NEW YORK – As the window to secure the division narrowed and finally slammed shut, sending the New York Mets to the wild card, the team was repeatedly asked about the mounting pressure. The Mets’ success all summer only added to the weight — squeezing the expectations set by a 101-win season into a three-game series invites even more scrutiny. Forced to say something — just as all teams do when they claim to like feeling their backs against the wall — the Mets generally said they would relish the pressure. Well, if you even want to call it that. The trick is to not let it affect you, treat it like any other game. Stakes? What stakes? You think there’s psychological turmoil here?
“Anyone that says no is a liar,” Chris Bassitt said before the game that could have been the Mets’ last.
He was answering questions about a start that would necessarily be winner-take-all and would not necessarily take place at all. The Mets' stunning loss to the San Diego Padres on Friday night set the stage for the weekend. Jacob deGrom, whom they had hoped to have available for Game 1 of the division series if they could complete a two-game sweep, would start Saturday night. He was the Big Gun that they were forced to break out to save the season, stave off disaster, set the team back on a winning path. If he could do all that, Bassitt would go Sunday in the decisive game.
You can’t script October. The postseason turns role players into heroes who never have to buy a beer in their hometown again. Sometimes, for one month or even a single series, the Trent Grishams of the world — slugging .341 on the season, ever so slightly below average offensively for his whole career — homer off Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom in back-to-back games. Stuff like that; stuff you never saw coming.
Sometimes, though, if you’re lucky, the games go according to plan. Saturday had its share of absurdity, and certainly wasn’t without angst, but after four hours and 13 minutes, the Mets walked away with a 7-3 win that felt, well, familiar. DeGrom threw six innings of two-run ball and nearly touched 102 on the radar gun, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso both homered, the team batted around in the seventh while scoring four runs on small ball, and Edwin Díaz was lights out when they needed him.
“Today we played very Mets-like,” Lindor said postgame. “We put the ball in play. We run the bases right. We play good defense. We pitch. We stay together, and we win together.”
There was one notable riff on the usual blueprint: In a must-win game, manager Buck Showalter called on his closer in the seventh, and even sent him back out in the eighth, despite a 45-minute gap while his teammates piled on insurance runs (He threw off a mound in the batting cage to stay warm). That, too, was just part of the new plan: Mets-like, only amped up for October. In other words: Do whatever it takes to get through today.
And now, having done so successfully, the Mets will hand the ball to Bassitt, the No. 3 starter in a rotation renowned for having a peerless top two. But it’s the under-the-radar Bassitt who led the team in starts (30) and innings pitched (181.2) during the regular season.
Their stalwart over six months will start Sunday, when a win would mean they’d overcome the self-inflicted hurdle of having to go through the wild-card round, and a loss would throw the entire season under a microscope as fans combed through the failures for a scapegoat.
And the fans, oh, the fans.
“There isn't a harder city in our country to play a sport,” Bassitt said. “New York is an absolute gauntlet every night.”
Nothing in Oakland — not even a couple playoff appearances — had prepared him for this.
But perhaps his honesty — asked if he would watch Game 2 with an eye toward anything that might give him an advantage, he explained why that wouldn’t work: “I wish I had Jake's stuff, but I don't” — will serve him well. He admitted to trying too hard in Atlanta, when his failure to get out of the third inning all but sealed the National League East for the Braves. That resulted in overthrowing and working outside the zone too much. On Sunday, he plans to be truer to himself and hopes that the rest of the team will follow suit.
“I've told a lot of guys on the team who haven't been in the playoffs, ‘Listen, whoever can just be themself the most I think has the biggest advantage,’” he said.
That requires knowing who you are, of course, and so fortunately for Bassitt, this season has proven illuminating on that front.
“I kind of thought I was mentally tough enough to handle New York, but I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be playing for a team like the Mets, just because I've kind of proven to myself, OK, you can handle it,” Bassitt said. “You can handle the scrutiny. You can handle the boos. You can handle all that stuff.”
Now he’ll get at least one more opportunity to test his mettle under the Citi Field lights.