Wednesday night’s win over the Marlins was full of encouraging signs for the Mets, and left me feeling something I’ve rarely felt in a tight race’s last few days: a sense of calm.
Seth Lugo looked shaky early, struggling to command his pitches and reminding us that for all his meritorious service, he’s written an out-of-nowhere story that makes Jacob deGrom‘s ascent look like a sure thing. Lugo didn’t pitch well in any role in Las Vegas (though, to be fair, that’s about the last place you want to depend on a curveball) and various metrics, most notably his FIP and home run rate, suggest an unwelcome regression to the mean lies ahead.
But you know what? Come April, Lugo can regress all the way back to the Pacific Coast League — what’s important is he didn’t do it Wednesday night. He got rocked by a Martin Prado homer in the bottom of the first for a 2-0 deficit, but fanned Jeff Mathis with two men on to limit the damage. The Mets responded immediately, with T.J. Rivera doubling and James Loney hitting a high arcing drive that came down just above Giancarlo Stanton‘s station craning his neck at the right-field fence.
Lugo was in trouble again in the third, facing Stanton with one out and runners on first and second. He got squeezed on a 1-2 curve, though the ball broke so sharply it seemed to fool Rene Rivera as well as home-plate ump Bill Welke. Unlucky, but then Lugo got lucky on 2-2, running a fastball just outside enough to sap Stanton’s power. He popped it up; Lugo went to a 3-1 count on hulking Met nemesis Justin Bour, but got him to ground to second for a fairly gigantic whew.
The Marlins seemed spent after that, for which no person with an ounce of compassion could blame them. Meanwhile, the Mets were getting in gear. Jose Reyes doubled Lugo in to take the lead in the fourth and then Jay Bruce — yes, that Jay Bruce — drove a ball over the wall for insurance. Lugo, Hansel Robles, Fernando Salas, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia kept Miami at bay, and the Mets had won.
The Mets had won, and a little while later the Reds beat the Cardinals by a skinny run, surviving a leadoff triple in the ninth. And a little while after that the Rockies survived a scary ninth of their own to beat the Giants. Those aren’t the ingredients for a 163rd game quite yet, but the recipe’s become pretty simple: if the Mets win two in Philadelphia they’re guaranteed at least one night of extra baseball. (Yes, a three-way tie is still possible, but I’m not going to worry about it because my head would explode.)
I doubt I’ll be calm when I’m checking the out-of-town scores Thursday night, or while doing anything this weekend. But Wednesday night I was — I even lapsed into couchbound inattention for an inning or two, as if this were a pleasant evening in May. The difference: I was letting myself daydream about Lucas Duda looking revived and Curtis Granderson whacking balls from line to line and Bruce having escaped the back of the milk carton and T.J. Rivera continuing to get his Murph on and hey, if we get past next Wednesday maybe we could make some noise….
Normally I’d yank myself back to the beginning of that chain of hypotheticals, but this time, I let my mind keep wandering happily for a bit. I’ve lived through seasons in which magic numbers shrank to a certain point but no further, becoming tragic digits. I know that still might be. But, to steal a note from Mike Vaccaro, since their resurrection began on Aug. 20 the Mets have made up 8 games on St. Louis, 9 1/2 on San Francisco and 10 on the Pirates. And all that while pitchers and position players vanished from active duty at a rate normally seen in epidemics. Those are already pretty magic numbers, regardless of the outcome.
So I’ll sit back and enjoy it until the lights come up and it’s time to go, whether that’s after Game 162, 163 or — because you never know — Game 182. It’s part of being a fan to fret and sigh and see grim portents everywhere, but we have to also allow ourselves to imagine things going right.
The Mets are 84-74. They have never, in the history of the franchise, been 84-74 before. There is no inherent significance to having achieved this statistical milestone. It’s simply something I deduced after staring at their record for a moment.
To have ever been 84-74, the Mets would have — in the segments of their past that were less than illustrious but more than intolerable — had to have ended a season with between 84 and 88 wins.
They’ve never ended with 84.
They’ve never ended with 85.
They’ve ended 86-76 once, in 1976, but after 158 games were 86-72, on their second of five consecutive losses that took a bit of the shine off an otherwise rousing finishing kick (34-16 in their previous 50) that was, sadly, a harbinger of absolutely nothing where the immediate future was concerned.
They’ve ended 87-75 once, in 1989, but after 158 games were 83-75, letting down everybody in sight before sweeping a four-game series in Pittsburgh to make the year look better than it felt.
They’ve ended 88-74 three times. Once, in 1997, it couldn’t have been sweeter; twice, in 1998 and 2007, it couldn’t have been more sour, proving perhaps that numbers are only numbers until they are cast into context. The 1997 team was a scrappy unit that rose from the depths of a theretofore dismal decade and delighted us diehards with provisional progress that promised even better days ahead. The 1998 and 2007 teams crafted and carried expectations that wound up crushing them in their respective final weeks. 1997’s quiet ascension is rarely broadly invoked despite the invigorating leap forward it encompassed. 1998’s fast fade lingers a little louder in the collective subconscious, though ultimately its generational pain was eased by the rewarding seasons that lay directly ahead of it. Historically, it was consigned to also-collapsed status by the next 88-74 season to come along. 2007 endures as a legend of the genre.
What binds the three 88-74 finishes in Mets history, for our current observational purposes, is none of them occurred after an 84-74 pit stop. I clearly remember how each of those years’ final four games played out: 3-1 in ’97, 0-4 (80% of an 0-5 free fall) in ’98, 1-3 in ’07. Because I know how those endings unspooled and can do a little Base 162 arithmetic, I know no Mets team that could have been 84-74 ever was 84-74.
And? And I guess it goes to show that when you get to this juncture of a very long season, you realize that though the vast majority of games are put in the books, it’s the palmful yet to be played that can still define what the season was and how it will be recalled.
After 158 games of 1976, 1989 and 1997, all that was left to be determined was which numbers would be written in ink. Those Mets’ seasons were already defined as whatever they were. Their spurts of contention, whether illusory or exhilarating, were over. But after 158 games of 1998 and 2007 — plus a few other years when the records may have been markedly different but the stakes at hand were essentially the same — we didn’t know what we had and required the entire schedule to play out.
Which returns us to our present 84-74 circumstances, elevated from 83-74 following a rollicking Tuesday night victory in Miami. The Mets beat the Marlins, 12-1, pitching wonderfully and hitting spectacularly. Noah Syndergaard was back on the hill and strepless as could be for six innings: no walks, five hits, eight strikeouts. Jay Bruce’s bat, recently thawed from cold storage, continued to scald. He landed a two-run homer in Dee Gordon territory in the second and whacked everything with authority all night. Yoenis Cespedes, whose slumps last only as long as it takes to realize they’re occurring, launched a ball past the adorably garish monstrosity in center (no, not you, Christian Yelich) and presumably sculpted a hole in the ozone layer with his third-inning missile into space.
Yo’s blast made the score 4-1, where it stayed stuck for much of the evening, but like a 158-game record in the midst of a 162-game season, it was bound to change. After hitting into a bit of bad luck here and there, the Mets plowed through another National League East bullpen in the late innings, adding five runs in the eighth and three in the ninth. The most encouraging contributions were elicited from Lucas Duda, 2-for-3 with three RBIs and perhaps emerging as the starting first baseman he used to be before four months of injury inactivity, and Juan Lagares, a barely distinguishable speck on the DL radar who is suddenly revealing he can not only run, catch and throw, but swing. Juan chipped in a tack-on sacrifice fly that would rate zero mention, except Juan and his surgically repaired thumb ligaments weren’t supposed to be able to grip a stick of lumber for any purpose larger than bunting.
In the words of Curt Gowdy from the 1969 World Series highlight film, “Some bunt.” No, Lagares in Game 158 at Marlins Park didn’t go yard like Dave McNally (let alone Donn Clendenon or Al Weis) in Game Five at Shea Stadium, but just the thought that he might be a capable righthanded bat in the four games ahead…and any games beyond that…is a small miracle unto itself. Duda, too. Didn’t see either of them coming, or coming back, but that’s been the Mets’ way in 2016. After this chronically decimated team took the last two of four in San Francisco in August to put them at exactly .500, the goal — in my head, at any rate — was win every series. Do that, and they could conceivably compete for a playoff slot. Given how they’d performed most of the summer, that kind of output would be a miracle.
