- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

A Day of Trivia and Substance

First off, it didn’t rain. Anybody ready to take that for granted in the middle of a season when it anecdotally “always” rains? Chance of scattered thunderstorms, the forecast warned. I stuffed my disposable poncho I never dispose of and my portable Mets umbrella that I try not to use because then it would get wet into my game bag. They never saw daylight because the sky never saw storm clouds.

Then, and more importantly, the Mets didn’t lose [1]. They could have. They were poised on the precipice of defeat at a couple of intervals Sunday afternoon. Smack in the middle of Promenade, Section 515 — where home plate is directly below; the original “STRUCK! HIM!! OUT!!!” guy is within earshot; and sunscreen unchecked by umpires was the order of the surprisingly dry day for arms, faces and legs otherwise susceptible to burns — you could feel a grip being lost, a good game going bad, a win getting away.

But it didn’t rain and the Mets didn’t lose. The Toronto Blue Jays, who you’re glad are in another league’s Eastern Division, loomed large but were cut down to size when it mattered most.

What mattered first was Rich Hill [2], the 1,145th Met overall, striding to the mound to serve as starting pitcher. I’ve been to three games this year. In all three games, I’ve witnessed a pitcher make his first start as a Met. If it happens again, I’m contemplating commissioning a custom-made satin jacket embroidered with my new nickname Welcome Wagon in a fancy font. I’ve personally welcomed Tylor Megill [3], then Robert Stock [4], then Rich Hill. One of these things, the Muppets advise, is not like the other. Megill took the ball as the rawest of rookies. Robert Stock’s pre-Met starting experience was limited to playing the below-the-title role of “opposing pitcher” to Jacob deGrom before coming to his senses and joining the good guys.

Hill, on the other hand, has been around. He’s seen some things. He’s thrown some innings, though not often more than five at a time. Rich is 41, a Terrific number to flash in Flushing. Rich also throws about 41, or so it seems relative to those hurlers who light up radar guns from coast to coast. Whatever his velocity and repertoire, the very experienced Rich Hill took care of the Jays for the first five without a run.

I’d love to tell you I applied my grand view of home plate to discerning the movement or command that made Rich so effective. But nah. I spent most of Rich Hill’s first outing as a Met immersed in Rich Hill-adjacent conversation with my old pal the Maestro of Metrics, Mark Simon, who was kind enough to invite me to take the seat next to him in 515 Sunday. Mark didn’t want any payment for the ticket, but requested I bring some trivia. He’d bring the same. This is our version of a pot luck dinner.

Rich Hill’s presence had us asking and answering questions that involved the likes of Damon Buford, Manny Alexander, Miguel Batista and Rajai Davis. Dock Ellis rode in on a surprisingly lofty ERA. Old frenemy T#m Gl@v!ne was one-fifth of an answer, though I didn’t pronounce him the way I spell him. The fact that Rich was facing Toronto allowed us to bring up Jeremy Hefner from early in his rookie campaign and Jason Isringhausen from after he was a phenom. Damion Easley snuck in from somewhere near third base. And, via a roundabout route that isn’t Easley articulated, so did Jeff Keppinger.

Go to a game with Mark and me. I dare you to pay attention to what you came to see. But eventually the novelty of the 41-year-old starting pitcher with more stickers on his figurative suitcase than miles per hour on his fastball wears off and even we are paying attention to what the game in front of us is doing. Hill climbed into but not out of the sixth. He bequeathed loaded bases and a slim lead of 1-0 to Seth Lugo [5]. Hill’s will should have been more specific about what Seth should do with his inheritance. Alas, all three of those runners scored on Lugo’s watch/Rich’s record.

We were down, 3-1, in the middle of the sixth. We could’ve stayed down. We stayed down on Saturday night. Responded to the canned calls of “CHARGE!!!” in one inning [6], got mired in a maze the other eight. Yet the bottom of the sixth became where Sunday stopped being about trivia and started being about substance.

The first half of what needed to happen on offense happened pretty Easley…uh, easily. Pete Alonso [7] whacked a two-run homer to left. Whoomp, there it was, a 3-3 tie. It was Pete’s 22nd of the year in the Mets’ 96th game. For the first time since it stopped being 2019, Alonso hit a home run that felt like 2019 — his 2019, when he was setting paces and breaking records.

The Mets’ 2021 has taken flight without a lot of Alonso, compared to the outsize space he occupied in our psyche two years ago, but a full complement of Pete will be critical to this first-place club remaining this first-place club. THIS NOT JUST IN BUT FEELS LIKE IT’S NEWS: The Mets are a first-place club. We’re still rubbing our eyes over their status because, as we’ve been over repeatedly, they haven’t really played like a first-place club. But they are a first-place club. The goal now is to continue to be a first-place club.

