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Baseball Like It Thoughta Be

Remember that weekend the Mets were vying for a Wild Card and the Minnesota Twins came into Citi Field with the worst record in baseball and you thought, “oh great, another one of those traps when the Mets inevitably play down to their competition,” and, sure enough, the Mets couldn’t score more than three runs in any of the three games, and they kept leaving runners on, and the Twins lived up to their Pesky Nats heritage [1], and the Mets had to keep reaching deep into their bullpen, and they were using as a starter in the middle of a playoff race somebody who’d never started in the major leagues before and he was out of the finale in the fifth, and there was more devastating injury news, and…

The Mets won all three games. Remember that.

You’re not used to it, but good things happen to the Mets. More precisely, the Mets make good things happen to themselves.

They took the schedule they were issued, they added to it dried cut grass and they made hay. They swept the allegedly dreadful Minnesota Twins three straight at home. I’m sure the former Washington Senators (original edition [2]) have earned their worst record in baseball, but they looked perfectly professional to me. The Mets scored three, three and three runs against them in the three games and won, won and won again.

Somebody wearing a home uniform must have been doing something right. Lots of somebodies, as it turned out.

Admission to the postseason isn’t gained on the strength of one hot batter or one unbeatable pitcher. It takes a roster. In the Mets’ case, it takes an expanded roster. An organization that doesn’t celebrate Old Timers Day nonetheless dipped into its storied past and invited Lucas Duda [3] and Juan Lagares [4] to take bows before the crowd on Sunday. Back from incapacitating injuries, Lucas (starting first baseman until pinch-hit for in the sixth) and Juan (a defensive replacement in center in the ninth) made appearances not for ceremonial purposes, but to help the team for whom they technically still play win a game, sweep a series and near a playoff. Neither contributed anything tangible to the cause, but it was good to see them. Their active involvement was indicative of how everybody is doing his part.

Sunday afternoon, Gabriel Ynoa [5] was the first Met you haven’t much thought about to step in and step up. I hadn’t thought about Ynoa since the previous Monday [6], when I couldn’t stand to think about Rafael Montero [7] one inning longer. Twenty-four hours before Ynoa threw his first Sunday pitch, neither one of them was on my mental radar. I had Jacob deGrom [8] to look forward to: a hat with a convincing replica of his hair on Saturday, his arm and whatever it could deliver on Sunday.

Scratch one of those. I’d gladly give up the giveaway cap to get back the shutdown arm I vaguely recall intersecting with the glory days of Duda and Lagares. That deal is not on the table. As I stood on my Long Island Railroad station’s westbound platform on Saturday and skimmed Twitter, I saw a reputable news source reporting deGrom was out for the season and headed for surgery. For about a half-a-second, I tried to comprehend what the gag was here. Then I remembered, oh yeah, deGrom — hadn’t pitched for a couple of weeks, hadn’t looked good for a couple of weeks before that, who was kidding who when they said he was going to pitch on Sunday?

Thus, Ynoa, and — don’tch’Ynoa — he was Twins-ready. Gabriel struck out eight of them in four-and-two-thirds innings, giving up only one run in the process and standing in line as the winning pitcher of record (if one can be presumptuous enough to contemplate such ephemera in a fifth inning) until he allowed a two-out single to Brian Dozier [9]. A mere single to Dozier, he of the 41 homers, may be the moral equivalent of a third out, but not technically the same thing. Next up was lefty-swinging Logan Schafer [10], perhaps not the one Twin to have up when you’re having no more than a two-run lead, which is exactly what Ynoa was nursing on the mound. There was no reason to think the rookie righthander wouldn’t retire Schafer, but if you were Terry Collins, and you’d just gotten to two out in the fifth with Gabriel Ynoa filling in for Jacob deGrom, why push it?

