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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
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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Let the River Run

It took until his eighth start for me to hear the name Tylor Megill and think of Tess McGill, which surprises me. We hadn’t had Javy Baez for five minutes last Friday before I had to remind myself he wasn’t to be conflated with late ’90s scourge Javy Lopez or early ’90s infielder Kevin Baez.

Whereas Javy Lopez actually caught for the Braves when Greg Maddux wasn’t starting and Kevin Baez actually logged bench time with the Mets, Tess McGill is fictional, if likely more famous outside of baseball than any of the above real-life characters. Tess was the title heroine of the 1988 smash hit comedy Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith. Melanie Griffith has had a long career in film. To me (and, I’d guess, to most), however, she’ll always be Tess McGill.

Tylor Megill will always be…well, we’ll see. He’s had only eight starts to define himself, a total we can’t possibly call definitive. If his career were to end before his ninth, we’d remember him as that righty who came up out of nowhere and gave the 2021 Mets a boost when they were thin on starting pitching. We’d probably speak of him fondly and forget that his eighth start was his least effective, especially at its start. Tylor would live on in a cozy niche of guy from whom we’d never expected anything and, for the most part, got so much more. Knock wood, but I think we’ll see Tylor for a ninth start, a tenth and many more. The eighth start will hopefully be forgotten in the sweep of history yet to come.

Tess McGill got off to a rough start when we first met her. Maybe if she hadn’t aspired to ascend above her station as a Wall Street secretary, she would have been fine. But Tess wanted to rise through ranks that weren’t designed for the likes of her to be risen through. Our Tess had to overcome a lecherous so-called mentor (Kevin Spacey), a cheating boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), a craven boss (Sigourney Weaver) and, most of all, her circumstances. No one was going to take Tess from Staten Island seriously until she took herself seriously. Sure, as she put it in a valium-addled moment, she had “a bod for sin,” but she also demonstrated “a head for business”.

She had allies along the way, too. Wise HR director Olympia Dukakis, who gave her a foot in the door. Her sassy friend Joan Cusack. Dreamy Harrison Ford, who believed in her. But mostly herself. Tess used her gumption and her wits to make deals and a name for herself. Most impressive was how she crashed a big-time wedding the way Tylor recently crashed a big league rotation so she could get face time with mogul Oren Trask. See, Tess had this idea to put Trask together with radio…

The important thing is Tess (spoiler alert) worked at her goal and succeeded. We should all have our fates so directed by Mike Nichols.

Tylor had his own pile of adversity to overcome. In the bottom of the first in Miami Monday night, he gave up two singles, had his third batter reach on catcher’s interference, and then gave up a grand slam to Lewis Brinson. Four hitters faced, four runs on the board once all four Marlins’ bony asses crossed home plate. (Tess’s insult of choice, not mine.)

This was gonna take more than gumption and self-belief. This was also gonna take more than modest contributions from well-meaning allies like Baez, who played through pain in his ankle; Pete Alonso, who delivered his 24th homer; and Brandon Drury, who remained hot if not ridiculously so. It would take a whole squad of Mets coming through to rescue Tylor so he could rescue himself. He certainly did his part, throwing five innings after that grand slam, giving up only three more hits and one more run.

But this script had no exhilarating ending for Tylor, no Carly Simon soundtrack playing over a travelogue-worthy shot of Lower Manhattan. He left after five and the Mets couldn’t roar ahead from behind. Not even Drury could get the very big hit that was desperately needed when the Mets loaded the bases in the eighth. Not even a brief glimpse of the old Michael Conforto, with a pinch-double to begin the ninth, could generate a storybook comeback.

The Mets lost the game, 6-3, as well as a length off their NL East lead, which now stands at 2½. Megill lost his first decision in the major leagues. I’m not worried about his future, though. He’s got a head for pitching and a bod for wins.

A Capricious Game

The Reds’ Joey Votto said something wonderful Saturday night, after just missing his bid for a record-tying home run in his eighth straight game. Here’s Votto on his streak, how it began, and how it ended:

I’m a bit of a StatCast nerd and it started with a .090 expected batting average home run on a 98-mph weak fly ball that carried into the first couple of rows into Cincinnati. And it ended on a 109, 110-mph line drive off the wall and that’s baseball.

If you love baseball, you should love Votto – because baseball’s maddening capriciousness has rarely been described so well, and to hear an actual player wade into the existential murk to describe it is rarer still. This isn’t to say ballplayers are dumb, though it is true that few of them are wordsmiths; rather, it’s to note that a philosophical bent can get in a player’s way, which is the last thing he needs when the game’s hard enough as it is. Ballplayers need to be able to instantly flush away the past and any doubts that might have accumulated with it, living in the present and possessing an unshakeable faith in themselves and the future that will entail. Votto is the rarest of breeds – a multi-WAR talent in the batter’s box and in considering what does and doesn’t happen within it.

Sunday’s game left me returning again and again to Votto’s quote, because it was pretty goddamn capricious game. Less than two weeks ago the Mets faced Vladimir Gutierrez and beat him up pretty thoroughly, with Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto homering as the Mets hung six runs on Gutierrez in four innings. But if the Mets arrived at Citi Field licking their jobs about a rematch, they soon discovered they were the meal. Gutierrez flashed a terrific changeup, located his pitches well and throttled the Mets over seven outstanding innings. Meanwhile, Marcus Stroman hit a bump or two, which wouldn’t have been enough to derail him on a day when the offense was clicking, except the offense was decidedly not doing that, and the lack was enough for Stroman find himself behind Gutierrez on the scoreboard.

Votto was a spectator Sunday, spelled by the less-than-heralded Max Schrock – another matchup that looked like good news for the Mets but proved anything but. Schrock went 5-for-5, with the man he’d replaced for the day leading the cheers for him from the dugout. Add in the Mets’ bullpen imploding – Miguel Castro walked in a run by issuing four straight balls to Gutierrez, while Geoff Hartlieb chose a different but equally unsuccessful strategy by following three walks and a single with a two-run double to Tyler Naquin – and the Mets were doomed. The game was a logy slog, no fun to watch even before the scoreboard yielded its final verdict.

So it goes during this stop-start stretch of season: The Mets have gone 20-23 since being 10 games over .500 on June 16, with nearly every reliever springing a leak at some point and the run of injuries to starters and position players showing no signs of abating. Yet they’ve somehow lost just a game and a half off their lead in the National League East while doggy-paddling around haplessly, thanks to the division being a yearlong festival of mediocrity. Which is both kind of a miracle and the sort of thing you sense not to trust even a day longer than you can avoid it.

I can squint a little and see the Mets holding off the flawed, remade-on-the-fly Phillies and the injury-riddled Braves, finding themselves with reinforcements in time for September and then proving healthy and incredibly dangerous in October. But I can just as easily see them getting run down by the Phillies, Braves or both, undone by their chronic lack of offense, by fatigue and injuries dragging down the rotation even further, and by bad luck catching up to them.

Who knows? Baseball is capricious, after all. All you can do is hope that the dice wind up loaded in your favor – and promise that you’ll keep your sense of humor if they don’t.

* * *

The Mets seemed to have scored a coup with Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker fell to them as the 10th pick in the draft, and news that the two sides had agreed to a $6 million signing bonus came as another welcome indication that the Steve Cohen era would be nothing like the Wilpon years.

But then came reports that the Mets hadn’t liked something they saw during Rocker’s physical, rumblings that the team and Scott Boras weren’t talking, and then word that Sunday’s 5 pm deadline had passed without Rocker’s signature on a contract. He goes back into the draft and the Mets get a make-good 11th pick next year.

The next few days will probably deliver more details about what exactly the Mets might have seen, what Sandy Alderson and Boras and Cohen thought and said, and the rest of the ingredients for the mess. Maybe Rocker never has a pro career worth noting, undone by too much mileage as a college pitcher. But maybe the Mets let a shot at a premier talent go in a squabble over a relative modest outlay of money.