Twelve series remained, ten with three games, two with four. My aspiration for them was therefore a 26-12 record over their final 38 games, which would land them at 88-74. In 1997, 1998 and 2007, that was enough to book passage directly into the offseason. It wouldn’t have done them any good in 1976 or 1989, either. But this is the age of the Second Wild Card. 88-74 looked pretty solid from the vantage point of 62-62 considering where all other prospective foes stood five weeks ago.
Here we are, 84-74, with not quite every series thus far taken, but enough contests captured in the interim to catapult the Mets into a slim yet stubborn lead for the First Wild Card: a half-game ahead of the Giants, a game-and-half better than the Cardinals. Each contender scored twelve runs on Tuesday and each put pressure on the others. The Mets may have to win 88 games to ensure playing more than 162. It’s possible a slightly lesser number will take care of business, but that’s not desirable to consider. We need every available win just as we need every available body. We need Duda. We need Lagares. We need Bruce and Cespedes and tonight’s starting pitcher Seth Lugo. We could use Wilmer Flores, but probably won’t be able to, which is why noticing Juan’s refreshed skill set provided such a pleasant revelation. We will definitely need Thor again, maybe this Sunday, maybe next Wednesday. We may need a starting pitcher between Sunday and Wednesday if things shake out weirdly enough.
We need the Mets to excel over their final four games, the four games that will define what kind of story we will eventually tell about 2016. I’m hesitant to put a precise number on it, but 88-74 certainly sounds like a happy ending.
I knew Monday night’s game against the Marlins would be emotionally wrenching. I think we all did.
But I wasn’t prepared for just how tough it would be, and how tough it kept being.
There was the sight of every Marlin wearing Jose Fernandez‘s No. 16, and the knowledge that it would never be worn again.
There was the sound of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a grieving farewell, something I know my mind will come back to again and again on carefree summer days.
There were the red eyes and stricken faces of Martin Prado and Giancarlo Stanton, just minutes before game time.
There was tracking Yoenis Cespedes as the Mets and Marlins came together to exchange pregame hugs and back pats, and seeing how hard he was holding on to each opponent.
And there was the sight of the Marlins surrounding the mound where Fernandez had done so many amazing things, and the reminder that all of that was done, irrevocably ended in an unlucky second in the night.
Last week I called the Cespedes our-walkoff-turned-their-walkoff as cruel as baseball gets, and that was correct as far as sports go. But what a monster of a qualifying statement. That was a game and a pennant race. This was a young man killed at 24, a son and grandson gone in a blink, a father-to-be who’ll never see his child. There’s no comparison between the two, none at all. Watching the Marlins during the remembrances of their teammate and friend, I wondered how they could possibly play — how anyone could. Throwing ourselves into sports is grand fun — and sometimes its opposite — but what happened off Miami Beach in the early hours of Sunday morning was cruelty and tragedy in the true senses of those words, and it was devastating to see them transposed to the baseball diamond, where we get to obsess over the pretend versions.
If you’ve read us for a while you know that I’m not a fan of the Marlins’ ownership or their off-the-field personnel, to understate the case considerably. But they handled the unimaginable with grace, to use that word in the nearly-forgotten sense for which it was intended. So too did the Mets and the SNY crew. The open grief on the faces and in the voices of Gary, Keith and Ron was almost too intimate, and it was a relief — for us and I suspect for them as well — that they let the first minutes of the game speak for themselves. These weren’t things to talk over; for long TV stretches they simply let them be.
But unwelcome though it was, there was another aspect to Monday night’s game: within the parameters of baseball, however silly and ephemeral they might be, this was a game the Mets desperately needed. At first I felt queasy about this double vision, then I simply accepted that I wouldn’t be free of it and did the best I could.
It was astonishing seeing Dee Gordon, a baseball whippet with zero home runs on his 2016 resume, lash a Bartolo Colon fastball into the second deck, as if he’d become a quadruple-sized Stanton. As a Mets fan I winced — 1-0 Them. A moment later I was applauding, as a baseball fan and as a person, and wished I could help carry a crying Gordon around the bases and back to the embrace of his teammates.
And then I went back to wincing — with plenty to wince about. Colon didn’t have it at all, as sometimes happens to him — he was throwing in the mid-80s and everything was getting walloped. Terry Collins has had a quick hook in recent weeks, hauling starters off the mound without consideration of wins or their psyches or anything else. But he left Colon in. He let him hit in the third despite the Mets being in a 5-0 hole, an inning that ended with Cespedes looking at a borderline called third strike and leaving two runners on base. Colon faced three batters after that, surrendering a hit, surviving a rocket liner from Stanton and then yielding Justin Bour‘s triple. Only then did he come out.
Down 7-0, the Mets did little against a succession of Marlins relievers. Cespedes popped up with a chance to make it a game again; Lucas Duda got caught looking. The game, understandably, became an exhausted trudge for both teams, and wound up a 7-3 loss. The Mets are now half a game up on the idle Giants, and had to find solace in the Reds trouncing the Cardinals. Some folks noted that they didn’t mind the Mets losing this one, and I appreciate the sentiment. Applaud it, even. But I couldn’t second it: there’s no such thing as a game you don’t mind losing with six left and a postseason berth in the balance.
But accepting that you feel that way isn’t the same as letting it blind you to bigger things. As the Marlins gathered at the mound again, this time to leave their caps behind, my mind went back to the last batter Colon had faced — and then further back, to a game 15 years gone. I was in the stands with Greg and Emily on Sept. 21, 2001, when Mike Piazza‘s drive into the night transformed a shocked, tentative crowd into a bunch of cheering loons — the first moment in which we felt allowed to celebrate a little thing like it was a big thing.
Colon’s final pitch on Monday night was a flat fastball that Bour hammered into right-center, just under the glove of a tumbling Jay Bruce. Bour is a massive hulk of a man — perfectly named, really — and he careened around the bases and did a belly flop in the dirt in the vicinity of third, bouncing hard into the base. Then, finding himself safely in possession of his first career triple, he popped up and flexed at his teammates, who grinned and yelled and flexed back.
I realized that on the Monday night we all thought was coming, Jose Fernandez would have seen the ball get past Bruce, sprung to the top of the dugout railing, and hung over it so he had the best seat in the house. He would have been not just cheering Bour but also bouncing up and down, practically levitating with delight, with that million-watt smile attracting every eye in the park. I knew I would have hated that Justin Bour of all people had tripled, but wound up smiling at how much Fernandez loved it — like he seemed to love every moment in which he was part of the game he played with such irrepressible, contagious joy.
For that moment, on this shocked and sorrowful Monday night, the game had helped. It hadn’t fixed anything — nothing like that can ever be fixed — but it had allowed Bour and his teammates and their fans to let go, giving them permission to lose themselves in something small and silly. Small and silly — it’s just baseball, after all — but joyous and real for all that.
A Unicorn romps around Flushing.
Sunday was ostensibly Closing Day at Citi Field. More like Door Left Ajar Day, I suppose. On paper — the glossy, accordion-foldable kind that fits easily in your pocket — it was what it sometimes is. September 25 versus the Phillies was definitely the final scheduled home game of the season, yet some Closing Days are less, shall we say, “Closey” than others.
Closing Day connoisseurs like myself have been blessed in recent regular seasons by Met years that end in Flushing. From 2004 to 2015, ten of twelve Game 162s have coincided with Home Game 81. Putting aside playoff action when we’ve been so lucky, only 2006 and 2012 had scheduled business to be taken care of elsewhere once the gates were shuttered at Shea or Citi. In 2006, we knew we’d be back in a flash, so the sense of “that’s it” on Closing Night a decade ago was nonexistent. In 2012, the overriding goal of R.A. Dickey’s twentieth win was reached on the last home date, and since nothing much else was on the line thereafter, the road trip that remained bordered on — to quote the most literate of pitchers — inconsequential.
