The current Mets persevered, though, and with more than two-thirds of their schedule complete, they flew cross-country late Sunday as the third-place team in their division. Given the understandable distress calls of March, third-place standing is worth a few extra hmmms, even if the spate of injuries -- Santana, Tejada, Turner, Francisco, Pelfrey, Baxter, Bay, Thole, Gee, and now Byrdak and all the shortstops in Sandy Alderson's domain -- are not factored in.
So, again, manager Terry Collins warrants a salute for his remarkable ability to squeeze resilience from a team that has suffered too many of the most demoralizing types of losses, those ever-vexing defeats that unreliable bullpens regularly produce when a club comes from behind but loses anyway. That these Mets, Terry Collins' Mets, finished Tuesday evening within four unbecoming ninth innings of a .500 record is a compelling indication that they have conceded nothing.
They may recognize that even the expanded playoffs now are beyond their reach, but they play with a sense of purpose nonetheless and never acknowledge an October free of baseball is their destiny. Moreover, self-ridicule has not found its way into clubhouse banter. That would be an indication of concession. The Mets remain quite serious about their 2012.
"I guess it's not uncommon for a team that comes out of the [All-Star] break and plays sluggishly to ... you know, lose focus or whatever people say when a team doesn't win," David Wright said before batting practice Tuesday." We didn't play well, but we never lost focus. It never occurred to us that we would change how we played or how we approached the game because our chances to play in the postseason took a hit."
"We're a very prideful team," Justin Turner said. "We're not a bad baseball team at all. We're pretty proud of how we've played except for a couple of weeks, and we're proud about how we came back on the trip. We take every game seriously no matter where we are in the standings or who we're playing."
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Because the Marlins and Phillies played money ball last month, the Mets can be taken a bit more seriously. With Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez and Mets nemesis Gaby Sanchez gone from South Beach, and Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton no longer playing in South Philly, the Mets are more comparable to the teams that were widely expected to finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the division this season.
The Mets haven't improved; instead, some of their competition has diminished. Either way, the Mets are better off.
At this point, their third-place standing appears quite legitimate and appropriate. Given the state of affairs in Miami and Philadelphia, and without comparing records, the Mets may be the third-best team in the East. The Marlins seem to have a bad taste in their mouths most days. Trading away talent seldom plays well in a clubhouse, even when personality issues leave with the talent. The Fish may be better off without Ramirez whose popularity in the clubhouse had gone the way of his batting average (.246 before moving to the Dodgers). But Infante is a valuable piece -- more valuable, granted, to a team with legit aspirations for October than to the Marlins as they are now.
An exodus of talent and/or friends often is followed by self-ridicule, then apathy. Less than a year after opening a new park and unveiling new uniforms, a new manager and a refurbished bullpen, the Marlins are backtracking in the eyes of their public. Their standing in the NL East isn't remotely close to what was expected, nor is their attendance.
The Phillies appear to be a broken bunch with an unclear future. Because of injury and age, they can't know what to expect from Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Jimmy Rollins as they look to 2013. What do they think of their talent exodus? Their fall has been quick, precipitous, damaging and, to some degree, the responsibility of an impulsive general manager. How does Pence enter one summer and exit less than a year later? Someone somewhere must have erred in evaluating him in 2011 or this year. He is a quality complementary player. Quality costs.
Or, perhaps, after winning the 2011 NL East in a runaway and winning four straight division championships, the Phillies now are heeding the advice of the late Walter O'Malley who suggested winning every year can be unwise. His theory was that yearly success spoils the fan base and empties the treasury. The Braves of the late '90s can attest to that.
The Yankees seem to handle it without great regret. The Braves did for a long time, and Mike Scioscia's Angels teams have been ultra-competitive for most the last decade. Until late last summer, the Red Sox had successfully fought gravity for an extended period. Now their suits are giving their manager votes of confidence, never a sign of job security when a team of promise is much closer to last place than to first. OK, the Sox have been hurt, so have the Yankees. The difference in the standings was nine games through Monday. It seemed greater.
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None of the above is to suggest that the Mets now are NL East contenders because the Marlins' and Phillies' divestment. They are considerably behind the Nationals in talent -- more than the 13 games that showed in the Tuesday morning standings. The Nationals have dominant talent; the Mets don't. The Braves do enough right with the talent they have to stay close to the top, and they seldom suffer one of those ninth-inning losses.
The Braves have retooled since the days of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz, the Jones Boys at the top of their games and the genius of Mr. Cox. It's not easily done -- as the Phillies are about to learn. They weren't going to re-sign Victorino, and they feared an arbitration case with Pence. Maybe they can recreate an outfield with the money saved. Maybe they can't. Restoration requires foresight, money, baseball acumen and luck. And more money, the kind of cash the Phillies would have been wise to throw at Pence.
The Mets, meanwhile, didn't weaken themselves during their unplanned transition from shopper to listener. Instead, and not by preference, they have worn out the pavement between Flushing and Buffalo and kept at least one important component of the 53-56 record they brought home from California, Scott Hairston. He has value now and next season, too, if the Mets re-sign him. They were wise to retain him rather than help another team qualify for October.
With the Phillies in something of a free fall and the Marlins neither playing nor drawing well, the Mets can look to 2013 without the dread that was so thick in March. Even with two weeks of losing last month, Terry Collins' Mets have done a pretty good job. But what remains of the job is a far greater challenge. Third place in this five-team division, this season and, probably next as well, is much closer to last place than it is to first.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.