Return To Panic City

All it took was losing 4 out of 5 games for the Mets to return to Panic City.

Look, it troubles me the Mets struggle against good teams.  But perhaps it was just an overdue slump. Since the trade deadline, prior to last weekend’s series with the Pirates, the Mets went 11-2. That’s a .846 winning percentage and likely not sustainable. So they have lost four of five, okay, not the end of the world.

I get it. The last two times the Mets were in contention, they blew it. One was a colossal collapse (2007), the other was not as a bad but still painful (2008). And there are similar symptoms in that the bullpen looks a bit thin right now. So some of the panic is not without merit but the Mets are still leading the NL East, now by four games thanks to Washington’s loss to the Rockies in Colorado. Good for the Rockies but now of course, let’s hope the Rocks revert to their form from the first two games against the Nationals.

The next two series (seven games) are against Colorado and Philadelphia, two last place clubs. There will be no excuse for the Mets if they don’t win at least four of those games, hopefully more.

For reference on this date last year, the Dodgers had a three game lead on the Giants and won the division. All teams that were leading the division or wild cards made the post season. The year before, same thing. All teams on August 21st, in position for a division title or wild card made the post season. Of course nothing is certain, couple that with Mets’ fans self-doubt and yes, here we come, Panic City. Let’s just try to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

 

Still 4 1/2 Up

Okay, get off that ledge. Please don’t jump. It’s not worth it. Really, it’s only baseball. Let’s look at things positively. Sure things look bad this morning but all is not as bad as you think.

What if the Nationals had swept the Giants? If that happened, things would be a lot worse this morning. Instead of a four and a half game lead, the Mets would have been in front by just a game and a half. But thankfully the Giants swept and with the Mets being swept by the Pirates, the Mets still remain atop the National League East by four and a half games (four in the loss column).

Well, what about the fact the Mets were unable to win one game against either the Pirates or the Cubs this season? That does not bode well for the playoffs. Well, possibly but…

First and foremost, the Mets have to get to the playoffs. Even with their lead, nothing is guaranteed with 44 games left to play. While the Mets schedule does not look difficult, neither does the Nationals. Plus playing also-rans is sometimes not the most desirable thing to do. Clubs like the Rockies, Phillies, and Reds will have nothing to lose the rest of the way. They will be playing loose, just thinking about their extended vacation coming up after October 4th. And these teams may be starting pitchers brought up after the rosters expand. Many will be unknowns to veteran major league hitters who will have pressure on them to perform. The point is on August 17th, nothing is certain. It’s one game at a time folks and next up it’s off to Camden Yards to meet Baltimore for two to kick off a nine game road trip.

However, let’s take the leap that the Mets do make the playoffs. If they do, the likelihood is they will do so as the NL East champions and not a wild card. That’s because the Pirates and Cubs are very good clubs. They are one and two in the wild card race with the Mets five games behind the Cubs, the second wild card team. So true, the Mets have not been able to win one game this season against these two teams.  But that will not matter until the second round, if the Mets were to get there. This is because Major League Baseball changed the playoff rule.

Under the new rule that was collectively bargained at the end of the 2011 season, seeding changed. No longer would a wild card team be prohibited to play a division winner from the same division in the division series. So for the sake of example, let’s assume things end as they are today. That would have the Mets, Cardinals, and Dodgers as the NL Division champions with the Pirates and Cubs being the number one and number two wild card respectively. Regardless that the Pirates and Cubs may have better records than two divisional champions, one of those two teams will not be around for the LDS. Both the Bucs and Cubbies would play the one game playoff with the winner playing the Cardinals in the LDS. That’s because St. Louis would have the best record in the National League. The highest seed plays the wild card winner, regardless of division.

That means the Mets would play the Dodgers in the LDS, at least guaranteeing a minimum of three post season games since the LDS is three out of five. That would be a great series considering the pitching matchups alone.  If the Mets were able to get past Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, then they would have to face the Cubs, Pirates, or Cardinals in the NLCS. Neither one would be a simple task considering the Mets are 3-17 against all three teams. Ironically the Mets won the three games against the Cardinals, the best of the three. So perhaps that’s who we would want the Mets to play if they got that far.

