Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Long, Occasionally Unendurable, Ultimately Redeeming Epic Novel That Was the 2016 Mets Season

Bartolo Colon aka Big Sexy sizes up his first ever big fly. (Getty images)

What stung most about the New York Mets' defeat in the World Series against the Kansas City Royals in 2015 was knowing how hard it was to get that far in the first place. That year the Mets hung around the fringes of contention for four months before the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes (and some injured players returning) catapulted them into the playoffs where they successfully battled their way through a gauntlet of the game's most formidable pitchers, finding themselves in a very winnable World Series which they would eventually cough up. Despite a roster loaded with burgeoning young talent, it is reasonable to fear this team may never again make it all the way through to the end of the postseason obstacle course.

Despite losing the World Series, I'll always maintain that just making it that far and winning the National League pennant was plenty enough. It was as successful a campaign as I could've reasonably hoped for considering where expectations were for most of the year.

2016 was a little different. Expectations were sky high when the season began. The Mets had a fully stocked roster in every respect. They'd addressed their weaknesses in the middle infield and most importantly had an embarrassment of riches in their starting rotation. The collection of starting pitchers, 1-through-5, looked like the best staff in the league, easily. On top of that, the hard-throwing righty Zack Wheeler would be returning from injury, joining the team sometime in the summer, likely pushing 43-year-old Bartolo Colon into the bullpen.

The season that unfolded from there had so many twists and turns, so much drama, so many key characters playing roles and then dropping out of the story, and was so trying for devoted fans to follow, that I began to look at the season as if it were an enormous and difficult epic novel. I've talked about some of these kind of beastly novels on this blog before---Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake. All of these are challenging to get through, they alternate between providing entertainment and enjoyment or boredom and weariness. When you're trudging toward the end, it feels like a completely different book than the one you started. It also feels like it's gone on forever. Once completed, it all felt worth it. That's what this Mets season felt like.

Each month, even each week, felt like its own chapter. Early on we had the Matt Harvey saga, the Dark Knight of Gotham and nominal ace of the Mets struggling mightily until he eventually succumbed to a shoulder injury and disappeared. Team captain David Wright got off to an uneven start, then he disappeared, had back surgery. Key contributors from 2015 like Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares, and Travis d'Arnaud either physically fell apart, struggled to hit, or both. Shutdown closer Jeurys Familia had some bizarre meltdowns, including one Friday night home game against the Dodgers where he gave up a bases loaded triple to arch enemy Chase Utley to blow a four-run lead (luckily Granderson bailed him out with a walkoff homer---I was there to see it---but Utley haunted the Mets that entire series).

The summer felt like wandering in a desert, no oasis in sight. Key pieces continued to break down or fall off. The patched up roster struggled to stay upright. It was often brutal to watch as a fan---for a while there it seemed the Mets either got blown out, blew leads late, or failed to keep up in tight ballgames. They got knocked around by subpar teams like the Rockies, Padres, and Braves. The pitching staff, bedraggled as it was, managed to keep games close for the most part, but that only made it more excruciating when the makeshift offense failed to produce. The way they managed to always be in each game made them irresistible to follow, though. (Trust me, I gave up on them many times, unable to bear it anymore, only to be drawn back in.)

On offense it was often one guy hitting at a time. Cespedes carried them for a while, then he got hurt. Neil Walker carried them for a while, then he got hurt. Asdrubal Cabrera carried them for a while, then he got hurt, then he played injured and still carried them. In the final chapter of the season, it was Granderson, healthy all year but inconsistent, who finally put it all together and carried them.

That vaunted pitching staff everyone was so excited about fell apart piece-by-piece. First Matt Harvey went down. Then Zack Wheeler had a setback and never came close to rejoining the team. Then Steven Matz had a bone spur in his elbow. Then Noah Syndergaard had a bone spur in his elbow. They both managed to pitch anyway, at least until Matz's shoulder fell apart. My favorite pitcher on the team, Jacob deGrom, was a steady presence for much of the year but in mid-August something broke in his elbow and he was done.

In mid-August the Mets were toast. The roster was beaten and broken, held together with duct-tape and minor leaguers. A team that began the season with serious World Series aspirations was sinking below .500 and looked uncompetitive. Their playoff odds had hit rock bottom. They were, for all intents and purposes, done.

I was on vacation in Colorado at that point, keeping up with the team's road trip to Arizona and San Francisco. Against a terrible Diamondbacks team, the Mets lost two of three, surrendering 13 runs in the last game. Next they went up to San Francisco for a four-game series, put up a fight against Madison Bumgarner in the first game but lost, then lost again the next night to Johnny Cueto. That sunk them to 60-62 on the year and put their playoff odds at a season-low 6.7%. Like I said, they were toast. (Full disclosure: By this point, I wanted to see Terry Collins fired---surely, he was not to blame for all the injuries but he'd managed to screw up healthy young hitters Conforto and d'Arnaud and I've never been a fan of his management of the pitching staff.)

Somehow something turned around in San Francisco. Maybe it was the fight they showed in the first game against Bumgarner. Maybe it was Yoenis Cespedes returning to the lineup. The Mets took the final two games of the series, then went on to St. Louis and managed to win that series behind no-name fill-in pitchers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. And from there the team just kept on winning.

