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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Third-Seasons

Isolate enough positives from the Mets’ 108th game, and you’d wish the season was beginning anew. You’d happily start Zack Wheeler on theoretical Opening Day and look forward to seven innings of shutout ball from a pitcher who you know will do nothing to sabotage his own cause. You’d lean forward to cheer the up-and-coming Jeff McNeil, a batter you once saw go 4-for-4. You’d take a chance on the savvy veteranship of Austin Jackson and figure you could do worse than plugging a .350-hitting defensive-minded center fielder into your lineup most days, small Met sample size be damned. You’d love your lockdown back-end bullpen of Bobby Wahl and Robert Gsellman. And you’d heartily appreciate a pro’s pro like Todd Frazier from Toms River essentially stealing two runs from third base and check to see if there was a grinding gesture you could make or a t-shirt you could buy to show your support for our gritty, gutty Jersey Boy.

Not to pour a torrent of salt and pepper on the sublime nature of our weekly bright spot, but, as another Jersey Boy might have put it, Saturday night’s 3-0 conquest of the Braves felt just too good to be true. It happened, sure. We do win games from time to time. But was it the harbinger of things to come? Would you start a new season with this crew and expect a season materially different from the two-thirds of a season we’ve endured to date?

Jeff McNeil has now played ten major league games. He’s one of seven Mets with no more than that amount of experience to rack up four hits in one box score. Such a universe is too small from which to draw definitive conclusions toward McNeil’s future. If Jeff’s destiny is to become some variation on Mike Vail, Ty Wigginton, Mike Jacobs, Josh Thole, Michael Conforto or T.J. Rivera, well, those are men who made major league careers for themselves if not necessarily (or yet) the careers we envisioned while getting carried away by their first burst of success. We see a 4-for-4 early on, we adjust our expectations skyward. Best we can expect of McNeil is to become some variation on himself and play an eleventh game.

Austin Jackson’s .350 as a Met has been fashioned in a similarly brief span. Unlike McNeil, who excelled at Binghamton and Las Vegas after an otherwise off-radar minor league run, no Mets fan was rattling cages to get Jackson on our roster. Jackson’s been on most everybody else’s roster since 2010. We usually get a turn at guys like that, generally when we’re desperate for help and they could use an opportunity. Jose Bautista’s been one of those guys. Adrian Gonzalez was one of those guys earlier this year. Nori Aoki qualified as one of those guys last September. Justin Ruggiano poked his head in that way two summers ago. You never plan for them, but they happen.

Happy to have Austin this August. Don’t know what that portends for next April. Not everything can be about the mythic “let’s see what we’ve got with the kids” ethos every day, not when you have a third of a season left. A third of a season is 54 games. Fifty-four lineups that need to be filled out, fifty-four sets of tactics that sometimes move a manager to use the 31-year-old itinerant outfielder rather than whichever younger, less-known quantity we reflexively cry out for. Not that the Mets are dripping with those in the outfield at this juncture of 2018.

Wahl has looked pretty sharp in two outings. They are two outings, or eight fewer than McNeil has had in his audition. So we’ll see, which is fine. The bullpen rarely operates properly. Lately, in spots where the Mets aren’t trailing by touchdowns, it’s done decently. Blevins looks like Blevins again. Swarzak, before his sudden reassignment to the disabled list, was turning into what Met scouts presumably swore by in winter. We don’t really miss Familia because we’ve decided to not miss Familia. Who needs a high-profile closer when we have so few high-leverage leads? We can embrace Wahl in the interim. And we can keep seeing how Gsellman functions in Familia’s old role. I don’t know that this is the bullpen of the future, exactly, but a little mixing and matching in the present will suffice.

Wheeler’s the big find as the final third inevitably leads into the next 162. Wheeler’s a keeper, at last. Saturday night against Atlanta, on the heels of last Sunday at Pittsburgh and everything else since he blended confidence, focus, talent and coaching into a complete package, has given us a staple of a rotation we don’t have to dream hard on. We know deGrom. We’re still pretty bullish on Syndergaard until the next bizarre twist of his story. Matz is taking a powder for the moment, which is unfortunate, but he’s lefthanded, you know. We don’t dismiss young-ish lefties so easily, no matter how their trajectories aggravate us.

Now we know Wheeler as a pitcher we believe in. He’s a success story in a year bereft of them and a building block for a year we hope will make this one look like an extended bad dream. Let’s not let anything happen to him or his progress.

Among those who engineered Saturday’s satisfaction, Frazier is the quantity whose properties are most known and whose prospects are least enticing, except maybe when he does something splendid. Outfoxing the Braves on two occasions — dashing for the plate on a weak grounder in the second and beating a poorly conceived throw home in the sixth — makes his presence seem more a blessing than an albatross. Maybe he’ll get a hit again before 2018 is done.

That group of Jersey boys who inspired the Broadway smash of the same name, those Four Seasons who hail from Frazierland, had plenty of hits. Led by the aforementioned Frankie Valli, they also had three more seasons than a baseball team gets a crack at. At best, if we’re mathematically inclined, we get three thirds of a season. That’s if you use baseball math. The first 54, the second 54, the third 54. Adds up to 162. There’s no official reckoning by demarcation, but it does kind of jump out at you if you are open to receiving its greeting.

“Hello, I’m your season, and I’m going to need to get going soon.” Shocking, huh? It just got here and now it’s asking where its coat is. The exit beckons. Didn’t we just have an Opening Day? Didn’t we just notice one-third of the season plop into the books? Weren’t we just grabbing a breather and some perspective at the halfway point?

