Monday, April 17, 2006

I Believe

Games 9 through 11 – Mets

Mets 4, Brewers 3
Brewers 8, Mets 2
Mets 9, Brewers 3
Record: 9-2

All right, all right, all right. After a fortnight of non-committal and emotional hedging, I have given in to the momentous forces flying around Shea. It’s time for us snake-bitten, trigger-shy, beaten dogs of age-old fans to believe in these Mets the way that the outside observers, talking heads, and fair-weather fans have been believing for two weeks now. It’s been a long, long time, but these Mets have to be regarded as one of the best teams in baseball and a heavy favorite to go far this season. Probably. (Work with me here, people.)

Now that I think about it, this may be the first time since 1989 that the New York Mets have sported a team that has elicited the “favorite” label. Favorites in 1989. Acknowledging the other popular entities of 1989 (“Who’s the Boss?”, “Look Who’s Talking,” and New Kids on the Block), I probably should have seen the lengthy ill that this boded, but I didn’t. Consider that the teams of ’98-’01 were always picked to finish behind the Braves, and even the World Series team of 2000 was a wild card underdog. I only crossed over from hoping and praying that they’d win to expecting they’d win in that year’s Series, and you saw how that went. Since 1989, it’s been an assumption that the Mets would be at best a second fiddle, at worst a fifth kazoo, to true juggernauts like the Braves. And even then, expectations of the Mets of the last 17 years to provide us teams that were “decent,” “fair,” or “middling” have left us disappointed and defeated. The 2003 and 2004 seasons in particular – chronicled here ever so painfully – did quite a number on my ability to get on board with this franchise. It’s no 86 years, but there have been such putrid efforts since That Championship Season that two decades can feel like two centuries if – and here’s my point – I let myself get caught up in the fortunes of this team.

I think this fairly well explains why I might be reluctant to go all-in on these here Metropolitans.

That said, although on-paper winners have consistently translated into on-field losers of late, try as I might I just can’t ignore all that this team has going for it. Solid to superb top to bottom, rejuvenated spirit, remarkable confidence. Barring freak injuries or Wilponian blunders (knocking on wood, of course), they should be there when the dust settles on the regular season.

What directly led to this belated affirmation for me was yesterday’s ballgame against the Brewers. The Mets had impressively constructed a three-run lead in the middle innings with a perfect combination of long and small ball, that ideal equilibrium this team has been able to achieve with outstanding consistency thus far. Brian Bannister, meanwhile, had demonstrated almost no control whatsoever, yet he managed to do just enough when it mattered to hold the Brewers to a single run (on six hits and five walks) over five innings. Enter Darren Oliver, another in a long line of aged veteran pitchers the Mets seem to pick up in hopes of an unlikely revival (see Astacio, Baldwin, Erickson). Alas, on this Easter Sunday, Oliver’s Met resurrection fell a little short.

The stage was set by two things: Carlos Delgado’s game-long display of DH-level first base work, and an event in Saturday’s loss to the Crew. Delgado had already waved at a sharp grounder and a line drive at his head during yesterday’s game, the latter of which led to Milwaukee’s only run against Bannister. After Oliver gave up a single and retired the next batter, Oliver picked off the runner. Well, he would have, if Delgado hadn’t heaved the ball into the dirt and by Jose Reyes into left-field. After the next batter whiffed – which should have been the third out – up came Geoff Jenkins. And we flash back 24 more hours.

Jenkins had entered the series against the Mets in a serious season-starting slump. He’s a streaky kind of hitter, though, and the last thing you want to do is provide the spark that will later burn you. That spark, of course, was a meatball Jorge Julio (natch) served up on Saturday afternoon. Down 5-2, Willie Randolph had brought in Julio in an effort to get him into any sort of a groove. After Julio grooved one to Geoff Jenkins, however, it was the Milwaukee slugger who was energized and not the New York pitcher. As the ball sailed over the wall, I was heard to utter, “What do you want to bet that comes back to haunt us tomorrow?”

And so it did. Jenkins crushed the pitch off Oliver (to go with his single and double Sunday), tightening it up to 4-3 in the 6th. It’s moments like that one that usher in a Pavlovian “I’ve seen this game before” black cloud of an exasperated exhale. Here we go, here’s where they blow this winnable game. I’ve seen it 100 times before.

But they didn’t blow it. I hadn’t seen it 100 times before. And that has made all the difference. Delgado atoned for his error beautifully with a three-run rope over the right-field wall in the 8th that took the Brewers’ legs right out from underneath them. The Mets added two more, unforeseeably, essentially ending the contest. They gave Billy Wagner the afternoon off and provided a cushion even Jorge Julio couldn’t relinquish in the 9th. (Just a long double and a wild pitch . . . baby steps don’t blow the game; baby steps don’t totally and completely rot.)

That’s the thing about this season . . . it’s all new to me. Successfully staving off comebacks, closing out games against subpar opponents, battering pitchers early and often – these kinds of games mostly eluded the old Mets. Even last year’s “new Mets” couldn’t sustain a stretch of these games. But the “new, new Mets”? I believe they can. I believe the poles are shifting. I believe my humor’s wearing thin (do I hear a second?), and change is what I believe in. I guess what I’m trying to say is . . . I believe in these New York Mets.

Bring on the downturn. I can take it.

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