The weekend of Sept. 29 was one New York-area baseball fans will forget.
The Yankees, New York's (and, seemingly, the rest of the nation's) darlings of baseball had been out of the A.L. playoff race for some time.
Tears flowed on Wall Street, long before the current peak of our nation's economic crisis. Beautiful women often found in some form of Yankees gear stopped wearing them—and looked even better. Newspaper sales declined, as the Yankees no longer dominated the majority of headlines in the back of the city's tabloids.
New York's "other" team—and that "other" tag will eventually wear off—again played meaningful baseball late into September. Unlike last year's inexplicable collapse, the Mets spread out their bouts of might and mediocrity across much of the season, making the end of this season slightly more dramatic.
There was no commanding lead to squander this late in the season, as the Mets somehow kept up in a tight race with the Phillies and Marlins in the N.L. East.
Heading into that final weekend, the Marlins resigned themselves to another fruitless offseason (we'll get to that in a bit), while the Brewers filled their place as postseason hopefuls. The other N.L. playoff races were decided, leaving the Mets, Phillies, and Brewers fighting for two playoff spots.
All three teams had comparable schedules with potential challenges and potential cakewalks. The last two weeks of games for the Mets had them playing the Nationals, Braves, Cubs, and Marlins. The Phillies were set against the Brewers, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals. And the Brewers saw the Phillies, Cubs, Reds, and Pirates. I won't go over everything that happened over that weekend, so I'll just sum it up with numbers.
The Mets went 6-9 over that stretch; the Brewers 7-6; and the Phillies 11-3.
In a close race, the Mets did an excellent job of killing their own momentum and allowing the ghosts of last season to carry over into Citi Field.
Much of the blame was put on the inept bullpen, where each pitcher basically put on a performance of Jekyll and Hyde every night. After Billy Wagner decided he had enough of blowing games while in pain, it was time for everyone else to step it up. They didn't.
Aaron Heilman pitched more like he did during his ill-fated starting gig a few years back. Scott Schoenweis was very mixed. And any time the Mets' broadcasters would tout Joe Smith or Pedro Feliciano and their stats with inherited runners, rest assured a run or two would score. Luis Ayala, acquired from the Nationals in an attempt to stabilize the bullpen, never found a rhythm.
How bad was the bullpen, you might ask? Thanks to the people at Stat Fox, they've taken care of digesting the awful news for Mets fans. A team that only saves 60 percent of its opportunities doesn't belong in the playoffs.
The team offense weren't exactly victims at every loss because of the bullpen, either. According to the same site, they left an average of seven runners on base per game, batted .266, and struck out six times per game. While no one expects perfect numbers, these aren't so desirable for a team expected to win (and pays to do so).
Let's look at that Sept. 29 game, the last of the regular season. It was against the same Marlins, who, one year prior, made Tom Glavine pack all the gifts from his 300th win into a U-HAUL truck back to Atlanta (or two or three).
A few things weighed in the Mets' favor. First was the absence of the Marlins' star shortstop, Hanley Ramirez. That takes a good chunk of the team offense out right at the start. Secondly, Scott Olsen was set to pitch. The Mets have had no problem throwing him around in games past.
Finally: They were facing the Marlins. While 2007 still hangs over everyone's heads, and the fact the Marlins cake-walked over the Mets, you're still dealing with one of the worst teams in the league with nothing to play for.
Of course, no one told the Marlins this was a meaningless game for them. All they had to do was look across the field into the home dugout. For whatever reason, the Mets spent the season ticking off other teams. The Phillies became the Mets' top rivals, with the Braves falling into obscurity and Jeff Francouer's black-hole-like batting average. And the Marlins, for whatever reason, felt they had every reason to hate the Mets.
In other words, the Marlins had something to play for. Something the Mets should have had to play for as well: pride.
While Final Game 2008 was no blowout like the previous year, the Mets wasted opportunities, again, in the one game they could not afford to. A team synonymous with leaving runners on base (eight during the game) held to old habits. Oddly enough, the Marlins left 16 runners on base. Draw your own conclusions from that.
An underachieving team in a major market can leave its fans feeling like members of a cult: Loyal to the cause and used to bad news, while outsiders either are clueless to the allure or ready to rip you to shreds over your allegiance.
Returning to work and school the next day probably felt like a chore to Mets fans, as it usually does for a fan of a team that lost a big game the night before. Erring on the side of caution, "car trouble" did in fact keep me home that day. Countless news stories, headlines, and bloggers (hello!) recapping and dissecting the game's points would eventually ring hollow over time. Late-night talk shows or radio shows in the New York area should have been avoided at all costs.
Whether your season ended in July or September, the offseason is a long, empty space where you can hear the joyous screams of winning teams in the next room. But when you also hear your girlfriend screaming in that room with them after spending much of the year with you—well, that just hurts.