The rest of our previous dozen Closing Days had been tinged by reflection and defined to a certain extent by their finality. 2015 had a postseason grafted onto it, but Closing Day, October 4, stood apart as its own occasion. Maybe it was the nip in the air, maybe it was the 90th win, maybe it was the lap around the track the managers, the coaches and all the players took upon the conclusion of the game. We knew we’d witnessed a season finale of sorts, even with a flight to L.A. on the horizon.
A year later, not so much. I went through the rituals of Closing Day, as I have every Closing Day since 1995 (twenty-two in a row for me personally, twenty-four in all), and they were fulfilling enough despite the shortfall of finality. Stephanie accompanied me as she has to every Sunday closer since 2008 — the weekday goodbyes of 2011 and 2012 she had to skip — and we swung by the traditional last-day Chapman tailgate in Lot E, an annually warm affair no matter the vagaries of the Flushing Bay breeze. We accepted our next-year magnets, we took our usual last looks around, we soaked in the scenery that we can’t count on seeing again any time soon, we lingered at our seats when the game was over, we took our sweet time meandering out of the stadium…but we didn’t want to believe this was it.
Not conceptually, but literally. There are six games to go that will determine if Citi Field hosts more baseball in 2016. I believe we would all agree that the place needs more baseball. One game on October 5 if possible, another game on October 10 absolutely, one beyond it on October 11 if necessary, and then, if we can beat the Cubs…
Ah, looking ahead, an instinct I nervously attempt to foul back into the crowd, because you have to take everything one game at a time, but the idea this week is to take as many of the six in front of us that are attainable, ward off at least one of the two teams directly behind us and move forward. With such a pressing agenda, dedicated reflection on the home season that is now technically complete might get in my eyes.
Though it wouldn’t have been the only thing Sunday. Even though the Mets didn’t quite imbue the day with its customary strong dose of Auld Lang Syne, the emotions were there if you left yourself vulnerable to them. Jose Fernandez’s death was known to us for all of four hours when we were asked for a moment of silence in his memory. Usually these gestures happen days, weeks, maybe winter months after whoever has passed has passed. If you’re moved, you’re moved to remember. Here, I must tell you, I was moved to tears.
Truth be known, I can cry quite readily if quietly on Closing Day, even when closure is elusive, even if the scoreboard is jubilant. Geez, this may be the longest a fan of a team that romped to a 17-0 win in the midst of a searing pennant race has ever gone without mentioning that his team romped to a 17-0 win in the midst of a searing pennant race.
So let us note Sunday’s final was Mets 17 Phillies 0 and that combined with subsequent Giant and Cardinal defeats, the Mets’ chances of playing and perhaps hosting at least one playoff game improved substantially. As the runs piled high and handsome, and half-games added themselves provisionally to the most critical column of the Wild Card standings, I can happily report my melancholy took a breather.
Because how can you not get giddy over a 17-0 win?
For those of you who track such sightings, yes, 17-0 is indeed a Unicorn Score, a result we define as a score by which nobody has ever seen the Mets win before or again. Again is hard to tell, considering this just happened — but anybody who can recall the exotic creatures who emerged in the Rocky Mountains on August 21 and 22 of 2015 can attest that a Unicorn doesn’t necessarily have to wait very long to be cloned.
Early in the game, while Robert Gsellman (7 IP, plus some seriously effective bunting) was on the verge of rescuing the Met relief corps from itself, the bats seemed to consist more of slumber than lumber. There were a ton of baserunners, if not enough of them crossing home plate for comfort. We didn’t know in advance that would one would suffice. After the angst that accompanied so many tight-as-a-tick contests on this homestand, I was just waiting for this game to be broken open beyond Philadelphia repair. A run in the second, a couple in the fourth, three in the fifth…6-0 seemed like a safe enough lead, but I was like my cat Hozzie when his internal clock insists it’s time to be fed again despite having just been fed. I simply wanted MEOW! And by MEOW, I mean more.
Consider me sated and purring. The game wasn’t broken open. It was smashed into a million little pieces, each one of them a glittering jewel. Five runs in the seventh. Six runs in the eighth. A blue and orange Unicorn hoofing it around the bases without pause. Certainly the Phillies didn’t seem capable of stopping the wildlife traffic at hand. The Mets had never shut out anybody by more than fourteen runs. Once the pinball machine tilted at 15-0, I maintained only two concerns.
1) Don’t give up a run in the ninth, because there is a 15-1 score in the Met past, and Uniclones (if not bred on the spot) aren’t as much fun as Unicorns.
2) Don’t get the Phillies riled up, because the last three games of the season will be at Citizens Bank Park, and we may very well need to win the lot of them. If anything, the Mets seemed almost embarrassed by their bounty, so I don’t think they unduly stoked any dormant competitive fires.
The reflex reaction of “save some of that for tomorrow” was pointless. The Mets generated 44 runs in four games (somehow losing one of them). When the faucet inevitably turns off, it’s not like we can go back and grab a bucket from Sunday. I enjoyed the output. I enjoyed Closing Day despite the lack of closure it encompassed. I anticipate, albeit with fingers crossed and no guarantee available, additional baseball in our ballpark. I said merely “so long” on Sunday. “Goodbye” is best left for some other day.
Under the format that’s been in place since 2001, you usually play your division rivals nineteen times a season. As a result, you become intimately familiar with them. When the Mets play somebody from the National League Central or West or American League, it’s almost as if we’re welcoming or visiting special guest stars. You don’t particularly want to go up against Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner if you’re interested in winning, but there’s also a sense of occasion to it. When you see the same team over and over, however, niceties go out the window. It doesn’t matter that you are presented with an up-close-and-personal view of one of the best pitchers in the game. You got that in April and again in June. You don’t need it in September.
The only thing better than besting the best players your rival has to offer is not having to best them at all. Tell us we don’t have to see them. We wish no ill, just preoccupation.
You know these rivals too well. You develop an allergy to their skills. Freddie Freeman should take a longer paternity leave. Ryan Howard should contemplate early retirement. Might Bryce Harper be so kind as to continue slumping for an additional three games? From the Marlins in this decade, among the relatively ordinary players who acquire the powers of superpests simply by donning their uniforms in order to wreak havoc against us, we can identify two characters who we were sure existed to instigate Met gloom. One, the slugger Giancarlo Stanton; the other, the ace Jose Fernandez.
In the first five Met-Marlin series of 2016, we saw Fernandez four times. It was plenty, we thought. Then we heard the Marlin rotation has been shuffled just enough to generously offer us a fifth encounter, scheduled for tonight in Miami. Something about getting him an extra day of rest because of the 111 pitches he threw versus Washington last Tuesday. Yeah, sure. Fernandez was slotted to pitch against Atlanta Sunday, but Atlanta’s in last place and the Mets are in a Wild Card race. Miami’s playoff aspirations are all but mathematically done, but apparently their desire to mess with ours wasn’t. It’s what rivals do to each other if they get the chance.
The fretting began well before we were finished our weekend engagement with Philadelphia. Gotta win on Sunday, we said to ourselves Saturday, because come Monday, we are being presented with an obstacle. Haven’t we had enough obstacles already? We’re trying to win a Wild Card while pitching one emergency starter after another. Now we have to attempt to hit against an ace who is as elite as they come.
Eight times — four in 2013, four in 2016 (much of 2014 and 2015 were given over to Tommy John surgery and rehab) — the Mets faced Jose Fernandez. They won two of his starts once they nicked the Marlin bullpen, but they never actually defeated him. The Mets barely touched him: 47 innings, 7 runs. In the middle of a season, during the immense portion when you rationalize that you’re going to lose ‘x’ number of games anyway, all you can do if you want to maintain 162 games’ worth of sanity is graciously if grudgingly tip your cap to an ace of his stature and results of his doing.
That’s for June and April. This is September. A season is winding down with a chance that it won’t end so soon. All we really care about is that chance. We’re simultaneously trying to will our team to victory and wish competitive ill on their fellow contenders in distant cities. We need the Mets to win, the Giants to lose, the Cardinals to lose. The last thing we think we want to hear is that the blankety-blank Marlins have taken steps to throw at the Mets the pitcher who rarely loses to anyone and never loses to the Mets.
That’s what you think is the last thing you want to hear.
