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A Welcome Unreality

This is just like that other year when the Mets were diddling around for almost four months, then got hot and catapulted themselves into a playoff chase already in progress. Do you remember that other year?

You don’t. Because this is a new one on us. You’d think after 58 years, we’d have seen it all, but there’s always something new to see with these Mets and this baseball of theirs. Keeps one from growing complacent.

This isn’t 1969, when the Mets were already good in early August yet still a few weeks from making up serious ground on the Cubs. This isn’t 1973 or 2001, when the Mets weren’t close to being done diddling yet. This isn’t 2015, when we stressed over the Mets not hitting a whit into late July because for all their offensive futility, they had hovered close to the catchable Nationals all season, so how about getting a Cespedes-type, Sandy? This isn’t 2016 when the Mets modeled frustrating ambivalence regarding whether they truly wanted to defend their league championship before deciding that as long as they were still hanging around, they might as well play like defending champions. This isn’t a 1980, 1991 or 2002 when the Mets strained to contend only to fall thuddingly off the table right about now. This isn’t a 1975 or 2005 when the Mets always seemed one meaningful and ultimately unattainable roll from undeniable legitimacy. This isn’t 1981 when a once-in-a-lifetime HYPERSPACE button was pushed by the powers that be, clearing the first-half, pre-strike screen and giving the Mets a fresh start and genuine split-season hope.

This is 2019, when the Mets diddled, twiddled and resolved (“come get us”) to no effect whatsoever, allowing almost everybody in the National League to pass them, yet quietly never fell so far from the pack that it was statistically impossible to imagine them drifting upward. Implausible, perhaps. Impossible, apparently not.

So as I sat and watched the Mets pour the Pirates into the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers to form the mighty Ohio of National League Wild Card opportunity (three games out of something!), I felt a welcome unreality wash over me. I guess it’s real. If it is real, it’s real weird, but I welcome the weirdness, too.

A week ago, after sweeping the Pirates, I wouldn’t have associated these Mets with contention. A week from now, who knows? I’ve seen that our “playoff odds” have increased dramatically of late. I believe “playoff odds” are the stupidest baseball thing I’ve ever heard of more than I believe the Mets will be fully in a playoff race a week from now. I’ve got “games behind” and “games remaining” and the ability to imagine outcomes and scenarios both pleasant and regrettable. I don’t need “playoff odds”.

Which is not to say the oddity of the Mets being here is unwelcome. More than two-thirds into a season whose essential character is yet to be determined, I’ll tell you who else was at last tentatively welcomed into our finicky graces: Robinson Cano [1]. Perhaps not for five years, but at last for this year. For this week, certainly. The odd outburst aside, we didn’t see what made Cano that feared hitter everybody swore he had been until a few days ago when his bat heated up and resembled lumber that had been burning since the invention of fire. On Sunday, it couldn’t have scalded more, connecting as it did for a double in the first, a double in the third and a sure double in the fourth, except between first and second, Cano stopped dead with a single and a hamstring strain.

I get the feeling we all had the same reaction: “thoughts and prayers” for Robbie’s well-being, and sincere, heartfelt sympathy for his 10-for-17 hot streak…not to mention the role it was playing in our recent success. I don’t necessarily think we were being wholly transactional, either. Nobody wants to see anybody suffer an injury, but if it’s an athlete doing in-his-prime athlete things — even if his prime is behind him — it hurts that much more. Dave Kingman keeping pace with Hack Wilson before ill-advisedly diving for a Phil Niekro fly ball in 1976. Cliff Floyd checking out of a 12-for-18 surge and checking in for heel surgery in 2003. Robinson Cano, the old man playing young again, halting in his tracks for who knows how long. It must have really been bad, because Cano didn’t make the slightest move to get back to first, standing still and waiting to be tagged as if there weren’t an inning going on (walk a few feet in somebody else’s hamstring before judging, I remind myself).

Missing Cano for the final five innings Sunday didn’t affect the outcome of a 13-2 romp [2] that was already 8-0 when our heretofore permanent cleanup hitter gingerly departed the playing field. Whether or not there was a clear-cut Cano causation to the Mets winning nine of their past ten, we don’t know if this IL trip will create a crimp worse than the one that has Dom Smith sidelined until September. It sure doesn’t help. Then again, these Mets have become these Mets on the bats and arms of many, especially the arms. The untraded Noah Syndergaard [3] showed no mercy on the Pirates, keeping them off the board until the seventh and taking a seat after 91 pitches only because it was a little warm out there.

Noah was succeeded to the mound by Donnie Hart [4], whom you’ve heard of now. Hart, a lefty who tossed a scoreless eighth, is the kind of August pickup available to contenders, someone cast off by some other organization (Milwaukee waived him). There will be no clever trades for Addison Reed or Fernando Salas as September approaches. Savvy grabs at the waiver wire and insightful scouting of the Atlantic League represent the best chances for fringe improvement. You gotta have an arm that you haven’t already shuttled up from Syracuse ten times before? Then you gotta have Hart.

Also not getting injured is a good idea for the Mets who still stand upright. Fortunately, Michael Conforto and J.D. Davis, each of whom homered off Pirate starter Joe Musgrove, appear in tip-top shape; Davis’s ball left PNC Park and might have landed in Forbes Field. Jeff McNeil, rested part of Saturday, also looks ready and rarin’ to go after homering in his second consecutive game. Pete Alonso, directed to take a breather from his unprecedented rookie slump (unprecedented for him, that is; rookies have them as a matter of course), came off the bench and played stellar defense at least. Amed Rosario doesn’t miss games and lately doesn’t miss balls hit in his vicinity. Hits balls pretty well, too.

Meld this core to Syndergaard, deGrom, Wheeler and the better Long Island angels of Matz and Stroman; cross your fingers that bullpen alchemy has become a core competency of Callaway & Co.; get lucky with the scoreboard-watching in this seven-team scramble for a pair of postseason passes…and this unforeseen entry into unreality can continue to be fun. That would make it the opposite of what the Mets were for almost the entire first two-thirds of 2019, not to mention the bulk of 2018 and 2017.

We can definitely welcome that.