The peaks and valleys of the 2016 Mets playoff odds. From Fangraphs.

Even as they were winning, injuries continued to pile up. Wilmer Flores, who'd had a great season up to that point, was injured in an ugly homeplate collision (which was actually Terry's fault). Justin Ruggiano, who'd been a pleasant surprise in his brief time with the team, hurt his shoulder and was done. Neil Walker succumbed to a season-ending back injury. Matz was gone, deGrom was gone. Jay Bruce was acquired but mostly sucked.

Through it all, they just kept on winning. Over the final six weeks they were the best team in baseball, going 27-13.

The real story of the season is that the patchwork roster Sandy Alderson managed to assemble in response to the plague of injuries managed to keep the team on the edge of .500 before reinforcements starting showing up to play what was the league's easiest schedule over the final six weeks. That's oversimplifying things a bit, because the Mets certainly showed they were capable of getting run over by last place teams, but from a bird's eye view that's how it all went down.

Key contributors seemed to vary throughout the season. Looking at the team's end-of-season WAR leaderboards doesn't tell the whole story, though it does tell quite a bit. This team survived on the strength of its pitching. Even with all the injuries, the Mets had the third best ERA in the league. Syndergaard, or Thor as we call him, was one of the best pitchers in baseball and most productive player on the Mets by far. Bartolo Colon, all of 43 years old and nearly 300 pounds, continued to be the steadiest and most entertaining pitcher in the game (I will always remember the night he hit his first career home run). The back end of the bullpen was fantastic for the most part, so vital for a team playing so many close games (they went 25-22 in one run games). The return of Jose Reyes to Queens was awkward and uncomfortable at first, not to mention a terrible PR move, but he became a key catalyst for the lineup. Cespedes had a phenomenal season at the plate, despite limping around with an injured quad all season (31 home runs while missing 30 games). The keystone combo of Walker and Cabrera was as good as we could've hoped for, despite playing through injuries. Grandy was a steady presence, struggling in the first half but finally turning it on in the final six weeks when we needed him most (the two-home-runs-in-extra-innings game really stands out). And, most memorably, a bunch of scrubs filled in admirably to help keep the team afloat. Lugo and Gsellman were nobodies, then they put up a combined 2.54 ERA in 25 starts. TJ Rivera was an undrafted minor leaguer filling in as the third-string second baseman---he had an .821 OPS and crushed one of the team's biggest home runs of the year.

The Mets lived and died by the long ball. They crushed 218 homers, a new franchise record, yet finished near the bottom of the league in runs scored mostly because of a bizarre inability to hit with runners in scoring position. That impotence was excruciating at times. They'd leave runners on base in inning after inning after inning in tight ballgames, yet somehow managed to come through with a solo home run when they needed it most. A staggering 57% of their homers were solo shots.

There was so much more we could talk about. It was a season filled with stories. The Mets even found themselves in the middle of the Jose Fernandez tragedy, playing against the Marlins in the first game following the Miami star's death in what amounted to a baseball wake. It was the first time I've ever experienced the Mets announcers breaking down in tears on-air.

Speaking of which, the Mets broadcasting crew, both radio and television, continued to be among the very best in baseball. It's a privilege having such great announcers when following a baseball team on a daily basis. These people become our constant companions. As fans we spend hours listening to them nearly every single day for six months. Play-by-play man Gary Cohen is something of a Mets deity, as sharp and professional as they come. Not only is he steeped in Mets knowledge to such a degree that he and radio broadcaster Howie Rose participated in a Mets trivia game show, he navigates the nuances and complexities of a ballgame as well as anyone I've ever heard. He's also lots of fun. My favorite thing from this season might be this picture of a young hippie Gary Cohen they showed during a summer broadcast:

The season ended on a pretty bad note, there's no denying that. Following a thrilling pitcher's duel in the first 8 innings of the Wild Card game against the Giants, reliable closer Jeurys Familia (who set a new franchise record this year with 51 saves) gave up a three-run bomb to Conor Gillaspie to send the Mets home. Barely a week later, though, I've already gotten over that. What I will remember about this season is experiencing the dramatic turnaround, how they seemed totally finished, beaten and weary, yet they did not give up. Terry Collins & Co. held things together, fill-in players did their jobs, and the Mets just kept battling day-in, day-out. Taking it one game at a time. Fulfilling the most cliched baseballisms. After all the drama and bullshit, the Mets miraculously ended the season as the top Wild Card team, edging out their longtime nemesis St. Louis Cardinals and barely finishing ahead of the Giants.

They had no right to finish that high. Not with that team.

When the season began, the Mets looked like a vaunted powerhouse, a locked and loaded warship. The team that finished the year was a patched-up lifeboat of survivors. Somehow, Terry Collins steered that leaky, unsteady raft past the finish line ahead of its closest competitors. That is why I will always look fondly upon the harrowing, yet ultimately redeeming six month journey of the 2016 Mets.

(Related: Roger Angell says "Good Night, Mets".)

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