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Shot August Nights

There are several numerical ways to flesh out the state of the Mets after Wednesday night’s rerun of Tuesday night, which was a carbon copy of Monday night (assuming that creepy dude from W.B. Mason still sells carbon paper), which wasn’t materially different from Sunday afternoon’s defeat, if you can remember back that far in this abysmal blur of a second half. The differentiator most recently was Matt Harvey’s tough, brilliant, faultless six innings of nine-strikeout pitching. No other Met meaningfully distinguished himself. The Mets lost, 5-2 [1], after losing, 6-2, after losing, 3-1, after losing, 5-2.

Or you could say they’re losing, 19-7, and will likely resume losing at 1:10 this afternoon.

The Mets have lost 28 of their last 39 games, just about all of them by a score of 5-2, or so it seems. Their last comparable extended stretch of second-half futility occurred in 2009, the year when everybody was seriously injured or spectacularly inept, occasionally both. They stumbled to 27 losses in 37 games at one point. The 2004 Mets lost 29 times in 40 games down what others would call the stretch but what we recall as the last days of Art Howe.

That’s the company your 2012 Mets are keeping right now. Also, the Houston Astros. That is to say that unless there is a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Mets and the ’Stros will go down as the only two National League teams to have not compiled a winning record over any of the last four seasons. With the welcome ascension of the Pirates [2] and the unstoppable surge of the Nationals [3], everybody else will have had at least one 162-game span of competence in the current quadrennium. But nobody from the Expansion Class of 1962.

The bullpen has at least a little something to do with the Mets’ tragic number for ensuring a fourth consecutive non-winning campaign is suddenly 14. Here’s something to chew on that — unlike Tums but like the Mets — will give you no relief: The Mets have eight pitchers on their books in 2012 with ERAs over 6. Some are no longer here, some are very much here, some of the samples are thankfully small, but each pitcher in question did his worst to contribute to the damage:

• Frank Francisco: 6.42
• Elvin Ramirez: 7.30
• Robert Carson: 7.36
• D.J. Carrasco: 7.36
• Manny Acosta: 8.39
• Pedro Beato: 10.38
• Chris Schwinden: 12.46
• Garrett Olson: 108.00

Schwinden absorbed most of his blows in two starts, and Olson’s three-digit earned run average was compiled in all of one-third of an inning, but when you’re talking 12.46 and 108.00, the moment for niceties has passed. Speaking of which, after Francisco raised his ERA from 6.06 Wednesday night, he took his frustrations out by hurling a Gatorade cooler as hard as he could [4].

Naturally, some random Rockie rookie lined it to right for a double.

Overshadowing miserable Met relief pitching and even Harvey’s singular progress was the news that the Mets came up with a relatively graceful way to shut down Johan Santana for the rest of 2012 [5]. They took an MRI, they found something not good but (supposedly) not terrible with his back and now he’s on the disabled list. This is what passes for good news in the August 2012 Mets’ world. I had hoped Johan could be eased off the mound for the year after throwing five solid innings — consecutively, not cumulatively — but I’ll accept that he was periodically capable for a few batters at a time over his last five historically horrid [6] starts so that we don’t have to spend all winter wondering if he has anything at all left.

I’m sure he does, but everything since Reed Johnson crunched his ankle on July 6 has been such a nightmare that one is entitled to wonder if rest and rehab is going to bring him back to the pitcher he was for the first three months of 2012. It’s such an eerily familiar refrain: Johan will go to Florida and get ready for Spring Training. It’s as if “Florida” is where the Mets tell kids where their favorite injured players went — kind of like That Farm Upstate. This makes it four of five years that he’s been a Met when a season ends with Santana long absent from their rotation as the year ends. The cycle of long-term contract grief just goes round and round in that regard.

But it had to end this way after he slid from three perfect frames to start against Washington last Friday to frighteningly ineffective [7] over the next two. He stood bravely in front of his locker later saying he planned to make his next start, the one that will now be assumed by Collin McHugh. I didn’t believe it when Johan said it. I don’t believe Johan believed it when Johan said it. When I saw Johan say it, I thought of Spencer Tracy as aging Mayor Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah [8], voted out of office after an eternity of dedicated service to his constituents. In his concession speech, Tracy announced he planned to run for governor.

A couple of scenes later, he was dead.

Which brings us back to the Mets and how they’ve played this August and every August since 2009. They’ve participated in 103 games in these past four Augusts and lost 64 of them. The Mets of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 haven’t necessarily been great from April through July, but when make-or-break time rolls around, the Mets roll over. Translating that 39-64 mark to a full MLB season, they’ve howled their way to a 61-101 pace, or as “dog days” as it gets.

Make no mistake: “dog” is an appropriate phrase to apply to this August edition of the Mets, and not in the man’s best friend sense. The Mets haven’t just given up. The Mets give up over and over. The Mets do not play hard. The Mets do not play to win. The Mets do not play not to lose. The Mets play to get it over with. You can see that on SNY and WPIX (unless Cablevision prevents you from the latter [9]). I saw it from very up close Tuesday night as I was privileged to sit next to some of my favorite folks in one of those cushy seats three rows behind home plate — which is part of a nicer story that deserves telling in a sunnier context — and observe from as near a vantage point as one can what a baseball game really looks like when the home team is neither trying nor succeeding.

