mets have to offer at present couldn’t hold a battery-operated candle to any lineup any hungover division champion would deploy the day after clinching. The best the Mets have to offer at present would be rejected by the Florida Instructional League. Sorry, we’re here to cultivate talent that has a chance to effectively compete at the highest professional level.

I mock the team for whom I reflexively carve out a sizable block of time every evening. Preoccupational hazard. Defense mechanism. Also because they’re highly mockable, but you have to know intimately to mock intricately. I know these Mets all too well even if I forget who the hell just pitched.

The best answer as to why I continue to do what I do vis-à-vis these Mets is not, “I haven’t the faintest idea,” but, “It’s what I do.” Except for the Mets losing a lot with players incapable of winning much, I like it. I’ll dislike it when they’re gone. Not this particular edition of the team at all, nor these particular players necessarily, but the act of the Mets being the Mets and the act of me spiritually shepherding them to their final destination. It will be toward the bottom of the standings and probably south of 90 losses, but I don’t have it in me to let them plummet alone. I like sticking with them.

Cripes, I really do.

Done

News flash: you’re not, in fact, required to watch the 2017 Mets’ death throes.

I don’t know if that’s fair — maybe there are some among us who in fact must do so. Those paid by the Mets, for instance. You’re off the hook. Or those granted parole under really odd conditions. That might violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, so consult an attorney.

The rest of us are free to go. Though good luck with that.

I tried last night. I really did. With the Mets getting their brains beat in — the details will be recorded in no great detail, as they no longer even remotely matter — I decided to flip over and see if the Indians could come back from a one-run deficit against the Royals and win their 22nd in a row.

I tuned in to see Jay Bruce stride to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth. There was some faint solace, at least — I could watch a former Met do something heroic for his new team.

Bruce popped the ball up, getting Mets all over his Indians. The next guy made an out. The Indians were in trouble.

The Mets, meanwhile, were posting some kind of pathetic semi-rally. Online the remnants of #MetsTwitter were roused to watchfulness with a heaping side of ironic distance.

I flipped back over a second before a Met hit into a double play.

Yeah.

Emily came home, there were various things that needed doing and somehow the ballgame turned really frightful (as opposed to merely awful) while I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. The score was now 13-5 or 133-5 or something even more ghastly than that.

I quit to see if the Indians might somehow persevere despite having Mets on their roster. And they did! They tied it up in the ninth, and then Jay Bruce — that same Jay Bruce! — delivered victory with a walk-off double. Bedlam in Cleveland! And kudos to the Indians’ announcers, who were wise enough to hush and let the moment speak for itself.

Buoyed a little, I flipped back to the Mets game. It was, mercifully, almost over. Except good things were happening! Tomas Nido was at the plate, and he got a hit! His first big-league hit! And it wasn’t even an error masquerading as a hit, like the initial knock recorded a few innings earlier by Cubs rookie catcher Taylor Davis. (Last big-league game where two opposing catchers each got their first hit?)

A lot of bad things had happened in this game. The Mets were poised to be eliminated from postseason possibility, though I do hope nobody out there was still keeping their calendar open. They’d given up the most runs in a three-game series, 39 — 39! — in their history. Their starters’ ERA was threatening that of the ’62 Mets.

Despite that, I was happy for Nido and felt my scorn and disgust recede slightly. As I’d known would happen if you gave me the slightest bit of good news. Because I am incorrigible. Because despite it all, I bleed orange and blue — in fact, I hemorrhage it and really desperately need a tourniquet.

A minute later, Nido reached third on a bunt that left Alex Avila stumbling backwards. So he tried to score. This was not a good idea. Nido looked like a little kid who’d run out to play tag with the big kids but hadn’t figured out the rules. He was tagged out by an apologetic-looking Felix Pena and the ballgame was over.

The ballgame was over. The season groans along. You don’t have to watch. You’d be advised not to. You will anyway.

Definite Downfalls & Possible Uprisings

The first time Matt Harvey pitched at Wrigley Field was the best time Matt Harvey pitched at Wrigley Field. In some ways, it was the best time Matt Harvey pitched anywhere. Other dates in his dust-covered portfolio of Harvey Days pop a little more in popular memory — this is a guy who flirted with no-hitters like they were supermodels — but Friday afternoon of May 17, 2013, was perhaps Peak Harvey. Matt had just made the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was dubbed the Dark Knight for the first time. On the mound, he was undefeated through eight starts and unwilling to be sullied in his ninth. Against the Cubs in Chicago, Matt had to shake off two first-inning runs, the second of them scoring on an error, in order to, if you don’t mind a quick shift from Batman to Star Trek, go forth and prosper.

