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Pennant Race Muscle Memory

Saturday was just mild disgust, the kind that’s been de rigueur in Metsopotamia since 2009. You know how it goes: our starting pitcher is taken early and often into distant seating sections, our lineup falls easy prey to his opposite number and it rains before it can end. The Mets indeed played one of their patented period stinkers, which haven’t been abundant the past couple of months but certainly are familiar to anybody who’s spent recent seasons in the company of this team.

Friday, however…Friday was interesting. Friday provided, if you faithful readers will pardon the expression, something of a flashback. On Friday, the Mets won one resoundingly [1] and lost one excruciatingly [2]. Yeah, that part was interesting, but what really got me was that I didn’t shrug at either result. I took them both to heart. The win ignited my imagination. The loss dampened my reality.

That may sound obvious, but this was different from what I’d become accustomed to in this era of diminished expectations. I actually expected the Mets to sweep that split doubleheader. I actually reveled after the first game. I actually rode a wave of adrenaline into the second game. I was actually let down when it didn’t work out.

I’ve been happy from isolated positive results since the last time the Mets were in a pennant race but I haven’t been much hot or bothered by things going wrong on a given night. They’re the Mets, I reasoned. What did I expect — for them to win?

On Friday, July 26, 2013, yes. Yes I did. The stakes struck me as not quite enormous but significant. How significant? When Ross Ohlendorf popped David Wright to short to end the fifth inning, thus leaving Daniel Murphy on base with the run that would have increased Matt Harvey’s 1-0 lead, I thought, “Great, just like Cone getting Piazza to pop out in the fifth inning of Game Four.”

That’s Game Four of the 2000 World Series, the contest that’s held to determine the champions of the baseball world. That’s where my head was racing in the wake of Jenrry Mejia elbowing his way into a rotation dripping with talent during the opener. That’s what I was thinking as the Mets strove to pull within six games of .500. Not within six games of first-place Atlanta, just a scooch closer to statistical respectability.

Following that turn of events, I should find myself reporting that I was crushed in the same fashion LaTroy Hawkins’s final fastball was by Ryan Zimmerman to conclude Friday eighteenth inning and, woe is me, why did I fall for this again? But y’know what? Letdown didn’t equal crushed. The sensation of taking these Mets ultraseriously only lasted for a few hours, but I liked the feeling that these games mattered. I liked calculating the likelihood of leaving our nation’s capital in second place. I liked looking at our schedule for September and weighing it against the Braves’ schedule (yes, I did this between games Friday). I liked elevating the outcomes of Mets games to a whole new level of mattering.

Or a whole old level. This was how I was when every pitch was crucial, every swing held possibility, every flicker from the out-of-town scoreboard dispatched vital information that held the fate of our world in its bulbs. We haven’t had that for real since the end of 2008, since the end of Shea Stadium. We’ve only had a handful of pennant races and playoff pushes pay off in our favor, but gosh, what fun it is just to take part in one. I mean really take part in one. Not early only to fade as in 2012. Not on spec only to discover pennant fever was hypochondriacal as in 2011 and 2010. But deep and lasting and absorbing to the point where little to nothing else penetrates your consciousness. How could anything else measure up to the Mets driving hard to late September with a legitimate eye toward early October?

When a team is good enough, that team’s fan is not satisfied by anything less than a world championship. When a team isn’t quite that good, that team’s fan still wants the ultimate prize but can be bought off by a pennant or a division title or a Wild Card berth. When our team is where it’s been for five long seasons, all we can ask for is the first step: get  better. Improve. Win in encouraging proportion to how often you lose. Then win as much as you lose. Then win more than you lose. Then win more than most or all of your divisional competitors. Contend for something beyond promise. Then make the playoffs and climb the ladder it offers to the stars.

I’m not delusional enough to think we and our team are taking all those steps at once. But for a few hours one Friday in late July, during a year when we had yet to definitively exit the road leading to a fifth consecutive losing record, it really felt like we were in the midst of honest-to-Metness progress. The feeling wore off when the night was over. Saturday did nothing to rekindle it [3]. What Sunday brings is unknown. But I swear I tasted it. Or I dreamt I tasted it. And I believe another, more substantial sample is en route — maybe not soon, but for the first time in ages, sooner than later. Too many things have looked too good for two months to believe otherwise.

We’re movin’ on up. A piece of the pie can’t be far away.

Relive a couple of pennant races that worked out very nicely and some of the seasons that set the stage for them: The Happiest Recap: First Base (1962-1973) [4]. It’s Amazin’ reading for all Mets fans and great practice for when we really are blessed with games full of extraordinary meaning one of these Septembers.