The reaction among Mets fans, myself included, was swift and brutal, with the lost pick pilloried as a slide back into skinflint Wilponism. And I get why we all thought that way. First off, it’s going to take a long time to recover from the grinding cheapness and serial dishonesty of the Wilpons and their goons; second, the fanbase is rattled by the team’s unsteady play and disappointment that the trading deadline failed to address the needs for credible starting depth and/or better options in middle relief. What’s a billionaire owner for, if not to throw money at problems?

But after a couple of hours of reading and reflecting on Rocker, I’m choosing to do something all too rare online, which is to say that my take is I don’t have a take, because I don’t know enough about what happened.

I don’t find it credible that the Mets were cheap or negotiated in bad faith. Not even the Wilpons would have engineered their draft around going $1.3 million over slot for a first pick as a clever ruse to save $6 million; in fact, drafting was the one thing the Mets were fairly good at even during the Wilpons’ red-giant phase. If you eliminate that conspiracy theory, whatever happened comes down to questions about Rocker’s health and the Mets’ cost-benefit analysis in deciding between the pitcher and whatever might be wrong with his arm and picking an unknown quantity 11th next year. Which turns the argument into asking whether the Mets did their due diligence on Rocker and/or assessing whatever player they draft next summer instead of him. I don’t know enough about the first point and nobody will know enough about the second point until around 2026. So I’m choosing to move on and save my gnashing and wailing for clear and present dangers to first place and a happy October. There isn’t exactly a lack of them.

All’s Wall That Ends Well

Jon Matlack believes we know what we’re talking about. I know that’s what he believes because I asked him and that’s what he told me. And who’s not gonna believe Jon Matlack, essential starting pitcher for the 1973 National League Champion New York Mets?

At the press conference preceding Saturday night’s Mets Hall of Fame ceremonies, which I covered as “media” (and what is a blog if not a medium?), I asked Matlack, along with his HOF classmates Ron Darling and Edgardo Alfonzo, what stood out from all those seasons of performing in front of Mets fans.

“I think they’re fair and knowledgeable,” the silver southpaw said. “I found that as long as they thought you put a good effort forth, you weren’t necessarily in a position where you had to win all the time. As long as you weren’t slighting the job, you were treated fairly, and I respect that tremendously. I do think the knowledgeable fan is here in New York more so than in some other places. There were people telling me statistics I had to look up to remember, and they knew ’em off the top of their head, so it was pretty incredible.”

On behalf of Mets fans, Jon, I say a) thank you; and b) right backatcha, because you, sir, showed some genuine foresight about a game from 2021 as you recalled a game from 1973 in answer to another reporter’s question regarding the immortal You Gotta Believe pennant rush.

“It all started for me,” Matlack recounted, “when we were playing Pittsburgh one night, and the ball got hit to left field that didn’t go out. It hit on the corner of the fence and came back in. We made a play at the plate, threw a guy out, turned that game around, we started playing better — no matter what happened from there on, seemed like somebody was equal to the task, they were gonna do whatever it took to put us in the right spot to win. We weren’t supposed to get past the Reds…”

You don’t have to be a certified Metsologist to know Jon was referring to the signature play of the 1973 stretch drive, wherein, with Richie Zisk on first base in the top of the thirteenth inning of a 3-3 duel, Dave Augustine at bat, and the Pirates nursing a dwindling divisional lead in the penultimate week of the season, Augustine indeed hit a ball that was clearly going over Shea Stadium’s left field wall. Instead, it struck the very top of the fence, bounced directly back to Cleon Jones, and Jones fired it instantly to shortstop Wayne Garrett. Garrett wasted no time in relaying the ball to Ron Hodges, and the rookie catcher indeed made a play at the plate. That 8-6-2 thing of beauty ended one half-inning and set the stage for the next half-inning, when Hodges drove in the run that beat the Pirates and cut the rampaging Mets’ deficit to a half-game.

Jon Matlack, it should be noted, didn’t pitch in that game, but he cherishes it nonetheless. When a team is winning as those Mets were, it doesn’t matter who’s the hero. Everybody’s the hero.

Matlack, Darling, Alfonzo: Mets greats meet the press, get their due.

As for that bit about the Mets not having been supposed to get past the Reds, you know darn well that in 1973 the 82-79 Mets absolutely weren’t favored to overcome the 99-63 Reds in the National League Championship Series, yet they did. In Game Two, a young Met lefty from Pennsylvania gummed up the Big Red Machine so effectively that Cincinnati’s vaunted manufacturing apparatus could spew out only two hits. That part was Matlack’s doing, with some help from some teammates who drove in some runs for him and made some plays behind him, because, again, everybody’s the hero in years like that.

Forty-eight years later, on the night of Matlack’s, Darling’s and Alfonzo’s overdue enshrinement — and the presentation of the franchise’s Hall of Fame Achievement Award to the family of the late Al Jackson — the Mets weren’t supposed to beat the Reds, either. Maybe not going in, but once you got kind of deep into Saturday’s game, it didn’t seem plausible that the Cincinnatians would return to their Manhattan hotel on anything less than a Red hot high.

True, the Mets briefly held a 1-0 lead, but that hard-earned third-inning edge — built on a Brandon Drury double, a Rich Hill sacrifice bunt (welcome back to real baseball, chief) and a Jonathan Villar single — was wiped out by a Eugenio Suarez three-run no-doubter. When the glorious on-field Hall of Fame ceremonies ended, I’d noticed Suarez embracing one of Alfonzo’s special guests, Carlos Baerga. I’d hate to think Baerga, a teammate of Fonzie’s from 1996 to 1998, gave Suarez a tip on how to hit Hill. While Baerga was spending his final year in the majors as a Washington National in 2005, Hill was breaking in as a rookie with the Cubs.

What — did you think Rich Hill was born old?

Kyle Farmer added to the Red advantage in the fifth with a solo homer. A 4-1 lead shouldn’t have seemed insurmountable, but after the two previous games, in which the Mets scored not enough, then hardly at all, it was easy to get the feeling the Mets weren’t supposed to beat the Reds. Or, for that matter, an egg.

We develop certain senses for what’s going to go wrong from having rooted for the Mets for so long. Mind you, I wasn’t outwardly rooting for the Mets on Saturday because of press box decorum — no cheering there — but in my notebook and sotto voce to the spiritual co-conspirator who sat to my right and joined me in donning a mask of indifference, I came up with many reasons why this game was not going to go the Mets’ way. One of them was that Javier Baez was going to have a massively disappointing debut. I based this on expectations being raised by a crowd that couldn’t get enough of his first at-bat until it ended in a routine out. He’s gonna get pumped up by the volume, he’s gonna press, he’s gonna strike out, it’s such a Mets thing to happen — just like Hideo Nomo in 1998, never mind that he was a pitcher. My mind does a lot of this.

All that experience we have garnered from watching the Mets. All that knowledge we Mets fans have accumulated. Meanwhile, Baez, who had been a Met for about five minutes and had presumably never slipped into his school library to check out Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? knew better. Or knew enough to not know better. Or wasn’t susceptible to incubating hunches that he wasn’t gonna come through because that’s not how a talent of his caliber rolls. What I’m trying to tell you is in the bottom of the sixth, with two out (one of them notched after Villar had been picked off second), Baez absolutely walloped a two-run homer.

So maybe a lack of familiarity with supposed Met ways is the best knowledge a new Met can display. However you explain it, the imported superstar shortstop had just cut the Reds’ lead to 4-3 and responded to his rapturous public with a curtain call. How could we lose now?

The answer, one guessed, was on a Joey Votto home run in the eighth inning. How poetic that would be, right? Votto had homered in seven consecutive games. Eight would tie the major league record. And, lookie there: with Farmer on first and nobody out, Votto lined a ball to very deep right off Seth Lugo. Oh, that baby is going, going…I haven’t been as sure of a ball leaving our park since a Thursday night in September of 1973 when Dave Augustine connected off Ray Sadecki.

Attention literalists: I’m using poetic license here. I’ve been plenty sure of plenty of home runs since September 20, 1973, but so much about Votto is poetic, just allow me my parallel, OK? Better yet, give me the wall this ball couldn’t quite clear. It went to right rather than left, and was hit inside of Citi Field rather than Shea Stadium, and it didn’t so much bounce off the very apex of the fence as hit a couple of inches below it, but it was close enough to going out without going out to make a prophet out of Jon Matlack.