But again, we are getting way ahead of ourselves. The Mets need to take care of business and get to the post season. The first thing they need to do is to figure out a bullpen strategy that does not include Bobby Parnell. Unlike Matt Harvey, Parnell’s recovery from TJ surgery is not coming as easily and Terry Collins simply can’t keep going to the one time closer just because of what the back of his baseball card says. Maybe the Mets need to promote Logan Verrett who did well in his first stint with the Mets. I don’t know but simply hoping Parnell can find himself while in a pennant race is not the best course of action.

The Mets are off today and can relax but the Orioles have been scoring lots of runs lately and just finished sweeping the Athletics. They will face Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard in the brief two game set. deGrom has not been lights out of late but always manages to battle and keep the opposition’s scoring down. On the other hand Syndergaard has not pitched well on the road this year so nothing can be taken for granted. It’s going to be a tough nine game trip before returning home to face the Boston Red Sox. Hopefully by then the Mets are still holding on to first place or better yet, have increased their lead.

 

I Learned My Lesson

I hope I don’t hear a single Mets fan today say that the Mets are in first place and the Yankees aren’t. Man have I learned my lesson on that one.

In recent years I have often said that the Mets are the team on the rise while the Yankees are getting old. Back in the spring, many including me said the Yankees would likely finish under .500 because there were so many question marks surrounding their players.  Players were old, Jeter is gone, Teixeira isn’t the player he used to be, what can anyone expect from A-Rod? On and on it went, the doubt that is. So what did the Yankees do, they just went out and did what they always do…win! Teixeira is having a great year and if A-Rod doesn’t win comeback player of the season, chalk it up to consipacy.

Meanwhile the Mets struggled and treaded water for two months after a sizzling April. With all the talk of the Mets taking back New York, the Yanks quietly went out and proved why sixty percent of New York’s baseball fans follow the pinstripes.

Of late, things began to change for both teams. Since two weeks ago today, when the Mets managed to blow a six run lead in the wildest weather affected game most can imagine, the Amazins have won ten of twelve games. This recent surge is due to the imports of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, Tyler Clippard, and most notably Yoenis Cespedes. Oh, and throw in the call up of Michael Conforto, the return of Travis d’Arnaud, and the waiver deal for Eric O’Flaherty as well. Sandy Alderson fortified the Mets lineup and bullpen to go along with his stellar starting staff. The Mets have moved into first place and have taken a three and a half game lead over Washington in the National League East.

Across the river, the Yankees have begun to struggle. They have lost five in a row, including a sweep at the Stadium by the Blue Jays this past weekend. The Jays have lost only one game since the trade deadline when they received Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies for Jose Reyes. After last night’s Yankee loss to the Indians and another Blue Jays drubbing of the Athletics, the Bombers have moved a half game out of first (still ahead in the loss column because of two fewer games played than Toronto).

It would be very easy for Mets fans to gloat right now but as I said, I have learned my lesson. I assume nothing but what last night’s results tell me. The Mets won, the Nationals lost. The Mets picked up another full game. However, that gives me no indication of where things will stand on October 4th, the last day of the season.

I have followed this game too long to make any kind of assumptions and predictions. Would I be shocked if the Mets blew this thing and the Yankees end up in the post season? Are you kidding? Only a fool would be surprised at that. There’s still a lot of a baseball left, a lot of time for the Yanks to straighten out their problems and the Mets to come back to earth.  Indeed I have learned my lesson. Too many times in the past I predicted Mets fortune and Yankee gloom and I had to eat my words and get my foot out of my mouth.