The rearrangement of Miami’s rotation to place Jose Fernandez on the mound Monday night seemed like one of those cruel tricks the universe plays against our team. That’s how we see the universe, especially in a pennant race. Then we found out why the Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez, and we were reminded what cruel really is. Fernandez, we learned Sunday morning, had been killed in a boating accident. A 24-year-old person, along with two other people we’d never heard of because they weren’t famous, was gone.
We knew who he was because he was a baseball player who played against our favorite team on a regular basis, and because he played baseball better than almost everybody else in his profession, and perhaps because he played it exuding more joy than anybody else we saw. He was on our minds because he was going to play against the Mets two games from where we sat. Get by the Phillies, then deal with Fernandez. You could chalk it up as a loss in advance if you were so inclined (even in late September, you have to remind yourself that winning them all is almost never an option), or you could gird for the challenge and tell yourself, well, if the Mets want to play for a championship, they ought to prove they can win against one of the best there is.
They might have been up for the challenge. Or Jose Fernandez might have been too much for them and they would had to have regrouped the next night. In baseball, there’s always supposed to be a tomorrow.
Those truisms we reflexively apply to our sport don’t necessarily translate to the world around them. Everything we thought we needed to know about Jose Fernandez dissipated Sunday morning. Instead of thinking about him in the context of a rival, we paused to contemplate him as a human being — an incredibly formidable one at that. Not many of us ever encountered the obstacles he braced for repeatedly and overcame definitively. Not many of us spread as much happiness by dint of personality as he did. Not many of us touched in such a positive and lasting manner virtually everybody he came across in a life that loomed as boundless. His talent is what we knew because his talent is what we saw. That would be formidable enough for most people.
The Mets won’t face Jose Fernandez tonight in Miami. That’s supposed to read as good news. Instead, it’s the worst news possible. In baseball, we have divisions. In humanity, sometimes we step back and unite.
The standings do not recognize moral victories. A 2-0 perfect game counts the same as some hideous crapfest against a second-division opponent that you win 9-6 despite walking the ballpark. The same goes for losses — the manager turning over the buffet after sending the backup catcher to the mound doesn’t mean the defeat was hideous enough to cost you an extra half-game.
But Saturday night’s depressing, aggravating, ludicrous, exciting, fun, absurd and ultimately tragic loss was about as close as you can get to a moral victory. It won’t help in the standings — the Mets start Sunday tied with the Giants and a half-game in front of the Cardinals — but it does earn an asterisk, at least on this blog.
It also strikes me as a miniature version of the 2016 season. Which we’ll come back to in a bit.
The game defied description, but I’ll try: Sean Gilmartin was bad and so was Rafael Montero, with their combined efforts putting the Mets in a 10-0 hole. Shame on the shitty Mets fans who booed Gilmartin, pressed into service after a month in which he didn’t throw 20 pitches in any appearance — there’s another New York team that’s a better fit for their likes. I hope those fans left, because once Terry Collins wisely sat down the varsity to save them for Sunday, weird things started happening.
A division of Met relievers sent into battle held the Phillies at bay, and the Las Vegas 51s started making some noise. It was 10-4, which is still lipstick-on-a-pig territory, but then it was 10-6, which is when you catch yourself thinking the pig has some good qualities, and then … well, let’s not pursue that metaphor any further. Once the Mets were within four it was fun — the Phillies looked like they were trying to wake up from a nightmare, while the Mets looked like they were determined to keep dreaming.
Baseball tugs you in different directions — towards the cool logic of statistics and then towards the hot rush of fan enthusiasm. The latter is often a funhouse mirror for assessing the former — it’s what we’re looking into when we think we spy hot hands, players being due, clutch, grit, karma, destiny and all the other intangibles we like to argue about. With that in mind, our pals at Amazin’ Avenue end each game recap with a graph of both teams’ Win Probability (it’s courtesy of FanGraphs) and the chart for this game is instructive.
It shows that the Mets’ chances of winning Saturday night bottomed out at 0.2 percent after Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into a fourth-inning double play and barely budged from there until the uprising began. In the ninth, with Michael Conforto on first and Eric Campbell on second and the Mets trailing 10-8, the chance of a Mets victory had risen dramatically, ascending all the way to … 17.5 percent.
Those aren’t wise betting odds, but it sure didn’t feel that way to me, not with Lucas Duda looming at the plate with one out and the tying run on first. Hell, I could practically see it — Michael Mariot would get into a count where he’d need to throw a fastball, and he’d try to put one on Duda’s knee, except the ball would drift just slightly towards the center, ending up exactly where Duda likes it. Duda would golf the ball on an arc, his eyes coming up and his mouth opening as he tracked it into the night. The ball would wind up in Utleyville, maybe clattering off the pole that Lucas just missed the other night, or crashing into the facing above it. In play, run(s), as At Bat likes to say, which would mean 11-10 Mets, and we’d know that my God, anything is possible.
When that didn’t happen, my confidence was only moderately shaken. Because hadn’t Travis d’Arnaud found his way to the right place through an 11-pitch at-bat? If d’Arnaud connected the ball would head for left-center and wind up in the Party Deck, maybe hitting off the railing above the head of Roman Quinn, and we’d just hope that Travis wouldn’t shatter a tibia jumping on home plate or go on the DL with sunflower seeds in his ear canal or suffer some other Extremely Travis d’Arnaud Calamity.
And if those two stalwarts couldn’t quite manage that level of heroics, why, Gavin Cecchini was behind d’Arnaud! Cecchini and I were tied in the career hits column when he entered the game in the fifth, but since then he’d doubled twice, ascending the ladder of our affections from Oh Yeah That Guy to Comforting and Reliable Presence. (Yeah, it was that kind of game.)
Alas, this is where the dream ended. We all awoke, Duda popped up and TdA hit a little bouncer to Mariot. Pumpkins again.
But still, wasn’t it fun?
And hasn’t this year wound up being fun?
The Mets were essentially down 10-zip in August: below .500 with an All-Star team worth of DL residents. They then went insane, vaulting to a tie atop the wild-card ranks despite having player after player snatched away — no Neil Walker, no Jacob deGrom, no Steven Matz, no Wilmer Flores. Now there are seven games to go over eight days, and somehow this band of stepbrothers has something to play for and nothing whatsoever to lose.
If they fall short next week, I’ll be disappointed but look back on 2016 as a year whose finishing kick was a rollicking good time, a county fair every night. And if they do make it to a 163rd game, I’ll enjoy whatever that means, whether it’s one extra day of baseball with a disappointing ending or a championship that will launch a million columns bitching about wild cards.
Think of these last seven games as the ninth. There are 51s coming up and guys who haven’t panned out and guys who just got back and guys we’ve quit on and then embraced, and of course Bartolo Colon. And maybe, just maybe, they have a rally in them — because haven’t they come this far?
Here’s to cheering them on.
Met pinstripes are magical. Put any player in them and they perform wondrous feats. Players you’d all but forgotten about. Players you’d barely heard of before. Players on whose backs it would not occur to you to pursue a postseason berth. They’re all here, whoever they are, and they’re wearing Mets uniforms in the service of winning Mets games when every Mets game might as well be a Mets season in miniature. Eight one-game seasons remain.
These New York Mets of Matt Harvey and David Wright…no, that’s not it.
These New York Mets of Jacob deGrom and Neil Walker…no, not them, either.
These New York Mets of Jon Niese and Justin Ruggiano…uh-uh.
Can we at least say “these New York Mets of Noah Syndergaard, a.k.a. the formidable Thor, the lone stud who has remained stalwartly studly from April to September, with his mighty thunderbolt of a right arm…?”
Don’t be silly. Of course we can’t. Syndergaard’s got the strep. He’s been scratched for tonight. Rest up, Norse horse. We will need to ride you at some point. I’m not so enchanted by magical Met threads that I believe we can put them on anybody who wasn’t leading the league in RBIs for Cincinnati and succeed as if nobody valuable has dropped like a fly (or a fly ball off the glove of Luis Cas…nah, too soon).
The folk trio you’ve seen during all those PBS pledge drives, Sean, Gil and Martin, will pitch in Thor’s place tonight. Correction: It’s Sean Gilmartin. You may remember him from such 2015 highlight film outtakes as Rule 5 Rules! and If You Send Me Down, You’ll Never See Me Again. In a normal year, whatever a normal year is in Flushing, Sean would be that last pitcher you can’t quite remember is filling out the obscure end of the bullpen. In this abnormal month, Sean is a veritable celebrity, considering the Q (or “Who?”) ratings of his reliever colleagues.