“It hit on the corner of the fence and came back in.”

Sure did then. Sure did again. Votto had himself a long single (played expertly by Drury) and the Reds had him on first and Farmer on third and still nobody out. All the good vibes of Baez’s homer and the Augustinean echo of an enemy fly ball falling short of four bases notwithstanding, the Reds were still poised to extend their lead. The Mets, it should be noted, remained stuck on three runs and the Reds were one hit from having five, one extra-base hit from maybe having six. In a situation of that nature, who’s supposed to win?

Yet a situation like that isn’t fully formed until it fully plays out. Jeremy Hefner paid Lugo a visit, imparted words of wisdom à la Baerga to Suarez (albeit in my imagination) and Seth got back to being Seth. He struck out Tyler Naquin. He struck out the previously powerful Suarez. Then he departed in favor of Aaron Loup, the lefty who wears No. 32 as an obvious tribute to Matlack (albeit also in my imagination).

The pinch-hitter called on by Reds manager David Bell was Tyler Stephenson. What would Stephenson do with runners on first and third and two out versus Loup? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Votto, you see, was picked off first base, which got Farmer taking off from third base. Farmer, quite obviously, was the priority. Hence, after Loup threw to Pete Alonso, Alonso deduced the potential calamity unfolding across the diamond and threw to Villar at third. Villar threw to James McCann, who tagged out Farmer. Score it 1-3-5-2 (they announce that sort of thing in the press box so I make a point of jotting it down). Somehow, the Reds did not push any more runs across.

It was therefore getting a little 1973 up in here, microcosmically speaking. Just a little, though, because in the bottom of the eighth, three Mets did nothing. But in the top of the ninth, three Reds also did nothing. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets doing something — anything — was paramount.

Jeff McNeil walked. That was something.

And Luis Guillorme pinch-ran for him. That could be something if something else happened.

A wild pitch happened! Guillorme was on second. He was a tying run just waiting to happen.

Javier Baez could happen for a second time in his first Met night. We’d seen him happen just a few innings earlier. Though my press box companion and I agreed Javy has the potential to be one of the all-time free swingers in Mets history (eat your heart out, Shawon Dunston), Baez worked the count versus Heath Hembree to three-and-oh. That’s a hitter’s count. Three pitches later, the hitter had struck out. James McCann immediately did the same.

Still waiting on the happening. It was gonna take some kind of divine intervention.

It was gonna take Sean Doolittle. Yes, Sean Doolittle! The same Sean Doolittle who gave up a game-tying three-run homer to Todd Frazier and the game-winning (or –losing, depending on your perspective) single to Michael Conforto almost two years ago at Citi Field, the last time I sat in the press box pretending not to care who won or lost. I try not to assume that because something happened once before that it’s guaranteed to happen again. Except there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, we were losing by one, and precedent is the last refuge of the desperate fan masquerading as disinterested observer.

Dom Smith, whom Bell brought in Doolittle to face in an attempt at lefty-lefty alchemy, continued to be disinterested in labels. The lefty hit the lefty, singling to center to bring home Guillorme and knot the score at four. We were en route to an extra inning.

Jonathan India was on second base when the tenth started. Don’t ask me how he got there. I don’t even remember him batting. Crazy, huh? However he came to be standing on second, he zipped to third on an Edwin Diaz wild pitch.

Oh, that’s right, Diaz was pitching with a runner on second, nobody out and no save situation in sight. Feeling cocky yet?

Edwin walked Jesse Winker, then received one of those inspiring mound visits from Hefner. What worked on Lugo worked, too, on Diaz. Our closer morphed into Sammy Slam, as in the door. Struck out Farmer. Struck out Votto (sorry, pal, no eighth homer). Got Naquin to line out directly to Kevin Pillar.

Next thing I knew, Pillar was on second base when the tenth continued. Don’t ask me how he got there. I don’t even remember him batting. Still crazy, huh? However he came to be standing on second, however, he didn’t stay long.

Drury the Magnificent was the first batter in the bottom of the tenth. The pitcher was Luis Cessa, best known to us as the “other” pitcher we gave Detroit to obtain Yoenis Cespedes six years ago. We gave the Tigers Michael Fulmer and Cessa, the Tigers gave us the bat we needed to dislodge John Mayberry, Jr., from the middle of our lineup. Fulmer won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016, which we were OK with because Cespedes won us the National League East in 2015. Cessa was agate type in the retelling.

But who doesn’t love a good, knowledge-driven detail? Thus, on the sixth anniversary of the day of the legendary Yoenis Cespedes deal — a day capped by Wilmer Flores’s even more legendary walkoff home run versus Washington two days after Wilmer Flores shed equally legendary tears — and on the very night that Jon Matlack invoked images of another pennant-winning year (and Javier Baez made like Yo homerwise), Luis Cessa gave up a walkoff single to Brandon Drury, and the everybody’s-the-hero Mets defeated the Reds, 5-4. Mets fans, I can report with accuracy, went nuts with appreciation. It didn’t appear we were “supposed” to win, but what was Brandon Drury supposed to do other than record yet another humongous hit? After all, Drury’s OPS in July was infinity.

I could look up the real number, but I’m a Mets fan. I know pretty incredible statistics off the top of my head.

Javy Day

The Mets went out at the trade deadline and did something about the hole they considered perilous in their middle infield, acquiring somebody with both a stellar defensive background and a world championship pedigree, a player with a fairly unique offensive profile. He has only a couple of months left on his existing contract, so it’s not a huge commitment. The question is whether this deal will be enough to counteract the moves the Braves and the Phillies made as the Mets attempt to fend off their closest pursuers for the division lead.

But enough about the Mets getting Luis Castillo on July 30, 2007. This is about the Mets getting Javier Baez on July 30, 2021.

History isn’t exactly repeating itself despite some passing resemblance between the Mets’ decision to land second baseman Castillo — who earned a World Series ring with the 2003 Marlins; was voted three Gold Gloves; and led the National League in stolen bases twice — and Baez, essential keystone component for the champion 2016 Cubs, NL RBI king in 2018 and someone who’s the darling of the Defensive Runs Saved set. They’re actually substantially different players, but the circumstances that bring us the high-profile personality from Puerto Rico by way of Chicago aren’t wholly dissimilar from what was going on in these parts fourteen summers ago and how it led to the introverted Dominican infielder who’d been stranded in Minnesota coming to Flushing.

Castillo was a rental, grabbed at the ’07 deadline to fill the gap at second base left by an injury to Jose Valentin. His defense, despite a certain later notorious incident that occurred in a borough that shall remain nameless, remained airtight. Somewhere out there is a clip of Luis and Jose Reyes turning one of the sweetest double plays in creation in the middle of that August, when Castillo was still settling into the idea of playing in New York let alone next to a firecracker like Reyes. Despite the counterintuitive Big Apple casting, Castillo filled his role in the pennant race production reasonably adequately, hitting .296 and stealing 10 bases in 50 games while generally picking up ground balls and nobody noticing how many hands he used on popups. He didn’t show much power, but that was never his forte.

It wasn’t particularly Castillo’s fault the Mets didn’t fend off the Phillies, who’d fortified themselves at the 2007 deadline with starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. Shaking hands and saying goodbye to 32-year-old Luis might have been the best course of action following that star-collapsed September, but Omar Minaya truly enjoyed securing the services of veteran second basemen beyond the most useful portions of their careers (re-signing 37-year-old Valentin following 2006 speaks to that inclination). Castillo received a four-year contract that covered 2008 through 2011. The final year was bought out by Minaya’s successor.

Anyway, the Mets went out and grabbed Javy Baez from the Cubs right before the deadline on Friday. They sort of needed him because they’ve been vamping at shortstop ever since Francisco Lindor went down with an oblique injury following the All-Star break. Lindor’s injury is still an issue. That’s how obliques work. We keep seeing clips of Francisco furiously working out hours before home games, but it doesn’t bring him any closer to activation. “Week-to-week” is how Luis Rojas has termed his status, technically seven times longer than day-to-day.

