With six games to go in the regular season, the Mets took the shirt off Mickey Callaway’s back Tuesday afternoon.
It was for a noble cause, as Jerry Koosman’s No. 36 — currently worn by Callaway — is being retired next season. How long the manager gets to keep his new jersey, this one bearing the No. 26, remains to be seen.
And why did Callaway settle on this updated number?
“Kevin Plawecki,” he replied, referring to the former owner of that number, since traded to the Indians.
That was a pretty funny line for Callaway, actually. Not so humorous, however, was the Mets’ rapid fall from contention over these last two weeks, and Monday’s demoralizing loss to the bottom-feeder Marlins pushed them to the brink of elimination. The Mets stood there again Tuesday, three outs away from oblivion, before Michael Conforto’s tying two-run homer in the ninth inning led to Brandon Nimmo’s bases-loaded walk in the 11th and a 5-4 win that kept the their tragic number at one.
“We’re going to play to win, no matter what our playoff chances are,” Conforto said. “We’ll go out there with the same attitude tomorrow and the next day.”
It made sense that Koosman’s announcement came on the same date, 50 years earlier, that the ’69 Mets clinched the very first NL East title. But in true Mets-ian fashion, COO Jeff Wilpon delivered the happy news only hours before the 2019 club was facing elimination at the hands of the Marlins, otherwise known as the NL’s worst team.
Wilpon didn’t stick around for any team-related questions after the Koosman presentation was complete, stranding Callaway to get peppered by those. But like this season itself, the manager’s session left everyone unsatisfied, and without any real answers as to why this whole operation went sideways when it mattered most in September.
The Mets are very likely going to have the Cy Young winner (again) when Jacob deGrom earns his second trophy after Wednesday’s start wraps his brilliant season. In addition, Pete Alonso is a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year and certainly will finish in the top 10 for MVP. The Mets’ rotation stayed remarkably healthy over six months and got an encouraging performance from a youngish core that also featured Jeff McNeil, Amed Rosario, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and J.D. Davis.
So with everything that went right for the Mets, why did the end of the season turn out wrong? We know the bullpen was built like a house of cards, but there were some deeper issues, such as a roster that folded when the pressure peaked, like during the three-game sweep by the Cubs at Citi Field in late August that really turned out to be the crusher.
“It’s tough,” Callaway said before Tuesday’s game. “You’re hoping to be in the playoffs by this point, not just battling to get in. This team will never give up, but I’m proud of the way these guys have handled themselves throughout the year. They always stay pretty even-keeled, and understand what the mission is. And you can’t ask for more than that as a leader.”
For his part, Callaway always stressed the positive, even during times when it sounded ridiculous to do so. But those words aren’t much of a consolation, not after the Mets rallied back from 11 games under .500 in mid-July to within a half game of a wild-card spot on Aug. 8, only to stumble again during the second half of September.
The prevailing vibe now is disappointment tinged with regret, as the Mets’ rotation went belly-up against the Marlins. On Monday, it was Steven Matz, who surrendered a pair of home runs to Jorge Alfaro, including a grand slam, that put the Mets in a 6-0 hole en route to the eventual 8-4 loss. Noah Syndergaard also came up small Tuesday night — despite having his personal catcher Tomas Nido — by giving up 10 hits and four runs in five innings.
That basically wiped out any meaning to the rest of the season without deGrom getting his chance to play hero down the stretch. Another one of his (presumably) amazing starts squandered, only this time before he even delivered his opening pitch. The Mets never fail to leave everyone wondering what might have been.
“I wouldn’t call it a waste,” Callaway said. “I think that this team has grown. I think that our culture as the Mets has really grown and moved in the right direction. Are we where we ultimately want to be on this day right now? Absolutely not.”
If that place isn’t the playoffs, what else really matters?