Panik, Pete, and Well-Timed Hitting

I can’t be alone in thinking that the double Pete Alonso hit in the seventh inning against the Royals today actually went over the fence. I didn’t see the play live, but I saw the replay soon after, and it left me distinctly unsatisfied. The ball falls toward the right field corner, disappears…then, eventually, reappears back onto the field. On the replay that I saw, at least, where it went while no one could see it is anyone’s guess. But Pete was stuck at second, close to going all the way but not quite there.

You have to hope it’s not a symbol of things to come. The Mets, former winners of 15 out of 16, have slowed down a tad: we’re three and four since those magical 16 games, and have fallen out of a wild card spot, albeit not too far. A deep fly ball, arcing towards the seats…the worst case scenario, right now, is that we bounce off the top of the wall and land back on the field, an extra base hit but not a home run, a good team but not quite a contender.

Like Pete’s dubious double, the question is where we land. The answer, of course, is uncertain. What’s clear is that for the Mets to finish the job and make the playoffs, things will have to go more or less as they went today (except, of course, we’ll thank Gary Apple for his service and welcome Gary Cohen back to the booth). Wilson Ramos will have to hit, as will Amed Rosario. J.D. Davis will need to continue raking. Juan Lagares will need to continue his rebirth; Todd Frazier will need to remember that he once knew how to hit; Tomas Nido will need to show more of that minor-league-batting-title-winning form. Joe Panik, meanwhile, can just keep doing his thing.

Pete was the hero today, but Panik might have been more impressive. Three times, innings looked sour — and three times, he turned them around. First inning: Amed singles leading off, then gets caught stealing. On a bad team, that’s that. Momentum disappears, the next two hitters meekly concede. Joe Panik disagrees. Joe Panik seizes that vanishing momentum and turns it into a triple, and a bad start to an inning becomes an intriguing middle, and suddenly, two batters later, Michael Conforto hit a ball that, from what I saw, must have landed in Kansas.

Sixth inning: Panik comes up with one out and singles again. If Panik makes an out, Pete bats with two outs and nobody on. But now there’s a rally in motion, and Pete singles too. It ultimately comes to nothing, but that’s twice already that Joe Panik has turned what look like quiet innings into exciting ones.

Seventh inning: Panik bats with one out, Mets leading 6-4, Amed on first. Pete is on deck, and the Royals can pitch around him if Panik makes an out. So he doesn’t. Another single, another rally sustained, and sure enough, the next three batters all drive in runs.

His numbers aren’t flashy, but how in the world did the Giants let Joe Panik go? He’s 28 years old, and has shown major offensive talent as recently as two years ago (not to mention today). Joe Panik, it seems easy to say, is a major league second baseman. Panik isn’t Brad Emaus…or Vinny Rotino…or Andrew Brown…or Wilfredo Tovar…no, he’s a genuine Major League player, flaws included like everyone else, but a ballplayer all the same.

If Joe Panik can put together a month and a half of competent offense, as he seems abundantly capable, the wildcard race is ours for the taking. Joe Panik hits in front of Pete Alonso, and if Pete has runners on base in front of him, the National League will tremble. Joe Panik, only weeks ago a castaway searching for a home, is perfectly positioned to light a fire under the entire Mets’ offense, just as he did today. A fire that, kindled just right, could burn all the way to the postseason.

Of course, a few hot weeks from Joe Panik don’t guarantee anything. This is only one game, even if it’s an impressive one. Baseball is never that simple. Joe Panik can’t carry a team himself: other heroes will need to step up, and we fans will just have to wait and see whether they ever do. And so, like Pete’s seventh-inning double (home run?), the Mets’ eventual fate remains an open question.

Pete, it seems, doesn’t like that. Leading off the ninth, he sent a Jacob Barnes fastball deep into the stands. It was a home run off the bat: this time, there was never a doubt. Can the same be said of the 2019 Mets? Joe Panik would like a word.