In 2006, the Mets made it to the LCS while the Yanks were eliminated by Detroit in the LDS. The Mets missed the World Series that year by one game. The following season, the Mets suffered the worst collapse in franchise history, failing to win a consecutive division title. The Yanks went to the post season. A year later, another Mets’ late season derailment occurred. A smaller collapse than in ‘07 but a collapse none the less. A year later in ‘09, the Yankees win the World Series, the Mets finish below .500. So yes, I have learned my lesson.

Honestly, I don’t care what the Yankees do. Any Yankee fan upset this morning needs to take a good heaping tablespoon of perspective. 27 world championships, 40 American League pennants, 51 trips to the post season, 19 players whose numbers have been retired, 26 wins away from 10,000 for the franchise— are you kidding me? This is a club that does not have or need a mascot. The Yankees’ pedigree is to win. That’s the only thing they do to sell tickets. No other team in any sport is as successful as the New York Yankees.

But for whatever reason, I root for the other team in town. Always have and I always will. So with all of my experience as a fan, I will not be shocked if the Yankees figure it all out and be there in the post season why we Mets fans are left scratching our heads once again. But at least for today, one day, we can say the Mets are in first place and… well, who really cares what the other team is doing? I don’t because I have finally learned my lesson.

 

A Moment for Perspective

After last evening’s come from behind win against the Rockies, the Mets find themselves in first place, 1.5 games ahead of the Washington Nationals. Perhaps it’s time for a moment of perspective.

What will be considered a successful season for the Mets? Is anything short of winning the World Series a failure? Sandy Alderson was asked a similar question following his trade for Yoenis Cespedes. He was asked “does the trade signal the Mets are going for it and would you consider anything less than a championship a failure?” He said he would prefer to not answer the second part but said that yes, the Mets are going for it.

That’s the answer I would have expected from the pragmatic general manager. If a successful season can only be defined by winning a world championship, then what is the point of following the game of baseball? If this definition of successful is true than it suggests that millions of fans of twenty-nine baseball teams might have to be talked off a ledge after every baseball season. It would also mean that there have been only two baseball seasons in Mets history worthy of our remembrance. Throw out all the others even though most of them have had their share of thrills and memorable moments.

Here’s how I consider a successful season:

  • Finishing with more games won that lost (.500 or better)
  • Making the post season no matter where seeded
  • Getting to the LCS
  • Getting to the World Series
  • Winning the World Series

In this model, a successful season can be had without even getting to the post season. A winning record (.500 or better) was always considered a successful season. I had to laugh a few years back when I heard Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay rant that the Yankees were a disgrace because they didn’t make the post season. Mind you that the Yanks had been in the post season for so many years in a row that I lost count. Was it disappointing to Yankee fans that they finally failed to get to the playoffs? Sure… but a disgrace? Really? If the team that has won 27 World Series and 40 pennants is a disgrace for missing the post season, what’s the rest of baseball? Pond scum I guess.

Here’s the point. The Mets have just come off of six losing seasons. And even those seasons had their moments. Jose Reyes’s batting title, R.A. Dickey’s twenty game win fairy tale season, and Johan Santana’s first Mets no-hitter come to mind. But no, 2009 through 2014 were hardly what you would call successful seasons.

Was 2007 and 2008 successful seasons? Well, they certainly ended badly but overall, yes, the team won 88 and 89 games respectively and was in contention until the last game of the season was over. Were the 2000 Mets a failure after winning the National League pennant then succumbing to the “disgraceful” Yankees in the World Series? No, hardly.

After 112 games this season, the Mets are 60-52. Last year after the same number of games, they were 53-59, in fourth place, eight games behind Washington. If someone then told you the fortunes of a year later, you would be ecstatic to think the Mets would be in first place with a shot at the post season. But unfortunately in this era of social media and the twenty four hour sports news cycle, the bar keeps changing. After this wacky up and down season, anything short of going deep into October will be considered a disappointment and unfortunately to many, a failure.

That’s why I’m glad Sandy is the GM. He won’t consider it a failure. He knows this is just the beginning of a Mets’ era where success will be sustained, something that has eluded this franchise for most of its existence. Even if the Mets stumble badly and miss the playoffs, there is a bright future ahead. At the very least this season will be thought of as one where the Mets turned the corner and became respectable and a contender again. And at the most, maybe something really special might happen.

