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All About First Place

I recently found myself in a store called Healthy Alternatives, an establishment that bills itself as a “holistic center and specialty shop”. Amid all the doodads and potions designed to reduce a person’s stress hung a sign:

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

The attribution was “Unknown,” but I assume whoever was quoted had been watching the National League East take shape this winter.

So much for reducing stress.

The Washington Nationals are shooting for the moon, perhaps another planet. They are the Scott Kelly [1] of our division, planning for an extended stay in the stratosphere. They just laid in a supply of Max Scherzer [2], for heaven’s sake. They have more stellar starting pitching than Neil Armstrong had Tang. You almost get the idea that standing pat isn’t good enough for them.

The moon may seem a prohibitive destination in a division crowded at its crown by the Nationals, but the Miami Marlins, situated somewhere south of Cape Canaveral, don’t seem averse to attempting liftoff. We are conditioned to assume the Marlins are destined to implode on the launch pad and then sell the charred remains of Giancarlo Stanton’s Louisville Sluggers for parts, but as Jonah Keri outlines [3], they’re trying to be a real baseball team these days. A real contending baseball team. One that builds from a foundation of promise and adds to it.

The Marlins may not win a division title, but they’re trying. For that matter, because nothing is guaranteed, the Nationals may not win a division title, but they’re trying. If you try and fail, then at least there’s a potential fallback position within the space of the National League. There’s the Wild Card. There’s two of them, even.

On the other hand, shoot for a Wild Card and miss, what do you land among? The Phillies and Braves, probably.

There are the teams who are trying to win a lot. There are the teams who are hoping to win enough. There are a few who are taking a raincheck for now. The Phillies and Braves are raincheckers, though I’ve lived long enough to never trust that the Braves can’t make trouble. The Nationals and Marlins are aiming at a lot of wins. The Mets? They seem to hope that “enough” will be enough.

Blame the World Champion San Francisco Giants (touring a Metropolis near you [4]) for making enough look adequate and making adequate look easy. How many games did the Giants win last season? Fewer than the Nationals. Then they proceeded to beat the Nationals, along with everybody who else who blocked their path to ultimate enlightenment. Lesson generally derived: What’s the point of winning a surfeit of games when you don’t need the extras to go all the way?

Lesson that should be derived: Try to win as much as you can because you’re probably not going to have everything turn out as you wish and you could thus use the cushion for when things go wrong.

The Giants were a powerhouse in 2014 before they became merely a house. They were in first place by 10 games on June 8, yet vacated first place before August dawned and finished six behind the Dodgers and a tiebreaker in back of the Pirates. Conversely, it took the Nationals a little while to rev up their power. Washington started June under .500 and in third place behind the Braves and the Marlins. They took the division by 17 games anyway. When it mattered most, each team had the requisite number of wins to gain entry into the playoffs. But I never got the impression that the bare minimum was either side’s goal.

The Mets give me every impression that if they have a goal, it is to invest the bare minimum of resources to gain the bare minimum of wins that will get them to what we shall call the Big Five Tournament. They signed Michael Cuddyer in November. They showed off Michael Cuddyer on Thursday [5]. In between…not much. Not much for a team that went 79-83 and needs what went wrong last year to go much better this year and what went right last year to not go terribly wrong this year.

If that process works, then we’ll all enjoy watching the first postseason pitch thrown in Flushing since Adam Wainwright’s curveball of October 18, 2006, on that 62%-larger scoreboard the Mets seem so excited about [6]. If that process doesn’t work, can we really be surprised?