He made his own prosperity the rest of the day, retiring 20 of his next 21 batters once he fell behind. The game was tied going to the seventh. Harvey untied it himself, singling in his own go-ahead run (carried by Rick Ankiel, which sounds even weirder now than it did then). Matt lasted until one was out in the eighth and, aided immeasurably by Marlon Byrd gunning down Darwin Barney at the plate shortly after his departure, earned his fifth victory of the season. No SI cover jinx that week. Harvey’s record was 5-0, his ERA was 1.55, he was striking out more than a batter an inning, and numbers didn’t begin to describe just how incredible a pitcher he was.

Was.

It’s impossible to reckon a Harvey start these past two years without being conscious of the shadow cast by his past pitching life. He’s only 28, yet he drags a trunkload of nostalgia behind him to the rubber every fifth or so day when he is available to appear. I couldn’t watch him at Wrigley Wednesday night without thinking of that Friday afternoon. I might as well have been Archie Bunker at the piano, crooning wistfully for boy, the way Matt Harvey threw…

Mister, we could use a Matt like All-Star Harvey again. We don’t get that anymore, not in the wake of multiple surgeries, rehabilitations, absences and inevitably sputtering comebacks. We didn’t get it Wednesday night. For three innings, Matt was as effective as you could possibly imagine him being in 2017, wriggling out of three varying degree-of-difficulty jams with only two runs allowed. I thought maybe we were in that charmed land where a good pitcher gets stronger and a better team regrets not cashing in opportunities and a contender is tripped up by a spoiler. After Harvey exited with 86 pitches thrown and the bases loaded in the fourth, and Hansel Robles ushered in all three of his runners, I thought instead of the practiced doublespeak of Ron Ziegler, the press secretary to Richard Nixon at the height of All in the Family’s Nielsens:

“The president refers to the fact that there is new material; therefore this is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Ziegler would have loved flacking for the Mets relief corps, as inoperative a unit as you’ll stumble across on a September evening this sad season. Hansel pointed the Mets toward a loss; Chasen Bradford confirmed the direction the game was going in; and the rest of the poor little lambs who’ve yet to find their way waved home wave after wave of Cub after Cub. By the time Kevin McGowan, Jacob Rhame and Jamie Callahan had clocked some of that all-important valuable experience, the Mets were down, 17-5.

Kevin Plawecki might have pitched in as he occasionally does when Met hopes have gone not so much to hell, but past it, except Kevin was busy catching and batting cleanup. For the record, utility infielder Matt Reynolds started at first base for the first time and batted second cleanup, or eighth. Twelve runs down in the ninth, potential catcher of the future Tomas Nido made his major league debut, pinch-hitting for Plawecki. He flied out. Veterans aren’t allowed to blatantly haze rookies anymore, but making Nido have a hand in this game served as a fairly humiliating initiation into what it’s like to be a Met.

I’m sure Nido was thrilled to become a major leaguer, no matter the context. The context of this September is supposed to be about seeing the kids, along with any Met who’s still standing, do what they can. Wednesday night the kids in the pen were having their pitches crushed and their ERAs inflated. A couple of the kids with bats had a better go of it, particularly Dominic Smith, who initially sat behind Reynolds but homered late, and Amed Rosario, whose early hype was beginning to seem as distant as that which surrounded Harvey’s when Matt’s arm had that intoxicating new ace smell to it.

Remember Amed Rosario? He was going to be the focus of the stretch drive — or limp — of 2017. Between the Mets so thoroughly receding from competitiveness and Amed having to sit out a week with a swollen index finger, I swear I’d kind of forgotten about our next great shortstop, at least in terms of him being our next great shortstop ASAP. On these Mets, nobody seems very good for very long.

For two nights in Chicago, we’ve gotten another much-needed inkling that we were not fed talking points where Rosario’s talent is concerned. It’s real, and it’s not hard to discern, even when the Mets are proceeding to lose by a dozen. On Tuesday, Amed made a leaping catch that didn’t matter to the outcome, but it was the most vertical thing we’d seen short of Juan Lagares at the wall. On Wednesday, there were three base hits, two runs scored (one on a well-executed Harvey safety squeeze) and a stolen base. The bit about minor league callups having to get used to how fast the game goes in the majors suddenly no longer seemed to apply. Amed was Rosario Speedwagon and he was taking the concept of “Keep the Fire Burnin’” to heart with his feet.

He’ll take his lumps, as will Smith, as will Nido, as will the rest of the youthful Mets. In this series, the first-place Cubs constitute the Cook County Bureau of Lumps and there’s been enough patronage dispensed in Chicago so that each of the defending world champions has been deputized a municipal administrator of pain. I noticed an ad behind home plate touting some distilled spirit or another as the Official Bourbon of the Cubs. What, I wondered, do they need an official bourbon for? They’re in a race. Pass the Mets the bottle. Pass the Mets fans the bottle.