 

Zach Wheeler is no Richie Hebner

If you think the period of time from 2009 to this past weekend was abysmal then you my friend have no memory of the late 1970s. In my (and many others) opinion, it was the worst period in Mets history.

The difference between then and now is striking. While the Mets have stumbled the last few seasons, there has always been a plan in place. The plan included rebuilding the farm system to a) grow home grown players that will help the major league club and b) use players from same farm system to trade for established veterans. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Travis d’Arnaud, and now even Michael Conforto have proven the former while the recent trades for Tyler Clippard, Yoenis Cespedes, and others using quality farm hands have proven the latter.

Back in the late 1970s, specifically 1977 through 1979, the Mets were just a dreadful franchise. Tom Seaver and many of the Mets stars from their first era of success were traded away by a penny pinching ownership group who could simply not grasp where the economics of baseball was headed. While the crosstown Yankees were embracing the new freedom of free agency, the Mets were shuttering at the  thought of mere athletes making a king’s ransom. Shea Stadium had not gotten its paint make over yet and was showing the same neglect the team was suffering through. M. Donald Grant, president of the Mets and scourge of all Mets fans, was a nasty fellow, right out of the old school of baseball “plantation” ownership. Back then Shea gained the unflattering nickname of Grant’s Tomb.

That brings us to Richie Hebner, the lone 1979 pre-season transaction that was supposed to appease Mets fans. There, don’t whine to us you sniveling Mets fans that we aren’t trying to do anything to win. Look if Hebner was still a star in the league, then perhaps the deal might have shown that ownership cared. But by ’79 Hebner’s best days were well behind him

Hebner came to the Mets via trade from Philadelphia along with Jose Moreno for right handed pitcher Nino Espinosa. Let’s just say Hebner was never excited about coming to the Mets. In fact, he hated every last minute of wearing the orange and blue. He argued with the umpires constantly, likely looking to get thrown out of as many games as possible. And on one memorable occasion when Mets fans were as fed up with Hebner as they were the front office, he extended his middle finger to the crowd after getting booed for being called out on strikes. A worse relationship between player and fan is hard to find in the history of the team. (Okay, perhaps Bobby Bonilla but…)

Hebner did end the season with 79 RBIs, tied with Lee Mazzilli. On a team that only won 63 games and finished a distant 35 games out of first, not a bad accomplishment. Never the less, Hebner’s Mets’ career ended after the season when he was traded to Detroit at the end of October, shortly after the World Series the Mets had no part in.

Ultimately that fall, the ownership group led by Lorinda de Roulet, who inherited the team from mother Joan Whitney Payson (She adored the Mets), was forced to sell the team. It was one of the brighter days for Mets fans.  But I digress…

Flash forward to present…

Unlike the front office back then, there has always been a plan since Sandy Alderson took over regardless of what the more critical Mets fans think. Today we are beginning to see the results. So exciting have the Mets become that rehabbing pitcher (from Tommy John surgery of course) Zach Wheeler made a personal phone call to Alderson last week to not be traded.

Twice last week, Wheeler’s name came up in potential deals. The first was the failed Flores trade that began a 48 hour odyssey that went from the infielder sobbing into his jersey to hitting a game winning home run against the Nationals. Wheeler was part of the deal that fell through. Then on Friday before the deadline, it was reported that Wheeler would be headed to Cincinnati for outfielder Jay Bruce. But later in the day word came down that deal wouldn’t happen either.

When it was discovered that the Mets dealt two minor league pitchers for Yoenis Cespedes, Wheeler breathed a sigh of relief. Although it’s not clear if it had any bearing on the activity culminating in the Cespedes deal, Wheeler made the call to GM Alderson. Wheeler told Sandy that he knew he had a job to do and to make the team better but that he just wanted the GM to know he really would like to remain a Met. Wheeler went on to say he’s been here through some of the more difficult times and really would like to experience winning in Citi Field, in New York, with the Mets.

