- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Sound of One Team Racing

For consistency’s sake, we shall continue to refer to the state of affairs in which we’ve been thoroughly immersed as a pennant race, even if ours is the only team any longer racing.

Mathematical niceties demand we maintain on our faces an expression of severe purposefulness when the subjects of games ahead and games remaining arise. Well-entrenched protocols insist we at least attempt to appear thoroughly engrossed in scoreboard-watching until a handy little ‘x’ appears to the left of the line in the standings to which our eye is instinctively drawn. We have been on both sides of the IAO = TIO equation. There is no benefit in declaring as over anything that ain’t technically over [1].

But between you, me and the ghost of the most famous black cat in baseball history, this thing we call a pennant race in the National League’s Eastern Division…it’s over.

We know it’s over. I’d say they know it’s over, yet I’d have trouble identifying a “they” in this dynamic.

The New York Mets are in first place by seven games with 23 games remaining. Those figures alone aren’t enough to ensure an optimal outcome. What lends the prevailing sense of overness its necessary emotional clout is how we’ve arrived at seven up with 23 to play.

Oh, how we’ve arrived.

On September 9, 1969, that aforementioned black cat strode in front of the Chicago Cubs’ dugout [2] at Shea Stadium. The Cubs had been spiraling downward, the Mets scratching and clawing upward. The ebony feline’s choice of path made the outcome of the race in progress spiritually official. Never mind that the Cubs were a game-and-a-half ahead of the Mets when the cat got a load of Ron Santo [3], then Leo Durocher [4], then scurried off. Never mind that the Cubs would cling to a half-game lead for the next 24 or so hours. Legend decided on the spot that September 9 was the night that the Mets, like their cat, ran away and hid for good.

On September 9, 2015, the home dugout at Nationals Park represented the locus of all the world’s bad luck. This time you couldn’t blame a cat. Who needs superstition when you’ve got a manager named Matt staring stoically from beneath a crisp Nat hat? The Matt in the hat had guided his team to the edge of going “splat!”

The Mets in the other dugout simply gave Matt’s Nats a merciful tap. From there, the splat was inevitable.

After the Mets stormed from behind forcefully on Monday [5] and almost (almost) shockingly on Tuesday [6], there was no reason to believe the Mets couldn’t mount a third consecutive comeback on Wednesday. These are the Mets in one of those Septembers when if we’re not peeking around alleys for cats, we’re fiercely engaged in the act of Belief. It’s like we Gotta, or something.

What distinguished Wednesday’s game from its immediate predecessors was that for the first time during this set of games in which the Nationals let leads of 5-3 and 7-1 slip away, they actually looked almost unbeatable, living up at last to their Natitudinal self-image. The concept that their franchise is something special is built on three core elements:

1) Having drafted Stephen Strasburg [7] first overall in 2009.

2) Having drafted Bryce Harper [8] first overall in 2010.

3) Supplementing the presence of Strasburg and Harper with enough ancillary talent to ensure that almost any idiot could manage them successfully.

Almost any idiot.

For the vast majority of one night, the plan was working without flaw. Strasburg was everything Bob Costas cracked him up to be [9] when, during Strasburg’s maiden start as a major leaguer, America’s Announcer elbowed Walter Johnson [10] aside in the quest to identify the greatest pitcher the District of Columbia had ever called its own. With the exception of a Travis d’Arnaud [11] home run in the second, the Mets couldn’t do a thing with Strasburg, whose curveball broke across home plate with disturbing regularity.

Meanwhile, when the Nationals batted, Bryce Harper [8]’s quality matched the advertising thereof. Statistics suggest Harper is the league’s leading MVP candidate. Nobody who wasn’t Strasburg was more valuable in keeping the 2015 N.L. East race conceivably viable than Harper on Wednesday. There was a homer, a double and two runs scored off an otherwise sound Jacob deGrom [12]. There would later be a second homer, that one off Tyler Clippard [13]. Harper resembled the one-man wrecking crew we’d heard so much about, just as Strasburg — a dozen strikeouts and zero runs allowed from the third through the seventh — was Acela Express enough to make Washington forget the Big Train.

Plus, all Williams had to do was sit back and watch his platinum studs in action. Let Harper hit, let Strasburg pitch, let Williams make no decisions whatsoever. An event as rare as bipartisan comity seemed imminent in our nation’s capital: the Nationals were going to take a crucial game from the Mets.

Ah, but the Nats were up against a wrecking crew whose thickness in numbers was matched by its fortitude. The Mets roll out a pretty studly outfit of their own these September nights. DeGrom was outshone by Strasburg, but by no means outclassed. Jacob went seven, permitted two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out nine. In the one inning that could have slipped from his grasp, he was supported by his teammates in an episode that hinted at where this game would ultimately go.