For that, we shall require not just satisfying game-tying home runs but clutch-as-hell go-ahead hits. We shall require more than a sprinkle of Jeff McNeil [8], the Polar Bear’s erstwhile tag team partner. Jeff has not been physically available for a few days, and spiritually, mentally or simply Squirrelfully, he hasn’t been a hundred percent present in the way we grew used to in 2018 and 2019. It’s a long career for every player of tenure. Ups and downs are a fact of their flow. We’re as patient as my cat at the sound of a can opener when it comes to the downs.

McNeil got a pinch-hitting opportunity in the sixth. Jacob Barnes [9] (the 1,119th Met overall, for those who have forgotten) came on to pitch for the Blue Jays. J.D. Davis [10] walked. Jonathan Villar [11] singled. McNeil’s turn for an up or a down.

An up. Definitely an up.

McNeil ripped a Barnes ball into the right-center gap scoring both Davis and Villar and pushing the Mets ahead, 5-3. If the Mets didn’t win the NL East right there and then, I had a sense they’d taken a step toward not losing it. That was a big hit. It didn’t go as long as Alonso’s, it didn’t come so late to be routinely termed dramatic, and by no means did it clinch the game, but Mark and I agreed that if there’s ever cause to produce a 2021 reboot of the 1986 home video blockbuster A Year to Remember [12] (likely not on VHS and probably without a music budget adequate for securing rights to Bob Seger, Duran Duran or Emerson, Lake & Palmer), the McNeil pinch-double earned a slot in the “as July turned to August and the Mets’ hold on first place tightened” montage.

Yeah, the vibe was hot. But the inning was indeed only the sixth and the lead was only two. Jeurys Familia [13] was tidy as you please with a clean seventh. The Jays’ eighth was a different story. Trevor May [14] was a different pitcher. Not the Trevor May we’ve trusted intermittently in ’21. More along the lines of the Aaron Heilman we stopped trusting after ’06. The Jays put up a run in what felt like a blink to make it 5-4. They kept coming, too, loading the bases with two out.

Enter Aaron Loup [15], the anti-Heilman as Aarons go. Enter another moment where the division wasn’t lost again. Alert the editing bay that we need to splice into the montage Loup lining out Cavin Biggio to Dom Smith [16] in left and leaving the bases loaded. Think about it: the Blue Jays, who’d posted ten runs the night before and gave you the notion they could post ten more at will, had a tie and a lead in their grasp. Grasping ties and leads is what good teams do to teams not so good. But the Mets are a good team. We don’t notice because we’re Mets fans.

We also don’t put much faith in relievers to hold slim leads. Except Aaron Loup. Let’s trust him a little. And no kidding about the montage. “The Mets’ momentum extended some more on a summer Sunday, thanks to an easygoing, tough-throwing southpaw from Louisiana.” We’ll update the script as needed.

An awesome team might have poured on some insurance runs. The Mets are good. We’re not claiming they’re awesome. We’re not even claiming Edwin Diaz [17] is dependable. We are genetically incapable of telling our closer, “You got this.” In our heart of hearts, we don’t think you do, but we’re willing to fake enthusiasm if it helps. And tap along a toe or two to the trumpet routine that heralds Edwin’s emergence from the pen — the only loud noise transmitted over the ballpark’s overwrought PA system that qualified as a somewhat welcome sound Sunday. Mark and I agreed that if Diaz comes in to pitch in the playoffs at Citi Field with a one-run edge and his music blasting, it, like our team by then, will be awesome.

We were actually talking playoffs in July, with Edwin Diaz approaching the pitching rubber to face the dangerous Blue Jays. We may have used sunscreen, but you’re welcome to assume we were experiencing heat stroke.

Diaz went about his business in a manner resembling cool, calm and collected. He struck out George Springer, which satisfied the many who howled at the moon (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!) every time the shamed champion Astro showed his face. He walked Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., but a base on balls is the better part of valor when facing a hitter whose slugging percentage of .663 leaps from the scoreboard and knocks your eyes’ socks off while simultaneously taking their breath away. Guerrero is a metaphor-crusher. Don’t let him be a Met-crusher, too. Walk him, just don’t let him get anywhere.

Edwin did, but only ninety feet on a wild pitch. Edwin struck out Marcus Semien on three pitches in the interim. It was while facing Bo Bichette that Vlad the Younger moved to second. It was also while facing Bichette that Diaz worked the count full. At three-and-two, James McCann [18] trotted to the mound for a word with his pitcher. From 515, one could only imagine what the word was. It was probably more family-friendly than the words we in the stands had holstered in case the worst was about to occur.

We’ll save that variant of our vocabulary for another day, maybe another year. Diaz struck out Bichette to end the game, 5-4 in the Mets’ favor. Mark likes to invoke a Kurkjianism for games you look back on as building blocks to a special season. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian will say “circle this game” in reference to a crazy comeback or a stunning turning point. I asked him as we descended the steps from Promenade if a game whose defining characteristic was it didn’t get away when it could have is one that qualifies for a circle. Mark wasn’t sure. Neither was I. But we both agreed that it could have been a loss we would have circled ruefully had it been a loss.

Which it wasn’t. And that, I have a hunch, was pretty substantial.