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Playing for Sweeps

ESPN asked if the Mets and Nationals could come out and play Sunday night. Sure, they were told. But could they come out and play well? That was going to be more difficult on another Arctic evening in early April. Not that ESPN cared. They need product, and the Mets and Nationals are mandated to show up when instructed. First pitch 8:08 PM? In this endless weather? It’ll make handling the ball a challenge, but who doesn’t like a challenge?

Funny, only the Nationals have their hands raised.

Washington is not surrendering, but it’s nice to dream in the wake of a twelve-inning 6-5 victory [1] that required perseverance as much it did mittens. The win meant a sweep of the presumptive NL East champions. We dream of sweeps of consensus favorites when we’re not the universally agreed team to beat. Sweep dreams are made of a weekend like we just reveled in, when a couple of games that honestly could have gone either way went decisively to the Mets. You braced for the Nationals to rise from the red and grab them. You figured they’d bandage Daniel Murphy up good and send him to the plate with his scythe to escort the Mets to their demise. Murphy, however, remains on the disabled list. For the first time in ages, Daniel wasn’t around to either help or hurt the Mets.

With the Murph Factor neutralized, the teams were even. And when the Mets and Nats are even, the 7-1 Mets are 3½ games better, making the magic number to clinch the division Don’t Be Silly.

Be as giddy as you choose, though, because after Sunday night (after Saturday afternoon, after Thursday afternoon, in the midst of a five-game winning streak), Hardball is Back, the Magic is Real, Baseball’s Like It Oughta Be, name your hype. The Mets are living up to it. Better yet, they’re establishing a brand focus groups would have rejected on the grounds of unbelievability.

The Mets fall behind? They catch up.
The Mets make mistakes? They recover from them pronto.
The Mets are cold? They’re hotter than the Nationals, that’s for sure.

Sunday night I was pretty certain the Mets, who currently possess their best eight-game record ever (alongside 1985’s and 2006’s) would lose. Maybe it was my two-day headache persistently elbowing me in the left sinus. Maybe it was all those pesky Nationals baserunners, fourteen of whom Washington eventually left on base, but I didn’t know that was gonna be their destination. Maybe it was Matt Harvey struggling while sort of succeeding. Matt got through five as the pitcher of record on the winning side, but he gave up some shots, including one from Anthony Rendon Yoenis Cepsedes wouldn’t have caught at the track had the wind not intercepted it first. Maybe it was ESPN, a convenient if accurate target when it comes to identifying mood-damaging entities. ESPN didn’t help my headache by making me spend several innings synchronizing my MLB app with my DVR precisely enough so I could have WOR’s beloved voices on and irritating interlopers off. (Juggling of this many initials [2] hasn’t been necessary since the heyday of R.A. Dickey.) I can’t speak to anything A-Rod said about wanting to be a Met when the century was young, because I had the Vasgersian volume muted — did ESPN hold a talentless contest to choose its new lead baseball announcer?

While I carefully calibrated pleasing audio to plausibly live video and waited for the National shoe to drop, the multimedia Mets did good things in chunks. An Adrian Gonzalez grand slam swing in the third inning was worth four runs. MVP candidate (as in Mini Valuable Player of the eight-game season) Asdrubal Cabrera tried on a solo belt in the fifth. It looked good on him. But the Nationals wouldn’t go away, which is their prerogative in a facility called Nationals Park. I thought doom awaited on what became Harvey’s final pitch, a Michael Taylor grounder to the right side Harvey didn’t hustle to first to cover. But Gonzalez — he can still field, y’know — got the ball to Todd Frazier, and Frazier got it to Travis d’Arnaud, and Trea Turner got himself thrown out without much dispute.

That was in the home fifth, leaving Harvey ahead, 5-4, as he left us. There were miles to go before anybody could sleep. The Mets’ offense nodded off. The Nationals kept coming if not arriving. They cobbled together a run off Robert Gsellman in the seventh to tie it. Seemed like there should have been more. Or could have been more. Ideally, the Nationals should get nothing and like it. Coulda, shoulda, woulda…the Mets eschewed multiple double play opportunities all night. Whose bright idea was it store the balls in the freezer ahead of first pitch?

Somehow, the Nationals couldn’t break through to the fourth base. Rendon got himself picked off by Jerry Blevins in the eighth with, oh, Bryce Harper at bat and two out. Nice pitching for Jerry. When Harper returned to lead off the ninth, game still knotted at five, he was greeted by Seth Lugo and a base on balls. Everything that hinted at going wrong was on the verge of making good on its suggestion. A pickoff attempt went awry. Harper dashed to second. Matt Adams flied deep to center. Harper sprinted to third.

Mickey Callaway, who was apparently on safari during the denouement of the sixth game of the 1999 National League Championship Series, opted to intentionally load the bases. You can arrange that with much less fuss than you could in Kenny Rogers’s day. Howie Kendrick was pointed toward first. So was Turner. All Lugo had to do was pull two outs out of the metaphorical fire. He could do so at any base, thanks to all that walking.

Seth chose home plate, striking out Taylor swinging and Pedro Severino looking. Extra innings had been achieved. Extra headache was in effect. The Mets went down swinging, swinging and looking to Sammy Solis in their discouraging half of the tenth. Lugo, one of about a dozen secret Callaway weapons, worked around the sleekest of bunt singles to Rendon in the bottom of the tenth and retired Harper to escape another fright. The Mets made nothing out of a little something in the eleventh: Cabrera led off with a single and took second on a wild pitch, as is Asdrubal’s wont. He then attempted to take third on a pitch that was not wild enough and was thrown out in the same sequence in which Gonzalez struck out. Then d’Arnaud fanned, which helps explain why neither my foreboding feeling nor sinus headache would dissipate.

Lugo’s still out there in the bottom of the eleventh. He’s a starter who’s a reliever who hears from Peter Criss. Seth, I hear you calling… [3]Tell Peter Seth can’t come home right now. He and the boys are playing and they just can’t find the sound. Good thing Lugo tried another take on the mound. He retired Adams, Kendrick and Turner in acoustic fashion.

Seth, what can he do? Throw three scoreless innings, that’s what.

The twelfth was the inning during which the Mets remembered it’s a long flight to Miami from everywhere north of Tampa. They got packing with Juan Lagares pinch-singling off Brandon Kintzler, the otherwise overmatched Amed Rosario competently bunting, Michael Conforto predictably pointed to first and Yoenis Cespedes processing that somebody was intentionally walked so he could bat with the go-ahead runner at second. Just when there’s no getting Cespedes out, which was the case as of Thursday, he descends imperceptibly into slumps. And just when your patience with Cespedes dwindles like a Samsung Galaxy battery, Yo charges up a fresh supply of power. Powerfully as he needed to be, Yo lined a single into center. Not one of his most resounding hits, but definitely among his most effective. Lagares scampered home from second, the Mets handed a one-run lead to Jacob Rhame…

What, you thought Mickey was gonna allow Jeurys Familia’s right arm to sway in the Washington wind? Gonna need that guy for the rest of the season. Gonna need everybody. Rhame is one of twenty-five Mets, and he was entrusted with sealing the sweep of the Nationals that would not just set but cement the tone by which the 2018 season started.

Young Rhame did it. Got turncoat Matt Reynolds to ground out, struck out Wilson Ramos reincarnation Severino and, despite allowing a double to Wilmer Difo, remained unrattled in grounding out Adam Eaton. Put it in the books as pass me that ibuprofen!

The first-place Mets barely got by the Nationals, but they don’t ask for margins at the end of the night. They just ask for the W. We saw three of them in this series, and none of them could be mistaken for curly.