For the fan in enemy territory

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

New York Mets Playoff Chances: Is It Time To Raise the White Flag?

In the old days of cowboys and Indians, a group that knew it was beaten would either continue to fight and wait for the cavalry to arrive with reinforcements to aid them in their fight or they would raise a white flag to signify their unconditional surrender.

While, we never see this scenario actually pan out in today's society, we still use this as a sports metaphor for staying competitive or giving up on a season or a team. The battle in sports is all about not just treading water and surviving, but excelling among your competition. It is not just simply enough to be an average team with a middle ground record.

In war, having the middle ground will only ensure two things: either you will remain stagnant and never move forward while constantly fighting to keep your position or you will ultimately lose ground. You have to be on the offensive and never settle for standing pat.

Recently, though the New York Mets have been fighting just to keep their position in the division and the wild card race. Neither moving ahead too much or falling behind too far. They are once again a .500 team today, standing at 55-55 before their series finale against the Florida Marlins later tonight. If the previous two games of this series and the series against the Washington Nationals before it were any indication, Mets fans would be throwing in the towel on their team right now. It is not an indication, however.

To say the Mets have overachieved from their preseason expectations is a dramatic understatement. To say they are a playoff caliber team, is almost delusional in its thinking. This is a team that by management's own admission is desiring to use the .500 mark as a springboard to a greater goal, but that same mark has become a road block.

They seem to constantly be at odds with this imaginary, yet realistic statistical line drawn in the sand. It is a phenomenon that is very real, yet is a figment of the sports fan's very imagination. The Mets seem to have struggling to get there. They had a handle on it lately when they were as many as four games over it less than a week ago.

Now, however, they have been bitten by the same goal that they hoped to overcome a month ago when the headlines were more optimistic in nature and the team was looking forward to the return of David Wright and Jose Reyes and a lighter side of the schedule coming up. Since then, the schedule has lightened up as has the team's play.

Their bats have gone cold and their gloves even colder. Their pitching has been lost in the latter innings and the record has suffered. This is normally not a big issue in May or June or even in July. In August, however, it becomes a very large distraction that can derail a team's hopes of being successful. I have mentioned it before, sports is all about psyche.

A team must have confidence to be successful. If this Mets team is lacking said confidence, how will it effect them the rest of the way? I know many of those players and just about all of the fans were hopeful the cavalry would appear. They hoped that the team would stay afloat until Wright, Reyes, Ike Davis and to a greater degree Johan Santana were able to return healthy and effective.

Since then Wright has returned. Reyes too. The team traded Carlos Beltran a week after and Ike Davis has had a setback. He is still considering opting for surgery or waiting the pain out for one more chance at a return this year. As for Santana, he has also had a major setback. There are reports that he is going to miss his next scheduled rehab start and possibly the one after that.

When he does start again, the one month spring training schedule will begin all over again from that point. Therefore, it is safe to say that if he doesn't get to start until the middle to the end of this month, he may be shut down for the year since it will not be worth it to him, his health or the team's future to have him start one or two games in the last weeks of September (unless they are in contention).

So, it appears that the cavalry is no where in sight. With that suggested then, is it time to raise the white flag yet? Many fans at this point in reading will scream 'yes' at their computer screen and click on another page, but let's explore the possibility that it's not time quite yet. The argument that it is not time yet, hinges on three debatable facts.

One, the remaining schedule is very favorable as opposed to the schedule their main wild card competitors face. They have only six tough teams remaining: Philadelphia (six games), Atlanta (nine games), Arizona (three games), St Louis (three games), Milwaukee (three games) and Cincinnati (in the final three of the regular season). Of these teams, five of them are teams that are in the thick of the wild card race.

The rest of the remaining schedule has teams like the Cubs, the Marlins, the Padres and the Nationals on the docket. These are supposed to be beatable teams for a Mets squad that is playing well and are motivated. By comparison, the Mets major competitor, the Atlanta Braves, have Philadelphia, St Louis, San Francisco, Arizona and the Mets on their schedule. A tougher draw then the Mets have.

Next, when looking at that schedule, they can do major damage in making up ground on teams ahead of them. As I mentioned, they play five teams in the hunt. They can hurt a lot of other team's chances at being in the the race come late September, by simply playing well against them head to head. By doing so, they can help themselves as well by making up ground in the standings.

Finally, though they have shown it lately, this team has fight still left. They have mounted comebacks late in games, only to blow the lead and the game at the very end in several fluky ways. The point is, they are still fighting. They have been showing an 'us against the world' mentality. If they improve their home record in the remaining months, they can seriously make a run at this. I know that in 52 games, they would have to win 40 of them to get to a 90 win season, but it may not be unattainable.

Since their infamous and widely reported 5-13 start, they have gone eight games over that elusive .500 mark (50-42). If they had played at an even pace to begin the season, they would most likely be on a .600 winning % type of pace. That may be the type of pace they need to make another miracle playoff push. They have proven they can play like that, but it will take a better defensive effort, a hotter offense and a solidified bullpen to get the job done.

Is this out of the question? Not necessarily. It can be done. It has been done as recently as multiple time in the past few seasons: see the Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays and Anaheim Angels in the past ten years for examples. Why can't the Mets be next on that list?

They have a decent starting rotation, even without Santana. When they get on their hot streaks, there are few rotations that pitch better. Their bullpen has shown consistency this season. If they plug the few leaks that have been exposed, this bullpen can be effective.

This offense is dangerous when they are rolling. Even without Jason Bay living up to potential, this team has shown the ability to score runs in bunches. They have had several games with eight or more runs this season. A few of those games were without Carlos Beltran and Bay producing.

It comes down to fundamentals and defense.They must do a better job at addressing these issues. They have to get down bunts, they have to hit cut off men, they must get the lead runner out and work counts at the plate. These are the things that win baseball games and do not show up in the boxscore. It is an old cliche, but a true one. Defense wins championships.

This is an issue, but a correctable one. With all this said, the Mets don't have reinforcements riding in on horseback with swords drawn ready for battle. They don't have the battleships sailing into the harbor with cannons loaded for action. All they have is what they have right now. Most likely, that's all they will have until next spring. Can they make do with it? They already have.

Are they raising a white flag just because most fans are? No. It was the great Yogi Berra that coined their battle cry for this season, "it ain't over til it's over". After all, like the revered Tug McGraw said, even when the battle is raging and the cavalry is nowhere to be found, still "you gotta believe".