Hence, Javier Baez, unquestionably the best available middle infielder on the market as the trade deadline burned fast and furious, is a Met. The Cubs, no longer contenders and therefore no longer interested in harboring stars who can walk away at season’s end, couldn’t detach themselves from their players swiftly enough. Javy fell from the North Side and into our laps, alongside righty Trevor Williams, in exchange for our top 2020 draft choice Pete Crow-Armstrong. Young Pete never got to play much minor league ball, first because there was no minor league ball in 2020 and then because he hurt his shoulder in 2021. I’d looked forward to his development based on whatever charisma he displayed the night he was selected. The attachment, however, never grew beyond the larval stage.

I saw Williams pitch well against the Mets once, in 2019, and somebody I trust told me he’s a good guy, so I was probably a little more excited that we’d gained an additional arm ancillary to Baez. Then I looked at his ERA (5.06 this year; 6.18 last year; 5.38 the year I saw him pitch well against the Mets once) and understood why he’s been initially assigned to Syracuse. Still, good guy, I’m told.

Baez is an exciting proposition. How can he not be? Any non-Met who’s succeeded wildly elsewhere shimmers with possibility. We only see them hit big homers — he’s belted as many as 34 round-trippers in a season and is up to 22 already this year — and make great catches and executive produce incredible highlights. Baez also has shallow spots in his skill set; try not to dwell on his paucity of walks or his surfeit of strikeouts if you wish to maintain your enthusiasm. Also, try to forget that he’s not a reliable starting pitcher, which was something that would have been nice to have added when we thought we’d be without Jacob deGrom a little longer and seemed a lot more imperative to have added when we learned we’ll be without Jacob deGrom more than a little longer. Our ace’s recovery has been paused for a couple of weeks due to forearm inflammation, and our August will thus be Jakeless.

Of course we did add a high-caliber pitcher on Friday in Carlos Carrasco. It’s the old “…like adding a piece at the deadline” equation that says if you’re bringing up somebody from the minors or getting somebody off the IL around the end of July, you don’t necessarily have to make a trade to fill a need. Carrasco certainly fills a need, but we probably needed more than just Carrasco to fill out the rotation, worst-case scenario vis-à-vis Jake or otherwise. We did get Rich Hill when nobody was looking like a week ago and we were blessed with Tylor Megill from out of the blue barely more than a month ago, but it doesn’t feel like enough. With starting pitching, it never feels like enough.

Still, Carrasco, almost forgotten for four months while his hamstring healed despite his having been Lindor’s significant trade companion in January’s blockbuster transaction, came out of the blue and into the black — sharp throwback jerseys and caps, provided they’re not worn to excess — on Friday night, taking the mound to face the Reds. His first pitch as a Met, to Jonathan India, landed somewhere on another subcontinent. Then Carlos settled in and gave up no more runs over four innings, a very encouraging sign. The Mets lineup seemed electrified in the bottom of the first from dressing as Mike Piazza once did. They were hitting, they were reaching base, they were scoring an entire run. Then they stopped. Black, sadly, is the new void, a hue the Mets can be as offensively futile in as they’ve too often been in orange, blue, what have you. The eventual final was Reds 6 Mets 2. Clad in any color, that’s not gonna get it done.

The good news, which can’t be counted on to replicate indefinitely, is the Phillies (3½ GB) and the Braves (4 GB) both lost, preserving the Mets’ distance from the NL East pack. The Phillies got themselves a solid starter at the deadline in Kyle Gibson, former Ranger. The Braves added, among others, Adam Duvall for their distressed outfield and Richard Rodriguez to shore up their already effective (based on what we experienced) bullpen. Why, it’s as if the first-place Mets haven’t clinched anything!

On Friday, Luis Guillorme at short and Jeff McNeil at second indicated middle-infield defense, even without Lindor around, isn’t much of a Met problem. But the best middle infielder available was within reach, ergo here arrives Baez, taking over shortstop in the interim and then shifting to second base when (hopefully not if) his very close friend Francisco comes back with full flexibility. McNeil and probably J.D. Davis will also have to show their own kind of flexibility by then. Javy has played both of his positions plenty and played them well. He says he’s more than willing to shift around if it means playing in the company of Lindor, and he comes off as very much a New York-ready guy. Despite the callback made above, getting Baez is a bigger deal than getting Castillo ever was. Two-time All-Star Baez might be nice to have on board after 2021 as well, but that’s a commitment that would also be a bigger deal than the one offered Castillo. Just as “too soon” might be your reaction to any mention of Luis Castillo in this space, “too soon” also applies to anything about Javy Baez for more than the short term.

Is Javier Baez going to help us stay in first and go far in October? I sincerely believe he couldn’t hurt.

All Seven and We’ll Watch Them Fall

The Mets are seven games over .500. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Mets have been seven games over .500 on nineteen separate occasions over the — wait for it — past seven weeks. Seven games over .500 isn’t bad. Ask the Atlanta Braves, who haven’t been as much as one game over .500 all year. They’ve had to settle for four times being the team to pull the Mets back to seven games over .500 after the Mets had dared to scale the win-loss heights to eight games over .500.

Incrementalism is all the rage in the National League East, where .500 is the magnet that pulls the team above it back toward it and repels all team below it to keep their social distance. The Phillies are exactly .500. The Braves are a game below it. Imagine how good seven over looks from their perspective.

But, from our perspective, nine over would have looked even better Thursday afternoon in Flushing. Alas, Atlanta prevented our potential two-game winning streak from taking shape by beating the Mets, 6-3. It was, as losses to the Braves go, expectedly vexing and disturbingly routine. Austin Riley continued to pound New York pitching. Every Brave sooner or later reveals himself the most fiendish Met-killer since Chipper Jones. It’s Riley’s time to put us in the barrel. “Don’t pitch to Austin Riley,” we’ll tell one another, except we also won’t want to pitch to any of Austin Riley’s teammates.

Riley went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs, which sounds like his standing order at Leo’s Latticini in Corona. The usual, Mr. R? Others in his ranks Chippered in as well, yet the Mets actually outhit the Braves, 12 to 7. Get the scoreboard columns to switch identities as they might in an absolutely hilarious ’80s comedy co-starring Judge Reinhold — “wait, I’M hits and YOU’RE runs???” — and we’d be cooking nine above tonight.

It doesn’t work that way. Instead it works once in a while that we get a dozen hits and it doesn’t do us a bit of good. According to Baseball-Reference’s Stathead tool, the Mets have played 62 nine-inning games in their 60-season history in which they’ve totaled at least a dozen hits yet haven’t scored more than a trio of runs. It’s not a formula for good fortune. After Thursday’s loss to the four Brave relievers who succeeded a shaky Drew Smyly, the Mets are a lifetime 13-49 when they fail to convert such a windfall of hits into more than a slight breeze’s worth of runs during regulation. (This isn’t counting weirdo extra-inning many-a-hit, barely-a-run marathons, which constitute their own form of bizarreness; gosh, I sort of miss them.)

There were some numbers to like beyond the main number of seven over .500 when nobody else in the division can accomplish that much. For example, Brandon Drury added a 2-for-2 to his previous 6-for-6 and had an 8-for-8 in progress (math rocks!) before finally making an out, leaving him one shy of tying Jose Vizcaino and John Olerud for the franchise record of nine hits in nine consecutive at-bats. Viz and Oly were regulars. Drury strung his perfection together in intermittent appearances. That’s worth eight pats on the back, even if on Thursday Drury’s characteristic lack of dreariness didn’t result in the building of or knocking in any runs.

Pete Alonso, meanwhile, hit a ball 453 feet. It landed in the fair portion of the left field Promenade Boxes, where only Yoenis Cespedes among Mets and Aaron Judge among utterly unwelcome visitors had previously deposited baseballs. Because one runner was on base, the Polar Bear’s Arctic blast counted for two runs. Given how far it traveled, it should have earned quadruple points. Pity the fine home run print doesn’t allow for bonus miles.

