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Contention hopes for Mets come to a screeching halt

The Mets may believe in themselves. But back-to-back series losses to the Giants and Nationals showed New York the road to legitimate contention is further away than they thought.

Patrick Smith

GM Sandy Alderson threw down the gauntlet way back in February, boldly stating he expected his Mets to win 90 games in 2014. The snickers, not so quietly, immediately started and Alderson was forced to explain himself, telling reporters he never intended his 90-win comment to reach the media.

"You have to understand the context within which the statement was made and the purpose behind it if the skepticism is, 'How are they going to win 90 games?' It wasn't a guarantee. It wasn't a prediction. It was a challenge, OK? A challenge to all of us internally: How do we get there?"

It was a challenge that looked even more ludicrous as the Mets bottomed out at 11 games below .500 (38-49) on July 5. An inconsistent offense, uninspired and often sloppy play, and the club's sole star player having the worst uninterrupted season of his career conspired to help sink New York to the bottom of the National League East. But a flourish to end the first half that continued through a tough, 5-5 western trip immediately following the All-Star Game helped push the Mets to a National League-best 15-10 mark in July.

Whispers about the Mets making a legitimate playoff run began, however premature and misguided. The club was playing crisp baseball, receiving stellar pitching from both starters and relievers and enough offense to get by, thanks largely to Travis d'Arnaud and Lucas Duda. So when the Wild Card-leading Giants came to town for a four-game set to kick off August, the Mets had a chance to show their recent hot stretch was more than a mirage.

They didn't.

New York proceeded to drop three of four to San Francisco and scored eight runs in the series, four of which came in the seventh inning of their lone victory. The rest of the series was a presentation in what separates the Giants and the Mets; namely clutch hitting, crisp play, plus the added benefit of strong pitching. Following a tough, 4-3 defeat in the finale, New York left town having been outscored 20-8 while batting a woeful .144 (17-for-118) in the four-game set.

Three games against the NL East-leading Nationals followed, allowing the Mets a chance at immediate redemption. Another encouraging start by Zack Wheeler (4-0, 1.59 ERA over last his seven starts) led to a 6-1 victory in the opener, but Jon Niese (0-4, 5.76 ERA in four starts since returning from the DL) was roughed up again in the second game. Bryce Harper belted a walk-off, two-run home run in the 13th inning to clinch the series.

Game, set, match.

Look, the Mets can and should believe they can recreate a miracle run like their brethren from 1969 and 1973. Baseball is full of stories of clubs coming back from the dead to roar into the playoffs. An argument can even be made that New York is a much better team than the one that entered play Friday night against the Phillies with a 54-61 record.

But whether it's an inconsistent offense that's dead last in the National League in both runs scored (58) and batting average (.208) in the second half, the increasingly frustrating in-game decisions by manager Terry Collins, or better competition, New York's hopes at a postseason are over. A hope that was more illusion than anything, according to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal.

With the schedule more than 70% complete and the Mets hopelessly out of first place, they can now drop the illusion of reaching the playoffs and focus their attention toward contending in 2015.

Is New York's deficit insurmountable? Certainly not. The 1951 New York Giants and the 1995 Mariners showed that baseball sometimes rewards those who need a minor miracle. The 2014 Mets would love to add their name to those who have accomplished such rare feats. However, without a quick turnaround from David Wright, hitting .269 with eight home runs and 54 RBI (homerless and batting .192 in 20 second-half games), a marked improvement on their 16-22 record in one-run contests, and better decision-making from their skipper, not to mention quite a bit of luck, meaningful baseball in September won't be coming to Queens this year.

As fans of a long-gone team from Brooklyn once said, "wait 'til next year."