Monday, October 19, 2015

This is what magic feels like

There is something about witnessing a postseason run for one of your teams that, in the moment, doesn't quite make it seem real. In the particular scenario in which that team is noted for a history of heartbreak when it's good, mediocrity when its not and generally tripping over its own feet, it is doubly surreal. What the New York Mets are doing right now, however, might make surreal seem ordinary. That New York is riding the arms of its long-touted pitching staff is not exactly a surprise. But ripping off two wins to start the NLCS against the favored Chicago Cubs, beating their two ace-caliber pitchers in the process no-less, and doing so with Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy delivering almost all of the offensive punch is something to behold.

And, I can tell you, it's something to see.

I have been to more than 180 Major League Baseball games in my life. According to my Hardball Passport profile, 138 of those have involved the New York Mets, though given that I wasn't quite as dedicated to keeping track of my ticket stubs in the 1990s, that number, in reality, is almost certainly higher. Until Saturday night, I had never seen the Mets play in the postseason in person. I did have tickets to the first round in 2007 and 2008, but we all know what happened there. Three years ago I decided on a whim to see my first postseason game when the Yankees and Orioles played in Game 5 of the ALDS.

I'm not sure why I did that. For years I had said I would avoid the postseason until I saw my Mets playing there myself. Perhaps I just saw a deal too good to pass up on an afternoon I was free, perhaps I got tired of waiting. While that afternoon was fun, it was no different or worse for me than any other baseball game. I had no care or investment. It was just nine innings between two teams with whom I have almost no connection.

This was different. I have sat in Citi Field some 50 times and I have seen it range from moderately excited to having the heartbeat of a morgue. On Saturday and Sunday night I sat along the third base line and felt an energy I had never known possible in a baseball stadium. People rose up for every two-strike count, hung on every pitch, reached a point of palpable tension at every pivotal moment and exploded with each hit, each run, each first-inning right-field blast by Murphy.

As I stood there I was overcome by the excitement, by the refusal to be beaten down by winter-like cold weather and by how amazing it is when intangibles can become tangible. Experiencing the playoffs in person is unlike anything else baseball can offer when you have a vested interest, and if you're really a fan, it's hard to understand what it means until you're there.

Meanwhilst, the weekend offered not just energy, excitement or a way to forget Northwestern laid an enormous egg at homecoming, but also delivered the Mets two enormous wins to start the series. As a fan of this team I'm always hesitant to feel comfortable no matter how advantageous the situation. After all, New York merely held serve. As the axiom goes, it's not a series until the home team loses. That hasn't happened yet, and Wrigley Field, despite its nickname, is not terribly friendly in October (sometimes not even to the home team), but there are a few unavoidable truths to how the series has unfolded.

A) Momentum is key, and all of it is squarely in New York's corner.
B) The Cubs cannot win the series now without returning to Citi Field, where they have looked relatively punchless.
C) The Cubs will have to beat the Mets four times in five games, with three of those games being started by Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel rather than Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.
D) The Mets' best pitcher this season, Jacob deGrom, has not yet started in the series.

It is very possible that the series will shift back to New York next Saturday with Chicago leading 3-2, but when you add all of this up, the Mets have a clear advantage, which, one would hope, is too large to overcome. At the same point, however, the fear of easing up is in the back of anyone's head. Anyone who watches sports regularly has seen a team rally when it's allowed to stick around too long. A champion smells blood, sees wounded prey and steps on its neck.

This is what the Mets must do in Chicago on Tuesday.

I acknowledge that particular description doesn't sound very sportsmanlike, but, hey, they'd be saving the Cubs a trip to New York, right? Lord knows I've had enough issues flying between those two cities over the years. Then again, I've never really seen the Mets have a team with any killer instinct to speak of. Perhaps there were inklings when New York swept its three-game visit to Washington in September, effectively ending the division race, but I've watched them for too long to have any confidence that the Mets will close the door swiftly and authoritatively.

But maybe there's a first time for everything. Then again, even if it did happen, that, too, wouldn't quite feel real. That's the great thing about postseason baseball, though. It is real. It just may not feel like it to you. At least, not yet.

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