For the Mets, the Playoffs Still Seem Just Out of Reach

For the Mets, the Playoffs Still Seem Just Out of Reach


The Sunday night game between the Mets and Dodgers felt like attending a fine late summer party only to drink too much wine and tumble down a steep set of stairs.

During batting practice, as September shadows stretched long and blue across the field, Mets players nearly pranced, playing spirited catch, joking and laughing. Their team was three games out of the final playoff slot and the air was suffused with giggling possibility.

Zack Wheeler, the starting pitcher, arrived at the stadium looking properly East Williamsburg, with shaved scalp, black hoodie and skinny gray jeans. On the mound he fell into his rocking chair motion, firing 97-mile-an-hour four-seam fastballs, and sliders that hissed as the ball hit the catcher’s glove.

Then Brandon Nimmo roped a triple into the right field corner and he pointed to the sky to thank his God, and the Mets led, 2-0.

After seven innings of one-run ball, Wheeler departed. In walked the bullpen arsonists. All season long the team’s relief pitchers have lugged jugs of kerosene to the mound.

The eighth inning began this way: A walk, a balk and a wild pitch, followed by a double that tied the score. Just like that, Wheeler’s fine work had gone for naught. The next inning Seth Lugo, the team’s putative closer save for the fact that his elbow rarely allows him to pitch on consecutive days, took the mound for the second consecutive day and gave up a double. An inning later a Dodgers hitter, Jedd Gyorko, trundled a .183 batting average to the plate. Surely he would not get a hit, but he did, slapping a single and knocking in the winning run. The Dodgers won, 3-2.

The temptation was to proclaim a stake plunged into Dracula’s heart, as the Mets sit four games back with 13 to play.

But those little heartbreakers have cheated death for two months. The first half of this season mixed the soporific with the dispiriting until in late July the Mets ripped off a winning streak, and soon fans piled into this handsome stadium by Flushing Bay, bellowing and chanting.

Win or loss, strangeness ruled. When in Vermont two weeks ago, I lay on a Lake Champlain beach with my younger son, Aidan, peering at the Milky Way and listening to Howie Rose paint a Mets game for us. When the Mets led, 10-4, at the end of eight innings, I walked to the cottage, figuring this one at least was in the bag.

Then I heard Aidan’s wolf howl and knew that somehow the Mets had blown it.

There’s a lot to like, not least Pete Alonso, their Bluto of a power hitting first baseman, and Jeff McNeil, who hits .320 and fields handsomely at four positions. Amed Rosario, 23, shows signs of harnessing his physical talents at shortstop.

The core is the team’s pitching staff. Jacob deGrom, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, is a lean drink of water who pitches effortlessly and yet rarely wins, because game after game his batters put up a Gone Fishing sign in his starts.

Then there’s Noah Syndergaard, who throws thunderbolts but has confounded Mets fans with his struggles. Of late, Syndergaard raised a ruckus by seeking to pitch to a catcher other than Wilson Ramos, who is a fine hitter but is 31 and weighs 250 pounds with surgically repaired knees. He has the mobility of a stone frieze.

Syndergaard, to his credit, talked privately to Mets management. As is the Mets practice over many years, word of this leaked and made him look like a spoiled child.

That is silliness. Clayton Kershaw, the great Dodgers pitcher, insisted on throwing to the light-hitting but nimble A.J. Ellis. Greg Maddux, the Hall of Fame Braves pitcher, preferred anyone except the All-Star catcher Javy Lopez.

Braves Manager Bobby Cox had no trouble accommodating his star. “It’s not a hard decision,” he explained. “Real easy.”

Syndergaard, 26, is no Greg Maddux, who won 355 games. But he is splendidly talented and under team control for two more years.

He has had shaky starts, but his overall statistics are strong. In 2016, his best year, he was 14-9 in 183 innings, giving up 169 hits and walking 46. This year he has thrown 180 innings and given up 169 hits and 46 walks. His WHIP, which smooths out the noise of the earned run average, is higher but not radically so.

It is likely this year is an odd dip made worse by the Mets’ refusal to let Syndergaard pitch to a favorite catcher. Reversion to quality appears likely.

The Mets being the Mets, this probably means Syndergaard will be traded within a few days of the end of the season.

Manager Mickey Callaway may not help matters. He makes clumsy strategic moves with metronomic regularity, even as he is unfailingly upbeat. There’s no need to toss yourself into Flushing Bay after a tough loss. But to listen to Callaway last night was like hearing a jocular P.R. man wave off his totaled BMW. So he spoke of the relievers who had just incinerated the game.

“They’ve been so good and we’ve relied on them so much,” he said. “They’ve been pitching great!”

The crowd was subdued for playoff-race September. The Mets claimed it exceeded 31,000, a number perhaps achieved by double-counting hot dog vendors. The Dodgers fans in attendance so often outshouted Mets fans you wondered if the Mets had given out Thorazine at the front gate.

The Chicago Cubs and even the Washington Nationals, with their khaki-and-white-shirt interns and lobbyist fans, have outdrawn the Mets of late.

Walking out, I fell in with a cluster of despairing fans. I was inducted into the fandom of this team at birth, as were my sons, and I wanted to offer succor. All that came to mind was that in 2007, the team in first place in the National League East blew a seven-game lead with only 17 games to play. It can be done!

Of course, as that team was the Mets, that was perhaps not quite comforting.



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