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Catch Us, We’re Falling

Precedents don’t necessarily prove anything. All they tell us is whether something happened before, and it’s up to us if we want to take our clues from there.

Here’s the precedent that’s gonna kill us: If we fall out of first place — and, based on the results from Chicago [1] and everything that’s been going on with Washington, it seems a matter of hours before we do — there’s no chance we’re getting back in.

That’s not a prediction. That’s the precedent. It’s not guaranteed; it’s just that there has never been a season in which the Mets (once the season is more than a couple of weeks old) have grabbed hold of a division lead, let go of it and gotten it back.

Think about it through the prism of our five division titles:

1969: The Mets famously took first place (“LOOK WHO’S NO. 1”) following Game 140, the first half of their September 10 doubleheader versus the Expos. They kept first place by sweeping Montreal and they never relinquished it.

1973: You Gotta Believe that when the Mets won their fourth in a row from the Pirates on September 21 — Game 154 — they moved into first place and didn’t for a second move out.

1986: After Game 10, April 22, the Mets were tied for first with the Cardinals. The Mets were off on April 23. The Cardinals weren’t. They played and they lost, ceding the top of the N.L. East to their archrivals in advance of New York’s eleventh game of the season. The only things anybody else saw from there on out were the Mets’ tail lights disappearing in the distance.

1988: The Mets passed the Pirates on May 3, Game 24. Nobody passed the Mets thereafter.

2006: It wasn’t wire-to-wire, but it was close enough. The Mets became a first-place club on April 6, Game 3. They stayed a first-place club clear through October 1, Game 162.

And in seasons when the Mets did take a lead on the East but stepped aside to let somebody else get ahead of them? Those seasons exist, plenty of them. But you don’t see them listed above with the Met division-winners, do you? It’s possible for such a scenario to unfold and not destroy any thought of finishing first. Teams dip out of first place and then climb back in for keeps with regularity. None of those teams, however, has been the Mets.

The 2015 Mets grabbed a piece of first place on April 15 — Game 9 — and gathered in all of it the next night. We are now past Game 35 and the Mets are still the sole occupants of the divisional penthouse. I doubt any of us were expecting to be there at all, so if we’re not ensconced for the long haul, you can’t say we didn’t see it coming.

What we can see coming is the Washington Nationals in our rearview mirror. They were eight back about eight minutes ago (technically on April 27, after both they and we had played 20 games). Pending Thursday night’s West Coast action or rainy lack thereof, the Mets’ lead is down to one game. The Nats have been playing as they were projected to. The Mets have, as the saying goes, come back to earth.

I think we can all agree, based on the last four games’ worth of said plunge, that earth is overrated.

If you watched the Mets lose every game they played this week at Wrigley Field, you’d probably also agree that this is all transitory bookkeeping. If the season were to end right now, the Mets would be in line to be division champs, but it would be one of those deals where the official scorer would use his discretion to award the win to somebody else. Besides, the way the Mets are playing, can you buy the Mets as a champion of even a short season? Or a short-season league? Could you see them prevailing in the New York-Penn right now?

The key phrase there is “right now”. As they say on Avenue Q, being absolutely terrible at most phases of the game is only for now [2]…maybe. When your team isn’t hitting, it’s hard to imagine they ever will again. When your players’ heads aren’t fully engaged in the game, it’s hard to see them getting fundamentals religion. When just enough can go wrong on the mound, it’s hard to take solace in the notion that with pitching like the Mets have, they’ll never have a long losing streak.

They’re in the midst of a four-game losing streak as we speak. Thursday’s starter, Jon Niese [3], did nothing to halt it at three. This was the game in which the Mets hit for a while — three solo homers and a rare John Mayberry [4] RBI sighting — but it wasn’t enough. We’re in one of those stretches where nothing is enough. The Mets, at the moment, have a surfeit of nothing.

Turning around this prevailing trend would help the first-place precedent immensely. If they don’t stop being a first-place club, well, duh, they won’t stop being a first-place club. If they do, they’ll have to shatter precedent to resume being a first-place club. The way things are going, if precedent is shattered, precedent will wind up on the DL for three months.

Now that I’ve got us all in a good mood, how about a precedent that indicates we’re not dead yet? Perhaps it will turn that Chicago frown upside down.

We were swept four games at Wrigley Field. That’s the good news? Not exactly, but it’s not the end of our hopes and dreams, assuming we’re not hoping for and dreaming of only first place. This very month fifteen years ago, you see, the Mets were on another road trip, this one to San Francisco. It was 2000, the first year of Phone Company Park, and the Mets had four games with the Giants on their schedule.

The Mets arrived by the Bay and nearly drowned. They lost all four. They looked horrible in doing so (hard not to). And then what happened? Long story short, the Mets won the Wild Card and happened to beat the Giants in the playoffs en route to making the World Series.

There ya go: proof that being on the wrong end of a four-game sweep doesn’t bury your season in this modern age. Actually, if you look at the trajectory of the last Met team to raise a pennant, you see some similarities to the current edition. After stumbling around a bit, the 2000 Mets surged as April ensued, putting nine consecutive wins together at one point. Next thing you knew, though, there was the beautiful new ballpark in San Francisco and an ugly beatdown at the hands of the home team. The Mets couldn’t have seemed less likely to be playing deep into October.

But they did. They were good enough to have won nine in a row. They were good enough to rebound from a bad trip. A decade-and-a-half later, they could use a Piazza, sure, but they do have a Harvey and they can’t possibly be as dismal as they looked at Wrigley. What’s more, unlike in 2000, two Wild Cards are available these days. The Mets already have a better record than every Wild Card contender in the National League.

And every team in the N.L. East! It’s easy to forget that after what we just saw.

We didn’t solve any of the issues plaguing the Mets but we did have a whole lot of fun talking about it on the Rising Apple Podcast [5]. Listen in here [5].