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The Mets Didn’t Collapse. So Why Does It Feel Like They Did?

Jeff McNeil on Saturday in Atlanta. Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

On June 1, the New York Mets led the National League East by 10.5 games. They would maintain their first-place status for all but one day until last weekend, when they lost three straight games to the red-hot Atlanta Braves, who had been nipping at their heels for weeks. That sweep effectively guaranteed the Mets a second-place division finish and a spot as one of the National League’s three Wild Card teams.

Many Mets fans understandably spent the weekend slowly melting down as the team’s chances to win the division dropped from pretty good to almost nil over the course of three excruciating nights. And since then, the team has been roasted by morning newsletters:

They’ve been mocked by gambling concerns:

And they’ve been pitied by sports outlets:

Now, as the Mets prepare to host a three-game series at Citi Field — their first postseason appearance since 2016 — the enthusiasm that had been building all summer has been dulled by recent events.

Not long ago, everything seemed to be coming up Mets. They were coasting toward the playoffs with Buck Showalter, their popular new manager, at the helm. “Narco,” “Milkshake,” and “Simple Man” provided a soundtrack to accompany the good vibes, and the team’s broadcast network was having a blast. As a bonus for rivalry-minded fans, the Yankees were in danger of pulling the worst choke job in their history (regular-season category).

Some Mets fans, trained by years of disappointment, predicted that the good times wouldn’t last. And it’s true that the last few weeks have seen a vibe shift — between the surging Braves, the Yankees bouncing back to win their division easily, and Elton John strangely celebrating the Mets’ demise. It’s also true that there are some very practical consequences to this reversal of fortune: Had the Mets won the division, they would have clinched a bye past the first round of the newly formatted MLB playoffs. Instead, by finishing second in the East, they’ll have to play in the Wild Card round beginning Friday, and however they choose to line up their starting pitchers against the Padres in that series, it scrambles their rotation for the next round if they advance.

But while the Mets have collapsed in spectacular fashion before, that’s not what happened here. Between June 1 and the end of that Braves series, the team went 63-44, which works out to a very respectable 95-win pace over the course of a full season. They finished the year with 101 wins, the second most in franchise history — behind only 1986. The Mets’ primary problem is that over that same period, the Braves went an incredible 76-32 — a 114-win pace. The retooled defending champions have been on fire for months, and when the Mets finally stumbled a bit in September, Atlanta blew by them.

This isn’t to totally absolve the Mets. They failed to take full advantage of the weak spots on their September schedule — including a series loss to the last-place Nationals and a sweep at the hands of the Cubs. And their underwhelming moves at the trade deadline — which some fans have been angry about for two months — can be read as overconfidence. But the Mets had their vaunted starting rotation lined up exactly the way they wanted in the pivotal series against the Braves last weekend, and Atlanta still won all three games. (Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Chris Bassitt all took the loss in their respective outings, though deGrom did turn in a quality start while striking out 11.) To paraphrase Pedro Martinez, sometimes you just have to tip your hat.

Still, this era of Mets baseball is supposed to represent something of a rebirth for the franchise. Steve Cohen, their free-spending, very visible owner, is a total departure from the loathed Wilpons, and while decades of baggage will forever be a part of the team’s DNA, this edition has the opportunity to be special. (The organization knows it too: It has begun advertising with a simple phrase: “These Mets.”) Last season ultimately went sideways, but with an increased payroll, this felt like the true start to the Steve Cohen Era. Dropping into second place after a summer of such high highs, no matter the circumstances, punctures that short-term optimism somewhat.

In So Many Ways to Lose, a book that lovingly chronicles the many creative ways the Mets have blown it as a franchise over the past six decades, author Devin Gordon writes, “There is a difference between being bad and being gifted at losing, and this distinction holds the key to understanding the true magic of the New York Mets.” The Mets’ fall from first might be best viewed through this lens. This season’s regular-season letdown was just a new variation on the theme: Over the past four months, they lost without actually losing all that much.

Prior to the Atlanta series, Fangraphs put the Mets’ World Series–title odds at 16.8 percent. In just three days, that dropped to 10.2 percent. It’s not a disastrous change, but it’s just enough to nudge them closer to underdog status. What had been a charmed season has turned into something just a little bit messier. But hey, these are the Mets we’re talking about. If anything came easy, it wouldn’t make sense.

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The Mets Didn’t Collapse. So Why Does It Feel Like They Did?