We’re not big believers in the proverbial “must-win” theory for games played before Labor Day. And especially when it comes to the five-team logjam that’s passing for a wild-card race in the National League this season.
Was Thursday’s series finale against the Cardinals a significant date on the schedule? Sure. Is winning better than losing? Um, yeah. But attaching some sort of doomsday tag to this particular game’s outcome would have been a little dramatic, even for us. And we love drama.
From the Mets’ perspective, however, it’s always more prudent to apply the “must-win” label after the fact, like immediately following Thursday night’s 10-6 victory over the Cardinals. That’s the perfect time, with the season saved for another day. And judging by the way these Mets continue to defy explanation, along with conventional wisdom, it’s far too early to write off October just yet. Despite a 5-5 road trip, their wild-card deficit remains at 3 1/2 games. Afterward, it was safe to say how much they needed it.
“No doubt,” Jose Reyes said. “We’re still right there. It’s going to be a fun September.”
Why not? While this season hardly has been a joyride for the defending NL champs, they do keep us entertained, and almost impossible to predict.
Operating under the reverse-lock principle, maybe we should have anticipated Thursday’s events, which featured a matchup between Seth Lugo, making his second major-league start, and the eternal Mets’ nemesis, Adam Wainwright. The Mets won Tuesday’s opener by relying on Robert Gsellman, then watched helplessly as Jacob deGrom got hammered by the Cards in the following night’s loss.
That was quite an emotional swing, from one of the season’s most impressive wins to arguably one of the more demoralizing losses, given deGrom’s sorry state. And the news only got worse as Jay Bruce, suffering from some bizarre shin-calf affliction, wasn’t fit for Thursday’s lineup. “I don’t consider it serious at all,” Bruce said.
Those are famous last words in Flushing, usually resulting in a trip to the disabled list the following day. On Thursday night, however, the Mets were fine without Bruce — partly due to the Cardinals’ stunning ineptitude, but also the Mets’ resourcefulness. Lugo pitched great, striking out five over five scoreless innings. And yet he never threw a pitch in the sixth, as Lugo exited with a right calf cramp after tossing a few warmups.
Only with the Mets are calf injuries as contagious as chicken pox. Additionally, Lugo was pitching the game of his 26-year-old life, to keep the Mets’ wild-card dream alive. Even if he preferred not to think about what was at stake when he took the mound.
“That’s too much,” Lugo said. “I try to keep it simple. The day of my start, I try not to think about anything.”
The cramp turned out to be was a cruel twist for Lugo, and another headache for Collins, who suddenly found himself down yet another pitcher. Fortunately — and this is a sentence we would never have typed before the All-Star break — the Mets still had a healthy De Aza in the lineup.
De Aza, who had a career-best five RBIs by the fifth inning, actually switched into hero mode from the jump when he leaped at the centerfield wall to rob Matt Carpenter leading off the bottom of the first. He later ripped a two-run single in the fourth, set up by Jhonny Peralta’s error. And with two outs in the fifth, De Aza drilled a three-run homer, again arranged by more brutal defense from the Cardinals.
Thursday’s game was a snapshot of how unimpressive this wild-card derby really is, as the Cards handled the baseball like bottom-feeders rather the team currently in possession of the NL’s final playoff berth. The De Aza blast never would have happened if Wainwright’s glove didn’t slip off his hand after tagging Cesepdes’ foot at third — something we’ve never seen before. Or if shortstop Greg Garcia was able to pick up a routine grounder that same inning.
As willing as the Cardinals were to give this game away, the Mets did what they had to do — they took it, and the crucial series. Must win? Nah. But infinitely better than the alternative.