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The Cheers for Wilmer

There have been more exhausting 48-hour stretches in the life of a Mets fan — the desperate scramble at the end of the ’99 season comes to mind — but not for a very long time. And perhaps there’s never been such an insane rollercoaster of emotions over so few hours, with euphoria, anger, confusion, despair, and pure joy shoving each other out of one’s brainpan almost too rapidly to be processed.

To review, in case you’re too muddled or exhausted:

On Wednesday night [1], while losing feebly to the Padres despite three home runs from Lucas Duda [2], the Mets acquired Carlos Gomez [3] from the Brewers in return for Zack Wheeler [4] and Wilmer Flores [5]. Or at least that deal was reported by many media outlets, subject only to the usual pending review of medical records, which means nothing 999 times out of 1,000. The bizarre, digital-age twist was that Flores found out he’d been traded during the action, from fans on their cellphones. Instead of being removed, he played the rest of the game in tears, upset at being sent away from the only organization he’d known since signing up to be a professional baseball player at 16.

Then, shockingly, it turned out Flores hadn’t been traded after all. The Mets had gotten cold feet about the medical records, or perhaps had an 11th-hour change of mind about taking on payroll. While Terry Collins [6] ranted about fans looking at their phones instead of the game, a visibly angry Sandy Alderson explained there was no trade with Milwaukee and would be no trade.

On Thursday [7], with an understandably rattled Flores excused active participation, the Mets racked up a 7-1 lead over the Padres, which had eroded to a 7-5 lead in the 9th by the time Jeurys Familia [8] faced Derek Norris [9] with two out and nobody on. It began to rain hard, but final batters have suffered through spitting lava and hurtling meteors in the name of concluding things. Not this time — the umps pulled the teams off the field. Forty-five minutes or so later, Familia went back out there and gave up two singles and a three-run homer to Justin Upton [10] before it started raining again, leaving the Mets to wait for nearly three hours before succumbing meekly to Craig Kimbrel [11] and so complete an unimaginably disastrous loss. (You can witness my astonishment [12] as it occurred on the latest I’d Just as Soon Kiss a Mookiee podcast with Shannon Shark of MetsPolice [13] — we were recording as everything crashed down around us.)

For some fanbases, that would be enough drama for a month, but the Mets were just getting warm.

On Friday afternoon [14] Alderson pulled off a pretty fair Plan B deal, adding slugger Yoenis Cespedes [15] from Detroit for Michael Fulmer [16] and Luis Cessa [17], two capable minor-league arms who might or might not amount to anything. The only disappointment was that Cespedes was in Baltimore, just slightly too far away to arrive for the night’s tilt with the first-place Nationals. (Or at least for the beginning of it, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Cue euphoria in Metsdom — which, a bit oddly, was amplified by the fact that it might not have been the best long-term thinking. Cespedes’ contract was engineered to make him a free agent — he has to be released five days after the World Series, merits no qualifying offer, and the Mets then can’t negotiate with him until May 15. In other words, he’s almost certainly a rental — which means the Mets are going for it this year, finally pushing chips into the pile instead of talking vaguely about long-term plans and stockpiled prospects. That’s not normally something to be praised, but a summer in which one’s team seems determined to pass up a chance at a division title will lead to some odd reactions. The Mets haven’t won anything in the last week of dealing, but they have wiped away a corrosive narrative.

Exhausted yet? Too bad, because all of that was just a prelude for one of the most entertaining, riveting and ultimately rewarding Mets games in years — the kind of game that proved baseball can craft an odder storyline than anything a fan’s feverish brain could come up with.

Once upon a time tonight, Matt Harvey [18] had a perfect game in the sixth inning. It went by the boards, and in the eighth Harvey’s skinny 1-0 lead did the same. With two outs, the Mets ace was undone by a series of small events, as tends to happen when a starter is only given a lone run for offense.

Harvey had been great, darting fastballs to the outside corner and mixing them with a sharp, rejuvenated slider. But I’d sensed disaster coming — in part because the land beyond 100 pitches is often hostile territory for Harvey, but also because it was the Nats at Cifi Field.

The first sign of trouble was a ball in the dirt that the umpires ruled had hit pinch-hitter Clint Robinson [19] in the foot, though replay seemed to show no such thing. That apparent injustice (with the usual five minutes of standing around) was followed by a sharp grounder hit by Anthony Rendon [20] to Juan Uribe [21]‘s left, which Uribe could corral but do no more with. Harvey seemed to have Yunel Escobar [22] at a disadvantage, having hobbled him with a foul off his foot, but then Escobar smacked a single up the middle, tying the game and ending Harvey’s night.

But the fun was only beginning. Tyler Clippard [23] came in and bore down against Jayson Werth [24], he of the Grizzly Adams beard and Oscar the Grouch disposition. Armed with a change-up and a fastball, Clippard attacked his old teammate up and down and side to side, with Werth shortening his swing and spoiling pitch after pitch after pitch. I stopped trying to predict pitches after seven or so and stopped exhorting Clippard to beat Werth at around the 10-pitch mark — I was simultaneously worn out and enthralled by their Dunstonesque battle. Clippard’s 13th pitch was a fastball at the very bottom of the strike zone on the corner — a perfect pitch that ended the threat and sent Werth off glowering and muttering.