The Mets looked so beaten from the start, so overmatched — by nine guys wearing Rockies uniforms, eight of whom I’d never heard of before Monday night. What killed me about it, as I watched each Met take his on-deck swings; study the opposing pitcher; step to the plate; and theoretically compete was how little effort seemed to inform their approach. There was very little hustling to first base. There was very little hustling in general. There was an air of que sera, sera to the whole enterprise and very little ability visible to the not wholly untrained eye. Sure, I show up in a good seat and now I’m an expert, but I’ve been watching the game for 44 years. I’d recognize a spark if I saw one. I saw none.

Then just to make sure my eyes weren’t lying to me, I watched Wednesday on TV to see if I was missing something in person. I don’t think I was. These guys these last two nights, excepting Harvey for six innings and Chris Young before he hit his predictable wall, are lacking purpose. They show up at the office because they have to. I watched BP Tuesday night from the field, not the first time I’ve done that in this current malaise period. BP may rightly be described as a “colossal waste of time [10],” but whose fault is that? If you play for a team that’s lost massively more than it’s won for more than a month, why on earth wouldn’t you use your time seriously and intensively to improve yourself? The Mets come on the field, get in the cage, do what their routine dictates and prepare to be beaten by teams as good as the Nationals and as bad as the Rockies.

That’s how it looks from here, anyway. When Terry Collins insists his teams don’t play fundamentally unsound baseball [11], he’d be advised to take a look, too. Because the only team he has does play fundamentally unsound baseball. Their lack of talent — which even Sandy Alderson explicitly acknowledged to Mike Francesa Wednesday afternoon (can somebody tell me his vaunted “plan” again?) — is forgivable on an individual basis. But a) not doing things full-out and b) not doing things correctly are the baseball equivalent of sinful. Alderson is charged with constructing a representative roster, which he and his staff haven’t done (due partly to lingering Minaya and Madoff effects and partly to his own staff’s misjudgments). Collins is charged with having the players who are here en pointe, as they say in ballet. He should have them ready to go from the first pitch and ready to fight to the last pitch.

He has them ready to go home. Or they’re ready to go home, and he and his staff haven’t done enough to maintain their readiness. Collins isn’t responsible for the first two dismal Augusts noted above but the last two are all his, especially this one. Collins was congratulated far and wide for having this bunch playing the right way in April, May and June. There’s nothing to recommend whatever he’s doing since July got going and August proceeded to sink its claws into the Mets’ will to live. I’m not calling for the manager’s head, because honestly I’m tired of regime change, but as a longstanding advocate for and customer of this team, I am yearning for some kind of shakeup. He’s gotta do something different now, just as Alderson has to get him a whole lot of somebodies different eventually. The pixie dust from the season’s first third has left no residue. It’s another awful August in another awful era.

And man, it is awful. Sunday afternoon, in my de facto drug-induced state [12], I listened to Eddie Coleman take calls while he sat in Nationals Park riding out the rain delay. A cheer went up behind him. It wasn’t the tarp coming off the field, he explained, but the crowd reacting to the Dodgers doing something to the Braves on DiamondVision. The Nationals are in a pennant race. Their fans — whatever their caliber of fandom [13] — have something to cheer about, something to be invested in this August. The Braves fans have that. The Phillies and Marlins fans don’t, but at some point in the past four years, they’ve been able to take their team varying degrees of seriously. Across the National League Central and West in August from 2009 to 2012, acolytes of every team but the Astros have been able to pay attention to the scoreboard like it matters in at least one August because it has mattered to them.

It hasn’t mattered to us since 2008, which is now a very long time ago. Never mind how 2008 and 2007 ended in shame. At least we had an August. We’re barren now. We’re reduced to straining to eavesdrop on others’ Augusts. Good for the Nationals fans. Good for the Braves fans. No good for us now or lately.

Yet I do watch and I do listen and I do attend, even when there are no cushy third-row seats waiting for me. I was at three consecutive Mets-Marlins game two weeks ago. I will be at today’s Mets-Rockies game after having been at Monday’s and Tuesday’s. I will be at Saturday’s Mets-Astros game. I’m there with people like me who don’t give up our affinity just because the Mets have taken away the significance of our Augusts. We love our team and our habit too much, no matter that we are shy of a logical reason why we should. We love the game even though the games are detestable. We love the ritual no matter that losing has uncomfortably become part and parcel of it. We love baseball and we’re not severely interested in anybody else’s version of it except ours.

It is our blessing when we anticipate it and arrive to be immersed in it, and it is our curse as it unfolds unhappily before us. Yet here we are caring about it, because once August becomes September and September becomes a memory, lousy Mets baseball will be vaguely preferable to none at all. Not by much, but by enough.

Still, it shouldn’t be this way. This fan base deserves better. Every fan base would say so on its own behalf, but it’s really been so long since our Augusts bristled with anything but disgust that one can objectively say it’s our turn to have a whirl in the pennant race spotlight. The Nats are finally getting theirs. The Pirates are finally getting theirs. The Orioles in the other league are finally getting theirs. The Mets are getting nowhere except deeper into their annual August nothingness.

Run to first, at least. Run to first and sprint to September. It won’t kill you and it can only make us stronger.