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The Disturbingly Unknown Quantity

Saturday’s was one of those games in which you tend to focus on one key element that went awry until you realize the other key element never went anywhere and thus rendered the first key element’s awryness moot. Noah Syndergaard [1], Terry Collins said, threw two bad pitches. Your impulse will be to obsess on those two bad pitches, each of which were turned into home runs with a man or more on base. And you will, because they resulted in five runs allowed, and there’s no way you can ignore your talented starter surrendering five runs on two swings. You will search for a rationale. You will rue pitch selection and BABIP bloops and FIP fates. You will seek to dissect Syndergaard’s pair of shortcomings all the way from here to Denmark [2].

But you can’t ignore the other key element. The Mets didn’t hit a lick against Michael Pineda [3] and the approximately 48 Yankees relievers who trudged in behind him at Joe Girardi [4]’s hyperactive direction. Together, the 49 of them shut out the Mets [5], 5-0.

If Collins’s one big moment of managing — pinch-hitting Juan Uribe [6] for Lucas Duda [7] with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth when the Mets were already down by five — had paid off, yet the Mets still lost by, say, 5-3 or 5-4, the impulse probably would be to fret over the hitting. We’d feel reassured that Syndergaard pitched very well (6 IP, 8 SO, 0 BB) when he wasn’t making the two bad pitches (a fastball to Carlos Beltran [8], a sinker to Brian McCann [9]).

But why couldn’t they get one more big hit?

Why couldn’t they bring one more runner home in a key situation?

Where is Yoenis Cespedes [10] (0-for-17) and why have you replaced him with Folgers Crystals?

What is Kevin Long doing to stop this offensive shame spiral? Can we get Lamar Johnson [11] back?

How about Dave Hudgens [12]?

Yeah, hi Pete, you’ve got a great show, first time, long time, listen, I wanna know why Terry isn’t batting Cespedes ninth, they need to get Wally up here to read him the riot act and maybe overturn a few buffet tables, the guy’s a total bum.

None of that happened. Uribe struck out and Saturday’s bottom-of-the-inning paucity continued unabated. Nevertheless, the nagging feeling never left the pitching side.

It was pitching that carried the Mets through the Cespedesless portion of summer [13], back when everybody was going 0-for-17 and nobody batted an eyelash (though if Collins had batted an eyelash cleanup, it would have been an improvement over John Mayberry [14]). It was pitching that provided the floor — keeping the Mets from ever falling more than 4½ back while waiting for the lumber-carrying cavalry to arrive — for an otherwise anemic attack. The pitchers executed Dan Warthen [15]’s master plan of throwing “strikes when you have to” and “balls when you want to”. The starters as a unit made you feel like Dwight Gooden [16] did in 1985. Gooden admitted to Tom Verducci [17] in Sports Illustrated that when he was having his season of a lifetime, he quietly rooted for his teammates to get him a run or two and then make their outs already yet so he could go back to the mound. Three decades later, I understood the impulse. I only wanted to watch our pitchers. For that matter, the only Met hitters I wanted to watch were our pitchers.

Now? Nowadays, give or take an unheralded Marlin rookie or bulging Yankee battalion (Pineda, fine…but six relievers for fourteen outs with a five-run lead?), you figure the Mets are going to hit. There will be slumps, but slumps end. Even if slumps are slow to cease and desist, all it takes sometimes is one good inning of hitting to make everything better for your batters.

It’s never that simple for your pitchers, especially our pitchers. One bad inning of pitching makes everybody anxious. Two bad innings can quickly equal a loss. A loss fuels anxiety. The element you counted on to prevent or at least curtail losing is no longer a certainty. It’s not a matter of Syndergaard not matching Pineda on a given Saturday. It’s Syndergaard not matching Syndergaard from June or deGrom not measuring up to deGrom from July or Harvey…

Oy, Harvey, and all that implies [18].

Pitching is more than the backbone of a baseball team. It is the back discomfort of baseball. “When it comes to backs,” I never get tired of quoting Paulie Walnuts quoting a doctor friend of his, “nobody knows anything, really.” Nobody knows what good inning limits really do. Nobody knows how resilient anybody’s arm really is. Nobody really knows why there were Hall of Fame pitchers who took the ball every fifth (or fourth) day for a generation and rarely missed a start and nobody really knows why all the TLC in the world can’t divert a fresh, young gun from the DL let alone TJS.

What I don’t know is if the set of solutions the Mets are attempting to apply to their pitching questions will answer anything. Let’s skip a day. Let’s skip a start. Let’s skip Harvey into the clubhouse after five. Let’s leave it to Logan Verrett [19] to make everything better. Logan Verrett filled in twice for Harvey. Logan Verrett will fill in for deGrom on Tuesday. Logan Verrett is this organization’s little blue pill. I hope they’re taking him as directed.

Goodness knows this staff is talented. If goodness knows anything else, I hope goodness will let us know ASAP. DeGrom looks tired. Syndergaard throws two bad pitches out of 88 and somehow gives up five runs. Harvey has a recurring case of the agent. Steven Matz [20] isn’t the least bit grizzled. Jon Niese [21] is excessively frazzled. Bartolo Colon [22] is Bartolo Colon, which is usually great, except for those nights when it decidedly isn’t. Sharpness has been in short supply in general. Still, you’ve gotta trust that enough of these exceptionally talented fellows will sharpen in time for those moments when there won’t be time to work it through; or to rest them up; or to skip merrily along and let Logan do it.

For 148 games, it’s been a long season. You’d be inflicting harm only on yourself if you didn’t relax a little when everything didn’t go right. Those 148 were played to get us to the 14 games that remain and then (knock wood) an unknown quantity beyond. The known quantity that got us most of the way here was starting pitching. I wish I could know that it will be as sound as it was in the heat of summer the rest of the way. It is the lengths our starting pitching can go to that will likely determine how long our impending autumn will run.

In theory, relaxation is still advisable. In practice, good luck with that.