'This league is unforgiving': As the Mets bow to the Padres, another season of unrealized expectations hangs over New York

NEW YORK — Chris Bassitt cupped his hand over his ear and shook his head in confusion, seemingly mouthing, “Which one?”

The problem was the PitchCom, a new development in baseball this season. The visual signs put down by catchers for generations had proven vulnerable to nefarious illegal observation, and so they’d ditched the analog system for something that couldn’t be seen. Now, catchers press buttons on a wristband to trigger a small bone-conduction earpiece in the pitcher’s hat to suggest a certain pitch. Auditory communication, instead of visual.

The system was rolled out in spring training to such positive reviews that it was basically ubiquitous by the end of the regular season. Spring training games, though, are notably relaxed while win-or-go-home postseason games in New York are … not.

In the second inning of such a game against the San Diego Padres, Bassitt seemed to struggle to hear the pitch call over the audible angst of a crowd that had waited six years to see a postseason, seven to see their team advance.

Fortunately for the technology’s reputation and unfortunately for Bassitt and the fans, the problem did not persist. The Padres scored two in the inning, silencing the Citi Field crowd. Later, they would chant “cheater” — more on that in a minute — but mostly remained subdued as Joe Musgrove quieted the Mets’ bats and the Padres rolled to a 6-0 victory and a division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And after spending 176 days in first place during the regular season, the Mets, meanwhile, will be left with plenty of time to consider what went wrong.

Oddly enough, that was not even the most notable ear-related moment of the game.

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter, left, watches play from the dugout as Eduardo Escobar (10) prepares to bat against the San Diego Padres during the eighth inning of Game 3 of a National League wild-card baseball playoff series, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

No answer for Musgrove's historical performance

On the night the Mets could have advanced with a win — which they did do a lot of this year — Citi Field drew the smallest crowd it had all weekend: 39,241, notably not a sellout. It’s almost like the fans didn’t want to watch exactly what they were afraid would happen. The heady offseason followed by the charmed regular season hadn’t quite quelled the lingering sense that all of this was just the rickety climb up to the top of the roller coaster. Sure, it had gone higher than it usually does, but that’s all the more reason to fear what comes next. It’s hard to shake the sense of dread in Queens.

The ones that put themselves out there to get hurt again were treated to a pitching masterclass — by Musgrove, who turned in one of the most dominant starts in winner-take-all history. From the Mets’ perspective that looked like a team with baseball’s second-best batting average managing just one hit with their season on the line. It also looked a little suspicious. With Musgrove’s velocity and spin rate elevated from his season average and, perhaps more importantly, with his lineup running out of opportunities, Mets manager Buck Showalter requested the umpires check Musgrove for illegal sticky stuff in the sixth inning. Specifically, that they check his ear, which was lighting up Twitter with its dewy sheen. Desperate times and all.

The absurdity that ensued — gameplay paused so officials could studiously caress the pitcher’s face while all the other players looked on — offered perhaps the only moment of levity for Mets fans.

Later, Musgrove would say “it almost just kind of lit a fire under me.”

And he was great, but for all the Mets credited the opposition last weekend in Atlanta and again against the Padres, the team that sprinted out of the gate ended up limping to a finish line that appeared abruptly. They were good, they were also a huge disappointment.

“This was a blast,” Max Scherzer said postgame. “You know, up until the last part.”

The story in New York will be about expectations — the expectations set by their payroll and the roster it paid for, by winning 101 games, by playing in the biggest media market. The ones that went unmet in every sense except that Mets fans always expect to be disappointed. World Series favorites aren’t supposed to muster only a single win when it matters most. It’s silly to expect a championship in spring, except why else did owner Steve Cohen spend $273.9 million?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 09: Joe Musgrove #44 of the San Diego Padres celebrates after defeating the New York Mets in game three to win the National League Wild Card Series at Citi Field on October 09, 2022 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The San Diego Padres defeated the New York Mets with a score of 6 to 0. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

'It just sucks'

But no amount of money can buy you a guaranteed outcome in sports. And no amount of winning in the regular season can save you from an unpredictable outcome in October. And no matter when your season ends, it’s sudden and painful for 29 teams. And no matter how far you make it in one year, the next still starts at square one.

“I've lost in this [round]. I've lost in the next round,” Bassitt said after his first season in New York was over. “It doesn't matter what round you lose in. It just sucks.”

“Whenever the season is done, your heart gets a little bit tighter,” Francisco Lindor said after his second season in New York ended better than the first but still well short of the goal. “It’s an emotion that you don’t want. You want to finish the season happy. You want to finish the season happy, but that’s not the case here.”

“It’s the worst day of the year,” Scherzer said of any year that doesn’t end in a parade.

And if you think that sounds masochistic, consider this sentiment from Scherzer, which helps explain why he said there wasn’t anything to do now but get drunk: “This league is unforgiving. It finds a way to punch you in the face every single time and you’ve got to find a way to respond to it and come back out and want it more. That's just the life of being a major leaguer.”

The Mets may yet come back out and want it more in 2023. But those Mets will not be, as the postseason slogan plastered on subway cars and rally towels proclaimed, “These Mets.” These Mets will never exist again, not in exactly the same way.

Uncertain to return is: Bassitt, Jacob deGrom, Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo and Edwin Díaz. It doesn’t mean the team won’t be good again — although that list spans another of key pieces that will need to be brought back or meaningfully replaced — it’ll just be different. Maybe that’s for the better, but we won’t find out for a long time.

“The only way to bounce back is hopefully get back to the postseason next year,” Pete Alonso said after his first postseason appearance lasted just three games. “But I mean, that's a really long way away.”

He’s right. The Mets will never be further from their next postseason appearance than they are right now.