Sports

The Mets can’t squander this incredible opportunity

This was Port St. Lucie in February 2003, when 40-year-old David Cone was attempting a last-stand comeback. He was sitting in the Mets’ clubhouse, surveying the big-name veterans on the roster, when he made the following observation:

“There’s a lot of talent in here, but the Mets need something else. With the Yankees in ’96, we needed Derek Jeter to be rookie of the year. The Mets need something like that to happen, a young pitcher or a young third baseman to be a real surprise.”

Cone ended his comeback after five appearances, and the teammates he left behind finished a ghastly 66-95. But his point was about the only thing that survived another Mets season from hell. A team usually needs something special to inspire a championship push.

Something like Jacob deGrom pitching as only a precious few men, dead or alive, have ever pitched.

Would the Mets use deGrom’s dominance as rocket fuel for a deep October run? Tuesday night in Atlanta, it didn’t feel that way. The Mets’ nine losses in their previous 14 games left them with a three-game divisional lead over the surging Nationals that never felt more tenuous than it did at the start of the seventh inning. The Braves were up 3-0, and Charlie Morton, a man with 100 career victories to his name was positively cruising, allowing the Mets only two lousy singles.

Jacob deGrom has been dominant for the Mets.
Jacob deGrom has been dominant for the Mets.
Bill Kostroun/New York Post

It appeared the visitors would go quietly into the night, and allow the Nationals — who beat the Rays for their 13th victory in their past 16 games — to cut their NL East deficit to two. The Mets’ kid pitcher, Tylor Megill, had been brilliant over four and two-thirds scoreless innings, striking out eight despite the fact that the plate ump, Adam Beck, was acting like one of those NBA refs who doesn’t believe in giving rookies a fair whistle. Megill finally cracked and surrendered two-out singles to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman, and then a three-run shot to Ozzie Albies on a changeup that came in at 85 mph and went out at 100.

What happened next was the first hopeful sign in a while the Mets realize that they can’t let this season slip away like they’ve let so many others slip away. James McCann answered Albies with a three-run homer of his own, costing Morton career victory No. 101. Of equal significance, Francisco Lindor finally did something $341 million ballplayers are paid to do — delivered a two-out single that gave the Mets a 4-3 lead that they would keep.

This was a huge small-picture victory that deserved to be framed in a big-picture context. In upgrading their record to 41-34, the Mets seemed to understand the priceless opportunity before them. Who knows when the National League East will be this weak again, or for how long deGrom can stay healthy enough to remain the game’s most feared terminator? And while we’re at it, who knows when the Yankees will be this fragile again, this willing to hand the Mets the key to the city? Perhaps they’ll make the handoff official this weekend in The Bronx.

James McCann celebrates his three-run home run Tuesday.
James McCann celebrates his three-run home run in the Mets’ 4-3 win over the Braves.
AP

But first things first: Remember the 2015 World Series, and how that was supposed to be the start of something special? The Mets, now working on a streak of four consecutive years out of the playoffs, employ one position player who competed in that 2015 World Series — Michael Conforto.

Another example of how nothing is guaranteed in baseball, other than failure and pain.

Two years ago, when deGrom won his second straight Cy Young Award and Pete Alonso delivered 53 homers and 120 RBIs to win rookie of the year, the Mets finished three games out of the wild card. Last year, under the most forgiving pandemic guidelines, everyone and his brother made the playoffs — everyone except the Mets and their brothers.

They can’t waste any more of deGrom’s time and prime. The Mets have had to endure more than their share of injuries, but they’ve had their two most dangerous hitters, Lindor and Alonso, for most of the year. So there was no excuse for entering this Atlanta series averaging 3.59 runs per game, MLB’s second-worst output (behind Pittsburgh).

But Tuesday night, they beat their own average in the seventh inning alone. With Conforto and Jeff McNeil back, and Brandon Nimmo and J.D. Davis on the way, the Mets have more than enough to keep control of the NL East, especially since they can’t get Kyle Schwarber-ed again until August.

The division is right there for the taking, and so is a great baseball city once controlled by Yankee legends with dynastic aims.

The Mets have such a great opportunity here. Tuesday night, they acted like a team that didn’t want to blow it.

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