Gilmartin’s making a start tonight, but ultimately he will probably not throw alone. Gabriel Ynoa made a start last night. If Gilmartin was projected as No. 18 on the Mets starting pitcher depth chart when they broke camp, Ynoa was 18A. Nowadays, the starting pitcher depth chart is good for cleaning Dan Warthen’s glasses. Ynoa didn’t so much start against the Phillies on Friday as throw two so-so innings of relief in the first and second. He gave up two runs and five hits, but the important thing is he gave the Mets length — reliever length — and got them to the third.
From there, the pitching got a little sitcommy, one ancillary character after another entering the main set only to exit moments later. Edit in smash cuts, lay down a music bed and sweeten with canned laughter, and it would make for a solid evening of prime time entertainment to have on in the background while you’re doing something else.
Except this is late-September pennant race baseball and you’re trotting out Ynoa, Logan Verrett, Josh Smoker, Erik Goeddel and Josh Edgin instead of one fully formed Steven Matz (Friday night’s projected starter, if you can remember as far back as Thursday afternoon). Some of these chronic fill-ins were more effective than others. None was in danger of being spun off into his own series. It was more Full House than TGIF.
But because Met pinstripes are so flattering and turn almost every bit player into a star, it didn’t matter all that much. When the Phillies pitched, the Mets hit. Travis d’Arnaud, who is occasionally confused for his brother Travis, who used to be a rising-star catcher for the Mets, came out of offensive retirement to lash a run-scoring double in the second. Terry Collins was so stunned that he immediately pinch-hit for Ynoa even though there were at least seven innings to go.
To be fair, removing an ineffective emergency starter early when there was a chance to put runs on the board would have been stunning behavior for this manager a week or two ago. That was mid-September. This is almost late September. Anything goes. Anything but Jay Bruce’s name on the lineup card, that is.
The Mets and their secret ally Jeremy Hellickson shifted into whichever gear makes you go moderately faster in the fifth. The game was slogging along and would take 3:40 to play, but clocks, like roster limits, are immaterial this time of year. There were singles and walks and runs and a Met lead and, after Hellickson could help us no longer and he was replaced by some other dude on the Phillies, a three-run homer from…
Michael Conforto? We still have him? Yeah, I guess we do. Conforto lives and hits and is only whatever young age he is and he’s probably still toting his talent around and if it’s bursting out of him like it did at this juncture last year, well, watch out world…and get the eff out of the way, Jay.
The Mets were up by four until they were up by two until they were up by five, which is where it ended. The bullpen parade was halted when Hansel Robles took control of the final two-and-two-thirds innings like the calm, wily veteran he is. Juan Lagares, last seen supplanting Collin Cowgill and elbowing Rick Ankiel, laid down a pretty bunt and ran down a sinking line drive. Lucas Duda got a hit. Ty Kelly and Matt Reynolds were in there somewhere. Asdrubal Cabrera, our indefatigable Weeble of a shortstop, wobbled but didn’t fall down (keep Thor and his strep the fudge away from him). Even Eric Campbell drove in a run. Also, Eric Campbell requests we stop prefacing our compliments of his accomplishments with “even”.
From a mosh pit of Mets arose a messy 10-5 victory one night after a 9-8 triumph for the ages. For nine games prior to Thursday, the Mets wrung 24 runs outs of their barely damp washcloth. Now they’re raining runs until they’re not. It seems to go in cycles. Meanwhile, the state of the, if you’ll excuse the quaint expression, rotation — the one so abundant in talent that we were planning on telling Bartolo Colon to grab some pine, big fella, healthy and robust Zack Wheeler is here to take your place — seems to have been foreseen in General George Washington’s final dispatch from 1776: “I begin to notice that many of us are lads under fifteen and old men, none of whom can truly be called starting pitchers.”
I’d say Thor will presumably recover from his strep throat, but I don’t want to seem presumptuous. On Thursday, when Matz was ruled unavailable, I was going to write something to the effect of “remember when learning you’d lost a starting pitcher seemed like a big deal?” But I thought better of tempting the baseball gods into doing something to Syndergaard. I apologize for even thinking it.
Nevertheless, we got by on Friday and we’ll attempt to get by on Saturday and for the seven mini-seasons beyond that remain. Because the roster is nearly if not quite a surfeit, we have the multitude of limbs and other body parts to make up for personnel shortfalls. Every game really is a season unto itself. Emerge a champion from each of these microcampaigns, gain a chance to legitimately contend for the one enormous title off in the distance. Based on what we’re seeing, this is how it’s gonna have to play out — subject to change, since we’re always seeing something we haven’t seen before.
It’s all very ad hoc, very improvised. Hell, it’s practically improvisation.
“How about you, sir? Give me a pitcher, a hitter and a situation.”
“Um, Gabriel Ynoa, Michael Conforto, and the Mets are trying to win the Wild Card.”
“OK, that’s a good one. Let’s see… ‘I’m Gabriel Ynoa, and I’m making my second start in the bigs…and I’m Michael Conforto and I’ve basically disappeared from view since April…we’re gonna help the Mets gain ground on September 23!’ And…scene.”
“Oh, very good. Ha, yeah. It’s like you were really in a pennant race or something. Hmmm…”
Is this any way to get to October? The Mets are a game up on San Francisco, a game-and-a-half ahead of St. Louis, so the answer is a definitive maybe.
Asdrubal knew it was OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! as soon as he hit it.
Eleven innings played. Twenty-seven home players used. Two-hundred fourteen home pitches thrown. Two-hundred sixty-three minutes consumed. Two arms raised skyward. One-hundred eighty emotional degrees traversed. And, in the final scene, the Three Amigos riding off into the sunrise, having rescued their team’s season yet again.
Their reward as midnight approached was that justice had been done.
Jose Reyes. Asdrubal Cabrera. Yoenis Cespedes. Their night. Their month. Their year. Our Amazin’ good fortune. Thursday they were aided and abetted here and there by a handful of their 24 accomplices, but when you got right down to it, it was they who lassoed a loss and giddy-upped it over and over until it galloped across home plate a glorious win.
The Mets reached base via hit, walk or error seventeen times. Bundled at the top of the order — a veritable penthouse suite crowning an otherwise ordinary off-ramp motel — they accounted for eleven of those appearances. They scored four and drove in seven of the nine Met runs, making almost all the difference in what became a 9-8 victory that obscured the frustration and heartbreak that defined the two previous evenings at Citi Field and made a person overlook everything that seemed to be going irredeemably wrong in those innings that they could not personally repair.
The Mets used 27 players? Who uses 27 players? No basket of deployables is that deep, yet Terry Collins kept dipping in until he became the first manager in the 55-year history of the franchise to deploy one Met for every out required in a normal nine-inning affair. Natch, this wasn’t a normal night, nor could it be confined to nine innings.
The opposing Philadelphia Phillies, another component of the schedule allegedly brought to you by Hostess Cupcakes, took a cue from the recently departed Atlanta Braves and refused to live down to their record or reputation. Their placement toward the rear of the National League East has apparently cultivated their ability to be a severe pain in the ass, demonstrated by their refusal to go quietly into this Met night. At various junctures, by various means, the Phillies took leads of 3-2, 6-4 and 8-6. If that’s what your division’s fourth-place team is capable of, then the club in second place must be something else.
They are. They’re the 2016 New York Mets, a Chumbawamba tribute band that gets knocked down but they get up again, you’re never gonna keep them down (as long as your name isn’t Ender Inciarte). These Mets led 2-0 on honorary amigo Curtis Granderson’s two-run homer in the second; tied it at three when Cespedes smartly singled the other way in the fifth; and took a 4-3 lead in the seventh when Yoenis cracked a double down the left field line. As long as Cespedes avoids hitting the ball merely an inch or two above the center field wall, he’ll be fine.
But Yoenis, contrary to stubborn rumor, can’t always lift the Mets all by himself. A one-run edge into the eighth is usually entrusted to Addison Reed for safe passage into the ninth. Reed’s been throwing a lot lately and has lifted the Mets plenty. On Thursday, however, he threw a pitch that became a three-run homer off the bat of Maikel Franco. It was stunning. Yet it was not decisive.
