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Saturday Means Story Time

Despite what you might think, and what’s popularly held to be our birthright, the Mets do not actually spend every day under a little black cloud.

It’s always useful to think of a conflict from the other guy’s perspective — besides making you a better person, you might learn something. So consider Saturday’s game from the point of view of a knowledgeable, veteran Nationals fan — a species that may actually exist. The Nats worked counts. They steadily drove Zack Wheeler [1]‘s pitch count higher. They had leadoff runners galore. They played good defense. They fought back from deficits. And they got Bryce Harper [2] to the plate four times, with a total of four runners in scoring position.

They did everything right except win [3].

Why didn’t they win? Because Harper struck out three times and hit one ball hard — a sharp one-hopper to Wheeler’s backhand. Because Angel Hernandez was at the center of a weird call that ended an inning instead of sending Jayson Werth [4] to third. And because the Mets kept hitting home runs — including that Michael Conforto [5] kid who can’t hit lefties and the somehow still-animate corpse of Jose Reyes [6]. Yes, the Mets did all that! The same Mets who keep forcing pitchers into last-minute starts and don’t even blink when their best hitter injures himself in batting practice. Those idiots! The Nats did everything right and lost to those idiots! Stuff like that happens enough, you wind up thinking someone’s out to get you. (Though a .666 winning percentage and 3.5-game lead in the division do cushion the blow.)

That’s enough empathy. Through blue and orange lenses, Saturday’s game was strange, interesting and ultimately satisfying, showing you enough from Wheeler to remain hopeful about the future, enough from Reyes and Jeurys Familia [7] to make you reconsider recent despair, and more than enough from Conforto to make you hope the people who make Metsian decisions saw the same thing you did.

But still, baseball postmortems tend to be heavier on storytelling than analysis. Which is something we ought to guard against. And there was plenty of suspect storytelling around Saturday’s game.

Let’s start with Wheeler, sent to the dugout an out shy of qualifying for a win. That kind of thing sticks in a pitcher’s craw, particularly when he leaves amid chatter about the inability of his infield to play defense.

That chatter, to be clear, was on the money — in fact, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling [8] were in the middle of a discussion of the Mets’ lack of range when Asdrubal Cabrera [9] and Reyes obligingly failed to corral a grounder in the 5.5 hole, followed in short order by Cabrera being a touch too slow to retire Ryan Zimmerman [10]. Mathematical proofs have been sent up with less.

But the best defense is throwing strikes, and Wheeler didn’t do that often enough. He threw 54 strikes and 42 balls, allowed the leadoff guy to reach in four of five innings, and gave 10 of 22 batters faced the chance to swing at 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 or 3-1 pitches. Yes, Wheeler’s defense did him no favors — but he undermined himself repeatedly and was lucky to get as far as he did.

Next up: Familia. He got his first save of the year, which was certainly a nice development. (I still can’t believe the game didn’t come down to Harper as the tying run.) But there’s some dubious storytelling going on there too.

I skipped Friday night’s game [11] for my own sanity, but caught the final couple of batters on Gameday … which was a baffling experience. Seeing INJURY DELAY paired with Josh Edgin [12] replacing Familia, I assumed Familia had been hurt — and was still fretting about that when Harper’s AB became IN PLAY, OUT(S) and a miraculous F sprouted next to the score.

When I found out what had really happened — that Terry Collins had gambled and subbed Edgin for his struggling closer — I was curious. And after the end of today’s game, I went back and watched that inning and wound up even more curious.

On Friday Matt Wieters [13]‘ hit, the first of the inning, came within a whisker of winding up in the glove of a diving Conforto. Adam Lind [14] — whose chin pubes ought to qualify him for a prison term alongside Scott Spiezio [15] — slapped one just past Neil Walker [16]. Then Adam Eaton [17] barely beat out a grounder perfectly placed in the hole. Familia fanned Trea Turner [18] and was promptly removed by Terry, setting the stage for Edgin’s heroics.

Look, it worked — that’s far and away the most important thing. But compare Friday night with Saturday afternoon. On Saturday, Familia reported for duty and watched Conforto make a nice play in left and T.J. Rivera [19] snag a tough hop at first. He then struck out Michael Taylor [20] for the victory.

Reallocate the plays we’ve discussed by a couple of inches and you can easily turn Friday into Saturday and vice versa. Yet just watch the narrative become that Terry’s gutsy call lit a fire under Familia, who responded.

It’s a good story. But saying so won’t make it true.

Let’s tell one more.

Conforto’s two-homer Saturday left the SNY crew predicting that he won’t sit down again — and led to postgame coverage celebrating Conforto’s newfound success and hard work against lefties, which culminated in his homer off hard-slinging southpaw Enny Romero [21].

All very nice, except this one isn’t true at all. In fact, it’s the most irritating Just So Story in recent Mets history.

The conventional wisdom around Conforto’s 2016 is that his hot start was ruined by wicked lefties and the kind of slumps that young players are prone to, and he learned a hard but necessary lesson by being forced to go down to the minors, work on his craft and earn his place.

But do the facts support that? I’m indebted to Joe Sheehan for the following, which is just one of the many reasons you ought to subscribe to the man’s newsletter [22].

Going into 2016, Conforto had 180 minor-league plate appearances against lefties and hit .274. In the big leagues, he collected 34 plate appearances against lefties in 2015 and early 2016 and hit .188.

One hundred and eighty plate appearances is a decent sample size. Thirty-four plate appearances is not. Yet those 34 trips to the plate convinced Collins that Conforto should be platooned. After starting 26 of the Mets’ first 27 games and hitting the cover off the ball, he was benched for 13 of the next 45. The results were exactly what you’d expect for a young player denied regular playing time: Conforto started pressing and went into a tailspin. (Also highly relevant: he had a .167 BABIP over that period, which is a level of unlikelihood that makes you speculate about Gypsy curses.)

But wait: Terry did send Conforto up to face a lefty as a pinch-hitter on May 29. That lefty was Clayton Kershaw [23].

The tale of Michael Conforto and How He Lost Confidence is complete and utter nonsense. Collins thought Conforto couldn’t hit lefties because he was young and left-handed. He then created a self-fulfilling prophecy, mismanaging Conforto to the point where he couldn’t hit anybody. It was troglodytic negligence, plain and simple.

So yeah, it was fantastic watching Conforto take a tough lefty into the seats for his second home run of the day. But I bet he would have done that a few times already if he’d just been left alone last spring.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story and never will be; instead, Conforto has to stand at his locker and give non-answers to dumb questions. Watch him [24] politely deflect questions about hitting southpaws with the usual cliches, but note where his compliance ends. He maintains he could always hit them, adding that Kevin Long’s always thought so too.

Conforto’s a smart player. He can size up a pitcher, work a count … and understand there’s no upside to calling out the boss for wasting a year of your career. Maybe the conventional wisdom is true this time, and that shot off Romero will be the start of Conforto playing 140 games a year. But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed, because Terry likes his fairy tales — particularly the ones in which the heroes are Proven Veterans™.

Storytelling is what we do around here — it’s what we all do. But lots of times there’s more than one story to choose from, and a weakness for the familiar can cause us to miss the tale that best reflects what actually happened. And I love baseball too much not to push myself to keep looking for that story, on bad days and good ones alike.