One assumes it won’t always be like this. It can’t always be this exactly, anyway. The season has only 17 games, or 153 scheduled innings, left to it. The youth movement will gain a stripe or two worth of maturity before long. Some of these guys will go without a trace, yet some proportion of the youngsters we’re watching will become veterans we’re watching and the games won’t be as bathed in hopelessness as they’ve become. If you can’t comfort yourself with vague suppositions that things gotta get better (even if they can always get worse), pour yourself a shot of precedent. There’s a September Mets game for you to consider warmly, that of September 22, 1965, a 6-2 loss at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The defeat dropped the Mets’ record to 48-106.

The inspiration is not in the record, but in the box score. Your September 22, 1965 starting lineup included five players age 23 and under who, admittedly, weren’t going to help the Mets finish any better than 50-112 a week-and-a-half later. But those particular Met pups who’d yet to mount a challenge to the franchise’s losing pedigree would, in relative short order, become some of the Mets who’d change everything. No, Buddy Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones and Tug McGraw couldn’t beat the Pirates as veritable tykes, yet in four years, they’d grow up to beat the odds and the Orioles, and they’d champion the world.

Further, several of the others who represented New York that night in Pittsburgh would be exchanged for still others who we now recall as 1969 Mets. Or maybe they’d be traded for somebody else who’d be traded for somebody else who would emerge as such.

Dennis Ribant and Gary Kolb became Don Cardwell.

Jim Hickman went for Tommy Davis who went for Tommie Agee and Al Weis. Agee almost singlehandedly beat the O’s in Game Three of the 1969 World Series. Kranepool also homered that afternoon.

Charley Smith helped bring in Ken Boyer, and Ken Boyer helped bring in J.C. Martin. Martin bunted in the winning run of Game Four versus Baltimore an inning after Swoboda made the diving catch that shocked, stunned and stymied the Orioles in a flash.

Donn Clendenon, who drove in a pair for the Pirates that day in 1965, was acquired from Montreal in 1969 for a package that included Kevin Collins. Clendenon homered with Jones (and his stylishly polished shoes) on first in Game Five to put the Mets on the board and earned World Series MVP honors once that game was won — though some thought the award could have gone to Weis, who homered to tie Game Five.

Nobody who looked at the Mets in September of 1965 saw the Mets of October of 1969 or had a clue as to what the latter would forever after signify. Nobody who looks at the Mets of September of 2017 sees much worth looking at much longer right now. That’s fair. But, maybe, only for now.

Winding Down

Wrigley Field’s fun. I had a blast when I finally got to go three years ago, and had hoped to return this month with my wife as part of a Midwest swing to take some more ballparks off my list. It didn’t happen; I’ll end 2017 with 23 current big-league parks visited, down from 24 at the beginning of the year. (This is the opposite of progress.)

Even though I wasn’t actually there, I could feel the energy through the TV: a revved-up crowd, a team with something to play for, and a hint of fall in the air with all its promise and peril.

Unfortunately, the team with something to play for was the Cubs. The Mets are a rough sketch of next year taped to the tattered blueprint of this year’s teardown. They’re trying to get to winter with some hints about the kids’ future, a feeling about what the geezers might contribute, and nobody else shredding an elbow, dislocating a shoulder, pulling a hamstring or breaking a nose.

And on Tuesday night they looked like the collective ad lib they are. Robert Gsellman hung in there for a little while but eventually the loud outs became hits and the runners he kept allowing became runs. Then there was a parade of ineffective relievers, not enough offense and a mournful slide into a loss.

Another day off the calendar, which in time we’ll think of as another day closer to the next Opening Day, but not yet.

So what’s left? Well, Tomas Nido‘s big-league debut — the highly touted Double-A catcher got a call-up as a reward, presumably so Terry can use Travis d’Arnaud or Kevin Plawecki to pinch-hit without running afoul of the dreaded though essentially nonexistent scenario of a late-inning injury leaving a team bereft of real catchers.

Here’s hoping Nido gets to do more than warm up pitchers between innings. He’s just 23, but you never take a big-league roster spot for granted — and catchers are more in peril of ghostdom than any other position. The Mets’ pre-Nido ectoplasmic roster includes nine guys, three of whom — Randy Bobb, Billy Cotton and Jerry Moses — were catchers. Bobb and Moses at least played for other teams; Cotton never returned to the big leagues. Another less than immortal Mets backstop, Joe Hietpas, escaped ghostdom by entering the last inning of the last game in 2004. Hietpas can say he caught the final pitches in the history of the Montreal Expos, but not that he ever got a big-league at-bat.

Barring further surprises — and given the medical charts this year you never know — Nido will go into The Holy Books as the 1,043rd Met in team history (I’ll use one of his Cyclones cards as a placeholder), and the last in the confounding, star-crossed 2017 season.

But then that season already feels over, doesn’t it? Wrigley Field had plenty of buzz tonight, but the Mets were the uncool kids let into the club early after swearing to vamoose before the velvet rope comes out. Elsewhere, the Indians have won 20 in a row, while the Dodgers just escaped losing their 12th straight. Those teams and the other October contenders are rolling out the klieg lights; the Mets are waiting to shut them off and go home.

