By Jason Keidel
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For the second half of the summer, Gary Sanchez was the darling of the Big Apple, an instant icon, as though he materialized from some mystical cornfield.
And it seemed the Yankees were getting all the love and leads in the sports section. With one stroke they got younger, healthier, better, while shaving millions from their bulging budget. With Sanchez leading the parade, they rode the cinematic, oddly underdog role until the end, tickling the wild card spot until the 159th game.
Yet while that was happening, we seemed to not only forget that there was another team in the Big Apple, but another contender. We forgot that the Mets went to the World Series last year, and that they, not the Yankees, were/are Gotham’s best baseball team.
And while the Yankees pulled a neat, baseball sleight of hand, the Mets hurdled a few diamond land mines of their own.
The Mets have been a walking triage, with more lineup changes than an NFL defense on third down. Injuries to their best players — from Yoenis Cespedes to Neil Walker, to their captain, David Wright, for the season, if not his career — left the Mets gasping for runs all year.
And that was just an appetizer. The Mets make their hay on the mound. And no rotation has been more gutted than theirs. First Matt Harvey faded, from poor performance to season-ending surgery. Steven Matz has hopped on and off the disabled list. Then perhaps their best pitcher, Jacob deGrom, got the elbow bug that has long infected the starting staff. Even their remaining long-haired hero, Noah Syndergaard, has had starts pushed back because of arm troubles.
The only mainstay on the mound, ironically, is the chubby, cherubic, geriatric wonder, Bartolo Colon.
Though this space can occasionally eat some crow, I did say, before the season (and again in May) that re-signing Colon could be the most underrated move in MLB. He can start, relieve, or provide comic relief. He did all three during the club’s enchanted October run in 2015, posting a 2.25 ERA in the playoffs.
It’s not an stretch to say the Mets aren’t here without the 43-year-old righty, who has been pitching since the (Bill) Clinton Administration. For the fourth straight year, he has made at least 30 starts. With a salary at just over $7 million, Colon was an absolute bargain, going 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA and making his fourth All-Star team. And it was more than fitting that Colon was on the mound the day the Mets clinched their second straight postseason berth.
If the Yankees get credit for keeping it close, what do the Mets get for breaking through and making the playoffs? It speaks to their skill, will, and, yes, fine managing from the oft-beleaguered Terry Collins.
Despite their soap operatic season, the Mets still posted .643 winning percentage since Sept 1, best in the National League. If you bang Collins for the bad times, he deserves some love for the last month.
But even the final month had its Rolaids Moments. On Sept. 21, the Mets were swept into Flushing Bay by the woeful Atlanta Braves, who were 61-91 at the time, punctuated by an otherworldly run-and-leap that snatched a game-winning Cespedes home run ball well over the wall.
The Mets were 80-72, and tied with the Giants and Cardinals for the top wild card. Since then, they somehow limped across the finish line with the second-best record (7-3) in the NL.
A few trolls remind me that I said the Mets would do nothing even if they made the postseason. But someone can make that assertion and still love the way they got there. Few in the local media have spent more time on the Mets bandwagon than yours truly.
And it’s just silly to assert that the Mets are better or as good as the Chicago Cubs. Not this year. The Mets would hobble out to Wrigley Field as massive underdogs.
But they still have to get there. And that means beating the San Francisco Giants, at Citi Field, on Wednesday. Few teams give you more pause than the Giants, who have their mail forwarded to October, and trot out the most formidable, postseason pitcher in the sport, Madison Bumgarner.
If the Mets squeak by San Francisco, it will be, as Mike Francesa has said, all house money from there. Is the season a success if they just make it to Chicago?
Let’s hope we have that debate.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel