By Ernie Palladino
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The question with the Mets was always "When is this franchise going to give us something worth watching?"
That query seems way in the past. Now, as the New York Cespedites emerge from the desert darkness and run, not walk, toward baseball's land of milk and honey, their followers have a new question to ponder.
"How much is good enough?"
How deep is deep enough?
How far into the postseason must the Mets go to deem this a successful season?
It's a question one can legitimately ask at this late point, if only because the success of the last 40 games has changed expectations. What one would have signed for in a heartbeat on July 25 -- an above-.500 season and a good but just-short challenge to Washington's division lead -- is far from satisfactory now. Thanks to the Moses who takes the form of Yoenis Cespedes, three other converts in Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe, and Tyler Clippard, and a host of other factors, the NL East title lies at hand and a position in the NLDS is all but locked up.
So, the Mets can ask, when is enough enough?
It's not so easy a question. Up in the Bronx, the answer comes quickly and tersely. Nothing less than a World Series title sates the appetite of those who follow the pinstripes. For them, a third season out of the playoffs lies in the balance, with Sunday's shutout of the Blue Jays only partially atoning for Saturday's double-dip disaster. They can still overcome Toronto's 3 ½-game lead, but the Yanks face a load of trouble down the stretch. And I believe wholeheartedly that if the Yanks do hang on for that one-game, wildcard play-in, an exit in the ALDS would still equal failure.
But then, those people have 27 championship banners flying over their stadium. Postseason excellence always defines their expectations. Anything short is a disappointment.
The Mets had grown accustomed to despair. A winning record and signs of hope for 2016 would have played quite well in Flushing had Sandy Alderson left Cespedes and his mighty wrists in Detroit. The crowds at Citi Field might have been smaller, probably less enthusiastic, but the quiet optimism of an improved next year would have made the upcoming winter a happy, expectant time.
But Cespedes did come to affect breathtaking change. His new team has swaggered its way to the 9 ½-game lead Sunday's extra-inning victory in Atlanta preserved. He bumped up the expectations while blasting balls at an alarming rate.
The 16 homers and 41 RBI in 40 games he's played for Terry Collins only represent the numerical highlights of the transformation. From the period between Aug. 1 and now, the Mets have incredibly and historically metamorphosed from the sorriest assembly of popguns into the league's most dangerous arsenal.
In mounting 15 comeback wins in that period, most in the majors, they have judged few of their pitchers' occasional struggles too major to overcome, and no inning too late for fireworks. Just look at the last two games. Three runs in Sunday's ninth to overcome a 7-4 deficit, three runs in the 10th to notch their seventh straight win. On Saturday, Cespedes put them out in front temporarily with an eighth-inning homer, and his fielder's choice bouncer drove in Johnson with the ninth inning's second run to cushion the win.
They have not just overtaken the suddenly clueless Nationals, but run away with the NL East. That above-.500 goal? As of Sunday, they sat 21 games over, with 19 to play. The 90-win season Alderson predicted for last season should pull in momentarily.
Barring a total collapse against this dregs-filled final stretch, they will secure their spot in the NLDS with room to spare.
But now the questions. Will simply appearing in the divisional series suffice? The prospect that a few short weeks ago would have sent the faithful into delirium appears of little consequence now. Would a win over fellow NLDS prospect Los Angeles and a strong but failed showing against St. Louis in the NLCS suffice? Or will only a World Series spot define the 2015 season as a true entree, and not just an appetizer for some later season?
As expectations change with the schedule's progress, so too do the levels of satisfaction. After six straight years of losing records, mere winning is no longer sufficient.
The man with the big bat has taken the Cespedites to the path out of the valley of despair. The question is where, exactly, does the Promised Land of 2015 lie? And will the followers be satisfied once they get there?
Those concepts were inconceivable before Cespedes had people whispering "MVP."
Thanks to him, one can't help but ponder them now.
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