A Year of Sundays

We’ve rooted for good Mets teams in Septembers when they’ve lost ballgames badly. When every game matters in pursuit of the playoffs, every loss stings deeply. One loss can be all it takes to end the chase for which we as fans live, so of course we’re gonna take it hard when it lands on our head.

Thus, if you’re looking for a saving grace from Sunday’s 5-2 seventh-inning lead over the Cincinnati Reds turning into a 10-5 defeat, it’s that it would have hurt a lot more had it come in service to an overarching goal.

Your 2017 Mets: It can always hurt more.

On principle, it was pretty bad, yet at its end, I all but literally shrugged. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have preferred a win. As a season of this nature winds down, I can get mighty granular in my Met priorities. For example, the Mets hadn’t swept anybody at home all this livelong year, so I embraced that as a goal once we had three of the first four versus the Reds in the books. Jacob deGrom’s fifteenth victory — and my previously articulated 17 in ’17 dream on his behalf — appeared within our collective grasp. My crudely cobbled mid-August forecast of 74-88 for our final record appeared realistic a week after, at 58-78, it seemed to have dissolved into the stuff of Pollyannish lunacy. Further, the Mets could win on Sunday, take some momentum into Chicago (where by definition they’d have an impact on the pennant race) and inject some genuine substance into the nebulous concept of finishing strong.

There was a lot riding on the outcome, if solely in my imagination. But there was also the reality that the game was transpiring Sunday afternoon at Citi Field, and Sunday afternoons at Citi Field, it has been established, have been the absolute worst in 2017. It’s hard to decipher whether the Mets almost invariably lose on Sunday or lose to Sunday. The Mets can lose under any circumstance to any opponent, but they all but ask for it under this particular circumstance, when Sunday becomes the most daunting opponent on the schedule.

Ask, and ye shall receive, Metsies. They asked for it, all right. Everybody who had been in the process of contributing to a win in progress changed course and kicked in for a Mets loss. At least deGrom did his part in the opposite direction. His tough first inning dug the Mets a 2-0 hole, but his next five innings of work were characteristic of the ace who surged in midseason. Just one hit and no more runs surrendered en route to striking out ten Reds in all. Jake’s the Met who doesn’t give up. He wasn’t able to make hay of his two previous hay-makeable starts, a day game in Cincinnati, a home start versus the Phillies. Jake usually wins those like many of the rest of tie our shoes, as if by instinct. But he was hit hard in each of those games, leading us to believe he’s probably injured, because every Met pitcher is presumed injured until proven…what’s the opposite of injured again?

Yet deGrom survived to pitch Sunday afternoon at Citi Field. He’s the only Met to have mastered Sunday afternoon at Citi Field this season, beating the eventual division champion Nationals on Father’s Day and hitting a ball over the fence on that occasion to emphasize how far above his surroundings he has soared in 2017. DeGrom can’t win on demand, but you come as close as you possibly can to assuming maybe the Mets won’t lose when he’s on the mound.

You were excused for the ass-u-me aspect of assumption once the Mets supported deGrom’s cause in earnest. Facing Reds starter and erstwhile Sterling Cooper art director namesake Sal Romano, Travis d’Arnaud drove Jose Reyes home with a productive groundout in the first. Dominic Smith singled in the tying run in the third. With alphabet soup ingredient generator Asher Wojciechowski on in the sixth, Dom homered to provide deGrom a 3-2 edge, and Reyes confounded Reds right fielder Scott Schebler with a line drive double. Schebler stood his ground when he should have been on his proverbial horse. Jose was off to the races, landing on second having knocked in two more runs. The Mets were up, 5-2, taking it to one of the few opponents they’ve developed a knack for besting.

The home team had limited its exposure to losing. What could possibly go awry on this beautiful Fidget Spinner Sunday at Citi Field?

The first reason to fidget was deGrom was out after six, having thrown 102 pitches. The spinning out of control commenced with the entrance of Paul Sewald, who I am told is quite the competent rookie reliever, though I’m apparently in another room most of the times he’s recording enormous outs. Usually my two eyes on his right arm is bad news for all of our guts. Sewald taking the ball from deGrom was as unpleasant to witness as that every half-inning coffee commercial in which Rob Gronkowski grabs the megaphone from Odell Beckham. This is to say I’ve seen what happens enough already.

Sewald began his beguine and our downfall by walking Schebler. Next, Tucker Barnhart singled. The next batter, Patrick Kivlehan, went down on strikes. The next, Jose Peraza, did something even more helpful. He grounded into a sure 6-4-3 double play. Amed Rosario whipped one out into Reyes’s glove. Reyes, alas, whipped the second half of the twin-killing wide of first. Smith reeled the relay in, but Peraza was plenty safe. No DP, no slithering out of the inning for Sewald. Instead, National League All-Star shortstop Zack Cozart came up with two on and reminded us why he earned a donkey from Joey Votto (that’s not old-timey baseball slang; it really happened). Cozart dunked Sewald’s eighteenth and final pitch into the short left field stands to tie the game at five.

No fifteenth win for deGrom. Not much zest left in the #17in17 dream. And the year of Sundays at Citi Field continued unabated.

Good things could have happened still. Dominic, for example, could have moved up from second on a passed ball/wild pitch in the seventh with two out and set up a go-ahead score with birthday boy Phillip (or Phil) Evans batting, except when Smith attempted to run ninety feet, he found himself rumbling into a third out. Speed may not be our young first baseman’s strong suit.

Terrible things didn’t have to happen after. Jeurys Familia started the eighth, which was kind of optimistic, given that Familia hasn’t worked in consecutive games since he returned. He was sharp Saturday night. He wasn’t Sunday afternoon. Eugenio Suarez tagged him for a leadoff single. A sac bunt from Phillip (not Phil) Ervin bunted him to second. The Mets chose to walk Schebler, who had demonstrated his issues with running earlier in right. Barnhart doubled beyond the grasp of Juan Lagares. Ervin was sure to score to make it 6-5. Schebler was told to stop running by his third base coach to preserve his chance to score later.

But, nah, Schebler had figured out how to make tracks and he was gonna show off his new skill. Never mind Lagares is Lagares and that he made a peg to Rosario who relayed a laser a little to the right of d’Arnaud, but not too far right and in plenty of time to pencil in an 8-6-2 putout. All Travis had to do was turn and lay a sweep tag on the errantly approaching Schebler, and the Mets could still perhaps sweep this series.

Td’A made a beautiful tag…of home plate. He missed Schebler altogether. The runner who shouldn’t have been running was initially called out, but the camera, at Bryan Price’s request, ultimately spilled its truth. Schebler was safe. Terry Collins was livid and ejected. The Reds were ahead by two, preparing to lead and win by five once Hansel Robles emerged from hiding to enable souvenir collection up in the branded beverage pavilion for anyone who arrived too late to receive a fidget spinner. In the seconds after Barnhart went high and deep to right, I’d mentally traded, waived or unconditionally released every Met in uniform. So much for finishing strong.

Robles’s predictable rendering of another launch code was brought to us by Betty Crocker, as it was essentially the icing on the Reds’ cake. Once the dude who shouldn’t have run from third to home wasn’t tagged, this game was baked and burned. And once TC was thrown out post-review for asking an umpire, in so many words, “Huh?” the 2017 Mets were embodied in one extended sequence. All that was missing was Collins stepping on deGrom’s hand as he stomped back to his office, though I wouldn’t rule that out of appearing in Tuesday’s edition of the daily injury roundup.

Your final: Sunday overwhelms the Mets, 10-5. The Reds technically get the W, but we know the real score on a Sunday. Always on a Sunday.

83-79 or Bust!

Hope is a self-healing thing.

The Mets have won four in a row. I’d say “somehow,” except they’ve been playing the Phillies and the Reds, two teams that (like the Mets) are quantitatively and officially lousy.

Still, they all count and during this modest but thoroughly welcome winning streak the Mets haven’t looked half-bad. Which is all good.

If you want to find green shoots that could grow into strong trees — and really, what else is a September of a lost season for? — you had plenty more to like Saturday night.

Rafael Montero had what looks at first glance like another glass-half-full start, walking five in five innings and needing 97 pitches to last that long. But a half-full glass would have been a triumph for Montero not too long ago, and this struck me as the kind of game in which you could expect the old Montero to crumble.

Take the top of the third, which came down to Montero facing Scott Schebler with two out and runners on first and second. Montero had Schebler struck out on a 1-2 pitch, but home-plate ump Marvin Hudson missed it. Montero went back to work and got Schebler anyway. Beware the narrative — if Schebler hits a dunker over the second baseman’s head maybe this paragraph is about young pitchers losing focus — but that felt like progress to me. In fact, if you had to pick one pitcher based on upside right now, would you take Montero or Matt Harvey?

Speaking of progress, Kevin Plawecki absolutely tattooed a Homer Bailey fastball, sending it off the second deck for all the runs the Mets would need. Dom Smith escaped the interstate average-wise and made a couple of nifty plays afield, Phillip Evans collected his first big-league hit (very small sample size, but his swing is a thing of beauty), Jamie Callahan showed good life on his pitches finishing up, Brandon Nimmo smiled a lot and Amed Rosario even pinch-ran.

I know fall is in the air because I’m getting possessive about baseball — with the Mets done I wound up watching the Dodgers play the Rockies. (L.A. lost, coming within a run thanks to a leadoff homer in the ninth, which is the kind of baseball tease that just kills you.) Soon it will be time to pick bandwagon teams (preliminary rooting interest: Astros and/or Twins) and strap in for October craziness.

