Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's been 12 hours and I still can't believe this happened

Over the past 26 years I know that I have definitely been to at least 156 New York Mets games either in New York or elsewhere. The true number is almost certainly higher by a handful, but that is the number I can track through ticket stubs, mental photographic research or records in old letters, such as two games I was able to pin down after finding a record of them in a letter my mother wrote to me at summer camp in 2000 just a few weeks ago. I have seen the Mets lose at least 73 times. There is a good chance it is a few games higher (though somehow I've actually seen them win more than lose).

Last night was one of those 73. Some of those 73 losses have been comical blowouts such as a 15-2 drubbing at the hands of the Cubs and the immortal Cory Patterson on opening day in 2003. Others, such as Ryan Church's flyout to end the Mets' season and close down Shea Stadium in 2008, were of a far more brutal variety. But never, ever, ever, in my life, have I experienced a loss that inspired the particular brand of disillusioned funk-inducement that I found myself trapped in last night. Fans of famously hard-luck teams like to say their clubs continue to discover new ways to lose.

Well, the Mets pioneers on that frontier. Last night, they proved they just keep learning new things.

To appropriately paint the scene for which we found ourselves, one must understand the circumstances revolving around the team at this moment. The defending National League champions were, if not the most popular, certainly not an unpopular World Series pick this spring, largely on the backbone of a superb, young pitching staff that was coming into its own and likely to be bolstered by the return of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery sometime this summer, as well as a competent lineup with one or two superb pieces (Yoenis Cespedes) or savvy additions (Neil Walker).

By mid-September the Mets have had three of their four highly-touted starters miss significant time, with only one, Steven Matz, returning at any point this season. Wheeler, meanwhile, never pitched a game and is hoping to be ready for Spring Training 2017. Cespedes, despite a superb season, has had nagging injuries, while Walker and David Wright are both done for the season with back issues, Lucas Duda has missed significant time with a spinal fracture, and several other players have spent time on the DL in an almost comically endless series of lineup crippling injuries.

And yet, somehow, the Mets, with 10 games left to play, through the sheer might of moxie, an ageless 43-year-old overweight pitcher, a blast from the past at the top of the lineup whom many thought they'd never see in a Mets uniform again, and a surprisingly large contribution from a farm system that was thought to be barren after last season's trade deadline, the Mets are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants in a Wild Card Bermuda Triangle in which one of the three teams will disappear in, at most, 11 days time. No team should be able to survive what the Mets have gone through to this point, and even with their favorable schedule and odds, there are still those head scratching moments that make you wonder where this team could be if it hadn't had so many inexplicably slip-ups. The prime example of this is the Braves, to whom the Mets have lost 10 of 19 games this season and been swept by twice at home. Twice! These are the same Braves who have played 133 games against the rest of Major League Baseball and won just 51 of them. The same Braves who are the worst team in the National League and second-worst in all of baseball.

And so that brings us to last night, when those plucky thorns in the Mets' sides from Atlanta arrived at Citi Field for their final game with New York this year. The Mets coasted for much of the game as Bartolo Colon dominated Atlanta's lineup and a first-inning two-run homer by Asdrubal Cabrera seemed to signify that the Mets would take advantage of losses by their Wild Card competitors and jump back into sole possession of the first spot. And then, in the seventh and eighth innings, a three-run lead was erased, possibly due to some questionable bullpen management. The Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth against a Braves bullpen struggling to throw strikes, only to have pinch-hitter Kevin Plawecki, whose appearance in this situation was in and of itself somewhat inexplicable, strike out to end the inning.

Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte drove in a go-ahead run for the Braves in the top of the ninth, and then came the bottom of the inning, which served as the moment at which my brain would be befuddled in a way it had never before endured. The Mets somehow managed to get two men on with two out before Cespedes, he of the inhuman form and speed, whose body, when he swings for the fences, likens itself to an unruly, tightly-wound spring uncorked to unleash its potentially explosive force on the pathetic baseball hurtling toward it, strode to the plate. After following off several pitches, the over-wound coil unspooled and the ball took a ride to deep right-center. In the eighth inning Cespedes had lit into a ball that was driven to left center and had the appearance of a drive that would keep carrying over the wall. Ultimately it glanced off the glove of left fielder Matt Kemp, resulting in a double, but not resulting in the go-ahead or winning run the Mets needed. An inning later, it appeared Cespedes had finished the job.

At the game the night before, I had told a friend that in the 150-plus Mets games I've attended, I've somehow never seen New York hit a walk-off home run, though I did memorably see Bill Hall do it against the Mets in Milwaukee on Mother's Day in 2006. I brought this up again to my friend Jon last night as we sat in left center, without considering the possibility that I might see it tonight. As Cespedes' drive flew, I assumed this was finally it, a walk-off moment that not only provided momentary excitement, but would also be a pivotal step taken in the Mets' journey back to the postseason. The ball carried as Inciarte ran from 100 feet after it to the right center patch of wall where it was destined to pass.

And then it happened.

The ball was gone. The game was over. The Mets would vault back into first place in the Wild Card hunt with the rousing type of victory that inspires a team set for an irrational, inexplicable deep October run. And then, in a flash, an outfielder many Mets fans have never heard of, though he seems destined for an above average, potentially All-Star studded career, snatched a victory away from New York when it had literally already left the park.

Despite the apparent contradictory evidence of the paragraphs above this, there are no words that could appropriately encapsulate the shock, the confusion and the befuddlement of witnessing a moment like this up close. I was barely able to speak in the moments after, a true feat to those who know me, and as I slowly walked to the subway for my ride home, I did so in a haze rarely experienced and not easily broken. It is the type of thing only caused by a moment that is so unexpected and so improbable that it inspires real, genuine disbelief.

As I awoke this morning, I was still not quite so sure that what I saw happen had actually happened. Luckily, the highlights on SportsCenter at the gym reminded me. New York is still tied for the Wild Card lead and, with the benefit of the weakest remaining schedule in baseball over these final 10 games, is firmly in control of its own destiny. All things being equal, or rational, the Mets should be playing in the NL Wild Card game 13 days from now. And yet, rationality is not something this franchise is prone to. It has, over the years, stumbled to heartbreak regularly with a few spare glints of magic and success along the way. In my life, I have seen much of that heartbreak, and een it in person, dozens of times. Even if they say, a team can always learn a new way to lose, somewhere, in the back of your head, you tell yourself that you've seen it all. You tell yourself that your team has learned all there is to learn in that particular discipline.

But the Mets, somehow, keep learning. One wonders what they'll learn tomorrow.

NFL Picks Week Three

Last week: 8-8-0
Season: 15-17-0

Houston (even) over NEW ENGLAND
Arizona (-4.5) over BUFFALO
Denver (+3) over CINCINNATI
GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Detroit
Oakland (+1.5) over TENNESSEE
Cleveland (+10) over MIAMI
NY GIANTS (-4.5) over Washington
CAROLINA (-7) over Minnesota
JACKSONVILLE (even) over Baltimore
SEATTLE (-9.5) over San Francisco
TAMPA BAY (-4.5) over Los Angeles
INDIANAPOLIS (-2.5) over San Diego
NY Jets (+3) over KANSAS CITY
Pittsburgh (-3.5) over PHILADELPHIA
DALLAS (-7) over Chicago
NEW ORLEANS (-3) over Atlanta

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