Welcome to The Homestretch, that fun two week period when we know the players are down there in Florida, but we can't really see them yet. We'll do our best to keep you going with a series of posts as we all sprint that last 90 feet to baseball season.
When we think of the Mets we think of Jeff Francoeur slamming his head down in frustration as reality battled against logic in the moments following Eric Bruntlett's unassisted triple play; we think of the tears of children as front page news; we think of noted plagiarist Carlos Beltran performing in the big top of a failure circus. Who could forget Jose Reyes' celebration dances causing Chris Wheeler to fly off the handle and repeatedly use the word "crap" on the air. Wheeler considers these his "dark times" and refuses to discuss them publicly.
But maybe it's time to move on from a few years ago. We've all seen Breaking Bad by now. Walt dies. And in an even bigger twist, the Mets turned things around.
Except for David Wright, who never really stopped being correct about baseball. Time has nibbled on Wright a bit, but he somehow remains a smiling menace. But, with a 33-year-old who has been forced to come to terms with his humanity of late, swearing this year he won't be as bashful about conveying any injuries to the people who are trying to help him. Wright only came back to the Mets' roster this year after both hamstring and spinal issues, playing in 38 regular season games, only to return and walk right through the playoffs. I don't mean he didn't give 100%, I mean he walked nine times in the NLDS and NLCS combined (only one was intentional), and he hit two doubles.
The team is defined by Wright, the divisional antagonist; but more recently, also by its young, elite pitching, and by Bartolo Colon's helmet falling off his head while he takes a swing. Why that image was not selected for the front of the team's spring training caps is yet another strike against this awful sport.
Mets fans pointed to all of these things, as well as playing in a division with two last place teams in it, as reasons to keep their October schedule clear in 2016. Which is fair.
The Mets had to play all of 2009 and 2010 as one of the teams most often harassed by the NL champions, schedule-wise. It looked like it sucked, as they went 15-21 vs. the Phillies in that time (though in 2010, the season series ended in a 9-9 tie because the Phillies couldn't just trot noted Metropolitan Man-Smasher Roy Halladay out there more than once a series).
After all that fun trauma, it's finally the Phillies' turn to face the league's defending champion 19 times in six months. This division has been up for grabs since 2011, waiting for a new dynasty to rise. The Nationals were supposed to reveal themselves as champions but never established a consistent foothold to push forward, and no one since the 2007-11 Phillies has won consecutive NL East titles. The 2015 Mets distinguished themselves among recent NL East champs by getting past the divisional round, and the Phillies could do nothing but watch silently from fifth place.
As they entered the 2015 season, 42% of ESPN's baseball geniuses had already picked the Nationals to cruise to the World Series crown. One person had the Mets winning the second Wild Card spot, and that person was probably just doing it to get a reaction out of people, because that's the type of person he is. Everybody slowly exhaled in confusion as New York got off to a 15-5 start that included three straight sweeps of weak-ass divisional competition in Philadelphia and Atlanta, as well as a four-game rampage through Miami. A series of small implosions began to sink them, however, and they slid to .500, managing to reach 53-50 before the trade deadline.
Oh, how we laughed during the Wilmer Flores fiasco, as the Mets shortstop apparently found out he was traded for to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez during a game, and was inexplicably not removed from it, left to visibly cry on the field in front of everyone. Our disgust in the Mets' mishandling of the fairly standard protocol resulted in a satisfying pile-on. Our Mets were back.
Of course, it turned out that Flores was not notified that he had been traded because he had not been traded, and when that information surfaced, we covered our asses by presuming that the deal had fallen through because the Brewers saw something they didn't like about their bounty of Flores and Zack Wheeler. The default setting was to scorn the eventual NL champions.
But it was Mets scientists who didn't like the look of Carlos Gomez's hip, and New York took everything off the table. Suddenly, the hilarious Mets-disparaging had to stop because of its unfortunate incorrectness. The Mets had done the right thing. From there, things got way out of control, in that the Mets actually looked like the more deftly adaptive team.
Burning any evidence of a Gomez deal, they wound up with a hell of a consolation prize in Yoenis Cespedes, who is just going to be a real treat for young Phillies pitchers all season long. Cespedes entered the Mets' playoff run in August and hit .287 for them with a .902 OPS. He cracked two home runs in the NLDS against the Dodgers and was in general the terrifying presence at the plate the Mets had hoped he would be.
The Mets have lost Zack Wheeler and reliever Josh Edgin to Tommy John surgery but remain mostly operational, as long as David Wright stays honest during his weekly health confessionals. They turned Jon Niese into Neil Walker in early December, because he came cheaper and with less of a commitment at second base than Ben Zobrist. They will be named in a lot of MLB playoff predictions over the next few weeks - the same ones that left them omitted just a year ago.
Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Matt Harvey are the faces of the rotation, along with probably seven or eight other guys that grew out of the deeply fertile pitcher-growing field to which the Mets are somehow the only team with access. And what's worse going into 2016 is that the Phillies have lost one of their best Mets fan-shutter-uppers.
There is more than one type of league champion. The first kind is the franchise diving through a closing window, buying expensive, short term ringers in order to spend the fall guzzling anxiety meds but eventually coming out on top. With a pennant in hand, this hypothetical teams expects some leeway from the fans even after the parade goes by. After all, they proved they would spend to win and got the fans a championship (well, almost) at the price of a few long years to come. There's also teams who surprise even themselves; young squads who are expected to do big things, inadvertently make a bigger statement than anyone thought possible, then recede briefly before the real winning begins.
Then, there is what the Mets are: a good team that made a few adjustments in order to gear up and - according to everyone - do the same thing, again.
If everything remains the same, we're looking at the potential for a brutal series of meet-ups that aren't fun for anyone to watch, let alone take part in. When the 2016 Phillies go up against the league champs, they'll be a bunch of young guys chasing a spot or establishing their role, and a handful of veterans trying to prove they'll fit in somewhere - on any team. Both teams are facing the right direction, just with one many years ahead of the other.
To say the 2016 Phillies will give the World Series runner-ups a challenge is a bit presumptuous. The Mets established they can trounce the Phillies by going 14-5 against them in 2015 - and an even better team may be catching the Phillies in the middle of taking a step back in order to take five steps forward. Besides, the younger players who will see daylight as Phillies this year won't even know the Mets.
The key to a real rivalry is to get the two sides to genuinely hate each other on a personal level. I don't know if anyone else can ever meet a "Eric Bruntlett game-ending unassisted triple play" level of trolling, but now's the time to think about it. Right now, the Mets are just another team that wears blue when they beat up on the Phillies, but hopefully we have in store for us several more years of intimate hatred up and down I-95.