For the first time since 2014, that ride won’t include the Mets. Heck, they probably won’t win out and secure 83 wins. But this recent stretch suggests baseball in Flushing might stay watchable a little longer.

Freshman Mixer

The Mets posted a message on their videoboards prior to Friday night’s game at Citi Field: WELCOME 2017 GROUPS. Judging from the clusters of onlookers scattered throughout the stands, it could have as accurately said WELCOME 2,017 PEOPLE. Demand for tickets doesn’t spike when the home team doesn’t readily supply a steady stream of wins.

Eventually, more than a couple of thousand seats besides the ones occupied by my friend Joe and me filled in. Not too many thousands of them…certainly fewer than were explicitly reported via the charming fiction known as the “paid attendance,” announced as 25,864. Citi Field capacity is listed as 41,922, which would mean the place was 61.7% full on Friday.

I feel confident in asserting it wasn’t.

Amid contentionless conclusions like this year’s, those agate-type numbers at the bottom of the box score fall easy victim to the eye test. Yet the numbers continue to be printed as fact. It took nearly nine seasons and buckets of rain for the Mets to finally issue, on Wednesday night, a paid attendance figure of (slightly) less than 20,000 at Citi Field. Veterans of anemic Shea Stadium Septembers — not to mention first-grade arithmetic lessons — understand the difference between 2,000 and 20,000 and when a shall-we-say crowd strongly resembles the former rather than the latter.

We don’t see the reality-based four-digit paid attendances of yore anymore not because the attraction to Mets baseball has grown admirably impervious to downturns in the standings but because, since 1993, the National League has gone along with the creative accounting scheme popularized by the American League to use “tickets sold” as the standard for paid attendance. Tickets sold seems a fair barometer when you can fathom the tickets were sold. When it rained on Wednesday, you could believe a significant proportion of tickets bought weren’t used in service to witnessing the fourth-place Mets take on the fifth-place Phillies. What you couldn’t believe was that there were 19,617 tickets bought in the first place, certainly not in the traditional sense of 19,617 people wanting to see that particular baseball game and paying for the privilege. And, despite the additional lure of nifty one-size-fits-some LET’S GO METS shirts being distributed to all who did show up (with enough presumably left over to clothe half of East Elmhurst), I am flummoxed trying to imagine how enough discrete purchasing decisions were made to add up to 25,864 “tickets sold” on Friday for the fourth-place Mets of the East doing battle against the fifth-place Reds of the Central.

I can’t speak to the contemporary dark arts that produce a sum indicating more than half of available inventory got gobbled up for a limited-interest contest like Friday’s. I can speak only to the experience of being one of the alleged 25,864 or however many, many fewer we were who actually decided to buy a ticket and go to this game.

Joe and I picked this game for reasons of mutual availability several weeks ago. We’re the people who annually make at least a fraction of the paid attendance credible. We vastly prefer the Mets compete for postseason berths, but we don’t subject our attendance to such uncontrollable niceties. At heart, we assume everybody else among us — whether closer in number to 42,000 or 4,200 — is there because of a deep and abiding allegiance to the Mets. Inevitably, we find ourselves surrounded by exceptions to our assumptions.

That’s what happened Friday night, where our three blissfully unoccupied except-for-us rows at the bottom of 510 in Promenade suddenly filled in. Were they late arrivers? In a sense. They’d been at the game when it started, except their seats of record were in the elevated rows of 510. They were one of those 2017 GROUPS the Mets were welcoming in advance of first pitch.

I would learn that they were students from a local university’s sports management program. They got a deal on tickets and food & drink vouchers (especially the drink part), so they came out to spend a chilly yet dry Friday night doing something that sounded like fun. Their area of study seemed immaterial to their presence. As one of them told me in the late innings, “the funny thing is nobody here is really into sports, especially baseball.”

Yet there they were, a couple of dozen at least, most slipping into their complimentary LET’S GO METS shirts and all visibly/audibly having a whale of a time drinking and eating and drinking some more, yapping the evening away, arranging mass selfies and being resolutely young and diverse. They were the giddiest guys and gals you’ve seen at Citi Field in months. It was less group outing than freshman mixer. Sort of like these Mets lineups of late.

As much of a kick as I got out of the 5-1 Mets win Joe and I came to see, I got a bigger kick out of this bunch. There were random bits of baseball knowledge detectable among their ranks, though not enough to get from David Aardsma to Don Aase if they were scanning Retrosheet, which is to say I’m pretty sure they’d miss Hank Aaron altogether. I’m also certain none of them is going to be scanning Retrosheet this weekend. Nevertheless, they had a sense of where they were and respected the activity to which they committed themselves for a couple of hours. One of them was born in Tokyo and talked excitedly, between cocktails, of growing up a fan of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, whom he admired for not necessarily conforming to established Japanese norms. No wonder that he, like his baseball hero, had dyed his hair a shade of electric orange. Another, originally from Pennsylvania, admitted to a fondness for the championship Phillies of the previous decade, especially “Jimmy Rollins talking shit about being the team to beat,” but he gave them up once the DVR came along and he found better things to watch on TV. The guy who was more or less the leader of the band I mistook for a solid Mets fan. This was understandable given his indefatigable enthusiasm and his LET’S GO METS shirt. By the ninth, however, he copped to being “a bandwagon fan — that’s my shit!”