For three innings, Taijuan Walker looked as if he could have taken one run and hid. He’d given up neither a run nor a hit. Then he turned flawed to the point of futile. The look on his face as the fourth and fifth got away from him — five runs on a walk and six hits, including homers to Riley and Abraham Almonte — was reminiscent of Nuke LaLoosh during his nearly naked panic dream in Bull Durham. You could see Taijuan knew something was plaguing his pitches but also understood the cure wouldn’t be as simple as borrowing an undergarment from Annie Savoy.

For the silver lining-lovers out there, Miguel Castro continued on his journey back to sharpness with a scoreless sixth; Aaron Loup threw an ale of an eighth; and, making his major league debut, righty Akeem Bostick kept the Braves from inflicting superfluous ninth-inning damage. My scouting report on Akeem Bostick consisted of me learning after I got home from Wednesday night’s game that Akeem Bostick had been situated in the bullpen during Wednesday night’s game, having replaced Jerad Eickhoff on the active roster. Previous Mets to have replaced Jerad Eickhoff on the active roster in 2021 were Thomas Szapucki and Robert Stock. Have you seen Szapucki or Stock lately?

Hopefully Bostick won’t be disappeared to wherever it is pitchers who dare to occupy the flip side of Eickhoff’s DFAs. wind up. He was obviously a happy young man when he tweeted, postgame, “I can FINALLY say ‘I’M A BIG LEAGUER!’” Akeem should indeed shout his newly earned status to the heavens. It’s a very special designation to have earned, even among Mets, a team that has habitually enlisted Jerad Eickhoff to start baseball games.

In 2021, everybody, seemingly, has been a Met. Seriously, check your texts. You, too, may have been called up from Syracuse.

Akeem Bostick is the 35th new Met of the season, tying the “and you are…?” standard set in 1967. He’s the 56th Met to have seen action thus far this season, which matches the total from 2018, and we had to get to the end of September and David Wright’s physically tortured return from spinal stenosis to reach that traffic milestone. And he’s the 1,146th Met overall. For perspective, if you go back about four chronological years, to the final week of July in 2017, the all-time Met roster from 1962 forward weighed in at 1,032 players, or 114 fewer than the current composite number.

Meaning? Meaning approximately 10% of all players who’ve ever been Mets have debuted as Mets in the just the past four years. It’s a revolving door whose spin won’t pause, either, because on Friday night, we will belatedly welcome January acquisition Carlos Carrasco to the Citi Field mound, where we anticipate he will be resplendent in home white pants and home black jersey. In donning said Black Friday ensemble, Carrasco will become the 1,147th Met overall. Also, by the time the man known as Cookie throws his first Met pitch (hopefully not a cookie), a little something called the trade deadline will have passed, so it is not out of the question — and may very well be in our best interests — that we will have found some more bodies to immediately don the black, white, orange and blue as we strive to get eight games over .500 without immediately slipping back to seven.

We’ll root for ’em all, whoever they are. And if they don’t get the job done, we’ll assume somebody will go out and get us some more.

Hit Me With Your Laser Beam

Two people at Citi Field were proven wrong Wednesday night in the ninth inning. There was Braves third base coach Ron Washington and there was me, perched in the first row of Excelsior on the right field side. We were both off in our projection of what was about to happen after Ehire Adrianza lined a single to right with Abraham Almonte taking off from second. Washington was certain Almonte was going to score and tie the game at two apiece. So was I. Washington, per Jerry Beach of the Associated Press, “emphatically waved home Almonte,” while I muttered to my friend Kevin with whom I annually watch the Mets scratch and claw with the Braves only to too often come away competitively gouged, “he’s gonna be safe.”

Not consulted by either Wash or me was Mets right fielder Michael Conforto. He returned Adrianza’s liner with a liner of his own — a clothesline of a throw upon which you could hang your unmentionables. Unmentionable were the thoughts one nurtured about Edwin Diaz for letting Almonte on base to lead off the ninth and now facilitating his crossing of the plate.

But not if Conforto had anything to throw about it. Oh, and he did. That clothesline…that Frankie Goes to Hollywood-level laser beam…that straight-on lightning bolt…insert your own metaphor of choice. It was a strike from Conforto to James McCann that didn’t waste time with grass or dirt. Instead, it landed square in the catcher’s mitt, just enough up the third side of the plate to enable a swift tag to the leg of Almonte. The throw beat the runner. The tag beat the runner. Video replay was called for by a desperate Brian Snitker, but all that accomplished was an entertaining interval for Kevin and me and the vast majority of fans who hadn’t believed our own eyes but were happy to believe the big screen.

He’s out from this angle.
He’s out from that angle.
He’s out from all angles.
Thanks for the highlight package, Snit!

The only other thing wrong regarding Conforto’s bullet from right, besides Ron Washington and I misreading the impending outcome, was that it was fired in service to the second out of the ninth inning. That’s a play at the plate designed to end a game that for three hours felt tighter than the trousers Tom Jones wriggled himself into a half-century ago.

Tylor Megill dueled Max Fried, zeroes at sixty-and-a-half paces. Jeff McNeil found a hole to push Megill across the dish for the game’s first run in the third. Tylor simply hummed along for the first five innings. He had a shutout, a hit, a run…some kind of 26th-birthday haul for the rookie. And how about the party favor McNeil brought when he unwrapped his fifteen-game hitting streak?

Kevin and I discussed and signed off on Tylor batting for himself in the fifth and going out to continue his budding masterpiece in the sixth. This sort of decision would have required no discussion in another era, say when Tom Jones references were, like Tom Seaver complete games, not unusual, but we were conscious of Megill’s pitch count, frequency through the order and generally slight (if extremely solid) track record. Two batters later, Austin Riley docked a Megill pitch at the World’s Fair Marina. Goodbye birthday boy. And eff you Austin Riley for ruining the party.

One of the many conversational detours Kevin and I took between innings, batters and breaths was whether there’s any Met on the current squad we distinctly dislike. Yes, I said, there’s one: whichever reliever is on the mound. I exaggerate, but only a little. But here we were, as we inevitably are, pacing about the waiting room hoping to be told the delivery of our bouncing, baby win is going to come through without complications. It’s out of our hands when it’s out of the starter’s hands. Technically, it’s never in our hands. We’re fans. At best we have a few pretzel nuggets in our hands (Kevin treated me to both a great seat in Excelsior and a new snack from its concession stands). But when our starter’s on the mound, especially if he’s throwing strikes and recording outs, we are one with him. We’ve been with him since the first inning, maybe since we found out he was going to start the game. When it’s a reliever, we’re inherently convinced control has been ripped from our fingers.

That’s my theory, anyway. I was wrong about Almonte scoring, maybe I’m wrong about this. Either way, my new least favorite Met, once Megill exited, was — through no fault of his own — Seth Lugo. But Lugo somehow didn’t get beaten by the always sadistic Dansby Swanson nor the foreshadowy man from the foreshadowy planet Almonte.

Good news, Seth, you’re off the hook. I can go back to liking you.

In the seventh inning, Trevor May, in whom I currently invest zero faith, retired the Braves in order, including the preternaturally vengeful Guillermo Heredia. If you blinked, you missed Heredia’s seven-game Met tenure last September. Heredia remembers it, however, and he’s clearly pissed his unimpressed employers gave him the Eickhoff’s rush, DFA’ing him as winter wound down. I shall make them pay, he cackled demonically as he signed his contract with Atlanta. I shall make Ender Inciarte expendable and then I will BECOME Ender Inciarte!

Why else would Heredia bat approximately .864 against the Mets and basically nothing against everybody else? Again, another theory of mine. I’m full of them.

Brandon Drury came off the bench and homered to give the Mets the lead in the bottom of the seventh. I thought I’d say that casually. Brandon Drury casually gets hits off the bench. They’re often homers. Considering that this one was off Fried and gave the Mets the lead and that it soared very high and that it landed very far from whence he initially made contact, casual may not be the proper tone to take when it comes to Brandon Drury’s pinch-homer. Our reaction in Section 310 as the Mets went up, 2-1, was actually quite delirious.