Exit from Schafer City Mr. Ynoa, enter Josh Edgin [11], a lefty-versus-lefty reflex. Edgin had pitched the night before. Yours truly groaned at his appearance in the twelfth inning. Collins had run through six ostensibly better options before tapping Edgin. Edgin threw a scoreless twelfth and wound up the winning pitcher after Curtis Granderson [12] made victors of us all. It was a good lesson: don’t doubt any Met in this September when the Mets’ September is very much and very rewardingly the sum of their parts.

Edgin entered Schafer City [13] and could not in all good conscience recommend it on TripAdvisor. “Not a good scene for singles,” he was probably moved to comment after Logan dropped one into the outfield. With the left-leaning portion of our immediate concerns completed, we bid goodbye to Mr. Edgin and greeted Erik Goeddel [14]. On Saturday, when my buddy Dan pointed out Goeddel was warming up, I groaned louder than I had at the sight of Edgin. Goeddel is to me what the Great Gazoo [15] was on The Flintstones. Gazoo couldn’t be seen by most of Bedrock. Goeddel’s uselessness seemed until very recently to have escaped the notice of every Mets observer but myself. Every game he enters, our esteemed announcers are telling me what an absolutely outstanding job he’s done out of the bullpen. All I remember is five runs in a third of an inning. I don’t know which third of an inning or who scored the five runs. To invoke Bill Maher for the second consecutive month [16], I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.

As someone who values an actual fact, I’ll go with this one: Goeddel got out of the fifth. Not immediately — he threw a wild pitch, then walked Jorge Polanco [17] (I’m typing names I’ve never typed before and won’t type again until who knows when; ain’t Interleague awesome?), but with Kennys Vargas [18] up in a situation that could redefine this September with one bad pitch, Erik killed Kennys. Struck him out, at any rate. Inning and threat over.

It was a big enough moment in the course of the season to entrust to a reliever who doesn’t make me hallucinate little cartoon spacemen, but I’m not sure the manager had spectacular choices at his disposal. I wish there were an Addison Reed [19]bot you could wind up and send out in every inning of every game to shut down opposing batters, but the Mets’ more dependable arms have been depended upon to excess of late. Twelve innings on Saturday night [20] meant everybody could claim a Sunday afternoon hangover. The fifth was the inning to get out of in the fifth, but what of the sixth, the seventh and so on? Of those not used on Saturday, you had available Sean Gilmartin [21], Logan Verrett [22], Jim Henderson [23] and Montero. “Oh boy,” as Buddy Holly once enthused. Of those deployed Saturday, Reed (two straight days already), Familia (ditto) and Robles (2 IP, 1 HR) were, if good sense ruled, off limits.

I could groan at Goeddel, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t the guy to go to in the fifth and to hang around in the sixth when he pitched another scoreless inning. Once he did his part, there were still three more innings and a minimum of nine more Twins to surgically separate from scoring. If the Mets had increased their lead by a few, you could go to your one of your rather-nots, but the Mets, as noted above, scored three runs in each game of the series. On Sunday, their three runs were registered by the third inning. That left the staff in an all-hands-on-deck state when a fair percentage of arms needed their rest.

More runs in the bottoms of innings seemed doable let alone desirable, but some days — and weekends — you deal with what you’re dealt. On Friday, the Mets went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. They won. On Saturday, the RISP total was 1-for-7. They won. Sunday, they were 1-for-the-first-1, when Michael Conforto [24] singled home Alejandro De Aza [25] from third and T.J. Rivera [26] from second in the first inning, 1-for-8 the rest of the game. Rivera was responsible for the Mets’ third run with a solo homer in the third. He’s also emerged as Ynoa to the Lugo power when it comes to position players, if that formula translates. With less fuss than deGrom but just as many implications, Wilmer Flores [27] didn’t play in this series. Wilmer hasn’t been medically written off for the rest of the season, but you gotta wonder. He still can’t swing, and an expanded roster that doesn’t include Flores taking on all lefty comers is by definition a depleted roster.

