Friday, October 1, 2021
Another Nice Mess They’ve Gotten Into
This is what 2021 became for the Mess (er, Mets). As MLB Network's Jon Heyman points out rather cruelly, this year's Mets have done what no Show team ever has done: spent the most days in first place (103) in a year they'll finish with a losing record.
Look to your non-laurels, every St. Louis Brown ever, every Washington Senator before and after 1924, every Indian since the Berlin Airlift, every 1964 Phillie, every 1980s Brave, every 1987 Blue Jay, and even every 2007 Met.
Feel just a little better about yourselves, fellow 2021 collapsers in San Diego. Maybe you both fell out of contention officially and once and for all on the same day. But that exhausts whatever you actually had in common.
Well, okay. You both spent lavishly last offseason to augment, fortify, and strengthen. "It is a familiar formula," the New York Post's Joel Sherman reminds us. "The teams that spend the most and/or add the most famous players are cheered and crowned in winter, often followed soon after by dismay in summer."
Dismay? How about deflation? How about disaster? How about formerly gleeful prognosticators and impatient fan bases who feel again as though they've been walked up to the mountaintop, shown the Promised Land, and given a swift kick in the tail with a jackboot to crash on the rocks below?
Joe and Jane Padre Fan should count their blessings. They're not half as accustomed to great expectations turning to gross vaporizations as are Joe and Jane Met fan. Joe and Jane Padre Fan adjacent to the pleasant, embracing San Diego waterfront expect no miracles, but merely hope.
Joe and Jane Met Fan inside the belly of the New York beast, adjacent to the rumbling East River, expect everything — until they don't. Even when the Mets held fast at the top of the none-too-powerful National League East heap this year, there was always the sense that, somewhere in New York or beyond, there was at least a minyan worth of Met fans thinking to themselves, "Okay, when's it going to happen?"
If you don't know what "it" is, you haven't watched the Mets for half as long as I have. And I was there to see them born with Abbott pitching to Costello and Who the Hell's on first, What the Hell's on second, You Don't Want to Know's at third, You Don't Even Want to Think About It's at shortstop, the Three Stooges in the outfield, the Four Marx Brothers on the bench, the Keystone Kops in the bullpen, and Laurel and Hardy on the coaching lines. I'm still not sure whether it was Casey Stengel or Ernie Kovacs managing that team.
Even by the standards of this year's NL East, the division was the Mets' for the taking — and they let the tellers reach for their own pistols to stick them up at the bank window. Meanwhile, the Braves and the Phillies open a series today in Atlanta. A measly two games separate them at the top of the division.
Too many Met injuries? Well, yes. But let's look around.
The Braves lost a franchise player (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) trying for a leaping outfield catch dead middle through the season. One day later, they sat at 44-45. Since the All-Star break: 39-27. The Phillies almost lost a franchise player (Bryce Harper) at April's end, hit in the face and wrist hard with a pitch, watched him struggle to get back into his full form through a wrist injury. At the All-Star Break: 44-44. Since the All-Star Break: 37-31.
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos simply reached out, plucked a few spare outfielders at or around the trade deadline, and found the unforeseen gems in Jorge Soler and (after wearing out his welcome in Los Angeles and Chicago) Joc Pederson.
Phillies general manager Sam Fuld might have shocked more than a few observers (and a lot more than a few Phillies fans) when he went trolling for pitching at the deadline — but he came away with Ian Kennedy for the bullpen and Kyle Gibson to augment the rotation.
As in, the rotation that already included Zack Wheeler pitching his way into this year's Cy Young Award conversation after spending last year only beginning to make the Mets wish, possibly, that they hadn't given up his ghost just yet. In case Joe and Jane Met Fan need it rubbed in a little further, Wheeler to date has a 2.63 ERA, a 7.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .216 opposition batting average against his former team.
Entering this week's just about do-or-die set with each other, the Braves are fifth in the National League for team OPS to the Phillies at sixth. The Braves are sixth in the league with a team 3.95 ERA against the Phillies tenth with 4.41. They both play in home parks hitters love, but the Braves as of Tuesday morning were a .500 team at home while the Phillies as of Tuesday were seven below .500 on the road.
They're both in better shape than the deflated Mess in New York. Losing deGrom for the season, after he dropped a few more jaws despite earlier injury interruptions, was a blow that couldn't be cauterized or treated simply. That goes without saying.
But the Mets' pitching staff not named deGrom got reminded rudely and the hard way that they could even pitch no-hit ball and still discover themselves betrayed. The Mets turned up lost or terribly inconsistent at the plate, almost with or without men in scoring position and showing a distinct knack for bats coming back to life only after it mattered the most.
Marcus Stroman in particular pitched like an ace among the remaining starters; Aaron Loup turned into the Mets' most dangerous bullpen weapon; Javier Baez shook off his early shakes upon arrival in New York to perform according to his previous notices.
But Francisco Lindor remained a textbook and casebook study at shortstop while struggling to live up to his glandular extension at the plate for the first two-thirds of the season. Michael Conforto in his walk year may or may not have pressed too furiously under the weight of his hopes for either a Met future or a free agency pay day. Pete Alonso re-learned the hard way that his bomb sight meant too little when there wasn't always someone for him to drive in or someone behind him to drive him in.
That was how the Mets collapsed in August, entered September on a roll showing 10-5 from August 28-September 12, then went 1-10 from there through Tuesday morning.
It's one thing to give the boo birds a taste of their own medicine. To this day too many sports fans and too many sports commentators alike equate defeat with moral and character failure. Too many sports fans and too many commentators alike think a loss, or even a losing record (with or without spending 64 percent of the year in first place), equals the end of what's left of the free world.
But from the top down, these Mets also seemed more interested in blaming the outside than looking inward when trouble arose. It's something else entirely to say it's all the fans' or the press's fault that a genuinely talented team didn't know how to overcome the injury bugs the Braves and the Phillies overcame — in a division that looked so modest most of the season that any team ironing up for it could steal it in broad daylight.
Still-new owner Steve Cohen's growing pains must end after the season does. The end must only begin with finding a new general manager and president of baseball operations. (Preferably, men or women who have verifiable allergies to scandal.) Possibly a new manager, though incumbent Luis Rojas hasn't been a bad manager so much as he's been a befuddled one as often as not.
But the most important acquisition the Mets can make to begin their revival should be an unfogged, unclouded mirror. The kind that enables them to see clearly, without alternative, where the issues lay. The kind that might have them unwilling to break the dubious record this year's model's collapse enabled them to set.