This was a night when the heretofore parked Mets bandwagon, fueled by a third consecutive victory, seemed inviting enough for adventurous stragglers to temporarily hop aboard. Plenty of room to cheer Jose Reyes’s two homers (the erstwhile Phillies fan remembered that “he used to be good”), Travis Taijeron’s first major league dinger (his last name came in for a predictable mispronunciation even while his feat was boisterously celebrated; Travis d’Arnaud’s was similarly mangled), surprise callup Phillip Evans’s pinch-hit line drive (which unfortunately got turned into a double play, but that was OK since the Mets were winning by a lot and alcohol was still being sold) and Seth Lugo’s six shutout innings. What I liked about this crew, as opposed to so many who’ve obliviously engulfed Joe and me with headache-inducing idiocy over the years, was they emitted intermittent bursts of earnest curiosity as to what they were sort of watching. The bandwagon guy asked Joe about his “taking notes”. Joe politely but firmly informed him he was keeping score. The Shinjo guy observed that Adam Duvall looked a lot like Joey Votto (whose name he considered the coolest he’d ever encountered) and most of the Reds, at least as pictured on CitiVision, looked alike, which he feared sounded “a little racist,” though I doubt that’s how he intended it. He also knew just enough about pitching to confirm with me that Tommy Milone’s ERA of over 7 was “pretty bad, right?” spurring him to ask in all sincerity, once Milone relieved Lugo, whether the Mets cared about winning this game.

There was a flickering awareness among our sports management students that the Mets and Reds weren’t pretty good by a long shot, and they certainly calculated there was a reason that “nobody’s here!” before executing their DIY seat upgrades. One of them looked to me for guidance on who the best Met was. “You mean right now — on the field?” Yes, that was the question. Cast in the role of section sage (owing to my being older than them and wearing a Mets cap), I could provide them capsule summaries of Mets history and brief oral essays on what makes a person choose to be a Mets fan, but on this I was stumped. I said Reyes (now with more than a hundred home runs as a Met) was indeed, as the Phillie guy had hinted, the most accomplished among those still standing, but there was really no suitable answer other than to lightly Metsplain the injury wave that had depleted the roster.

“So you think they’ll be good when all the pitchers come back?” the most cognizant in the group queried. I couldn’t say for sure, not to him, not to anybody, certainly not after prolonged exposure to the Mets as we’ve come to know them as 2017 whimpers toward an end. I’d like to believe we’re in the valuable-experience phase of September for the Mets’ own graduate students, the ones who are essentially taking classes at the big league level right now. But the lineups at present would work better as Jeopardy categories. They are hodgepodges and potpourris of players who wouldn’t be playing if something more was on the line or somebody better was readily available. Based on this week and this week alone, I’d buzz in with “What is a Taijeron-Aoki platoon?” even though I know I’d have my score deducted if the clue was “This could prove to be the 2018 Mets’ solution in right field.”

Nobody around me was pressing too hard for prescience or details as the Mets were disposing of the Reds. It was enough that we had two Travises — or Travii — banging extra-base hits and Milone lowering his earned run average to something slightly less ghastly than it had been and a delirious barrage of high-fives rendered between these kids who may never again attend another Mets game and this older kid who’s always going to come back. How many people were actually at Citi Field Friday night? I couldn’t tell you. How happy were those of us who were there? Indisputably very.

Green Shoots

We’ll begin with the bringdown portion of today’s recap.

  • Matt Harvey lasted five innings, threw his fastball around 93, and got a grand total (if I’m remembering the broadcast correctly) of one swinging strike from a position player.
  • The Mets won consecutive games … for the first time in nearly a month.
  • Juan Lagares, Matt Reynolds and Harvey all turned in at-bats at important junctures that left you wondering if they were actually familiar with baseball.
  • Wilmer Flores is (see if you can guess) OUT FOR THE SEASON.
  • If you’re looking farther afield for hope, well, Noah Syndergaard had a pretty meh rehab start for Brooklyn and is basically out of places to pitch in the minors.

Did Harvey look better than he did in his return against Houston? He did — his victory over the Reds is being billed as progress, and it undoubtedly was.

But we need to ask the larger question: progress towards what? It’s somewhere between possible and likely that the Harvey of 2015 is gone, with thoracic outlet syndrome having reduced him in a way that a torn elbow ligament couldn’t.

Harvey no longer has the stuff to miss bats, and he’s competing for a job in a baseball era in which guys who throw 95 grow on trees. Will that swing-and-a-miss stuff come back? Perhaps, but there is no pitcher who’s had sustained success at his trade after the operation to repair thoracic outlet syndrome. Harvey could be the first, it’s true. But it seems more likely that he will be the latest in a line of cautionary examples.

