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Will It Go Round in Circles?

Sure the season is shot, but at least we get a chance to take a good, long look at Josh Thole!

Never mind throwback uniforms from 1989 [1] (technically 1988 to 1992 for us, but it was the Padres’ party [2], so whatever). It’s 2010 all over again on the Mets’ schedule. It might as well be in the sense that we’re hanging around .500 at the two-thirds juncture of the season and our early aspirations of contending for a playoff spot have diminished to the edge of extinction. We were actually doing slightly better (54-53 then vs. 52-55 now) and were slightly closer (6½ back in the division, 8 behind the Wild Card leader then vs. 11½ and 9 now) two years ago, but nobody was fooled into thinking there was anything meaningful for which to play.

Except for next year. With a third-of-a-season to go, we were ready to loosen our grip on 2010 and move on to 2011. The Mets soon agreed and jettisoned their starting catcher, slumping Rod Barajas, and gave the bulk of the playing time behind the plate to young Josh Thole. Josh, a converted first baseman, was called up in September 2009, didn’t seem any worse than whoever we were happy to eschew then (Brian Schneider and Omir Santos), tantalized us with his tomorrow-ness if nothing else, and when ’10 went definitively down the chute, it was goodbye Barajas [3], cool your defensive heels Henry Blanco, and let’s see what the kid can do.

It’s two years later and I don’t think there are too many Mets fans who don’t wish we had another Josh Thole on the horizon. Not a carbon copy of this Josh Thole, god forbid, but a catching prospect deemed more or less ready to compete at the major league level; one at whom we could take yet another good, long look; somebody we could invest our hopes in for 2013 or whenever.

Because the last thing anybody’s in the mood to look at right now is more of Josh Thole catching. Or batting. Or doing anything.

Of course this is a gut reaction to the play that turned Friday night’s game from something akin to those recent tilts with the Giants you figured the Mets might win in spite of themselves to one of those contests you knew the Mets would somehow find a way to lose Petco-style. The whole team felt culpable to some degree, but nobody was more front and center in regard to defeat than the catcher who, in his second full season, feels no more ready to compete — or at least compete effectively — at the major league level than he did in the summer of 2010. And for all the personnel changes on the field and off that have transformed the reputation of this franchise from reflexively ridiculous to vaguely competent, Thole may well have proven himself the apotheosis of the Mets as they dip into their standard August sag.

It was that bad a play.

But it’s also been that dim a season for Thole, and that’s taking into account his not-so-incidental participation in the most historic Met occasion imaginable [4]. There’s forever a gold star affixed to his permanent record for coming off the disabled list on June 1, going into a crouch and coming away, two hours and thirty-five minutes later, clutching the last out of the First No-Hitter In New York Mets History. Since Johan Santana didn’t earn that milestone by pitching stickball — specifically the kind whose strike zone is a box chalked on a schoolyard wall [5] — we have to assume Thole had something significant to do with his achievement. He was his catcher. Thole was also R.A. Dickey’s catcher for two one-hitters. When you think of Tim Byrdak casting a glare in Thole’s direction [6] for pitch selection gone awry and Pedro Beato casually assigning blame to Thole [7] for not blocking a blockable wild pitch, you have to pause and think of the good times, too.

Those, however, don’t seem representative of the Thole oeuvre overall and that’s before we get to Josh’s hitting, which is something he hasn’t done. Thole’s batted about the most hollow .264 you’ll ever see, not getting on base much otherwise (.316) and goodness knows slugging not at all (.329). He’s driven in 14 runs, or only four more than Jason Bay, the ultimate barometer of offensive futility.

Josh Thole’s .264/.316/.329 isn’t tangibly better than Rod Barajas’s .201/.279/.352 for Pittsburgh or Henry Blanco’s limited-duty .197/.234/.295 for Arizona (though Barajas’s and Blanco’s teams are still in playoff races despite their decrepit backstop backsides taking up respective Pirate and Diamondback roster space). Nobody’s rushing to reacquire the Class of April 2010, but nobody of a Met front office stripe has denied they’d like to find a catcher. Ramon Hernandez’s name has come up. John Buck’s name has come up. If they could get Alex Treviño back in game shape [8], he’d be a viable option compared to what they have currently, Treviño’s impending 55th birthday notwithstanding.

