Mets have the stink of a team playing out the string

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The season leaks away bit by bit, day by day. It happens this way to bad baseball teams once they’ve given up the ghost. September can be the cruelest kind of gauntlet, 30 days that feel like 300 when reality sets in and you are merely playing out the string.

It shouldn’t be that way for the Mets, of course, not in a short season, not when baseball’s New Math keeps insisting they are still within shouting distance of a playoff berth. It shouldn’t feel the way it’s felt the past few days, even as the record sinks six games below .500, even as the Baltimore Orioles have their way with them up and down this 9-5 pounding at Camden Yards.

But there is the way it should be and the way that it is.

It should be that on the first night of September, the Mets have a better option than handing the ball to Ariel Jurado, who spent most of his time serving up tasty room-service speedballs to the Orioles, digging the Mets a couple of deep early holes. It should be that the Mets, however depleted, have it in them to beat the Marlins and the Orioles — losers of a combined 213 games last year — on back-to-back days when victories have become absolutely essential.

The way that it is?

There are no gimmes on the Mets schedule; the Mets are the gimmes. There are no soft spots for the Mets. The Mets are the soft spot.

Renato Nunez belts a three-run homerin the first inning of the Mets' 9-5 loss to the Orioles, despite Brandon Nimmo's best effort.
Renato Nunez belts a three-run homer in the first inning of the Mets’ 9-5 loss to the Orioles, despite Brandon Nimmo’s best effort.AP

It seems impossible that it was late Saturday afternoon when the Mets were coming off a doubleheader sweep, when Wilson Ramos had clobbered one off the left-field fair-pole screen at Yankee Stadium to pull even with the Yankees, threatening to actually drag themselves to. 500, the holy-grail benchmark in this truncated campaign.

Then Dellin Betances launched a Ryne Duren fastball to the screen, and the Yankees trolled the Mets to a pair of extra-innings losses, and the Marlins knocked a little of the pixie dust off Jacob deGrom, and Luis Rojas handed the ball over to Ariel Jurado.

Life comes at you pretty fast sometimes. And when you’re playing bad baseball, the game can speed past you in a blur. The Mets are playing bad baseball right now. They insist that you not look at them as a bad baseball team but as the season leaks away bit by bit, day by day, that’s becoming a harder position to defend.

The Orioles are bad, too, and they’ve been playing especially lousy lately, but there are no expectations attached to them. They have a bunch of anonymous guys who swing from the heels and figure maybe they’ll just outslug you.

The Mets got their swings in. Jeff McNeil had three hits. Robinson Cano hit another home run. Andres Gimenez hit his first big-league homer, briefly tying the game at 5-5.

“These guys always fight,” manager Luis Rojas said.

But it is never a proper consolation prize to praise professional ballplayers for fighting, for trying, for not phoning games in. That’s in the contract. That’s part of the deal. Losing teams don’t usually lose because they aren’t trying. They lose because they become proficient at playing bad baseball. They lose because they do too many things poorly.

They lose because they look the way the Mets have looked for long swatches of the season. That doesn’t mean the season is over: the arithmetic won’t allow it. In the same way this five-game losing streak has turned the season upside down, a five-game winning streak can turn it right side up.

“I look at every day as a must-win,” Rojas said, and that’s the way a manager is supposed to talk, and that’s the way the team is supposed to feel, especially when there’s still time, still games, still an opportunity to change the narrative.

But Aug. 1 became Sept. 1 in an awful hurry, and Sept. 1 will become Sept. 27 even quicker. Something has to change. Something has to give. As the season leaks away bit by bit, day by day, the Mets eventually have to prove that there’s something there besides hopeful math. Something besides a string to play out.

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