David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - The Mets weren't as interested in what unraveled Tuesday night during the ninth inning at Camden Yards. They didn't have to be, not when you're on the better side of a 5-3 score, no matter how nerve-wracking the finish.
"We won," is how Terry Collins summed things up.
And for a team still ahead 4 1/2 games in the NL East -- the Nats actually won for a change -- survival mode works just fine. But the worrisome part is when Jeurys Familia shows a few cracks, as he did Tuesday night, until breaking the bat of Manny Machado for the final out.
This had Worst Loss of the Season written all over it, and yes, it would have beat that double rain-delayed nightmare afternoon at Citi Field against the Padres last month. Just because we're in mid-August now, and the Mets were coming off a home sweep by the Pirates that was serious enough to prompt Collins to have a pregame clubhouse chat.
But it didn't go that way. The Mets rallied behind a pair of home runs from Curtis Granderson, and another brilliant performance by Jacob deGrom, who lowered his ERA to 1.98. That's the good news. The not-so-great news was seeing Familia nearly put a torch to it all by losing the strike zone in the ninth and forcing in a pair of runs with bases-loaded walks to the Orioles' bottom two hitters.
For most of the night, Camden Yards was owned by thousands of south-migrating Mets fans, who drowned out the less vocal orange-clad natives. Until the ninth, however, when Familia's slow burn whipped up the locals.
The only reason Familia was in the game was as a rescue mission for Tyler Clippard, who Collins called on in to get Gerardo Parra in the eighth. Clippard needed a leaping catch by Granderson at the warning track to finish that inning but in the ninth, with one out and a 5-1 lead, Clippard walked Chris Davis and Matt Wieters followed with a bloop single into leftfield.
Collins' reaction? "Oh, no," he said, "because that's how big innings get started."
Familia whiffed Jonathan Schoop for the huge second out, but the Mets failed to turn Steve Clevenger's grounder to the right side into the routine out it was. Kelly Johnson made an accurate throw to first base, but Lucas Duda -- who had strayed too far off -- didn't get his foot on the bag as Familia also hustled over to cover.
Another missed chance, and that's when Familia became unglued. He walked both J.J. Hardy and Henry Urrutia, cutting the lead to 5-3, and bringing Machado to the plate.
The stress level at that juncture? "Pretty high," Johnson said, smiling.
But Familia didn't crumble. Everyone in the stadium thought Machado had swung on a 1-and-2 changeup, except first-base umpire Tom Woodring. He thought Machado held back enough. Familia tried to shake it off. "I always talk to myself," Familia said. "Saying, OK, let's get this guy."
The pep talk with himself worked. Familia threw another changeup and got the ground ball he desperately needed.
After what happened earlier, the Mets had to wait for Murphy's throw to safely land in Duda's glove before exhaling. Hard to believe we're still two weeks from September.
"The one thing you try to do in the dugout is maintain composure," Collins said. "I could have thrown stuff around. But I tried not to panic."
The Mets didn't. This roster has precious little playoff experience, other than Juan Uribe, whom Collins refers to as the "guy with two World Series rings that every day is a party." For a while, Tuesday night had that festive vibe. But it didn't last. There's reason to worry about having to lean too heavily on Clippard and Familia over the next seven weeks. They could run out of gas. But the two made it through Tuesday night. Barely.
"Just win," Johnson said on his way out of the clubhouse. "Al Davis. Just win."