The Mets and the Art of the Almost-Comeback

I wish there was a statistic that covered “almost-comebacks.” The experience, exactly like Wednesday night’s Mets game, where a team falls behind and NEARLY comes back, inevitably falling just short. I’d like to see this statistic, because I wonder whether my belief that this almost-comeback experience, is maddeningly common for the Mets in particular is true.

In the absence of an official statistic, we’ll have to deal in the abstract.

 

On Wednesday night, the Mets fell behind 4-0 before rallying for three runs in the ninth. Just enough to get fans on the edge of their seat, but all the while, many of them just knew how it would end. We’ve seen this movie before. Leave runners on base early? Fail to hit for eight innings? Give up late insurance runs? Well, after all that, why wouldn’t the Mets make it appear like the game was particularly close. They seem to do it often.

Heck, if you Google search the phrase “Mets comeback falls short,” you can find stories about tonight’s game, August 2010 games against the Phillies and Marlins, and 2012 games against the Cubs and Brewers. And that’s all in the first two pages.

That’s felt like the formula. The Braves took the early lead, built on it in the middle of the game while the Mets lineup slumbered, and hung on for dear life. Make no mistake, the Braves were the better team on Wednesday, and a four-run comeback against Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel is a HUGE task to ask of any lineup. But when you watch a team get so close, it’s maddening to see them fall one hit short.

It’s an art to lose games late, and the Mets have perfected it. With closers over the years like Braden Looper, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Parnell who’d make their livings walking a tightrope, the Mets have kept their fans nervous in the ninth since I became a fan in the late 1990s. In recent years though, it’s less nerves. It’s excitement. But still an excitement where — since 2006 — fans expect that tinge of disappointment. The late runs are promising, a positive thing to take away from games against better teams, but a disappointment nonetheless.

I may not have statistics to back it up, but anyone who’s watched the late-2000s Mets has likely felt the same way at some point — with varying degrees of optimism or frustration.

 

That’s sort of how the Mets have operated over the last eight years. They’ve always felt closer than they actually were.

Since 2007’s collapse, the Mets have been behind the eight ball pretty much annually. In the offseasons before the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons, the team tried to just plug holes. The starting rotation needed strengthening, so Omar Minaya traded for Johan Santana. The bullpen failed them in 2007 and 2008, so Minaya acquired J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez. The lineup was week in 2009 — due to injuries, actually — so he added Jason Bay. Each time, there was a certain logic — albeit flawed — behind the acquisition. Minaya added a foursome of talented players. And none of them led the Mets to so much as a playoff appearance.

So, over the last few years, when a game ends the way Wednesday night’s did, Mets fans have barely flinched. The Mets have been a team that played “gritty” baseball for a decent portion of the year, only to fall apart.

It’s a defense mechanism for Mets fans. Expect failure and you won’t be too disappointed. But with the pieces (seemingly) coming together, young stars cracking into the big leagues…the days of expected disappointment may be numbered.

In the meantime, enjoy games like this. Losses are rarely fun, but for a flawed team, being that excited up through the final pitch? That’s what baseball should be like. That’s what Mets baseball has been, is and will be. That’s what competitive baseball feels like. And the last few years has just been the faintest taste of what Mets fans hope to experience in the near future.

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