That means Harvey’s ceiling may now be a back-end-of-the-rotation arm, one who wins when he misses bats and gets run support and doesn’t when he doesn’t. He’s headed for this third arbitration year in 2018, slated to make north of $5 million. Is that where the Mets want to spend their money, particularly given their signals that they’re not going to spend as much of it? I’m not sure it is.

If you wanted signs of hope, though, you did have them Thursday. Josh Smoker‘s slider was nasty as he turned in his best inning of the year, Jeurys Familia looked much better in a clean inning, and AJ Ramos closed out the game. Meanwhile, Brandon Nimmo socked two homers, Lagares hit one, Dominic Smith drove in a run and Kevin Plawecki collected another hit.

Nimmo may never hit two home runs in one game again, but his sense of the strike zone is preternatural — he almost always sees Ball 3 in an at-bat. If he can keep that discerning eye (and there’s no reason to suggest he can’t) and slash enough hits off pitchers who try to exploit his patience by going after him early, he can be a valuable big-league contributor.

Lagares’s batting eye is more of a question — he’s never shown sustained ability to lay off breaking pitches out of the zone — but his superlative defense means he has less to do to prove himself useful. Smith looks like a smart hitter and a helpless one on consecutive at-bats, which is just a fancy way of saying he’s a rookie. But Plawecki has looked far more competent in his most-recent go-round with the Mets, and could prove a perfectly able complement to Travis d’Arnaud, at least until d’Arnaud inevitably a) steps on a land mine; b) contracts river blindness; c) is drilled in the knee by a meteorite; or d) all four at once. Going by TdA’s unfortunate chart, I’d predict at least one of those things will happen by Tax Day.

Anyway, the Mets won and won handily, and while Harvey got most of the pixels, the real signs of hope were elsewhere. Which, ultimately, may be more important to the Mets’ prospects in 2018 and beyond.

* * *

Our famous Faith and Fear numbers shirt is back, now featuring Mike Piazza’s 31, the same order you’ll see at Citi Field, and even a more accurate font. For men’s styles, go here; women’s styles are here. Either is $24.08 from T-Shirt Mojo, with proceeds helping us pay our server costs. Available for fans of all ages, perceived ceiling and DL statuses.

Let's Play Two-Thirds

Now there’s the ticket.

The Mets played six innings against the Phillies Wednesday night, which meant no disastrous fourth time through the order, no bullpen implosion, no horrifying defensive gaffe, no bats gone home early. Robert Gsellman looked aggressive and strong for five innings, less good for one inning, but then he was done. And the Mets did plenty of hitting against former tormenter Nick Pivetta, with Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis d’Arnaud leading the charge.

And, OK, a tip of the cap to the rain.

This one of those games that was all about what the rain had done for us lately. With the Mets having jumped out to an uncharacteristically big lead, the worry was that it would show up and wash away everything from Gsellman’s non-surgically repaired attitude (now there’s a rare fix in these parts) to TdA’s offensive outburst. Then, with the Phillies creeping back into view, the worry became that the rain would take its time, drizzling ambivalently until lead and possibly sanity had been lost.

But no, the rain performed admirably. Someone give it a share of the crown.

If this wasn’t the most sparsely attended game of the season, I don’t want to know what lies ahead. Greg, who seems trustworthy about these things, noted the paid attendance of 19,617 was the lowest in Citi Field history. Actual butts in actual seats? You had enough for two teams (should the Mets and Phils have decided to stay warm and dry and play videogames) but probably not for your own replacement league.

A hearty salute, though, to those who had a ticket and made use of it. Pretty much every conceivable misfortune became reality for this year’s Mets, it was a miserable night that promised to get far worse, and Citi Field’s a short subway ride from a metropolis with a near-infinity of things — many of them indoor pursuits — to interest anyone.

I may question the sanity of those who decided watching Gsellman exorcise his self-summoned demons was the best use of their Wednesday night, but I’ll never say a peep about their passion. In the background of the broadcast, you saw people sitting in the rain in ponchos, in converted garbage bags, or protected by nothing more than stoicism and love for the game.

Including my personal fan of the game — the artisanally bearded gent meticulously keeping score under an umbrella emblazoned with the word ENJOY. Now that’s a fan. And more than that — given the circumstances, that’s a Mets fan.

Here’s hoping you’re back tonight, sir, and Matt Harvey and the Mets give you nine innings, a full two pages in the scorebook, and another win.

* * *

Our famous Faith and Fear numbers shirt is back, now featuring Mike Piazza’s 31, the same order you’ll see at Citi Field, and even a more accurate font. For men’s styles, go here; women’s styles are here. Either is $24.08 from T-Shirt Mojo, with proceeds helping us pay our server costs. Wear it with pride, in whatever weather.