With today's loss to the Cubs, the Mets fell to 71-74 on the season. They remain two thousand games behind the first place Phillies (that will change after tonight's Phillies-Brewers matchup has been completed) and a few hundred games behind the wild card-leading Braves (also pending tonight's game). However, they do remain four games ahead of the fourth place Nationals and 5½ games in front of the lowly Marlins.
So the question is not whether the Mets can catch the Braves for the wild card or cut the Phillies' lead in the NL East to one thousand games (even though a three-game sweep of Philadelphia in two weeks would certainly help), it's whether or not the Mets can forget that there are 17 games left in the season and hold off the Nats and Fish to finish higher than fourth place for the first time since moving across the parking lot to Citi Field.
The 2007 and 2008 Mets famously went 5-12 and 7-10, respectively, in their final 17 games to lose their not-so-firm grip on first place and the wild card, failing to make the playoffs each year. The 2009 Mets also went 7-10 in their final 17 games, but managed to hold off the Washington Nationals in their quest for fourth place in the NL East (mission accomplished - yes!)
Last year's team was 72-73 at the 145-game mark, as they were duking it out with the Marlins for third place. They then proceeded to go (you guessed it) 7-10 in their final 17 games, finishing in fourth place, a game behind the Marlins, but at least ahead of the last place Nats.
So what can we expect the Mets to do this year now that they've reached the dreaded "17 to play" mark of the season?
For one thing, the Mets have what should be a comfortable lead in the NL East over the Nationals and Marlins. But then again, being four games up on Washington doesn't guarantee anything. The Nationals still have something to play for. Since moving to Washington from Montreal following the 2004 season, the Nats have finished last in every year but one (2007, when they finished two games ahead of the cellar-dwelling Marlins). With the potential for their highest finish in the NL East, the Nationals will surely be playing hard over their final 17 games. The Marlins, on the other hand, just lost six games over the past two weeks to the Mets. The demons of 2007 and 2008 have been exorcised and the Marlins should pose no threat to the Mets over their final 17 games (we hope).
A quick look at my once shiny, now falling apart Mets pocket schedule reveals that the Mets will be playing a four-game series with the fourth place (and hungry) Nationals next week at Citi Field. The Mets cannot lose this series if a) they want to finish .500 or better and 2) they don't want to choke away third place to Jayson Werth and his cohorts. They must split this series at the very least. Taking three of four would all but eliminate the Nats from third place contention and a four-game sweep plus drilling Werth in his $126 million @$$ would be the cherry on top of the mediocre sundae.
It would behoove the Mets to do well against Washington because after that series, the Mets will be playing the wild card-leading Braves in Atlanta (they have a worse winning percentage at Turner Field than the Washington Generals have against the Harlem Globetrotters), followed by a trip to St. Louis against the somehow-still-in-it Cardinals, and topped off with a three-game set against the team with the best record in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies, who somehow are on their way to the best record in franchise history, even without the aforementioned Jayson Werth (guess their key off-season acquisition of Juan Samuel to be their third base coach really panned out for them).
Should the Mets falter against the Braves, Cardinals and Phillies, they'll need to sweep the Reds at Citi Field to close out the regular season to have any realistic hope of finishing ahead of the Nationals for third place. The lowly Reds surely remember the Mets' first-ever four-game sweep in Cincinnati a few months ago, so they will not be an easy opponent, despite what the won-loss records say.
The Mets have gone 7-10 over their final 17 games in each of the last three seasons (and it's four out of five seasons if you go back to 2006; even that team went 7-10 over their final 17 regular season games). Doing the same this year would produce a 78-84 record, a one-game dropoff from their 2010 final record. It would also put them in jeopardy of being passed by the Washington Nationals for third place in the NL East. Finishing .500 or better should be the ultimate goal for this year's Mets, but finishing in third place is the more likely (and attainable) goal. It's time to show the rest of the National League East (meaning those teams not named Los Phillies or Los Braves) that this Mets team has had enough of late-season chokes and fourth place finishes. Say it loud and say it proud! Third is the word! And nothing else will be acceptable!