No, the decisive move of regulation Thursday night came in June when a decision was made to enlist the services of Jose Reyes. It wasn’t met with universal acclaim (really, it was closer to general disdain), but if more than lip service is to be paid to the concept of second chances, action had to pick up where words left off. Jose always could generate some action. He already had in this game, walking as prelude to scoring the go-ahead run on Cespedes’s double in the seventh. The ninth proved he was just getting started.
Brandon Nimmo opened the inning with a pinch-single off Phillie closer Jeanmar Gomez, the second night in a row Brandon entered late and delivered ASAP. Jay Bruce was called on to do something similar. Bruce, with three hits in his previous 39 at-bats, did not resoundingly answer the call in AB No. 40. In the category of surprises, his inability to come through in the clutch or even in the vicinity of the clutch ranked a close second to learning before the game that Steven Matz’s projected Friday night start was, in fact, a fantasy woven by Met magical thinking. We will not see Matz on Friday or probably at all the rest of this season. We didn’t really expect him to pitch, did we? Just as we didn’t really expect Bruce to do anything but strike out against Gomez, we just assumed we’d keep getting by with whoever else we have besides Matz.
We have 39 players on the active roster. Jacob deGrom is still one of them, but I assume that’s because we have 42 players on the disabled list. DeGrom, you’ll vaguely recall, was the projected starter on Sunday until the magical thinking made on his behalf dissolved into surgery required to repair an ulnar nerve. The Mets keep publicly stating pitchers who haven’t seen the mound since it was a molehill are suddenly feeling fine and ready to throw 50 or 75 competitive pitches in a pennant race. I applaud their optimism, but I seriously wish they’d keep it to themselves.
Willing bodies and reasonably able arms are in abundance in September. That’s how we come to have Gabriel Ynoa subbing for deGrom one start and Matz the next, how we came to have Seth Lugo attempting to withstand a Phillie barrage on Thursday. Seth was touched up on consecutive pitches to start the fifth, first by Unfrozen Caveman First Baseman Ryan Howard (his 128th or so versus the Mets in a career that dates back to The Clan of the Cave Bear), then by Cameron Rupp, who may or may not be the same person as Darin Ruf (I am being told he is not). Lugo only went five, which is fine as long as you have ample replacements.
Not a problem in September, particularly this September, when Collins is hosting an open house every night. After so many injuries and so much turnover, who can tell who belongs where anymore? The Thursday night lineup that was charged with maintaining a playoff position included T.J. Rivera batting cleanup, first baseman Eric Campbell hitting sixth, René Rivera catching, Alejandro De Aza in center and Lugo pitching. At this point, almost none of that looks remotely ridiculous. If you’d seen it in St. Lucie in March, you’d nod and ask if the Phillies are bringing any of their starters from Clearwater.
These guys and all the other guys are a part of this push, and pretty much all the other guys get to play, especially the pitchers. Lugo was succeeded by basically everybody who is described as a reliever. Some brought more relief than others. Reed couldn’t provide any for an uncomfortable change, but that will happen in a long season, just as if you play enough games and enough innings and enough guys, players you’d forgotten were there will get a big hit, as Nimmo did to start the ninth, and maybe players you’d prefer to forget, like Bruce, will eventually get one.
From this mass of humanity, it’s reassuring to have a proven commodity to lean on if you choose to indulge some magical thinking of your own. Reyes, who appeared on this roster from out of the blue and orange, has done a lot of spectacular things in his two terms as a Met, but only once to my recollection had he hit the big homer that we really needed to turn around the potentially bitter conclusion of a game. As it happened, it was a year ending in a 6 and it was against the Phillies: May 23, 2006, the eighth inning, the Mets trailing, 8-6, with a runner on. Then Jose drove a ball deep into the Flushing night off Ryan Franklin to knot the score at eight apiece. The Mets went on to top Philadelphia, 9-8, in extras.
Foreshadowing? Coincidence? Whatever. Jose the Elder reached back to that night of youthful exuberance and did to Gomez at Citi what he did to Franklin at Shea, lining a pitch out of the park and landing the Mets in a 6-6 tie. Wonders may pause for a decade, but they don’t necessarily cease. Meanwhile, this game that appeared lost was suddenly found.
Jeurys Familia, who in an ideal game is the last Met to pitch, became the eighth, in the tenth. He threw a scoreless inning that was matched by Severino Gonzalez, though an old amigo nearly scripted a wonderfully cheesy ending. Lucas Duda, buried deeper in the Met subconscious than Soup Cambpell by this point in the season, emerged as a pinch-hitter with two out. Terry started him on Sunday. He didn’t last the entire game and hadn’t been deployed since. But Thursday was the night of the bottomless basket. The manager reached for the Met slugger of record from 2014 and 2015, and wouldn’t you know it, Lucas almost turned back time. He hit a ball that hugged fair air for probably 329 feet and nine inches. As we learned from Mr. Inciarte on Wednesday, however, those last few inches can make all the difference. Duda’s attempt at a game-ending homer went barely foul.
Lucas had been sidelined by a bad back since May. I hesitate to imagine what his well-meaning work proximity associates might have done to it and him had he circled the bases. Not an issue. Lucas wound up striking out and Jeurys returned to the mound for the eleventh. Uncharacteristically he left before the inning was over, having yielded a go-ahead run on a ringing double, a productive grounder, an intentional walk and a dunker of a single. The Phillies led, 7-6, in a way that made you say “damn!” Then Jerry Blevins hit a guy and (after unconscionable strike-zone squeezing) Jim Henderson walked a guy to make it 8-6.
Nice hole you record-tying 26 Mets have dug for yourself there. It would be a shame if something didn’t happen to it.
After Nimmo whacked a pitch hard up the middle but to no avail, Michael Conforto became Met No. 27 in the box score and, more importantly, a baserunner via base on balls versus Edubray Ramos. Ramos was the Phillies’ ninth pitcher; it’s September for them, too. Reyes followed Conforto by singling safely above the glove of Jimmy Rollins clone Freddy Galvis (he of the frigging ringing double). The Mets had two on with one out and Asdrubal Cabrera prepared to bat.
This was the best possible scenario magical thinking could have conjured. Cabrera has been a hybrid of Bud Harrelson and Howard Johnson all year long, combining indispensable infield glue with uncommon shortstop power. Just the night before, Asdrubal had broken Jose’s single-season shortstop home run record of nineteen. When Reyes hit that many in 2006, it was a revelation (and cause for hundreds of groans to come that Jose was prone to homer-happiness). When Cabrera put his twentieth as a shortstop and twenty-first overall in the books on Wednesday, it was simply another example of what the man does. Of those Three Amigos who are linked at the top of the order and, by all reports, inside the clubhouse, Cabrera appears the most businesslike of the trio. The bottle-blondest, perhaps, but definitely the veteran who doesn’t attract attention for anything but his reliability. Reyes blazes around the bases. Cespedes drops jaws. Cabrera simply gets the job done.
The job at hand in the bottom of the eleventh with two on and one out was monumental. If Asdrubal could avoid grounding into a double play, it would rate as a net-positive. If he could as much as walk, it would be welcome, since it would set up Cespedes as the potential game-winning hitter for a third consecutive night, and you know what they say about third times and charms. If indispensable Asdrubal could manage to stay in one piece amid the myriad possible outcomes given the precarious condition of his continually balky knee, well, that would be keen, too.
Asdrubal transcended all ancillary aspects of the job when he connected authoritatively with the final pitch Ramos threw, the last of 409 delivered by nineteen pitchers in all. As soon as Cabrera swung, he knew it was gone. His bat was flipped, his arms were raised, his trot was jubilant. The camera stayed on him an instant before it cut to the ball Gary Cohen was describing in flight, so we could tell it was going to land easily beyond harm’s way a tick ahead of the rarely uttered double-OUTTA HERE! the home run so richly deserved. Ender Inciarte was in another city and no Phillie could climb, leap or pray high enough to do a darn thing about this one.
