Imagine, if you will, that today is March 31st. Someone, perhaps a Baseball Seer, tells you with 100% certainty that the Mets will lose 3 key members of their “Core 4” to injury for huge chunks of playing time this year. This Diamond Mystic also says that the likes of Tim Redding, Livan Hernandez and the immortal Fernando “Who?” Nieve will be counted on to pitch regularly in the Mets battered rotation. Lastly, this Ballpark Clairvoyant adds that the team will have less than 50 homers combined as July begins.
Now, knowing all this, where might you guess these Mets would be in the standings? Don’t lie; we know you figured them to be a lock for 4th place, ahead of only the dreadful Nationals, right? WRONG.
Somehow, this ragtag group of scrubs and scraps has hung with the Phillies for most of the first half, and finds themselves in the hunt for the division lead as the All-Star break fast approaches. Unlikely heroes by the names of Santos, Evans, and Cora seem to invoke the ghosts of Shea 1969 in this, the 40th Anniversary year of that legendary Mets team whose sum was so much greater than its mostly pedestrian parts. The team’s patched-together quality of late, the result of an almost surreal rash of injuries, has created an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ attitude amongst the players, who are starting to come together, making the big plays and getting the key hits that were so elusive in the dark early going of this season.
With the club’s recent history of September collapses still fresh in the mind of every Met fan from Flushing to Florida, the team now looks to be throwing caution to the wind and shedding themselves of the baggage of some of the most boneheaded losses this franchise has ever suffered. Sure, I remember missing 3rd base and costing my team a victory once… in 4th grade. Dropped a game-ending, can’t-miss-it fly pop, as well… in the schoolyard in 2nd grade. Those blunder-filled Met losses were excruciating to watch one time, never mind the endless loop of sports TV wrap-up shows that allow a rabid Metropolitan fan to view them ad infinitum on a loop for weeks after the fact. But to watch Luis Castillo and Ryan Church bounce back individually, and then likewise, to see the team win some recent gut-check games, has been wonderful to see for the snakebitten Shea --- er, sorry, I mean, Citi --- Citi Faithful.
Having watched the 2 NY teams land some of the biggest names in the sport in the last few years, it’s refreshing to see a lineup card with so many unfamiliar names penciled into it, and then to watch that group beat the Cardinals with no less than Chris Carpenter on the bump. Getting game breaking hits from these platooning bit players has yielded a “who’s turn is it today” kind of mentality for a team that has for too long relied on the same 4 guys to carry it across the finish line as the dog days of the season take their toll.
That 1969 team had Al Weis and J.C. Martin, Ken Boswell and Rod Gaspar; guys who knew their role, and who gladly pitched in and carried their share of the team’s burden. Yes, that seems a folly in today’s sporting world, but the team with 3 Fernandos is playing like it has nothing to lose lately, and maybe that’s because it really doesn’t have anything more to lose. Those choke jobs in ‘08 and ‘09 may have steeled this team’s nerves a bit; there’s really no more bottom to plumb when you’ve coughed up late leads in September 2 years running, is there? That sobering fact may just be the best thing going for this team as they approach the 2nd half of the 2009 season.
The biggest acquisitions the Mets can look forward to after the break may be the return of some of their injured players. Getting Reyes or Beltran back would surely boost the productivity of this team, but their seems to be no timetable as of yet for either one of them to do so. Very intriguing would be the possibility of Billy Wagner coming back as the 8thinning bridge to Frankie Rodriguez, but again, that remains cloudy to this point. John Maine and Ollie Perez are both enigmas, coin-flip guys who are lights-out or garbage from outing to outing. These uncertainties relating to the Mets crowded DL could be a real thorn in the team’s side as the summer drags on.
All in all, though, I’m ecstatic that the Mets are as close as 1 game out of first as I write this, and I would definitely NOT have predicted that if given those March 31stprophecies. I look for the Mets to use the cavernous Citi Field to their advantage, and concentrate on timely hitting, better base running (how could it get any worse?!?) and catching the ball. I like how the pitching lines up, with Livan Hernandez coming out of nowhere and almost making up for his brother’s pulled groin in the 2006 playoffs vs. the Cardinals.