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Juan Way or Another

Pete Alonso [1] belting a grand slam barely foul, which is a sexy synonym for strike two, could have buried a dagger in the heart of Saturday night [2] for the Mets. The bases were loaded; there were two out; the score was tied; Jacob deGrom was, as if by unquestioned custom, pitching without a suitable level of support; and our slugger of record had taken presumably his best shot at making the Mets’ most effective case for grabbing a lead, yet when Pete’s ball went barely foul, we were thisclose to thinking someone went to Kansas City and all we got was this lousy tease — plus this dandy tee [3] if seated with the 7 Line Army.

It did feel that we were indeed thatclose to disappointment on a Polar scale, except a foul ball is still a foul ball, no matter what they may be experimenting with in the Atlantic League these days, which means Pete had another chance to unload some bases. Two pitches later, Alonso set his sights lower: on the ground, through the middle, with a humble hit that eluded the Royal infield to the tune of two runs driven in — the second facilitated by KC reliever Tim Hill cutting off a throw directed at home plate (the defensive equivalent of Gary Apple’s play-by-play given its baffling cluelessness in the middle of everything). The Mets were finally ahead, 3-1, and deGrom was on his way to a much-deserved 4-1 win [4].

Hurrahs deserve to resonate for Alonso’s persistence, deGrom’s endurance (7 IP, 3 H, 2 BB) and Mickey Callaway’s ability to at last discern that the eighth and ninth innings of a close ballgame are no place for Edwin Diaz. Justin Wilson effectively handled the eighth, new closer in town Seth Lugo the ninth. And how about the sound of two hands clapping for one of the forgotten Mets of 2019, Juan Lagares [5], all of a sudden reminding us that he lives, breathes, fields and, oh yes, hits among us?

Lagares was a revelation with the glove when he came up to the big leagues with little in the way of advance notice in 2013. The bat seemed adequate. It would get better with time, we told one another. It never really did, and the glove, a shimmering shade of Gold from the start, lost some of its luster, possibly from gathering DL dust. Six seasons after we shouted our tweets hoarse that Terry Collins must play Juan Lagares every day, his fate was barely worth a whisper across most of Metsopotamia. If thought of at all, it was in the category of dead weight, the same way we tend to view veterans whose future appears past.

Juan’s biggest 2019 moment prior to this road trip was probably last Friday in that impossible comeback win over the Nationals [6] (impossible except that it was against the Nationals’ bullpen). He was on second base in the ninth and scored the winning run on Big Shirtless Mike’s RBI single to right. You know how every Met in creation and probably a few who were conjured on the spot chased Michael Conforto from first base into the outfield and relieved him of his game-worn jersey? They were well-positioned to rip the top half of his uniform to shreds because they’d all charged from wherever they stood to first so they could accost with congratulations the batter who delivered the decisive blow.

Maybe Lagares got there eventually to join the festivities. He was mostly busy crossing the plate. You know who stepped right up and greeted the Met who technically won the game with that all-important seventh run of the 7-6 victory for the ages? One of the Met bat boys. No doubt a fine lad, but hardly a welcoming party worthy of the occasion. It’s understandable that Conforto would have drawn the bulk of focus in the moment, but it also struck me that Lagares being left to his own devices amidst the defining run of this season — the run of 15 wins in 16 games and the run that clinched the thrillingest win around here since 2016 — was sadly symbolic. Juan was a .182 batter at that moment. He wasn’t even supposed to be on base. Callaway had sent him up to sacrifice Joe Panik to second, and Juan’s bunt failed to accomplish its mission. Panik was thrown out. Lagares going to first was the consolation prize. He moved up on Amed Rosario’s single and then was pushed home by Conforto. Juan was visible only if you searched hard to see him, an almost incidental tourist aboard the 2019 Mets’ wildest ride yet.

A funny thing happened on the way to irrelevancy for a neglected reserve playing out the last of an extended contract that ceased looking like a bargain soon after Sandy Alderson signed him to it. Jeff McNeil felt something in one of his hamstrings [7]. The Squirrel who darted from outfield to infield and back as needed would be unavailable for a spell. Versatility was lacking on the 25-man roster. Infielders — Panik, Ruben Tejada — would have to play the infield. Lagares, the Gold Glove outfielder who had quietly remained one of the few Mets to avoid a detour to the injured list or Syracuse, would have to be our everyday center fielder.

Every day this week Juan Lagares has, in fact, been the Mets’ starting center fielder, just as Alderson envisioned it [8] in 2015 when he secured his services clear to the end of this decade. Lagares has responded by remembering how to do everything that made him a good bet to keep for the long term then. If Gary Cohen weren’t on vacation, he’d be telling us how Juan’s glove is where extra-base hits go to die. Even Gary Apple recognizes Juan’s bat is where hits of many varieties have been born. The batting average that was wallowing is now rising. It’s up to .218, boosted Saturday night by three key hits. In the fifth, Juan sparked the rally that tied the game in the first place with a single. He was followed by Aaron Altherr doing the same and, after Rosario grounded into a 6-4-3 DP that sent Lagares to third, Juan scored on Joe Panik’s single.

Lagares. Altherr. Panik. The LAP Attack. I can’t believe a 7 Line t-shirt wasn’t at least being considered.

You need the usually suspect to come through when you’re chasing a playoff spot. Lagares had been suspect from March onward. What’s our solution to any player who used to produce but isn’t producing? “DFA him already,” as if a player with decent MLB credentials isn’t going to sooner or later get something going besides an ever-longer slump and as if we have a parade of upgrades for each of them ready to launch on demand. At various times, we’ve collectively given up on most of our position players. Not McNeil, not Alonso (except for a bad week when we began to get a little antsy), not Conforto (though faith in Michael has by no means been constant or unanimous), but pretty much everybody else. Choose your demeaning adjective. Smith, Rosario, Ramos, Frazier, Cano were all deemed useless, worthless and/or hopeless before they unleashed outbursts of offense without which we wouldn’t be monitoring the Wild Card standings every ten minutes like they’re traffic and weather together on the 8’s. Lagares rarely came up in these dismissive conversations because he’d all but disappeared from our consciousness. Then he’d get an at-bat once in a great while, make little of it, and be subject to the same unflattering treatment.

Maybe he just needed to play regularly. I’d hate to think it took McNeil going on the shelf to revive Lagares, but however regular playing time came about, Juan’s been getting it and been running with it. He’s the Next Man Up ethos incarnate, the most compelling explanation for why McNeil’s strained hammy hasn’t altogether debilitated our postseason dreams. Juan got that first rally going Saturday night. He also got the second rally going, the one that culminated in Alonso’s two-RBI hit in the seventh. And he capped off the Mets’ third and final rally, tripling in Luis Guillorme in the eighth, providing the crucial insurance run every deGrom start requires before responsibility for its safety passes into the hands of the (gulp) bullpen.

Good for Juan Lagares. And what’s good for Juan Lagares is good for the USA…or our orange and blue corner of it. Next time you see him crossing home plate, be sure to line up behind the bat boy and slap the man’s palm like you mean it.