Picking at nits

I’ve been in one particular fantasy baseball league for 10 years now. We began it shortly after most of us had graduated from college in 1998, one of my closest high-school friends and other acquaintances of ours, both mutual and from our respective alma maters. For the 2000 season, we renamed the league with the moniker it holds today: The 7 Train League, in honor of the line that takes you to Shea Stadium and the Sports Illustrated article in which John Rocker made it known even to those who had never watched a Mets game.

Each spring, after the Super Bowl, we get the e-mail discussion going to set up our draft date and review the rules and offer any suggestions for changes. There’s also a good bit of good-natured smack talk and ribbing that goes on, often between the several Notre Dame and Boston College alumni in the league. We also spread the MLB trash talk around among the Mets, Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies fans among us. This year, I’ve found myself doing a lot of defending of the Mets’ near misses the past two seasons. More specifically, it’s been a one-against-eight (the other Mets fan hasn’t chimed in to back me) argument that while 2008 was a disappointment and a failure to reach the postseason, it was not a choke job. Yes, 2007 was a choke job and the second-worst collapse in baseball history. (I really feel it was the third-worst collapse. The Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play; in 1964, the Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play, and I contend that the Yankees’ failure to close out the Red Sox with a 3-0 lead in the ALCS was worse, but that’s the postseason, so I’ll allow for a conditional designation on that one.)

I will say here that I do realize I am splitting hairs. I know that there are Mets fans as devout as I am who will disagree with me, and I know the argument is strong — but on both sides. What it comes down to, really, is your definition of “choke.” To me, last year wasn’t a choke; it was losing out by a game because they didn’t have their closer the last six weeks and it threw the entire bullpen out of whack.

While Billy Wagner isn’t one of the game’s dominant closers anymore, and while he had his faults and shaky innings, his loss was huge. He didn’t pitch after Aug. 2 (a rough outing at that), and just one more win anywhere in the last two months would’ve meant — at the very least — tying the Brewers for the Wild Card. That tiebreaker would’ve been played at Shea Stadium, and while that doesn’t mean a Mets win, they wouldn’t have had to face CC Sabathia (and the Brewers wouldn’t have had to face Johan Santana).

I think it’s safe to pinpoint the loss of Wagner as the reason the last game at Shea Stadium came in the regular season and not the postseason (or, at least, a tiebreaker for the Wild Card). The Mets blew 12 saves in the final two months, and while that doesn’t account for blown saves in games the Mets then may have come back to win, it also doesn’t account for tie games that they lost in the late innings (like the finale), so it’s probably a pretty representative sample. And part of the reason Wagner’s loss hit so hard was that the relievers the Mets figured could fill in should Wagner go down — Aaron Heilman, as much as it pains me to say, and Duaner Sanchez — could not cover for the loss of an All-Star closer. Omar Minaya has accounted for that this offseason, which is why I feel so confident that this year will be different.

I consider it choking when a team blows a big lead, what appears to be an insurmountable lead, a situation where most observers would say the team has it “locked up” — six runs up in the seventh, a 3-0 lead in a best-of-7 series, seven games up with 17 to play or 6 1/2 with 12 to play. I also see as choking a team that is by far the best in the league as shown over the course of the season (the Cubs and Angels in 2008, division — at least in the Angels’ case — aside) but bows out of the playoffs without a fight. I also take injuries into account. Had the Mets finished 2008 the same way with Wagner healthy and closing games through the end of the season, then yes, I’d say that they choked. They had a lead of more than one game in early September, and they didn’t finish the job. But the team was simply not as good, and no one could have expected them to reach the postseason with the bullpen they had to play with down the stretch. A playoff berth in 2008 would’ve been a gift, a bonus, considering what was left of the team by the end.

To me, September 2008 for the Mets was a slump, albeit a slump at the worst time. (Conversely, in 2007, the Phillies and the Rockies got hot at the right time, but I don’t know too many people who considered either one the best team in the NL for that season.) Individually at the plate, the Mets had a fine September 2008 — David Wright and Carlos Delgado each hit .340, Carlos Beltran .344, with each hitting at least six homers and driving in at least 19 runs. Jose Reyes (.243, 15 runs, 10 steals) is the only All-Star hitter on the team whom you might say choked down the stretch. That, and the depleted pitching staff. I’m not even getting into the loss of John Maine and the four starts in September that went to Jon Niese and Brandon Knight. To me, the No. 1 hardship for the ’08 Mets was Wagner’s loss, so I’m not even going to consider alternative explanations. ESPN noted the other night that if games ended after six innings, the Mets would’ve won the division by 12 games. I cite that only to support my contention that the bullpen was the primary culprit in 2008, the Mets addressed the bullpen as their biggest need this offseason, and 2009 will in fact be different. Along those lines, I also wouldn’t consider a lack of depth an instance of choking; that’s bad planning, and Minaya has planned much better for 2009.

Additionally, in 2008, the Mets hadn’t been leading the NL East the entire season as they had in 2007. It was clear they weren’t the best team in the division in ’08, let alone the league, but you could make that argument about ’07. That’s why I don’t see 2008 as a choke the way I do 2007.

Look at it however you want, but I’ve followed this team for 20 years, and seen 97 percent of its games for the past three seasons, and I contend that 2008 was not a choke because, simply, it didn’t feel the same as 2007. It didn’t hurt as much, because the ’08 team wasn’t as good as the ’07 team. The ’08 Mets were lucky to be in contention in September (remember, they needed to win 10 in a row spanning the All-Star break just to get back into it after Willie Randolph was ousted). Plus, I don’t see how you can lump the two seasons together when the ’07 Mets led or tied for the lead in the NL East for something like 179 out of 180 days (and had the NL’s best record for more than half the season), but the ’08 team led the division for maybe 30 days. The circumstances were simply not the same.

Since the second half of high school, I’ve been much more of an essayist than a mathematician. That is, I prefer the more flexible viewpoint rather than the black-and-white, concrete answer. For those taking the hard-line view of “choking” and saying, “The Mets led the division in September. The Mets lost the lead and did not reach the playoffs. Therefore, they choked,” does that mean that any team that has a lead but doesn’t hold onto it has choked? Did the 2005 Nationals — leading at the All-Star break — also choke? Sure, it was a 2.5 game lead with 70-something to play, but all they had to do was play no worse than two games worse than the Braves in the second half and they had the division. Or no worse than five games worse than the Wild Card contenders (since Atlanta led the Wild Card by 4.5 at that All-Star break) to get into the playoffs.

But no one expected the Nationals to be a serious threat in 2005. That lead through the first half of the season was built on an inordinate amount of one-run leads and a bit of emotion charged off the excitement of bringing baseball back to Washington. So no, it wasn’t a choke job. And despite the addition of Johan Santana, the 2008 Mets weren’t as far ahead of the rest of the division or league as the 2006 team was, or the 2007 team for 25 of 26 weeks. It wasn’t the same team, it wasn’t in the same position, it wasn’t the same circumstances. Hence, I have no qualms about calling 2007 a choke but not 2008.

So that’s my argument. I know it has holes, but after an offseason to mull it over, to let it ruminate and give it the perspective of distance, I don’t see the 2008 Mets as failing on a season-long expectation or the 2008 Phillies as simply getting hot at the right time (and I think their three-and-out performance in the ’07 NLDS supports that theory). The Phillies in ’08 were the better team, the more fortunate team, and it was their division to lose. They came close, but they didn’t let it happen. I can only hope that the 2009 Mets are as fortunate.

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