We did and we were. But baseball keeps going. Baseball goes better when, at two-thirds of the season, there’s high stakes left to play for. We know that the final third of 2018 will boil down to how much more we’ll see of the McNeils versus how much more we’ll see of the Jacksons and that sort of thing. That’s what we tend to watch for in a narrative sense when we’re not focused on any given game (which we should be, too, because we only get 54 more of these babies).

This, of course, is not ideal. But neither has been 2018. After two-thirds of this besotted season we not only “boast” the ninth-worst record at this stage of a year in Mets history, but we’re comparably removed from where the real action is. You probably haven’t checked lately, but we’re 14½ games out of a Wild Card spot, trailing eight teams for the second National League lottery ticket, never mind the first Wild Card spot and the division lead. Yeah, that’s not happening this year.

You know what rules? When it does happen in a year, or at least it’s happening at this interval in a year. Eight times after 108 games the Mets have been positioned to make the postseason in the “if the season were to end today” sense. The season (except for strike-stricken 1994) wasn’t about to end so soon, but it’s how we speak.

Life was never better at the two-thirds mark than in 1986. The Mets’ record was 73-35 and their lead over the field was seventeen games. Seventeen games ahead of everybody they needed to be ahead of…bottle that feeling, would ya? Life was also rollickingly good twenty years later 108 games in, as the 2006 Mets sat twenty games above .500 and eleven games ahead. As in ’86, you knew ’06 had more baseball to it than was printed inside the pocket schedule.

It wasn’t quite so certain in 1988, when the Mets held the NL East at bay by five games, but it was certain enough. In 2000, the Mets were in first place in the Wild Card race by four games. It wasn’t exactly what we were angling for (the Braves were three games up in the division), but it loomed as good enough to get us to the business end of October — and it did.

We had the same-sized lead as the NL East’s standard-bearer at this stage of 2007. That four-game bulge would expand, then contract, then disappear. That’s why it’s only two-thirds of the season. Similarly, the one-game lead in 1985 didn’t get us popping our corks, but having first place on the line in early August and continuing to have it on the line for the next two months was a lot better than checking your watch for when the next late-blooming Triple-A slugger will arrive.

The Mets who were in first place two-thirds of the way into 2015 stayed there. The Mets who could make the same claim in 1999 didn’t, but they clung close enough and gave us a September to remember and an October, too. The Mets clubs that hung around the top of their divisions or Wild Card derbies without residing at their pinnacle may not have been ultimately rewarded, but their final thirds were imbued with vitality. Two-thirds into 1970, 1984, 1990, 1997, 1998, 2008 and 2016 we rooted for Mets that sat anywhere between a half-game and three games from a gateway to glory. Only the 2016 Mets made their proximity pay off, but the ride kept us engaged for weeks on end.

Missing from this two-thirds honor roll of serious contenders are the two years that gave us cause to take all kinds of absurd distances from first place seriously. In 1969 at the two-thirds mark, the 60-48 Mets trailed the Cubs by eight games. Fine record, but a daunting amount of ground to make up. Good thing the ’69 Mets weren’t an easily daunted bunch. And 11½ games from first place, summering in sixth and last place, were those 1973 Mets. They were behind everybody by a lot with the inverse of 1969’s record: 48-60. What a third they would have to have to make hay let alone history.

I won’t wallow in the Mets seasons where two-thirds led only to another third and then the end. We’re living in one of those now. But just so you know, the 1962 Mets not only crafted the worst two-thirds mark in Mets history (29-79), but were 44½ games from first place while brandishing it. Give ’em a break, though: they were new in town and many thirds of many seasons awaited them. The Mets would get better. And the Mets will get better still. I couldn’t tell you when, but keep watching. Fifty-four games remain that we know of for now. Make the most of them. The only thing worse than bad Mets baseball is no Mets baseball.

4 comments to The Third-Seasons

  • Orange and blue through and through

    In the dead of winter, I’ll look back to particular memories in this listless season such as the stellar and determined excellence of Jacob deGrom; the grit, hustle and ebullience of Brandon Nimmo; the continued maturation of Amed Rosario; the emergence of Jeff McNeil, and the comeback of Zack Wheeler, and smile to warm away the cold. I’ll look forward to a nucleus of Conforto, Nimmo, McNeil, Rosario, deGrom, Wheeler and Syndergaard, supplemented by a healthy Bruce and Frazier. The coming of Peter Alonso and Andres Gimenez. A new general manager who will be allowed to spend money prudently to find a real catcher and bullpen. Ah, hope.
    After today, there will be only 53 games left in this disappointing season. But when they’re over, I’ll miss them terribly. Former Mets coach and legendary hitter Rogers Hornsby was asked what he does all winter in between baseball seasons. He replied “I look out the window and wait for spring.”

  • Bij

    Mike Jacobs! Ah, what a magical week that was. The big pinch-hit homer at Shea, that massive offensive onslaught in the subsequent D’Backs series (which the Mets seem to do to them every few Augusts), and thinking the guy was going to bat 0.625 forever.

  • Daniel Hall

    “The only thing worse than bad Mets baseball is no Mets baseball.” – Since I started to follow baseball, there have been some really putrid Mets seasons… okay, most were putrid. But there was not one after-season where I didn’t whine for spring to arrive by December.

  • sturock

    Thanks for another great one, Greg! And go, Zack!!