We thought we had a chance to calm down in the eighth with the arrival of Busch Light spokesmodel Aaron Loup. Loup is the reigning exception to the Whichever Reliever is Pitching is My Least Favorite Met rule. It used to be Lugo. Maybe I’m doing this in reverse alphabetical order. More likely it’s based on Loup’s extraordinary effectiveness. I’m easy that way. Naturally, Loup didn’t make it easy. Two hard-hit singles from Joc Pederson and Ozzie Albies and a productive tapper from Freddie Freeman led to Braves on second and third with one out. Three batters meant a change could be made. To which about–to-be reviled reliever, though?

Jeurys Familia? I didn’t want to revile Familia. Familia has revived too much to be reviled. Kevin had earlier wondered if, generally speaking, a 1986-style Lee Mazzilli was in our future, somebody who’d come back to us from the mists of time and contribute memorably to championship drive. Kevin once thought that was a job for pre-retirement Daniel Murphy. I remembered that I predicted it would be the fate of a late-’90s Dave Magadan. Our respective scenarios never came to pass. But Kevin insightfully determined we were looking on the wrong side of the ball, for we were watching our modern-day Mazzilli trot in from the pen right this very instant.

It was Familia. Never mind that he’d made his return to the Mets in 2019 after being away for the equivalent of a semester abroad with Oakland. It’s the not the lack of recent recidivism that tells Familia’s comeback tale. It’s that he hadn’t looked anything like the Jeurys we remembered at his best from ’14 to ’18 in ’19 or ’20 or our first queasy sightings of him in ’21. Yet slowly, almost imperceptibly, he’s become a bona fide bullpen asset. True, now that I’ve said that, he will soon go the way of Lugo and Loup, commit the sin of imperfection, and force me to revile him.

We’ll put aside recriminations for another day. On Wednesday, we had to trust Familia to go after Riley and Swanson with runners on second and third with one out. And wouldn’t ya know it — Riley struck out and Swanson grounded out. It was a renaissance inning of the highest order, as if Mazzilli was sparking a rally against Boston while burning down the wilderness years he’d definitively left behind him.

Just as it would’ve been great had Conforto’s eventual “WHOA!” throw secured the final out of the ninth, it would’ve been great had Familia’s bacon-securing outing represented the save. You’d think Rob Manfred might have slipped in a rule about dramatic eighth innings precluding ninths. Nope, we still needed three more outs. Those would be on Diaz. He was hit hard — the Almonte ground-rule double that led off the ninth was no joke — but he gave up no runs and therefore was credited with a save as if the scoreless last half-inning was implicitly his doing. Edwin could thank his right fielder for throwing with better command than he had, but it’s a team game and this was a team win. The team was the Mets. That part is 100% correct.

When TBD Means DOA

Well, that wasn’t much fun.

The Mets were forced to start TBD — again! So they turned to Jerad Eickhoff — again! And it didn’t go well — again!

Eickhoff, you may recall, had already been DFA’d twice by the Mets this year. He opted for free agency, but signed another minor-league deal and reported for duty Tuesday night. Only to get absolutely battered — two-run double in the first, two-run homer to Ozzie Albies in the second, two-run homer to Abraham Almonte in the third. That was a heck of string to see up there on the scoreboard, but Eickhoff went back out in the fourth and gave up a grand slam to Austin Riley.

Mercifully, that was it. Definitely for the night, probably for the year, possibly for a career.

It gives me no joy to say that, and I don’t blame Eickhoff for having doused various fires with what turned out to be lighter fluid. (OK, I did pen a quick Twitter poll asking if he more resembled a palooka or a tomato can — tomato can won — but that was the frustration talking, and not my finest moment.) Eickhoff’s dedicated much of his life to playing baseball, and when he had another chance to do that, he took it. Of course he did — wouldn’t you? After the game was over, he called the results “frustrating,” which is a word you hear from pitchers a lot, but also “embarrassing,” which isn’t. If that was the end for Eickhoff, it’s a last chapter I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The question is how the Mets thought this might work, and why they didn’t have any other plan. But if I squint, I can see that one too. Carlos Carrasco should return this weekend, and both Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard threw pitches at Citi Field on Tuesday in something vaguely like anger. Given that, should the Mets have paid a premium for the shortest of short-term rentals to get through one last TBD? If they should have opted for some other internal option, whom did you have in mind? Or should they have gone way outside of the box and called Bartolo Colon? Maybe Ollie Perez? Should Jon Matlack have reported early for his Mets Hall of Fame induction? Matlack’s 71 but what the hell, he’s left-handed, right?

(By the way, how the hell is handsome, lanky cardboard god Jonathan Trumpbour Matlack a septuagenarian? That can’t be right.)

Luis Rojas, at least, thinks the era of TBD is over, telling the scribes that “looking forward definitely feels better in the next week or so, knowing that names are gonna be in that starter’s spot.”

Is he right? I sure hope he is. Rich Hill‘s here, Carrasco’s coming, and deGrom hopefully isn’t far from returning (again). And with the bats showing at least fitful signs of life, another starter is probably the Mets’ top priority at the trade deadline. Still, it’s been a helluva year: I mean, David Peterson‘s probably done until 2022 because he broke a bone in his foot walking around the clubhouse. And it’s not even August.

The Mets didn’t want to get held up for a marginal starter or overpay ahead of the deadline or wreck some poor Double-A kid’s development, so they rolled the dice that they might outhit Eickhoff’s limitations. And hey, Monday’s strategy was reliever roulette, and that actually worked. I grumbled about Eickhoff getting pinata’ed, but I get how the Mets wound up where they did.

But still, punting a game at the end of July against a team entirely too close to you in the standings would make anyone grumble. Given everything that’s befallen the Mets this season, I can imagine deGrom or Carrasco or Hill or Taijuan Walker or Marcus Stroman or Tylor Megill or maybe all of them winding up back on the IL because this is tight or that’s fatigued or the clubhouse floor wanted more blood and souls as tribute. In which case the season might come down to a game or two, as many a season does. Maybe even against the last team on the 2021 schedule, the one we’ll wish we’d beaten on a sultry night in the era of TBD.

Double Vision

Seeing baseball in person always reminds me that the game is really two different experiences. The view from your couch lets you play HD voyeur, seeing everything from the pitcher’s grip to how the catcher frames each pitch — and with stats and expert analysis handed to you, like a surgeon taking tools from an assistant. The view from, say, the Promenade is completely different — the players are down there doing something or other, the scoreboard tells you the outcome of the little things, and your eyes and the crowd’s reaction cover the big things.

I can’t tell you much about how Marcus Stroman or Kyle Muller or Bryse Wilson or a parade of Met relievers looked. I don’t know if they were hitting their spots, if their pitches had life, or any of that. I was busy or in transit for a big chunk of the first game and hundreds of feet away for the rest; I’d be better off asking someone who stayed home.

What I do know — or more precisely knew already but was happy to remember — is that it’s a very good thing to find yourself under the big night sky in the bowl of a stadium after the heat’s leached out of the day, surrounded by your fellow rooters, many of them living or dying alongside you about a thing as silly and beautiful as a baseball game. It’s fun to debate Mister Softee vs. that weird waffle thing that looked good on SNY the other night, to root for the random kid trying to whack wiffle balls over a miniature outfield wall, to vamp ironically or wholeheartedly to whatever music’s booming out of the PA, and to scream and yell and boo and don a rally cap and pursue whatever personal ritual will absolutely, positively affect events down there on the field, and even if that’s not true, well, it couldn’t hurt.

It’s also fun to ponder just how many threads connect players and plays, even in games not destined to be long remembered. The record will show that the Mets split a doubleheader with the Braves, losing the opener 2-0 on some untimely Atlanta doubles and winning the nightcap 1-0 on a timely double of their own; what will be forgotten is that the first game was a drumbeat of frustrations for us while the second game was the exact same thing for them.

I arrived at Citi Field in the bottom of the fifth of Game 1, just in time to slip into a standing room spot and watch Pete Alonso come to the plate with runners on first and second and one out. Oh, I thought, I’m a good-luck charm! Pete promptly chopped a high bouncer along the third-base line, a ball that could easily have hopped over Austin Riley‘s head to cut the Braves’ lead in half and put runners at second and third … except for the annoying detail that Riley snagged the ball, stepped on third and threw to first for a double play.

Oh, I’m not a good-luck charm.

