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Alternate-Universe Losses

One of the many fun things so far about 2021 is the Mets winning games that in a lot of previous years you’d expect them to lose.

On Tuesday night I was nervous after the Mets took a 3-2 lead and stubbornly refused to extend that to a safe distance, because I was all too aware that those Cubs in the rearview mirror were closer than they appeared. One errant pitch by a scintillating Taijuan Walker [1], one bit of misfortune for Seth Lugo [2], and the game would be tied (or worse) before you could say [3], “Holy Paul Wilson [4]!” The specter of a stabbed-in-the-guts loss was there and I couldn’t muster enough good vibes to exorcise it. Only the Mets could do that.

Which, somehow, they did.

Walker was brilliant, using his two-seamer, slider and sinker to deadly effect against the Cubs, particularly the left-handed hitters, who pulled back from pitch after pitch that seemed aimed at their hips only to buzz into the strike zone. He struck out 12, a career high, and seemed to get better as the game went on, punching out Anthony Rizzo [5], Willson Contreras [6] and Ian Happ [7] on seven pitches in the sixth (hard to do when you strike out two) and needing just 11 to put down Jason Heyward [8], Sergio Alcantara [9] and Rafael Ortega [10] in the seventh. He had help behind him, too — birthday boy Dom Smith [11] played a superb left field, making an acrobatic catch with a foot scoring the fence and a couple of terrific plays and strong throws to hold Cubs to singles, and Jonathan Villar [12] chipped in a gorgeous play in the fifth, robbing Joc Pederson [13] with a lunging snag of a grounder and on-target throw across the diamond.

Walker now sports a tidy 2.12 ERA and is overshadowed only by the otherworldly Jacob deGrom [14] in the rotation, not bad for a guy whose only contract offer came from the Mets after they came up empty on Jake Odorizzi [15]. Walker’s only 28 but has lived a number of baseball lives already: phenom, Tommy John [16] patient, prospect turned suspect, prodigal son returned on a flier, and finally misfit toy stuck looking for a contract during spring training. To quote Indiana Jones [17], “It’s not the years, honey — it’s the mileage.” This year it’s all come together: health, talent, hard work, motivation, coaching, and it’s been a joy to watch him pitching with both fire and flare.

Pete Alonso [18] chipped in all three of the Mets’ runs, just missing a grand slam in supplying that third one, but the score somehow felt tighter than a lone skinny run could feel. With Edwin Diaz [19] unavailable, Lugo navigated the eighth with no worries but began to labor in the ninth, surrendering a one-out single to Contreras, who gave way to old friend Jake Marisnick [20] as pinch-runner. Lugo’s ordeal felt like a terrible repea [21]t of watching a tired Jeurys Familia [22] against the Padres; absent a thoroughly unexpected trade for Fernando Tatis Jr. [23], pinch-hitter Eric Sogard [24] was about the last guy I wanted to see there — an unflashy, professional veteran pinch-hitter who’d hunt his pitch and refuse to help Lugo. And, indeed, Sogard spanked a 2-2 fastball up the gap in right-center.

Which is where you could see the shadows of all those alternative-universe losses darkening our skies.

The Mets of recent vintage paid scant attention to defense, routinely playing guys out of position, concocting outfields seemingly by lottery, saddling ground-ball pitchers with flyball infields, and failing to outhit their mistakes in the field. This year seemed no different, with J.D. Davis [25] assigned to third and Smith likely to get far too much playing time in left. But the Mets have overhauled their defensive philosophy [26], Davis’s injury has allowed Villar to emerge as a capable third baseman, the various fill-ins at second have performed admirably, and Smith has put in the hard work to make himself far less of a liability than he once was.

Still, it’s the Mets — the franchise that not so long ago lost its chance to claw back into a World Series because an enemy baserunner made a suicidal dash for home, trusting scouting reports that all but promised the Mets would fuck things up, which they did. Sogard’s ball touched grass and bounded towards the wall and I writhed on the couch saying terrible things.

Except Lugo had diligently thrown over to first multiple times, denying Marisnick an extra step or two.

Except Kevin Pillar [27] cut the ball off and threw it on target to the cutoff man.

Except that cutoff man was Luis Guillorme [28], who has some of the best instincts I’ve ever seen in an infielder.

Except Guillorme took the ball, spun smoothly and fired it to the plate on a single hop.

Except the catcher waiting for the throw wasn’t Wilson Ramos [29], who could have subbed for Marv Throneberry [30] in an update of Casey Stengel [31]‘s birthday-cake line [32], but the surehanded James McCann [33].

McCann secured the throw, spun on his knees and tagged Marisnick out.

It only seemed like a bad gamble by Cubs third-base coach Willie Harris [34] (who haunted us plenty in his previous life as a player, then did precious little in a brief stint as a Met) because the defensive parts meshed together so perfectly that Marisnick was out by a good four feet. Marisnick’s jump, Pillar’s route, Pillar’s throw, Guillorme’s spin, Guillorme’s throw, McCann’s grab — downgrade any two of those a little bit and Marisnick beats the tag, with the Cubs tying the game and a hit away from taking the lead. How many previous Mets clubs from the last few years would have come up short? All of them? Lots of them?

Well, not this one. And in this universe, that’s all that matters [35].