This was in the fourth, the inning when Harper doubled and scored on Clint Robinson [14]’s single. That made it 2-1 Nats, with one out and the home team threatening to do more. Anthony Rendon [15], instead of being ordered to bunt (!), swung away and belted a base hit to right. Robinson, a truck horse in the Keith Hernandez [16] vernacular, decided to challenge the throwing arm of Curtis Granderson [17]. A few months ago, a tree stump could have challenged the throwing arm of Curtis Granderson and succeeded. But Granderson, like all the Mets, has kept getting better at his craft. He fired a strong peg to third. It was a tad too late to nail the lumbering Robinson…but wait just a sec…did Robinson come off the bag while David Wright [18] kept a tag plastered to his person?

Why, yes he did. Robinson had just run the Nationals into the most unnecessary of second outs. The next batter, Wilson Ramos [19], lined out to center to end the fourth. After that, deGrom settled in and matched zeroes with Strasburg. If it wasn’t a classic turning point of the game, it was a subtle clue that the Mets were prepared to pounce on the next available opportunity to turn the entire thing to their favor.

The eighth inning was pouncing time. Terry Collins decided he’d like Kelly Johnson [20] to match up against Strasburg to lead off, so he pinch-hit Kelly for Wilmer Flores [21]. On the radio, Howie Rose mused the Mets would need a modern-day Ron Swoboda [22] to step up if they wanted to get to this Stephen the way their predecessors got to Steve Carlton [23] that night in 1969 when Carlton was striking out Mets like crazy but forgot to mow down Rocky, who blasted the two two-run homers [24] that have since taken their place alongside the black cat in Miracle lore.

Maybe a nanosecond after Rose invoked Swoboda, Johnson evoked Swoboda, taking Strasburg over the wall and causing Howie to commit (for him) near-sacrilege. “Who needs Swoboda?” Howie exulted. “The Mets have Johnson!” They also had a tie game, thanks to perhaps the most clutch home run the Mets hit all season until the next one.

The next one wasn’t far off. After Strasburg fanned pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis [25] for his thirteenth strikeout, Granderson singled. Williams removed Strasburg and opted to send Drew Storen [26] to handle Yoenis Cespedes [27]. The previous time we had seen those two face off, the night before, Cespedes was lining a three-run double to left. But it’s Williams’s ballclub, so let’s let his move speak for itself.

Better yet, let’s let Howie Rose speak for the Storen pitch Cespedes proceeded to crush to kingdom come:

“It’s goin’ for a ride! It’s not comin’ back!”

Peerless Yo from south of Manzanillo (Cuba) had done it again, launching a two-run home run that changed the complexion of another Mets-Nats game and hastened the conclusion of the rapidly receding Mets-Nats race. It was, according to Elias, Cespedes’s millionth enormous extra-base hit since he came ashore at the Port of Flushing on August 1. The Mets now led 4-2. A distinct “meow!” could be heard over where the Washington team sat and stewed.

No black cat was spotted. No black cat had to be.

Harper would bat again, which makes for dangerous terrain, but if you pitch to him in the circumstances Clippard did — two out, bases empty — you can deal with Bryce being Bryce. Bryce did go deep for the second time in the game, but that made it only 4-3. Rendon then beat out an bunt hit to make the situation a bit dicey, particularly when Robinson looped a ball into left field, but there would be no dice for the Nationals. Cool customer Michael Conforto [28] fashioned a shoestring grab reminiscent of one Cleon Jones [29] made in the 1969 World Series to end the bottom of the eighth.

Did I mention 1969 again? Seems to have been in the air, especially when Lucas Duda [30] doubled off Jonathan Papelbon [31] to commence the ninth inning and Conforto ultimately singled in pinch-runner Eric Young [32] to make the score 5-3. That’s the same score by which the Mets won the deciding game of that ’69 Series, also the same score that Jeurys Familia [33] went on to preserve with his 39th save of ’15.

Coincidentally, the Mets won Monday’s game against the Nationals, 8-5, the same score by which the Mets won the deciding game of their other jubilant World Series, the one played in 1986. Yes, just another coincidence.

1969…1986…apologies if we’re subliminally getting ahead of ourselves in the giddy wake of a spectacular sweep [34]. The only entity the 2015 Mets explicitly meant to get ahead of this week was the 2015 Nationals.

That they seem to have done decisively.

Remember the Matt Harvey [35] controversy? Me neither at this point, but I did join Robert Brender and Toby Hyde to discuss Matt’s contretemps and other matters of interest on SNY’s Mostly Mets podcast. Listen in here [36].