by Paul West
A tight divisional race is, from a sports psychology standpoint, as stressful as a close playoff series. You could even argue that it, in some circumstances, a tight divisional race is more stressful than a playoff series; because once you’re in the playoffs, there’s always the ‘we’re a playoff team, we belong here’ argument to be made. Whereas winning a playoff berth represents entry to an exclusive in-group–tickets to the dance, as they say in March Madness–and the fight to get there offers the initial payoff for season-long marathon. Watching the standings day after day, watching the out of town scoreboard with one eye and your own scoreboard with the other, watching a lead shrink or grow or remain stable…a week or two of that can be as draining and vexing as a best-of-seven. And when the chaser plays the chasee in a close divisional race, it combines the stressors of both situations.
As a division lead shrinks, the chaser can feel the surge of the underdog effect. Meanwhile, the team hanging on to a dwindling lead can feel a creeping, ‘objects are closer than they appear’ feeling of checking your rearview for the inexorable. You know the old Halloween movies, where Michael Myers is steadily closing while his intended victim scrambles for dear life–and he keeps getting closer and closer, even though he’s just walking?? That feeling.
The Mets, in recent history, have been on both sides of this feeling. Their infamous 2007 collapse–up 7 games, with 17 to go–left a sour taste in fans’ mouths for years; and in 2015, they pulled off a thrilling divisional comeback on their way to a National League pennant. Both collapses involved pivotal head-to head series, in which the pursuer gained confidence with each win as their prey felt the walls close in.
This year, starting this evening, the Mets face a mid-season version of just such a series; but it’s just the kind of series that could have a ripple effect on the entire second half.
The Mets have to remember, along the lines of a playoff team that knows it’s earned its spot, that they’re in first place for a reason. Furthermore, they have to remember that it’s not their margin for error–not the other team’s–that’s razor-thin.
The Mets have been playing with house money, winning in every way possible despite a myriad of potentially team-crippling injuries, and are soon going to be playing with both of their aces in action. The fact that they’ve won so much, so consistently and in such varied fashion, points to the fact that their makeup–concrete and intangible–is well-suited to keep pursuers at arm’s length. Atlanta comes into the series red-hot, for sure; but despite all their efforts, they’re still several games behind a team that’s played a tougher schedule and is sending four players to the All Star Game. But they know that if they don’t win two of three this week, they’ll still be almost a week’s worth of hames behind and statistically unlikely to sustain the streak they’ve gone on this month.
The Mets still have their fate, and that of the NL East, very much in hand. The only thing thing that can stop them is themselves.