The bad news as the game ground along through the ninth and into extra innings was the Nats’ bullpen was looking very sharp, with longtime superbrat [25] Gio Gonzalez [26] having been replaced by Tanner Roark [27] and Aaron Barrett. [28] Both Nats relievers looked unhittable, as did Felipe Rivero [29], who had an unnerving but effective habit of missing with 95 MPH fastballs that swerved right at left-handed hitters.

The Mets’ pen, meanwhile, seemed to be succeeding in spite of itself. Clippard’s curve was MIA and he kept leaving change-ups too high in the strike zone. Familia’s been a mess for some time, and his slider was consistently elevated. Behind them you had Hansel Robles [30], last seen giving up a grand slam to San Diego that turned out to be more than cosmetic damage, and the nerve-gnawing prospect of one or both Torri.

But the Mets survived. They survived pitches in bad locations and Nationals hitters who approached their at-bats like surgeons turned assassins. Did they get a little help from home-plate ump Jerry Meals? Yep — but then Meals’s strike zone had been equitably odd all night, and Bryce Harper [31]‘s ejection following an 11th-inning tantrum was more than justified, with Meals giving the mercurial young star plenty of chances to walk away and gesticulate from the relative safety of the dugout.

Harper’s departure left Matt Williams [32] with a distinct lack of outfielders, a problem he tried to solve by sending Dan Uggla [33] to first and moving Ryan Zimmerman [34] to left and Werth to right. This seemed ill-omened, as Zimmerman has a bad foot and Uggla had never played first before, though in fairness Uggla often plays second like it’s new to him, too. It turned out not to matter — the Nats would face four batters with their makeshift defense, recording two flyouts to center and a K.

That accounts for three of the batters faced. The fourth, leading off the 12th, was Wilmer Flores — the same Wilmer Flores who’d cried over being traded away, then found himself untraded.

Because baseball generates stories more wonderful and ridiculous and wildly dramatic than anything mere mortals can think of, the third pitch of the 12th inning was a Rivero fastball that had a little more plate and a little less steam than his previous offerings. Flores hammered it to left, a line shot that seemed to gain altitude as it traveled, bending back a fan’s oustretched hat in the Party City deck. A wide-eyed Flores floated around the bases as the Nats skulked away, then shucked his helmet and vanished into a scrum of his lost-and-regained teammates at home.

The crowd roared, of course. But while that ovation for Flores was wonderful — I’ve watched the clip of his homer six or seven times already tonight — I liked an earlier show of fan affection even more.

Way back in the first, Wilmer dove on his belly for a sharp Escobar grounder that he converted into an out. It was the first thing he’d done since the wrenching events of Wednesday night, and the Citi Field crowd rose and gave him a standing ovation.

It’s interesting to unpack what went into those cheers.

Part of it was that Flores has been treated roughly this year by his own club, sent out to a position he’d been told he couldn’t play and then unceremoniously dismissed from it, all amid the never-ending glare and blare of New York sports fandom. You heard an acknowledgment of that in the park Wednesday night as the crowd cheered what certainly appeared to be Flores’s last AB as a Met.

It was the tears too, of course — in a sign of at-least-fitful progress for humanity, Wilmer’s raw emotions Wednesday night weren’t derided as a sign of weakness, but welcomed as a reminder that ballplayers are human too.

Would a Dodger or a Yankee have been cheered for being overcome by his emotions in such circumstances? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably, even. But I think a big part of the cheers for Wilmer had to do with the uniform he was wearing.

Wilmer Flores signed with the Mets on August 6, 2007. It wasn’t very long after that when things started to go very wrong for his team. Not one but two collapses. Injuries endured, mishandled and ignored. A financial calamity, followed by serial dishonesty about its extent. Promises about expanded payrolls and competitive rosters … but not quite yet. Players sent away with anonymous knives in their backs. And losing. Lots and lots and lots of losing.

Through it all, the devoted and/or insane among us have kept the faith, have remained Mets fans despite that avocation being the emotional equivalent of taking up smoking. We’ve coped by turning to nostalgia, by exhibiting gallows humor, and by gritting our teeth and insisting that this time that bright light ahead isn’t a train.

Being traded away from all that seems like something a player would greet with clicked heels instead of red eyes. Yet Wilmer Flores, who’s never seen anything except Metsian chaos and calamity, wanted to stay and was moved to tears at the idea of being sent away.

You better believe we’ll cheer for that — win or lose.

But we didn’t lose [35], not tonight. We didn’t lose because the player who endured all that was granted the role of hero in a ridiculously dramatic finish.

And that’s a tale to make our own eyes a little red. Because if Wilmer Flores can be rewarded like that, who knows? Maybe there’s a storybook ending out there for us too.