Still, the Mets have had a flair for drama throughout this strange, bumpy season, so of course they got a runner on against Will Smith in the seventh for James McCann. McCann scorched a ball into the hole at short, Dansby Swanson made a stab that would have been envy of any matador, and the Mets had lost.

The Mets had lost, and played reliever roulette in Game 2, entrusting a split to Aaron Loup, Jeurys Familia, Anthony Banda, Trevor May, Seth Lugo and finally Edwin Diaz. A dangerous game, but somehow it was the Braves who kept getting hurt. In the second, they put runners on first and second with none out thanks to a Riley pop-up that Alonso lost in the lights and a Swanson grounder off J.D. Davis‘s glove; Familia fanned Guillermo Heredia, Abraham Almonte and Kevan Smith to put down the threat.

In the sixth, after Jeff McNeil‘s two-out double gave the Mets a 1-0 lead, Lugo came in and clearly wasn’t himself, or rather he was the himself who’s shown up too often recently. He surrendered a leadoff single to Joc Pederson and walked Ozzie Albies to bring up Freddie Freeman. Freeman slammed a ball to the left-field fence, where Kevin Pillar had just enough room to make the catch, but Pederson took third and the Mets’ lead was in serious jeopardy. So of course Riley hit a grounder to Luis Guillorme, who made a beautiful flip to Jonathan Villar, who threw to first for the double play.

Yeah, the same Riley whose nifty grab had turned a potential Alonso RBI into a double play a couple of hours earlier. Baseball pens these reversals of fortune so often that none of us should be surprised to encounter one, and yet we always are. The Mets failed to cash in any insurance, Diaz arrived to pursue the save, I assumed the fetal position because it’s Diaz, and so of course he erased Swanson, Heredia and Almonte on some of the more vicious fastballs and sliders he’s thrown all year.

I know what you’re thinking, but I’ll be in the fetal position next time he arrives too. Because you can’t outguess baseball. Not when you’re studying it up close on the TV, and not when you’re peering at it from your perch beneath the night sky. You can’t outguess it, but you can always appreciate it. Win or lose, a night at the park will remind you to do that.

A Day of Trivia and Substance

First off, it didn’t rain. Anybody ready to take that for granted in the middle of a season when it anecdotally “always” rains? Chance of scattered thunderstorms, the forecast warned. I stuffed my disposable poncho I never dispose of and my portable Mets umbrella that I try not to use because then it would get wet into my game bag. They never saw daylight because the sky never saw storm clouds.

Then, and more importantly, the Mets didn’t lose. They could have. They were poised on the precipice of defeat at a couple of intervals Sunday afternoon. Smack in the middle of Promenade, Section 515 — where home plate is directly below; the original “STRUCK! HIM!! OUT!!!” guy is within earshot; and sunscreen unchecked by umpires was the order of the surprisingly dry day for arms, faces and legs otherwise susceptible to burns — you could feel a grip being lost, a good game going bad, a win getting away.

But it didn’t rain and the Mets didn’t lose. The Toronto Blue Jays, who you’re glad are in another league’s Eastern Division, loomed large but were cut down to size when it mattered most.

What mattered first was Rich Hill, the 1,145th Met overall, striding to the mound to serve as starting pitcher. I’ve been to three games this year. In all three games, I’ve witnessed a pitcher make his first start as a Met. If it happens again, I’m contemplating commissioning a custom-made satin jacket embroidered with my new nickname Welcome Wagon in a fancy font. I’ve personally welcomed Tylor Megill, then Robert Stock, then Rich Hill. One of these things, the Muppets advise, is not like the other. Megill took the ball as the rawest of rookies. Robert Stock’s pre-Met starting experience was limited to playing the below-the-title role of “opposing pitcher” to Jacob deGrom before coming to his senses and joining the good guys.

Hill, on the other hand, has been around. He’s seen some things. He’s thrown some innings, though not often more than five at a time. Rich is 41, a Terrific number to flash in Flushing. Rich also throws about 41, or so it seems relative to those hurlers who light up radar guns from coast to coast. Whatever his velocity and repertoire, the very experienced Rich Hill took care of the Jays for the first five without a run.

I’d love to tell you I applied my grand view of home plate to discerning the movement or command that made Rich so effective. But nah. I spent most of Rich Hill’s first outing as a Met immersed in Rich Hill-adjacent conversation with my old pal the Maestro of Metrics, Mark Simon, who was kind enough to invite me to take the seat next to him in 515 Sunday. Mark didn’t want any payment for the ticket, but requested I bring some trivia. He’d bring the same. This is our version of a pot luck dinner.

Rich Hill’s presence had us asking and answering questions that involved the likes of Damon Buford, Manny Alexander, Miguel Batista and Rajai Davis. Dock Ellis rode in on a surprisingly lofty ERA. Old frenemy T#m Gl@v!ne was one-fifth of an answer, though I didn’t pronounce him the way I spell him. The fact that Rich was facing Toronto allowed us to bring up Jeremy Hefner from early in his rookie campaign and Jason Isringhausen from after he was a phenom. Damion Easley snuck in from somewhere near third base. And, via a roundabout route that isn’t Easley articulated, so did Jeff Keppinger.

Go to a game with Mark and me. I dare you to pay attention to what you came to see. But eventually the novelty of the 41-year-old starting pitcher with more stickers on his figurative suitcase than miles per hour on his fastball wears off and even we are paying attention to what the game in front of us is doing. Hill climbed into but not out of the sixth. He bequeathed loaded bases and a slim lead of 1-0 to Seth Lugo. Hill’s will should have been more specific about what Seth should do with his inheritance. Alas, all three of those runners scored on Lugo’s watch/Rich’s record.

We were down, 3-1, in the middle of the sixth. We could’ve stayed down. We stayed down on Saturday night. Responded to the canned calls of “CHARGE!!!” in one inning, got mired in a maze the other eight. Yet the bottom of the sixth became where Sunday stopped being about trivia and started being about substance.

The first half of what needed to happen on offense happened pretty Easley…uh, easily. Pete Alonso whacked a two-run homer to left. Whoomp, there it was, a 3-3 tie. It was Pete’s 22nd of the year in the Mets’ 96th game. For the first time since it stopped being 2019, Alonso hit a home run that felt like 2019 — his 2019, when he was setting paces and breaking records.

The Mets’ 2021 has taken flight without a lot of Alonso, compared to the outsize space he occupied in our psyche two years ago, but a full complement of Pete will be critical to this first-place club remaining this first-place club. THIS NOT JUST IN BUT FEELS LIKE IT’S NEWS: The Mets are a first-place club. We’re still rubbing our eyes over their status because, as we’ve been over repeatedly, they haven’t really played like a first-place club. But they are a first-place club. The goal now is to continue to be a first-place club.

For that, we shall require not just satisfying game-tying home runs but clutch-as-hell go-ahead hits. We shall require more than a sprinkle of Jeff McNeil, the Polar Bear’s erstwhile tag team partner. Jeff has not been physically available for a few days, and spiritually mentally or simply Squirrelfully, he hasn’t been a hundred percent present in the way we grew used to in 2018 and 2019. It’s a long career for every player of tenure. Ups and downs are a fact of their flow. We’re as patient as my cat at the sound of a can opener when it comes to the downs.

McNeil got a pinch-hitting opportunity in the sixth. Jacob Barnes (the 1,119th Met overall for those who have forgotten) came on to pitch for the Blue Jays. J.D. Davis walked. Jonathan Villar singled. McNeil’s turn for an up or a down.

An up. Definitely an up.

McNeil ripped a Barnes ball into the right-center gap scoring both Davis and Villar and pushing the Mets ahead, 5-3. If the Mets didn’t win the NL East right there and then, I had a sense they’d taken a step toward not losing it. That was a big hit. It didn’t go as long as Alonso’s, it didn’t come so late to be routinely termed dramatic, and by no means did it clinch the game, but Mark and I agreed that if there’s ever cause to produce a 2021 reboot of the 1986 home video blockbuster A Year to Remember (likely not on VHS and probably without a music budget adequate for securing rights to Bob Seger, Duran Duran or Emerson, Lake & Palmer), the McNeil pinch-double earned a slot in the “as July turned to August and the Mets’ hold on first place tightened” montage.

