It's awfully hard for a baseball team to stand unquestionably, soul-crushingly outside of contention in mid-June. But the 2013 Mets, who have failed at most everything, have been up to that task.
They entered Tuesday's long-awaited doubleheader against the Braves 25-40, fresh off a quintessentially Mets-in-2013 loss early Tuesday morning. A three-hour-and-52-minute rain delay held first pitch until 11 p.m. The Mets scored one run in the seventh. Would that hold up? Dillon Gee shut out the Braves through eight. Then, on one swing, with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Freddie Freeman turned the Mets' 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss. Gee, here's a complete game for your trouble. Drive home safe.
After that loss, the Mets sat 14.5 games out of first in the division, and 13.5 out of the second wild card. Deservedly so. The team ranks 30th in batting average, and 29th in on-base percentage and slugging. Only the Marlins are worse in both categories. (And they won their last five against the Mets.) The Mets rank 29th, too, in bullpen ERA. Only Houston offers worse.
As for the Mets' starters, they have been ... negligibly better. As a whole, entering Tuesday, the Mets ranked 13th in rotation ERA. That stat, though, takes Matt Harvey's stellar work into account. Without Harvey, the Mets' starters' ERA would be 4.50—23rd in baseball. The Mets are one player away from having the season serve as a sampling of all the varieties of failure big-league baseball has to offer.
I'm not even talking about the usual #LOLMets P.R. hilarity, though this season has offered plenty of that, from players refusing to give other players rides, to the great cougar gambit, to the Amway storefront newly installed at Citi Field. If you must laugh, laugh instead at the franchise-cornerstone first baseman who hit .161/.242/.258 in nearly half a season before a merciful demotion to Triple-A, or the combined .190/.234/.332 batting line of the team's center fielders. Laugh at "top setup man LaTroy Hawkins"; laugh at "cleanup hitter Marlon Byrd." Laugh at the team's 15-inning loss to the Marlins in a game Harvey started; laugh at, well, the team's 20-inning loss to the Marlins in a game Harvey started. Laugh at Braves 2, Mets 1, final—1:23 a.m.
This is how the Mets got to yesterday's doubleheader in Atlanta. It was the Mets' second this year, and a third, at home versus the Marlins, will come in September. The rain gods have tried their hardest to spare everyone from watching this team. Yesterday's forecast called for rain, too. But it didn't come. The skies behaved, and we beheld the Mets' two breathtaking righties, one new, one really new.
This was a symbolic moment: The Mets are rebuilding for real now, the doubleheader seemed to say—Harvey and Zack Wheeler pitching together, the bright future of an organization that's been selling its bright future for three seasons now. The plan might be a con, but at least the fastballs are very real.
Harvey, the one we know, opened the doubleheader. He made Regular Matt Harvey, the one who pitched well enough to make Sports Illustrated's cover, look like a slouch. In the first inning, Harvey threw the fastest pitch thrown by a starter all season, and then he topped 98 mph 16 more times afterward. Through his first six innings, Harvey had allowed two walks, no hits, and he had struck out 12. Here's one:
He wound up with 13 strikeouts and three tough-luck runs against. After the Mets' bullpen staved off near-certain collapse, Harvey also wound up with his first win since mid-May.
When Harvey pitches—well, even when he doesn't—he's reminiscent of Roger Clemens, with his big fastball, big haunches, and big anger, barely suppressed. He has a lot to be angry about. There was the matter of falling to the third round in the 2007 draft. Or how, before his promotion less than a year ago, an unnamed scout called him "Mike Pelfrey without the split or breaking ball." In the Mets universe, there is no greater insult than comparing a pitcher to Mike Pelfrey. But even the less bitchy scouts failed to forecast this. They said he could be a solid No. 3 starter, if his command came together. Harvey is the phenom who willed himself to greatness, getting stronger, getting smarter. He did it quickly.
The nightcap offered Wheeler, the other kind of phenom, the one to whom all this talent came easily enough. In his four minor league seasons, Wheeler only once ranked outside of Baseball America's top 50 (he was no. 55 in 2011), and he never averaged less than a strikeout an inning. He had a control problem his first year, and then never again.
Last night, Wheeler was making his big-league debut, safely past the Super Two deadline so that the Mets wouldn't get billed with another year of salary arbitration. And although at points he looked jittery—he had five walks in six innings—he also looked dominant. Like this:
His motion is graceful and restrained, a modest twirl-and-step that seems to ask Harvey's, "Dude, what's with all the muscle mass?" Both pitchers are 6-foot-4. Harvey's got 40 pounds on Wheeler. Yet the fastball, the curveball, the slider—they all jumped like Harvey's. Six innings, no runs. Mets win, 6-1.
There was one scary moment in the start, and it had nothing to do with what was happening on the mound. Wheeler is a local boy, from Smyrna, Ga. So he didn't even bother arranging for tickets. Friends and family were on their own. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler, we learned early on, were right behind home plate. How had they gotten there? The camera pulled back: The Wheelers were sitting with Chipper Jones. Of course. Zack and Chipper share an agent. Chipper could get in Mets' fans heads under the guise of doing something nice. That bastard.
But what, then, did we have to fear from Chipper? He's 41 and retired. He was behind the plate, not next to it. Even he admitted defeat.
I have no idea whether Harvey or Wheeler will become the superior pitcher. But Wheeler's debut yesterday meant more to the modern Mets than Harvey's last July. Harvey, drafted in 2010, was Omar Minaya's last first-round pick, selected months after the still-flush-seeming Mets signed Jason Bay. Francisco Rodriguez, Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez—all the pre-Madoff indulgences—were still kicking around the roster the year Harvey was picked. So were Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.
But Wheeler came as a trade return, after Sandy Alderson's Amazin' Austerity Squad sent Beltran to the Giants at the 2011 deadline. (Beltran's deal was up at the end of the year, but his career wasn't—he's OPSing nearly .900 for the Cardinals in 2013.) Wheeler's success helps to justify the small-market asceticism that pushed the Mets' winning percentage lower each of the last three years. With any luck, the prospects acquired for R.A. Dickey and the compensatory picks the Mets received after losing Reyes shall do the same. Losing begets winning. Can't you see?
Harvey's immediate success only gives the lie to that notion. The best organizations can develop talent—hello, Atlanta—without spending long stretches wandering around the desert. And besides, the Mets' refusal over the winter to spend money on a decent stopgap outfielder (Melky Cabrera, Cody Ross, Nate Schierholtz, et al.) had nothing to do with the team's plans for 2015 success.
What if the Mets' dark age is a con, branded as rebuilding but more accurately a result of a front office that's as hamstrung as it is uncreative? (I say, again: "cleanup hitter Marlon Byrd.") Well, it's all Mets fans have to believe in. And Harvey and Wheeler are worth believing in.
Speaking of belief: I received an eerie sign a very short while ago. On Monday night, I didn't have it in me to perch myself in front of a TV for the long-delayed game, so I hopped in bed, dialed my clock radio to WFAN, and nodded off somewhere around the second inning. Next thing I knew, I was jolted awake. Before I saw anything, I heard Howie Rose's voice: Freddie Freeman had just homered. The Mets had lost, 2-1. It was devastating, backbreaking. And it was my lot in life as a Mets fan that I couldn't have the good fortune just to sleep through this one. The Mets, who had already spoiled so many of our waking hours, could apparently seize our sleep, too. So I was awake, just barely, checking Twitter to see if all the other Mets fans had seen what I'd heard. They had. Then I got my bearings. It was 1:25. It was—what? really?—Tuesday.