Oh, all right. I’ll concede Thole could probably outplay someone who hasn’t caught since the Mets were wearing those “1989” uniforms for real, but I doubt he could outhit him. And when it comes to making a play like that which turned Friday’s game irrevocably in favor of San Diego, I’d take my chances in 2012 with Treviño over Thole. Or Santos over Thole. Or Schneider over Thole. Or Blanco over Thole. Or Barajas over Thole. Or Butch Benton, Luis Rosado, Dave Liddell, Chris Cannizzaro…you get the idea.

When you’re invoking the litany of Met catchers past who aren’t of the Grote-Carter-Piazza pantheon (let alone the Stearns-Hundley-Lo Duca sub-pantheon), you’re probably stalling, hoping the play you saw was just a late West Coast start fever dream. Alas, it actually happened.

In case you didn’t see it or hear a Mets fan near you scream when it occurred, the Mets were in a 1-1 duel with the Padres in the seventh. It had been 1-0 until the sixth when they were tied on a run Everth Cabrera set up on a delayed steal of third (we’ll forego the identity of the catcher who didn’t come close to throwing him out so as not to pile on). Dickey was pitching very well if not exactly upper-tier brilliantly, but it should have been enough. He’d allowed only one hit, albeit with three walks, through six. The Mets, though, were in that mode of huffing and puffing without ever quite being able to blow Clayton Richard’s house down. That’s why it was only 1-1.

With one out in the seventh, Carlos Quentin (whose All-Star name was familiar to me though his current identity as a Padre surprised me, as does almost every Padre’s almost every year; I don’t know if it’s the time zone, the reliably lousy record or the refusal to pick a uniform and stick with it, but I’m pretty sure “Padre” is Spanish for “obscure” [9]) singled. Yonder Alonso then lifted a fly ball to no man’s land, or as it’s otherwise known, the Mets’ outfield. Andres Torres in center clearly wasn’t going to get to it. Scott Hairston, playing right, maybe had a shot at it, but…no, not really. But he did have a shot at preventing what was about to happen.

Scott, whose continued presence on the Mets is intended to guarantee our arrival amid the promised land of 82-80 [10], dove with the gutsiness of Ron Swoboda and the judgment of Ronald McDonald. Alonso’s ball fell in and bounced past Hairston. Quentin, who appears to keep his association with speed to a minimum, chugged onward from first. Torres got to the ball and flung it to Cedeño. Nice save on both gentlemen’s part. Quentin kept chugging, though it was now more like lumbering. Cedeño then turned and fired on a bounce to the plate. Great throw! Quentin’s chug didn’t have much vigor left to it as the ball arrived within Thole’s personal space. All Quentin — who was a telephone exchange if not an area code away from the catcher when the ball arrived — could attempt to do was charge into Thole. All Thole had to do, given the head start Cedeño’s throw and Quentin’s innate gradualness gave him, was hang on to the damn ball.

Here came Quentin.

There went the ball.

There went the game.

Thole had one thing to do and he didn’t do it. He didn’t so much not hold the ball but basically failed to merge it, his bare hand and his gloved hand into a cohesive Quentin-tagging package. So Quentin tagged Thole instead. Tagged the hell out of him. All legal, clean and convincing. It convinced me Thole isn’t much of a catcher.

To be fair, if Thole had handled the ball properly — and he acknowledged [11] that’s what it boiled down to (nothing to do with post-Wigginton [12] syndrome) — I wouldn’t be telling you what a fantastic catcher Josh is because he completed an 8-4-2 putout on an approaching baserunner. It was one of those things a catcher does or doesn’t do, and he didn’t do it.

Even acknowledging that you don’t see that many blocks of granite bearing down on home plate with the kind of determination big ol’ Carlos Quentin brought to the play, it wasn’t a hide-your-eyes collision. It was a guy doing something right succeeding against a guy doing something wrong. And because it changed the score from 1-1 to 2-1 en route to a 3-1 loss [13], it stood out like a…well, like a Josh Thole extra base hit (of which there have been 13 thus far in 2012). It was one of those moments that crystallizes what you’ve been sensing for the longest time but haven’t wanted to say out loud because you’d so rather believe the Mets haven’t wasted the last two years at the position — but per a fabled emperor and his alleged new clothes, the catcher has no chest protector.

Or to bring the discussion full circle, two years ago, we anticipated Josh Thole’s extended audition. Two years later, there seems little evidence that he’s passed it.