Yeah, the vibe was hot. But the inning was indeed only the sixth and the lead was only two. Jeurys Familia was tidy as you please with a clean seventh. The Jays’ eighth was a different story. Trevor May was a different pitcher. Not the Trevor May we’ve trusted intermittently in ’21. More along the lines of the Aaron Heilman we stopped trusting after ’06. The Jays put up a run in what felt like a blink to make it 5-4. They kept coming, too, loading the bases with two out.

Enter Aaron Loup, the anti-Heilmans as Aarons go. Enter another moment where the division wasn’t lost again. Alert the editing bay that we need to splice into the montage Loup lining out Cavin Biggio to Dom Smith in left and leaving the bases loaded. Think about it: the Blue Jays, who’d posted ten runs the night before and gave you the notion they could post ten more at will, had a tie and a lead in their grasp. Grasping ties and leads is what good teams do to teams not so good. But the Mets are a good team. We don’t notice because we’re Mets fans.

We also don’t put much faith in relievers to hold slim leads. Except Aaron Loup. Let’s trust him a little. And no kidding about the montage. “The Mets’ momentum extended some more on a summer Sunday, thanks to an easygoing, tough-throwing southpaw from Louisiana.” We’ll update the script as needed.

An awesome team might have poured on some insurance runs. The Mets are good. We’re not claiming they’re awesome. We’re not even claiming Edwin Diaz is dependable. We are genetically incapable of telling our closer, “You got this.” In our heart of hearts, we don’t think you do, but we’re willing to fake enthusiasm if it helps. And tap along a toe or two to the trumpet routine that heralds Edwin’s emergence from the pen — the only loud noise transmitted over the ballpark’s overwrought PA system that qualified as a somewhat welcome sound Sunday. Mark and I agreed that if Diaz comes in to pitch in the playoffs at Citi Field with a one-run edge and his music blasting, it, like our team by then, will be awesome.

We were actually talking playoffs in July, with Edwin Diaz approaching the pitching rubber to face the dangerous Blue Jays. We may have used sunscreen, but you’re welcome to assume we were experiencing heat stroke.

Diaz went about his business in a manner resembling cool, calm and collected. He struck out George Springer, which satisfied the many who howled at the moon (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!) every time the shamed champion Astro showed his face. He walked Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but a base on balls is the better part of valor when facing a hitter whose slugging percentage of .663 leaps from the scoreboard and knocks your eyes’ socks off while simultaneously taking their breath away. Guerrero is a metaphor-crusher. Don’t let him be a Met-crusher, too. Walk him, just don’t let him get anywhere.

Edwin did, but only ninety feet on a wild pitch. Edwin struck out Marcus Semien on three pitches in the interim. It was while facing Bo Bichette that Vlad the Younger moved to second. It was also while facing Bichette that Diaz worked the count full. At three-and-two, James McCann trotted to the mound for a word with his pitcher. From 515, one could only imagine what the word was. It was probably more family-friendly than the words we in the stands had holstered in case the worst was about to occur.

We’ll save that variant of our vocabulary for another day, maybe another year. Diaz struck out Bichette to end the game, 5-4 in the Mets’ favor. Mark likes to invoke a Kurkjianism for games you look back on as building blocks to a special season. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian will say “circle this game” in reference to a crazy comeback or a stunning turning point. I asked him as we descended the steps from Promenade if a game whose defining characteristic was it didn’t get away when it could have is one that qualifies for a circle. Mark wasn’t sure. Neither was I. But we both agreed that it could have been a loss we would have circled ruefully had it been a loss.

Which it wasn’t. And that, I have a hunch, was pretty substantial.

The Creme of the Crap

Thanks to doctor’s orders that didn’t come with an expiration date, I haven’t indulged in an Oreo or, for that matter, a Hydrox in many a year, but I think I still remember the optimal method for sandwich cookie enjoyment:

1) Pull apart.
2) Lick and luxuriate in the creme center (Oreo calls it “creme” rather than cream); it’s the best part.
3) Resign yourself to the rest of the cremeless cookie.

I found these instructions applied as well for getting the most out of Saturday night’s Mets 10-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Citi Field. You were best served by going for the yummy part in the middle, specifically the bottom of the fifth when the Mets filled their biscuit — as the British might call it, per Ted Lasso — with five consecutive delectable hits.

A Luis Guillorme single.
A Brandon Drury pinch-double (FYI, Brandon Drury has returned).
A Brandon Nimmo single that scored Guillorme.
A Pete Alonso single that scored Drury (who was still with the club as he crossed home plate, though you can never be certain these days).
A Dom Smith single that scored Nimmo without doubt rather than what happened in the first, which was Nimmo getting thrown out at home on a daring but ultimately futile send by Gary DiSarcina after a James McCann single.

All of this raised the volume at the ballpark, raised the expectations of the faithful everywhere and knocked out the perennially bedeviling Hyun Jyn Ryu, who in any shade of blue is usually impossible for Met batters to exorcise from their systems. Ryu’s most recent visit to Flushing, for the Dodgers in 2019, saw him squelch the Mets on two hits for seven innings in a dual shutout battle versus Jacob deGrom; the Mets went on to mount a winning rally only after Dave Roberts called it a night on Ryu’s behalf. Last September, in Buffalo, Ryu was more pedestrian (6 IP, 8 H), but nearly as effective (one run en route to a Jays romp). The lefty’s career ERA in ten starts versus the Mets is 1.57. No wonder it appeared he woke up and hurried to the stadium for Saturday night’s assignment without bothering to change out of his jammies.

Technically, all the Blue Jays were wearing powder blue uniforms, but on Ryu (and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.), the ensemble looked comfy enough to sleep in. Yet the Mets in the bottom of the fifth were alert, running around and acting as if their sugar rush would never end.

That was the creme filling of Saturday night. As delicious as it was, there was only so much of it. And once it was lapped up, you had to resign yourself to the two cremeless sides that had surrounded the good part.

The first side carried the residue of the six runs Taijuan Walker gave up in four-plus innings; Nimmo getting gunned down at home by left fielder Lourdes Gurriel (you take your chances with Ryu on the mound, but the scoring threat vanished on the throw); Nimmo getting robbed when reflexively reviled ex-Astro/would-be Met George Springer made like Kevin Piillar/Superman and flew through the while diving in the direction of the outfield fence to take away a certain double; and the pregame news that David Peterson, whose ongoing injury list stay was in service to an oblique strain, had been transplanted to the 60-day IL after he hurt his right foot from simply walking around, no kidding.

“He didn’t step on anything,” Luis Rojas confirmed. “He was just walking, and he felt a pop. That’s it.” Of course that’s it when it comes to your 2021 Mets pitchers absorbing injuries atop injuries despite being stored for safe keeping on a list of the already injured. Peterson’s pop led to a diagnosis of “a Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal” — broken pinky toe — and he’s going to have to have surgery, endangering what might have remained of his season.

The second side? More Blue Jay runs (Toronto went deep five times in all); no more Met runs; and Walker, whose outing lasted appreciably longer than the implosion in Pittsburgh yet also resulted in a 6-0 deficit, downplaying the possibility that he sustained an injury while batting. There had been a meeting at the mound involving a trainer while it was still 3-0, Jays, in the top of the fifth. Taijuan stayed in. Then he left after three more went up for the road team via a Marcus Semien home run. Still, according to man who has lately not performed like his All-Star self, whatever “pinch” he’d felt in his left or non-throwing shoulder wasn’t an issue.

“I’ll be fine.”
“Everything’s good.”
“I felt great.”

Maybe Walker was reaching for the creme center of his evening. Saturday’s game wasn’t fine, little was good, and we didn’t feel great, but we had the pitcher’s word that he wasn’t really hurt (you can always trust pitchers to be frank), we had the anticipation of yet another new Met starting pitcher for Sunday — one we’ve heard of in Rich Hill — and we had that three-run bottom of the fifth when Citi rocked with raucousness and we really thought we might pull out another incredibly unlikely win.

Which was sweet while it lasted.