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The Right Amount of Tension

The Mets finally got to play baseball Friday afternoon, and while no one can say what the next week or even the next day will bring, getting to play baseball was a much-needed respite and relief.

It was also a pretty damn good baseball game, one with exactly the right amount of tension — some thrills and chills, some ebbs and flows, spikes of disappointment, sudden happiness, a gnawing tension and finally the good guys walking off victorious. The other struggles we face collectively right now aren’t so easy to parse, we have no idea what inning it is, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.

The game also felt — at least to me — closer to normal than I might have guessed. It wasn’t normal, of course — not without fans in the stands, not with teams carrying out the usual rituals in socially distanced ways (at least until they stopped bothering), and of course not with Opening Day coming a beat before August. But it still felt, well, perhaps “normal adjacent” covers it. Some of that was the peerless presence of Gary, Keith and Ron, with an assist from old pal Steve Gelbs. Some of it was that Citi Field’s A/V team was on its game, with the usual noisy park noise and scoreboard whoop-de-doo in the usual places, and fake crowd noise better calibrated than I’ve seen elsewhere so far. And most of all it helped that the game was still the game, with its familiar pacing and rhythms.

One thing I was thinking about even before first pitch was how to weigh each of these games. The most immediate lesson is to cherish each one, lest a brace of COVID tests or need to close things back down cancel the next one. But I think we all knew that. I was struggling with something else — the idea that each of these games is worth 2.7 times as much as one in a regulation season.

That may be mathematically accurate, but thinking about it that way simply isn’t going to work. Whether you’re a player or a manager or just a fan, you can’t put baseball on fast-forward. The healthier mindset, I think, is to simply note that it’s July 24 and the Mets are in a dogfight for first place, with every team within a game of them in the standings. That’s a more natural way to approach this sprint to October — and it has the additional benefit of being true, as we used to joke in the newsroom.

The game itself was a tight, taut little thriller, with Jacob deGrom coming out throwing 100 MPH gas past Ronald Acuna Jr. and throttling the Braves for as long as his pitch count allowed. He left with a no-decision, which I suppose is a sign of normalcy I could have done without.

Meanwhile his opposite number, Atlanta’s Mike Soroka, escaped trouble a couple of times. His first getaway came right out of the gate, when a leadoff single by Brandon Nimmo was followed by Jeff McNeil hammering a liner past first. Unfortunately, it was right into Freddie Freeman’s glove instead of a foot or so past him, turning a first Met run into an unassisted double play. At home, where Nimmo’s single had convinced me the Mets would finish 60-0, I reversed myself to wail that 0-60 was foreordained, which may sound deeply psychotic but was actually a good sign. Every Opening Day is a reminder of the dangers of emotional small sample sizes.

Then, in the fifth, Ender Inciarte went above the fence — as he’s done before — to take a two-run homer away from J.D. Davis. That time, I had no philosophical silver lining to grumpily appreciate, and just said a bad word.

The game ground along until the seventh, with Seth Lugo and Chris Martin having taken over for deGrom and Soroka. And then, with one out in the seventh, Martin left a fastball over the plate to Mets designated hitter Yoenis Cespedes.

The Yoenis Cespedes Experience has been a surreal ride for more than two years: blown ankles, rumored wild boars, holes in ranchland, restructured contracts, and more perils than a railroad that uses Paulines as mile markers. Cespedes can’t really run, let alone play the field, but neither skill was required to send Martin’s pitch to its beautiful and distant reward. Cespedes’s swing was pure 2015, a viciously beautiful assault, followed by a bat flip that all but winked and asked, “Remember me?”

But would one skinny lousy run be enough? Justin Wilson got through the eighth, helped by a nifty play by newly minted Met Andres Gimenez — in his first-ever big-league chance, no less — and a cutter that was high but arrived when Acuna was expecting a fastball. Still, as the bottom of the eighth arrived, I strongly urged the Mets to score somewhere in the neighborhood of five runs. Which, granted, is always a good idea, but I’ve rarely wished it so fervently. 2020 has been a rough year, and I was feeling a little fragile about the prospect of watching Edwin Diaz defend a one-run lead.

But that was what was going to have to happen. And so, baseball being baseball, of course Diaz looked terrific. The fastball was properly smoking but more importantly the slider had bite and wiggle, both of which were tragically lacking for most of last year. There was some anxiety after a one-out walk to Freeman, of course, though I was heartily glad to see healthy and playing baseball, despite how that usually ends for the Mets. But our nemesis never reached second: Diaz caught Marcell Ozuna looking, then punched out summer-camp Met castoff Matt Adams for the ballgame [1].

The Mets are 1-0 — which means they’re 1-0, not 2.7-0 or any of that stuff. (Seriously, don’t — given everything else we’re all dealing with, the first three-game losing streak will be the death of you.) They won a game, even if the stadium was empty and the calendar unfamiliar, and it felt good. It felt good in ways that were weird, and maybe also in ways that reveal we’re all skating on emotional thin ice, but mostly it felt good in ways that were familiar — much-needed reminders of what we’ve had to put aside and what so many are working hard to restore.