As a fan, it’s very inspiring to hear a player with this much passion for the club, even when he physically cannot participate for quite a while. The same can be said for Flores. The tears we seldom see from a player, in this case Flores, indicated just how much he felt about potentially leaving his teammates. Fans react to that. It’s no coincidence that Flores and Mets fans are in the midst of a love fest since last Wednesday. I think the same would go for Zach if he could take the mound every fifth day.

So all in all, while the Cespedes deal may just very well be Alderson’s “Gary Carter” move, the best deal of last week maybe the one he didn’t make.

 

The Spirit of Shea

Shea Stadium is alive and well. At least the spirit of the old ballpark appears to have returned to Flushing.

The Wilmer Flores incident and the trade for Yeonis Cespedes ignited the passion of a long dormant fan base over the weekend at Citi Field. Howie Rose, the Mets radio broadcaster, has been often heard wondering aloud what Citi Field’s voice would sound like once the Mets really got going. Well this weekend he got his answer.

The three game sweep of the Nationals with dominant pitching and home run barrages had the Mets faithful jumping and screaming all weekend long. It was the first time that Citi field rocked and cheered the Mets on with such vigor in a very long time. Oh sure, there were other electric moments in the stadiums short history. The first opening day, Johan Santana’s no-hitter, the All Star game, and even the ten game home stand sweep earlier this season but this weekend was something special. For the first time, the place roared for the team as a whole as the Mets soared to a first place tie with the Nationals in front of nearly sold out houses for three nights in a row. Citi Field’s voice was heard and if the Mets continue to win, it’s going to be difficult for opponents to come to New York and face the Amazins.

Watching on TV, this weekend’s games, especially last night’s, seemed like a party from start to finish. In the series finale, fans were decked out with Viking horns, blue and orange face paint, and Mets jerseys. There was a guy in the third base field level seats with placards ala Karl Ehrhardt. And how about those two knuckleheads sitting behind home plate mimicking umpire Andy Fletcher’s every move? They were hilarious. It really was a fun night and hopefully shades of things to come for a very long time.

Now of course comes the hard part. The Mets go on the road for six games in Florida. Even before the trades that were made, the Mets were a dominant team at home, now with a record of 38-18. But the road has been a different story. The Mets have struggled away from Citi Field, winning just 17 of 49 games.

Tonight, the Mets begin a six game road trip by facing the Marlins for the first of three games. The Marlins have struggled lately losing seven of the last ten. The Mets are 6-4 vs. Miami this season but just 1-2 at Marlins Park. Bartolo Colon, like the Marlins, has also struggled lately.  He starts for the Mets tonight having given up six runs in just two and a third against the Padres last Wednesday evening. After the Marlins series and a day off, the Mets head across the Sunshine State to play an interleague weekend series against the Rays. The Rays are also struggling. In fact the Mets’ majority of games the rest of the season is against sub .500 teams. But these teams have nothing to play for and will not be playing under any pressure. The Mets are in a pennant race for the first time in a long while. Hopefully players like Juan Uribe and Tyler Clippard, who has playoff experience, can help the young guys relax and remain focused down the stretch.

After a rough 48 hours period that ended with an excruciating loss to the Padres, the Mets bounced back and passed quite a test. The next test is in order and it involves how they will do on the road with their new look lineup. Things should get interesting this week.

 

The Good List (well at least a couple things from the good list)

Yesterday I posted 14 bad things. I think one game last night wiped them all out. Mets fans showed what class they truly are. The outpouring  of support for Wilmer Flores last night in the wake of what he went through 48 hours prior was truly awe inspiring. This franchise is historically a losing one. But on the other hand, I can’t think of a team that has had more special moments that are revered for so long as the Mets. A lot of that has to do with their fans, truly the best in baseball. Last night was simply a storybook night. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.

Oh, and we got Yoenis Cespedes. Not a bad day, not a bad day at all.