Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mets Must Get Over The Four-and-a-Half Game Hump

If the Mets want to see this in October, they need to increase their division lead in August and September.  (AP Photo)

No lead in the division is safe in baseball.  If you were a Mets fan in 2007, then you know how true that statement is.  But some leads are more safe than others, and the Mets have proven that in seasons when they've qualified for the postseason.

The 2015 Mets currently hold a 4½-game lead over the floundering Washington Nationals.  New York has built its lead by winning 11 of its last 14 games, while Washington is in the throes of a 4-11 team slump.  But an extra inning loss to the Pirates last night prevented the Mets from increasing their lead to 5½ games.  And earlier in the season, when the Mets rolled off a franchise record-tying 11-game winning streak, they also held a 4½-game lead in the division.  However, they never went over that hump, standing pat at 4½ for nine straight days (April 23-May 1) before a loss to the Nationals on May 2 cut their lead to 3½ games.

Only twice in club history has the team held a lead in the division of more than 4½ games and failed to win a division title.  The 1972 Mets got off to a tremendous start, winning 31 of their first 43 games.  In late May, the team possessed a comfortable 6½-game lead in the NL East.  But when Rusty Staub was felled by a wayward pitch thrown by Braves pitcher (and future Met) George Stone in early June, the team crumbled.  In the three-month period from June 7 to September 7, the Mets went 34-50 and finished double-digit games behind the eventual division champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

Thirty-five years later, the Mets famously held a seven-game lead with 17 games left in the season, only to see the Philadelphia Phillies take advantage of a Mets team that suddenly forgot how to pitch effectively.  Philly won all seven of their match-ups with the Mets in the season's final five weeks and Mets pitchers allowed an unfathomable 131 runs in the team's last 19 games to cough up the seemingly insurmountable lead.

Other than the 1972 and 2007 campaigns, New York has held a division lead of at least five games in four other campaigns.  They won the division crown in each of those seasons (1969, 1986, 1988, 2006).  They also held a lead of five or more games in the wild card race in 2000 and advanced to the World Series that year.

The Mets have had leads in the division of at least one game many times in franchise history.  And since the wild card came into play in 1995, they have been the leader in that race many times.  But just having a lead in the division or wild card race after the season is well underway hasn't guaranteed October baseball in Flushing.  Let's look at five not-so-memorable instances where this occurred.

  • In 1970, the defending World Series champion Mets held a two-game lead in the division when the calendar turned from June to July.  They ended the season six games behind the division-winning Pirates.
  • In 1984, the Mets were 4½ games ahead of the Chicago Cubs on July 27.  They lost 11 games in the standings after that date to finish 6½ games behind the first place Cubs.
  • The 1990 Mets were alone in first place as late as September 3.  But a 14-16 finish doomed them to second place, four games behind the division champion Pirates.
  • Eight years later, the 1998 Mets held a one-game lead in the wild card race with just five games left in the season.  They lost each of their last five games to finish 1½ games behind the eventual wild card-winning Cubs.
  • In 2008, one year after blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to play, the Mets were on top of the NL East by a season-high 3½ games on September 10.  They were also 2½ games up on the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card as late as September 20, when the season was down to its final eight games.  They failed to qualify for the playoffs.

What do the 1970, 1984, 1990, 1998 and 2008 Mets have in common?  Neither of them were able to stretch their division or wild card leads to more than 4½ games.  That's the same number of games the current Mets haven't been able to surpass in their quest to fight off the Washington Nationals.

The New York Mets have rarely missed the playoffs when they've had a lead of at least five games.  Only the 1972 and 2007 Mets know what it's like to watch the postseason on television after having such a lead.  But give the Mets a lead in the division or wild card race of more than seven games at any point in the season and they've never failed to crash the postseason party.

Entering Saturday's game against the Pirates, the 2015 Mets have been in first place for 64 of the season's 131 days.  They've held a 4½-game lead in the division for 11 of those days.  They've yet to hold a lead of at least five games.  History tells us that increasing that lead would subsequently increase the Mets' odds of making the playoffs.  If the lead were to grow by just three more games, the Mets would be in rarefied air - air that has only been breathed in by the 1969, 1986, 1988 and 2006 Mets.  Those were the only four teams that held a division lead of more than seven games.  You may recall those teams by their other name - NL East champions.

If the 2015 Mets want to join those squads as division champs, they just need to get over the 4½-game hump.  The longer they wait to get over it, the more nerve-wracking the final seven weeks of the season will be. 

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