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Just one week ago, the New York Mets seemed in firm possession of the
National League wild-card spot, a position they had held for several months.
There was even a solid chance at a National League East title, with six
games against Atlanta looming. Despite the formidable schedule, it seemed
like they had little to worry about on their road to the postseason. All
they needed to do is keep their autopilot on and they’d breeze into the
playoffs.

Now, a little more than a week later, everything has changed. They’ve lost
seven games in a row. After not being swept in a series all season, they
were swept not only by the powerful Braves but by the middling Phillies. The
team seems to have folded like "Quayle 2000". And while they’re
still in the wild-card race, one-and-a-half games out, it’s now a race with
a different team than they expected, the Houston Astros, who have been
reeling almost as badly as the Mets.

After the debacle in Philadelphia, Mets manager Bobby Valentine
suggested that he should be fired if the Mets don’t make the playoffs. It’s
certainly true that Valentine hasn’t been at his best over the last week:
his trust in Kenny Rogers’ declarations of good health was misplaced;
his management of the bullpen in the first game of the Phillies series was a
classic case of overmanagement that helped cost the Mets the game; and
letting Rey Ordonez bat in key situations is always a mistake. But
Valentine does not deserve most of the responsibility for the team’s
failures the past week.

The Mets, after a mediocre start in 1999, played their way into contention
with a lineup that hit for average and walked, a deep, effective bullpen and
an excellent defense. Last week, though, their strengths turned into
weaknesses. The Mets’ starting pitching was actually fine: they had quality
starts in four of the six losses. But the team batted an anemic .208 during
the week and couldn’t even attain a .300 on-base percentage, while the
bullpen blew both close games they were handed.

The media has quickly tagged the Mets with the choke label, even though the
race isn’t over yet. That’s unfair; as Bobby Cox said the other night, teams
don’t choke – they just get beat. Choking just makes a more satisfactory
story. There’s still a great race because the Houston Astros are having
similar problems to the Mets. the Astros’ greatest strength this year, their
starting pitching, has collapsed, and the Houston staff as a whole has
posted their worst monthly ERA so far in September. Meanwhile, the Reds have
charged past the Mets and the Astros without relying heavily on the bullpen
that has been their bulwark all year. Instead, Cincinnati has already hit
more homers in September than any team in the league has hit in any month
this year.

Right now it feels like the Mets are dead. The odds are certainly against
them, and having to face Kevin Millwood in their final contest with
the Braves will not help their situation. But the Mets have proven their
worth all year by playing a superior brand of baseball. In the last week
they’ve faced the toughest staff in baseball and then had a series in which
almost everything that could go wrong with the offense did go wrong. How
often does Rickey Henderson ground into a double play with the bases loaded,
anyway? It was the type of series every team has at one time or other, a
series in which every hard-hit ball seems to be right at a fielder.

The last week could’ve happened at any other point in the season, and it
would’ve just been a slump. Now, especially after last year’s end-of-season
slide, it’s inevitable that the losing streak will be made out to be
something bigger than it is. The reality is that the Mets got stepped on by
a better team and a streak of bad luck. That may cost them the postseason,
but it shouldn’t overshadow the season they’ve had.