101 and done: How will the 2022 Mets' soaring summer and crushing wild-card exit be remembered?

It’s an age old would-you-rather question for sports fans: Heartbreak or blowout? If your favorite team has to lose, do you want it to be a hard-fought battle in doubt until the last out, or a romp that feels decided by the third inning? Baked into the question is the assumption that it can’t be both, but fans of the 2022 New York Mets might dispute that binary.

Eliminated by the San Diego Padres in a winner-take-all wild-card Game 3 on Sunday night, the 2022 Mets came within an eyelash of commanding postseason positioning, and also looked totally lifeless in said postseason.

It really felt like a new type of team inhabited Queens this summer. Shepherded by sage manager Buck Showalter and headlined by new faces like Max Scherzer, the Mets — for most of the year — felt as though they had successfully distilled team owner Steve Cohen’s infusion of cash and stability into credibility. The mascot didn’t flip off fans, and the players didn’t flash the thumbs down sign at them. Team executives didn’t get arrested or fired. The manager didn’t embarrass himself. And the wins! The wins didn’t stop. Until they did.

The Mets were in first place for 176 days, including the last day of the season, technically. They won 101 games, but lost the NL East to the Atlanta Braves via tiebreaker. They lined up Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt needing just one win in Atlanta one week ago, but couldn’t get it. A week later, they lined up the same trio against the 89-win Padres needing two wins, but couldn’t get them.

That’s how fast and how completely the promise evaporated. It left Mets fans grasping for the joy of an amazing season, and getting a gut punch in return.

Was 2022 Jacob deGrom's last season with the Mets? His future could dramatically alter how fans remember the 101-win team that fell in the wild-card round. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Was 2022 Jacob deGrom's last season with the Mets? His future could dramatically alter how fans remember the 101-win team that fell in the wild-card round. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Mets join club of 100-win MLB teams bounced by playoff chaos

The 2022 Mets will be a tale of misery, but they already have company, and they’re going to have more.

By falling in the wild-card round, now in best-of-three format instead of its single-game incarnation, the Mets became the 18th 100-win team since 1995 to bow out without reaching a league championship series. (To go back beyond that is to predate the wild card entirely and find some real pain, like the 103-win 1993 San Francisco Giants who did not get to play in the postseason at all.)

As MLB has expanded the postseason into a broader tournament with more suspenseful TV episodes involved, it has also amped up the chaos factor of October. The best teams don’t proceed directly to the World Series (like they did until 1969), or even to the league championship (as they did from 1969 to 1993). They win the opportunity to play other very good teams in short series, and let the chips fall where they may.

But the NCAA Tournament this is not. There’s no UMBC to be found by allowing the 12th-best MLB team in. Combine that truth with seeding deference for division winners, and you are systematically creating situations where a 100-win contender has to be eliminated before the league championship series. Which, again: Great TV. Top Chef sends an obvious contender home way too early every season, but that’s a reality show that can pop them right back into the mix for the finale. The Mets will not be summoned from “Last Chance Pitcher” to face the Astros in three weeks.

So some special seasons are going to be collateral damage for that entertainment factor. Case in point? The 2021 Giants. That merry band of upstarts and second-win veterans shocked the world by racing to 107 wins and besting the Dodgers in an NL West photo finish. But their October journey lasted all of five games before they got bounced by those same Dodgers (and a very questionable check swing call) in the NLDS.

A year out, that already feels like a fondly remembered team with an unsparing ending. Other titans that fell early are relatively pain-free memories because of what came after — the 2019 Dodgers were prelude to a 2020 World Series breakthrough — or the circumstances of their defeat — the 2018 Yankees lost to a 108-win Red Sox team so hot it could have melted steel. And then there are the ones that remain sore years, decades later, like the Moneyball A’s of 2002.

Remembering the clubs that saw their magic run out early, we can begin to understand how the memory of this Mets team might age, and what could ease (or aggravate) the pain of its downfall.

Did the final act run counter to the team’s overall story? The joy and deflation of the 2021 Giants came down to the team’s bizarre knack for huge pinch-hit homers. Grant Brisbee, bard of the San Francisco faithful, wrote about the feeling that “Late Night” LaMonte Wade Jr. was going to get another one in what turned out to be the final inning of that team’s season, and the sinking realization that it wasn’t to be. But there was never a character shift. That plucky team was plucky to the last moment.

The 2022 Mets were a relentless team for much of the summer. Their lineup was lengthy and unwilling to go down easily. The starting rotation was both excellent and seemingly angry at all times. Then there was Edwin Diaz, a one-man wrecking crew with trumpet fanfare accompaniment. Then it all went sideways. The lineup was relentlessly absent, the rotation curiously strained. Diaz barely saw the field. By Sunday night, a club that started to feel really special with a furious ninth-inning rally in St. Louis inspired no confidence that a sequel was forthcoming.

How sudden was the ending? Most Mets fans, fatalistic by nature, would probably say the brutal ending was preordained, but in reality the path to a clash with the Dodgers was open on Sunday night. Joe Musgrove emphatically slammed the door after the Mets asked the umpires to check his oddly shiny ears for foreign substances. The ending began with the three-game sweep a week earlier in Atlanta. Struggles for either Scherzer or deGrom are eyebrow-raising in isolation. The fact that they both stumbled on back-to-back nights colored the games that were left with an air of doom.

Was there a memorable play or visual? There’s no Derek Jeter flip play to traumatize 2022 Mets fans on every highlight reel for the rest of forever, no. Pete Alonso’s sharp single may have averted the potential crisis of a no-hitter bid for Musgrove, though. If there is a moment that will echo, it might be Scherzer’s Game 1 exit under a shroud of boos.

How about controversy or perceived injustice? Sorry, I don’t think Musgrove’s glistening ears are going to hold up like Wilmer Flores’ checked swing in 2021. If the Mets have a bone to pick, it’s with the cosmic timing of their run to a 101-win tie atop the NL East. This season’s new playoff format came with the elimination of Game 163 tiebreakers. In every previous season, the Mets and Braves would have duked it out Thursday for the division and the bye that, in this case, the Braves got on the strength of winning the season series, 10 games to nine.

Was this the team’s last ride? We don’t know. Cohen's money and enthusiasm should spell more contending seasons ahead. But those future teams' connection to this one will be severed if one or more key players headed for free agency this winter — deGrom, Diaz and Brandon Nimmo among them — don't return.

The big question surrounds deGrom. From floppy-haired overachiever to convention-busting pitching deity, he is a piece of the foundation for the current generation of Mets fans, a good thing that tided them over through the many, many storms. In his first start back at Citi Field this season, after more than a year lost to injuries, the beloved SNY broadcast let viewers bathe in his warmup, soundtracked by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”

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It was hard not to think about the song's advice when a lesser-known Mets mainstay, Seth Lugo, talked about returning to the field after the game Sunday, realizing it might have been his last game in Queens.

“The future is a mystery,” Lugo said.

Did the 2022 Mets live too fast? Will the team’s brightest collection of talent in recent memory break up without a true moment in the sun? That's the risk of a team that inspires so much hope. It can put 101 wins in the rearview mirror far too fast, with far too much uncertainty ahead. It can make every day feel like the start of something, even when you're right in the middle of the best part.