What did you expect? The nature of a race for wild-card spots, by definition, is not smooth sailing. If teams were good enough to coast home, they would not be in this plight in the first place. So on some nights, the chase is run in neutral, or reverse.
Monday night was one of those nights for the Mets. Noah Syndergaard, the pitcher perfectly set up to work a one-game National League wild-card playoff if the Mets make it, was far from perfect. Plus, the 7-3 loss to the last-place Braves was another reminder that the Mets are not the greatest-hitting team in the world. They swept the Twins without scoring more than three runs in any of the three games.
Still, given the recent trend — a 7-3 record in the previous 10 games, the fact that the ace was starting and that the Braves were 33 games under .500 — you would have expected something different.
“If there’s a game we’ve played in a long while that demonstrates there are no guarantees, no sure things in baseball,’’ Terry Collins said, “tonight’s the game.”
They don’t call it “wild” for nothing. The reassuring part for the Mets is that the other contenders for the two wild-card spots are flawed and unpredictable, too. The Cardinals showed that over the weekend by coming within an inch of seeing their season unravel, losing the first two of a four-game series against the Giants. The Giants proved it in the same series by losing the final two games and failing to put the Cardinals away.
Of course, Monday night was a really bad time for the Mets to stumble. It also was not surprising, given that they entered the day eight games out of first place in the NL East. Reality made a comeback.
To beat at least one of the other two teams in the race, the Mets probably cannot afford a repeat of Monday night from Syndergaard. He lost his way in the second inning, allowing two walks and three hits, and never made it through the fourth.
“Baseball is a really funny game,” he said. “You think you’ve got it figured out, it will knock you down.”
The Mets need to find a way to knock in runs, other than hitting balls over the fence. Entering Monday night, they were third from last in the National League in batting average and team on-base percentage. They eked out only two runs against rookie starter Aaron Blair, who entered with zero wins in six decisions. And those two came on a home run.
It makes you marvel that they have stayed afloat for this long. True, it helped that the Giants have tanked since the All-Star break. But give the Mets credit for hanging in there.
“We’ve got a good team,” Collins said before the game. “We’ve been saying it all year. OK, we’ve had some major injuries, but we’re pretty good. And because of that, we’ve maintained the fact we’re still in the hunt.”
It can be a flighty hunt, with ups and downs.
Back in 1998, when all of baseball still was coming to grips with the revolutionary concept of one wild card per league — after more than a century of having invited only first-place teams to the postseason — the Cubs and Giants both lost rather dramatically on the final day of the season, forcing a one-game playoff to determine that one last spot (the Mets finished one game behind them). I happened to be at the Cubs’ finale and still can remember Mark Grace saying of the two teams’ heartbreaking losses that day: “I guess that’s why we’re wild-card teams.”
The Mets are going to have clunkers like they had Monday night. That’s why they are a potential wild-card team. It still is just “potential,” though, because there are no guarantees.