So when you’re asking yourself where the Mets would be without Seth Lugo [28] and Robert Gsellman [29] and now Gabriel Ynoa, be sure to toss in a rhetorical query on behalf of T.J. Rivera, and do it in a pleasing Noo Yawk accent, or as we who grew up in these parts process it, no accent at all. When Rivera talks (or tawks), he sounds a lot like his Bronx forebear Ed Kranepool [30]. When Rivera swings, he looks a lot like his jack-of-most-trades Edgardo Alfonzo [31].

The Mets are doing it with Rivera and Conforto (who was a big part of the Mets’ plans in that distant epoch when Duda and Lagares nonchalantly roamed the earth); Ynoa and Goeddel; a perfect Josh Smoker [32] in the seventh; and, because the best bet for closing isn’t always a closer, Jerry Blevins [33] in the ninth. Blevins came on to bail out gopher-susceptible Fernando Salas [34] in the eighth. Role-assignation be damned, Blevins stuck around for the ninth to protect what had dwindled to a one-run lead. Jerry the bleach-bottle blonde made certain we’d have more fun when he struck out John Jacob Jingleheimer Ryan Murphy, grounded out Joe Mauer [35] (Rivera to Duda replacement James Loney [36] for the not-so-simple 4-3) and K’d Dozier, who left New York toting the same gargantuan quantity of home runs with which he arrived.

The Mets you don’t think of fashioned a 3-2 victory [37] after the more usual suspects notched the first two anti-Twin wins.

• Granderson, the hero of the middle match (his second homer landed a few rows in front of me and my hairy hat, capping one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences I’ve had in eight years of attending services at Citi Field) was rested.

Jose Reyes [38] (whose ancient HoZay!HoZay! entreaty arose organically on Saturday, though with the bases loaded in the eleventh, it came off more like davining than singing) was rested.

Asdrubal Cabrera [39] pinch-hit for Duda, then returned to resting.

Yoenis Cespedes [40] left the game in the seventh in deference to “nausea and dizziness,” symptoms familiar to any Mets fan this time of year in this type of race.

Jay Bruce [41], who I swear hit the ball encouragingly hard three out of five at-bats on Saturday even if it was to absolutely no avail (“he’s due,” Dan and I kept reassuring each other not too many feet from Jay’s left shoulder), was kept from spreading whatever ails him to the box score.

The Mets on Sunday didn’t get a full game from any of the five guys who ostensibly top their lineup and they won. They held a lead of less than three runs entering the final two innings and they set up the eighth without their setup man and closed out the ninth without their closer. They had one of their aces extracted from their immediate not to mention going plans, replaced him with whichever body seemed warmest and they continued to survive and advance. Maybe it was the level of competition that facilitated this flexibility, but let’s not lay it on the 55-95 Twins. The visitors weren’t overwhelming, but nor were they noticeably inept. The Mets have built a self-replenishing contraption. They get by without Flores because of Rivera. They don’t perish without deGrom because of Ynoa. You hear Matz threw an encouraging bullpen but you don’t hold your breath and you don’t suffocate from anxiety because somehow somebody keeps stepping in and stepping up.

You don’t or didn’t think of so many Mets who’ve become so intrinsic to their rising fortunes, yet you find yourself in September thinking constantly about the Mets — the First Wild Card-holding Mets, that is, after Minnesota was swept three while the Cards and Jints did nothing but butt zero-sum heads at one another for four days. These Mets, 20-7 since they were dead and buried, grip your attention. They occasionally stir your tummy acids while making your head spin, but wouldn’t you rather feel the baseball version what Yo was feeling Sunday as opposed to total apathy?

The Mets won their eightieth game of 2016. From 2009 through 2014, the Mets never won more than 79. Eighty was never a goal, just a steppingstone to bigger and better objectives [42]. We saw how that played out last year and we’re seeing something develop this year. These Mets keep on keeping on as we keep being reminded how nimble they can be when it comes to negotiating every step along the way.