We finally have a marginally useful statistical comparison of sorts for this season that is statistically, logistically and aesthetically absolutely like no other. With the 2020 Mets having played 52 of a projected 60 games, we can line their season to date up against the only season when the Mets played 52 games in total, the only other season in Mets history when we knew what was done after 52 games defined most or all of what that season amounted to. That was the second season of 1981, the year when a strike spurred the splitting of the schedule into two roughly equal parts, a pair of seasons like no other(s), not until this baby came along.
The 52-game season in question followed a 51-game season that was downright abysmal in Flushing, though the 51-game season didn’t quite define in the same manner most or all of what that season amounted to because, after 51 games, we didn’t know it was a 51-game season. The Mets were 17-34 on June 12, looking forward to drearily completing the usual 162-game campaign. Then the strike occurred. It was presumed that when the strike ended, everything would just pick up where it left off. But the strike lingered through June and all of July before a settlement was reached. Hence, when everybody started over on August 10, they started at 0-0, basically because baseball’s dealmakers decided few potential customers would willingly pay for the privilege of watching teams try to go, say, 18-34 after nearly two months of distasteful discord left them watching nothing.
The second-season 1981 Mets thrilled at least one 18-year-old fan because they took their best shot at winning a mini-division title  that was suddenly very much in play. Even though it was only a 52-game season, it was still a matter of finishing first or going home — and the Mets honestly challenged for first. Ultimately, it proved an illusory challenge, but it was real enough while it lasted; it was certainly better than restarting from 17-34. Their final record of 24-28 didn’t get them anywhere because a final record of 24-28 shouldn’t get you anywhere. When it was over, they landed in fourth place in the National League East, 5½ games out of first.
Thirty-nine years later, the Mets after 52 games are also 24-28. They’re also in fourth place in the National League East. They are 6 games out of first. But they are arithmetically a playoff contender because their 24-28 record isn’t final. It’s close to being final, but it’s not yet done. They have eight games left. And they have options that were unavailable to their 1981 second-season predecessors.
In ’81, it was first place or bust. It was that way in the first half, even though nobody knew on June 12 that a “season” had been completed. It was that way in the second half. First-half champ in each division played that division’s second-half champ in the playoffs to determine the division champ that would play the league’s other division champ for the pennant. If somebody won both halves, they would play the division’s second-place team from the second half, but that didn’t happen in any of the four major league divisions.
In ’20, you can finish first and make the playoffs. You can finish second and make the playoffs. You have three divisions in each league, so that’s six playoff positions in the NL, six in the AL. And then there are two Wild Cards, giving us eight here and eight there for sixteen overall. It was considered the fairest way to apportion opportunity in a season surrounded by the unfairness wrought by a pandemic. With eight games left to play, four games under .500 after 52 games makes you more of a contender than a team that finished four games under .500 in a 52-game season 39 years ago could have ever dreamed of being. At least in the NL it does.
The second-half Mets of 1981 compiled the 9th-best record in the 12-team, two-division National League between August 10 and October 4, though what went on in the NL West standings didn’t factor in figuring their playoff chances because there was no such thing as a Wild Card. The short-season Mets of 2020 currently claim the 11th-best record in the 15-team, three-division National League since league play commenced on July 23. They need be very much concerned with the actions of several teams in their circuit’s other two divisions, the West and the Central, because they are not really pursuing first place in the East. They are pursuing whoever has the second-best non-second-place record among everybody in the East, West and Central, for that equals one of the two Wild Cards. (Never mind that, for COVID contingency’s sake, they haven’t played and won’t play anybody from the NL Central or NL West yet still have three games remaining versus the AL East-leading Rays.)
Within those perfectly clear parameters, the Mets are running fourth in the playoff race, 1½ games behind the Reds, who at the moment, hold an advantage of .001 over both the Brewers and Giants, so the Mets are also 1½ games behind each of them. Then there’s us. There’s maybe one more arithmetically viable team behind us (the Rockies) and a little action above the Reds (among the Cards, the Phils and the Marlins) that might directly affect the scrap for the second Wild Card if enough losses befall somebody in that higher quasi-bracket.
We’re still alive. We’re still conceivably a very hot and extremely lucky week from making the playoffs as the 8-seed. Given the right quantities of heat and luck, we might waft up to the 5-seed, but chances are the 8-seed is as high as we can set our sights, if we are of a mind to set them at all.
We’re still 24-28. Just like those 1981 second-season Mets who had nowhere to go but home after playing 52 games. Just like the Mets of 1968, 1978, 2011 and 2014, all of whom had 110 games to go after playing 52, so they were hardly in a similar boat to the Mets in 2020 or the Mets in the second season of 1981, though it’s worth noting none of those Mets went on to finish with as much as a .500 record. Their 52-game marks, however, serve to remind us 24-28 teams generally aren’t on their way to the playoffs no matter how long or short their season.
On Saturday night, the Mets climbed from 23-28 to 24-28 by beating the Braves , 7-2, at Citi Field. The Braves are the team in first place in the NL East, so the Mets picking up ground and moving within six of them probably didn’t cross the visitors’ minds. Given that they haven’t clinched anything yet, the Braves no doubt would have preferred winning, but losing to the Mets wouldn’t seem to represent a tangible dent to their fortunes.
The Mets could be particularly satisfied that they received their first legitimately splendid starting pitching performance since two Friday nights ago in Buffalo and the first that lasted longer than a cup of Bigelow Green Tea since Tuesday in Philadelphia. This rare pleasant turn of the rotation was brought to us by David Peterson , whose rookie season has been more up than down, particularly against the Braves. David went six innings, struck out ten and gave up only one run. It was reminiscent (if anyone actually wishes to reminisce about 2020) of Peterson’s first start against Atlanta, when he also went six and struck out eight. Should the Mets and Braves both make the playoffs and meet in the second (NLDS) or third (NLCS) round, it would behoove Luis Rojas to align his pitching to have Peterson ready to face Atlanta in either Houston or Arlington, as all NL playoff games beyond the Wild Card round will take place in Texas.
In a 60-game season in which 16 teams are invited to the postseason, even a 24-28 team never knows.