It was indeed outta here, outta here. The Mets were 9-8 winners. The Three Amigos were baseball heroes, even if their cinematic image is two-thirds suited to the era of silent films. Cespedes from Cuba speaks primarily with his bat and through an interpreter. Cabrera of Venezuela doesn’t usually find himself in front of a microphone. Reyes the prodigal/wayward Dominican son possesses the voice that’s most familiar to us. We understand his Metropolitan accent fluently. Postgame, when WOR’s Wayne Randazzo asked Jose about the bond he’s forged with these friends he’s made this improbable year, he didn’t withhold his affection one vocal bit. “They’re my brothers,” Jose declared. “One blood. They’re my brothers, I love them, we’re in this together.”
So are we all for the next nine games, hopefully more.
I need to find a hobby that’s better for my health than watching the New York Mets.
I’m thinking maybe Russian roulette.
A long time ago, when I was still innocent and believed there was good in the world, it was a beautiful night for a ballgame. I was sitting in the stands with my wife, enjoying a crystal-clear evening as Bartolo Colon rolled through the Braves and Asdrubal Cabrera and Rene Rivera hit home runs to give the Mets a 3-0 lead. In the middle innings, we looked at the clock in disbelief and wondered if we might be out of Citi Field at the end of a two-hour Mets win.
Yeah right. Those early innings were a feint, shadowboxing meant to distract us from one of the meanest right hooks I’ve experienced at a baseball stadium.
If there’s baseball in Hell, rest assured that the eighth and ninth innings of Wednesday night’s game will be in heavy rotation for Mets fans. Pretty much everything you can torture a baseball fan with was on display: overmanaging, ill-timed misplays, lazy and/or inept execution, and finally luck that was both terrible and fatal. It was torture by frustration, culminating with having your heart ripped out and showed to you.
Whoa it’s still beating but it’s no longer in my chest, so how am I — GAAKKK!!!
(Trigger warning: bad shit dead ahead. If you’ve had enough, by all means hit the back button. No one will blame you.)
So yeah, let’s go through that eighth and ninth. Seems like fun.
Actually we’re going to back a bit. Addison Reed faced the Braves in the eighth — the same Reed who’d been summoned with two outs in the seventh and the Mets’ lead cut to a single run thanks to a homer from old pal Anthony Recker. Reed struck out Blake Lalli to prevent further harm, causing me to think a) that Terry Collins was showing some welcome flexibility in departing from his usual rigidly scripted use of Reed and Jeurys Familia; and b) that a Faith and Fear post overloaded with adverbs would be a fun goof on Lalli’s name.
I was probably still distractedly humming Schoolhouse Rock as Reed returned to duty and an error by James Loney put Ender Inciarte on first with nobody out. (You’ll be hearing more of Mr. Inciarte’s work, alas.) Reed got 2016 Mets nemesis Adonis Garcia to fly to right, but with eternal Mets nemesis Freddie Freeman up, Terry opted for Josh Smoker.
Smoker throws hard and has guts; I’m glad he’s a Met. But he’s not Reed. Freeman singled and Terry summoned Familia for a five-out save, double-switching Jose Reyes out of a one-run game in the process. Inciarte and Freeman pulled off a double steal and then Familia went to work on Matt Kemp.
Kemp hit a ball to left, where Yoenis Cespedes was perfectly positioned — behind the ball, eyes on home plate. At third base, Atlanta coach Bo Porter saw that and put up the stop sign. Inciarte ran through it. Cespedes heaved the ball wildly and the game was tied.
In the bottom of the eighth, with one out, Cespedes connected off Brandon Cunniff.
It was an odd night at Citi when it came to baseball parabolas — yes, Rivera, Cabrera and Recker had hit balls out, but most balls weren’t traveling as far as you expected off the bat. That downtick in temperature and humidity robbed them of a bit of distance, as both Cabrera and Loney found out at discouraging points during the proceedings.
But Cespedes’s drive … it sure looked gone. Heck, off the bat it looked like it would be 20 rows beyond the Great Wall of Flushing. But as we all got to our feet I wasn’t quite sure. The ball was high — at first majestically so, then worrisomely so. Kemp went back to the wall, but he wasn’t getting as close as he could to spare his pitcher’s feelings. He looked like he had a play. The ball clanked off his glove and we turned to see Cespedes arriving at second instead of third — he’d been admiring his handiwork instead of running.
The Braves walked Curtis Granderson, and he and Cespedes pulled off a double steal of their own — take that, Braves! But Chaz Roe fanned T.J. Rivera before giving way to Aaron Krol.
Which is when Terry really started overmanaging.
Frankly, I thought Tuesday’s calling on Eric Campbell and Kevin Plawecki was a terrible idea that happened to work, which isn’t the same as a good idea. This time, Terry outdid even himself, burning Kelly Johnson in favor of Campbell. Campbell, you may recall, collected his first hit since May on Tuesday; apparently Terry decided Tuesday was the first day of the rest of Soup’s baseball life. When the Braves walked Campbell, Terry countered by hitting Plawecki for Loney. Newcomer Ian Krol was wild and went to 2-0 on Plawecki, who promptly expanded the strike zone, fanning in a remarkably feeble at bat.
(Let’s stop and recall that Terry didn’t have Wilmer Flores because Wilmer got hurt in a collision at home plate in Atlanta, a collision that wouldn’t have happened if Terry hadn’t forgotten to pinch-run for him.)
Onto the ninth in a tie game, with Familia returning to duty after sitting in the dugout during the whole excruciating mess. The Braves took the lead on a couple of soft singles and a perfectly placed RBI groundout from Inciarte. Enter Jim Johnson to protect the Atlanta lead, fresh off fanning Cespedes with a remarkable, Wainwrightian curve that ended Tuesday night’s game.
We were all hoping and praying the lineup would get to Cabrera and Cespedes, while wondering what parade of pinch-hitters Terry had in mind now. Brandon Nimmo hit for Rene Rivera and singled; Jay Bruce hit for single-thumbed Juan Lagares and arrived to an odd sound, a mix of determined cheers and anticipatory boos and possibly ironic BRUUUUCEs. He struck out, and I suppose it’s a small kindness that no one will remember that given what was in store for us.
Travis d’Arnaud, another Met who marked Bark in the Park night by finding himself on a short leash with the fans, did what Plawecki couldn’t and coaxed a walk. Cabrera hit a deep but playable fly ball. Two outs, and it was time for the Cespedes-Johnson rematch.
On Tuesday, Johnson attacked Cespedes with fastballs to set up that killer curve; this time he showed Cespedes the curve first, getting strike one with it. He then went to the fastball and threw one that didn’t sink. It arrowed right down the middle of the plate and Cespedes mashed it on a line to right-center.
It sounded good. Hell, it sounded great. It sounded like a walkoff, and we started to yell. But I remembered the ball that had looked gone and wound up just eluding Kemp’s glove, and so I felt a queasy dread as I watched Inciarte run to the fence and leap, his glove flicking above the wall. He came down on the warning track and held his glove up, radiating such joy that he looked like he was on springs, and the game was over.
I stood there in silence, trying to process everything that had happened and get it to add up to something different. The Mets put the replay up immediately, and if you watch the Braves’ highlight (not that I recommend this), you can hear the moment we all got a real look at what had just happened — an OHHHHHH rolls through the crowd as Inciarte is still making merry with his teammates.
Walking out of Citi Field, I let myself imagine how much fun it would have been if Cespedes had hit the ball just three inches higher, to paraphrase Charlie Brown. But on the 7 train the mood was … well, better than I’d expected. And I found myself oddly philosophical.
That Mets’ defeat had a lot of ingredients: frantic overmanaging, bad at-bats, errors, lazy baserunning, lousy luck. But the game came down to a line drive sizzling through the air and one guy who had a small chance at interrupting its journey.
There are lots of ways to lose a baseball game. Most of them aren’t terribly interesting, and the sting goes away once you see a game that isn’t lost. But this wasn’t one of those baseball games.
Years from now the name “Ender Inciarte” will come up and you’ll remember, and your jaw will clench. This was as cruel as the game gets — which means, inevitably, that it was also about as astonishing and thrilling as it gets. I wish I could erase the ending we got and write a new one, but I don’t have that power. It was going to happen anyway, and since it did, I don’t regret being there to see it and hear it and feel it and have to take it away with me.