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Screeching Towards Destiny

Although I didn’t want to, I rode a roller coaster last week. I was at Funtown/Spashtown in Maine, where the American Family comes to play, and in my capacity as a camp counselor, I was duty-bound to board an Arthurian coaster car with one camper who wanted to ride. We were dragged up a rickety wooden structure, hurled down the other side, then thrown back and forth like crash test dummies for three minutes. Then, all of a sudden, it was over, and besides being a little happier and a little more nauseated, I was more or less the same as I’d been before.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I was well-prepared for yesterday’s Trading Deadline, and now I am ready for what it looks like the Mets plan to throw at me: glimmers of hope, brief elation, confusion, discomfort, and eventually, probably, nausea. We’re in that place the Mets always seem to bring us, the place we allow ourselves to be led even though no one in their right mind would ever go there. It is August first and the Mets have decided that their best hope is to cobble together half a good team and blindly forge ahead. The roller coaster has left the station.

All we have done, in a literal sense, is swap out Jason Vargas for Marcus Stroman. I’m a fan of the move — Stroman can really pitch, and you always got the sense that Vargas, competent as he suddenly seemed, was a few bad bounces away from an implosion of unprecedented scale — but it’s not a complete game-changer. Our rotation is slightly better now, we hope, and our offense has been competent of late, and somehow the bullpen has too. “When we get Lowrie and Cespedes back,” you can imagine Jeff Wilpon saying gleefully, “it’s like adding two All-Stars to a team that’s already in the hunt for a playoff spot.”

But the team is the team, and but for Stroman and Bradley Wilpon’s old college buddy, it hasn’t changed much. Something has, though. Maybe it’s the mindset that comes with suddenly trading for Marcus Stroman in the midst of what is now a six-game winning streak, or maybe it’s the fact that since we started winning, our playoff odds have gone from near one percent to about 20. I’ll be honest: it feels right now like the Mets are in the early stages of making a run, which means that already, this season is something different.

J.D. Davis, my alt-rock favorite Met, is hitting everything he sees. Amed Rosario has been hitting like a star for a month. Michael Conforto is rock-solid. We’re winning even as Pete and McNeil slump, and when they come around our offense will be even better. Todd Frazier is — dare I say it? — not completely awful; Wilson Ramos is underwhelming but professional.

With Marcus Stroman in the mix, the rotation gives us a chance every game. If the we can cobble together quality stretches from a few relievers at a time, and if Edwin Díaz can show a little bit of that elite ability that he surely still has, the bullpen will hold down a lead every so often. It’s amazing how often I say this, but if things break right, we might really be onto something.

Of course, you don’t ride a roller coaster because it breaks right, literally or figuratively. A roller coaster is tangible, literal affirmation of the principle that the journey is more important than the destination. The journey is different in every amusement park, but the destination — the pavement at the exit, with the path that leads back around to the coaster entrance — is more or less the same. We Mets fans spend October to April on that path every winter, and come Opening Day, we’re back on the coaster, another journey, ready for whichever way it might throw us this time.

Let’s say we all like roller coasters (and honestly, if you’re a Mets fan, you probably do by now). We just added Marcus Stroman, an exhilarating, stomach-churning tight corner. We’ve won six straight, a slow climb towards a wild, unpredictable drop. This afternoon we go for seven, another small step towards the thrill of the ride. Each trade, each game, each at-bat is another twist thrown in, another sudden bump or screaming turn. We’re in the early stages of this ride, and we don’t know where it will take us, or high the peaks will be, or how low the valleys. But at the very least, this has happened: the season has gone, in a few weeks, from nothing at all to the very small start of a roller coaster that, hopefully, will get bigger and more nauseating by the day. So settle in.

I rode the Excalibur coaster in Maine with one camper, who was nauseous for the rest of the day. But he was thrilled that he’d ridden it. Beaten down by the journey, the sudden drops, the twists and turns…but so happy to have been along for the ride, even though the destination was the same as it had always been.

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