When the talk turns to Pratt hitting it over the fence or the 10-run inning or the Grand Slam Single or Piazza’s 9/21 homer I smile broadly and say that yes, I was there. I cherish these things as a fan — the memories, and every chance I get to relive them.
And when talk turns to other games — to Willie Harris robbing Carlos Delgado, or Murph coming up too quick on a ground ball in the World Series — I smile wistfully and say that yes, I was there. So shall it be with the Ender Inciarte game. I don’t cherish those memories, exactly — they’re unwelcome companions when the clock says 4 am and sleep is nowhere in sight — but they’re as much a part of being a fan as those other, happier ones.
Thirty-thousand of us were dying to be hypocrites Tuesday night. We wanted to pull one of those dazzling Asdrubal Cabrera spinoramas in our souls, execute a spectacular turn of sentiment and roar for the stranger at whom we’d been directing our derision loudly or slyly every time we saw him. Some of us preached and practiced patience, but patience, like the battery in your phone, can run low. It needs a charge. So did any of the pitches Julio Teheran delivered to Jay Bruce in the bottom of the sixth. Put a charge into one, Jay. You’ll see what a renewable resource our faith in you can be. You’ll feel it. You’ll never forget it.
It was 2-1, Braves. There were two out. Bruce was battling his erstwhile Red ass off. Ball one. Foul. Ball two. Another foul. Then another. Then ball three. A couple more fouls. I don’t remember which one clanked off the right field upper deck, but I do remember thinking that if he’d hit that in Cincinnati for Cincinnati, it would have been fair.
Nothing’s been fair for Bruce since he became a Met. He was a country mouse contentedly piling up slices of pasteurized RBIs in relative private. He was leading the National League in a traditional prestige category. It wasn’t helping the Reds and it wasn’t impressing the statsnoscenti, but it looked good on the back of a baseball card.
Then he was asked to craft some semblance of what he did for Cincy in New York, transferred midseason from a team wallowing at the bottom of its division to one clinging to a strand of Wild Card hope. It was getting late for the Mets. Jay Bruce could help them make up time and make up ground.
Bruce has indeed been on the Mets as the Mets have forged forward in their race. Bruce’s presence has been mostly coincidental. It’s become impossible to hide his lack of productivity. He was already 0-for-2 on the night and he didn’t contribute on defense when a ball fell between him and Curtis Granderson in right-center. The center fielder is a right fielder. The right fielder is still new to the terrain. Nobody called it. One run that was going to score anyway had the ball been caught scored, but no outs were made, which led to an additional baserunner and a second run. The Mets trailed, 2-1, in great part because Curtis and Jay didn’t want to step on each other’s toes.
It was Granderson’s responsibility. It was Bruce’s catch. Or it would have been had he caught it.
You could forgive Curtis. Curtis has a track record here. Curtis has won games for us. Jay has earned demerits. We could erase a whole bunch of them if this epic at-bat against the terroristic Teheran went where we wanted it to go. We could embrace Bruce if he could work through all those fouls and lean into a pitch and put it on the scoreboard. It’s usually folly to request a home run as opposed to “just get good wood on it,” but this is Jay Bruce, New York Met, we were trying to get behind. We needed airtight motivation.
We got a grounder to first on the ninth pitch. Third out of the inning, umpteenth out in the Met career of a lost soul who’s nice-guyness is neither in dispute nor of surpassing relevance. Nice guys often finish first or at least with one of the two best non-first place records in the National League. We’re rooting for a passel of nice guys who return our affection by now and then coming through for us.
We’re still waiting on Jay Bruce to be a part of that. We’re just not doing it very patiently anymore.
Next time Jay Bruce was due up, he was disappeared from the on-deck circle. We saw Eric Campbell instead. Eric Campbell used to be Jay Bruce to us, except without the bulging portfolio. We usually cringed at the sight of Eric Campbell. C’mon Terry, we begged during difficult swaths of 2015 and 2016, don’t you have somebody better than Soup? At this juncture of ’16, when so much is on the line and we’ve barely noticed the continued proximity of Eric Campbell to the rest of the Mets, we have bigger fish to fillet. How can we deride the use of Eric Campbell against a lefty when the guy he’s replacing in the critical eighth inning of the crucial 151st game of the year is Jay Bruce?
It may have been the gutsiest move Terry Collins has made in six seasons of managing the Mets. Or it may have been as logical as any of hundreds we don’t give second thought to. Collins has seen Campbell succeed against lefty pitching. He hasn’t seen much of that from Bruce.
The sixth should have been Jay’s redemption inning. Nine pitches. Good swing after good swing until a completely ineffectual swing. The eighth was no longer about Jay Bruce breaking loose. We had been down, 5-1, and about as dead in the game as we were in the season a month ago. But the pulse stirred. A one-out walk to Cabrera, whose face should be on currency because he’s so money. Yoenis Cespedes was grazed by a pitch. Granderson, who again proved he is more than a fleeting defensive communications miscue, doubled, scoring Asdrubal and sending Yo to third. Folk hero T.J. Rivera’s sac fly sent Cespedes home. The Mets, out of it, are in it. It’s 5-3.
In 506 — where we had moved in an effort to escape the divebombing gnats of 505; instead we encountered additional gnats plus a kid who just discovered Thunderstix — the scenario for which Rob Emproto and I had braced when we considered the lineup was at hand. “This is gonna come down to Bruce,” we told each other. Our projection had come to pass. Yikes.
No, not yikes. Soup. Soup instead of Bruce. All I could think was, boy, do we miss Wilmer Flores. Yet I held out hope for Campbell because a) he just became a papa, and that’s usually worth one feelgood hit; b) some number exists proving he smacks the bejeesus out of the ball even if he rarely gets on base as a result; and c) if you’re going to be grateful to be spared any more Jay Bruce, you’d better get behind his replacement.
Campbell had himself a seven-pitch at-bat versus Ian Krol. It didn’t run as long as Bruce’s in the sixth against Teheran, but it ended better: a sharp single into left, scoring Granderson. Now it was 5-4 and anything was possible…even Kevin Plawecki batting for James Loney.
Boy, do we really miss Wilmer Flores. Some games Terry seems to have any number of viable options ready to deploy. Some games his basket of deployables is disconcertingly shallow.
Pinch-hitting fever had taken hold and was spreading like a tarpulin. Plawecki got good wood on the ball. Such good wood that it was hit too hard for Adonis Garcia to handle at third. After Garcia had yet again been a three-run pain in our rear, he owed us something. The ball caromed into left field. Soup poured it on and raced to third. We had two on, two out and Travis d’Arnaud due up.
Travis d’Arnaud is the Jay Bruce of catchers. His agent can use that in contract negotiations, but it’s not a compliment. I would have welcomed another substitution right then and there. Krol was still on the mound. I would have taken my chances with Matt Reynolds. We were no longer standing still for hitters who couldn’t hit (Bruce at all, Loney against lefties), so why stop? Granted, as fans we reflexively model what Lily Tomlin said about children’s stated aspirations, which is that if we all became what we wanted to be when we grew up and managers did what we incessantly demand, we’d live in a world filled with nothing but firemen, cowboys, nurses, ballerinas and pinch-hitters.
Nobody subbed for d’Arnaud. Travis got lousy wood on the ball and grounded out to short.
Eventually, despite everything that went wrong, the Mets got the game to exactly the spot we wanted it once there were two out in the bottom of the ninth: a runner on, Cespedes up as the winning run. He struck out. Nobody booed, and only one crank in the men’s room line was heard to dismiss his entire 2016 with “he’s had a shit year.” Cespedes can be forgiven. He, like Granderson, has a track record here.
Afterwards, as the Mets positioned themselves to drop into a three-way tie with San Francisco and St. Louis for the two National League Wild Card berths, Terry did his best Laurence Olivier rending fabric from his garment in the remake of The Jazz Singer as he explained how saddened he was by having to prevent his ostensible marquee right fielder from batting for himself in the most pressing game situation the Mets encountered all night. “It’s one of the worst things you can do as a manager, to pinch-hit for a star,” Collins emoted, “especially one of the elite power hitters in the game.” The manager then praised his elite star power hitter for stepping aside like a pro.
It was, to date, the highlight of Jay Bruce’s Met career.