NEW YORK -- The New York Mets just officially separated themselves from a circle of suspect contenders. By destroying the Los Angeles Dodgers with a controlled Game 3 rage, finishing the job without a single retaliatory strike, the Mets declared themselves as real as the break in Ruben Tejada's right leg.
Now you have to believe they can win it all, right? If the Mets were something of a fraud, a cute regular-season story destined to get swallowed whole by a more experienced October opponent, they would have completely come undone at Citi Field rather than embarrass the Dodgers by a Monday Night Football score of 13-7.
If you think about it, this whole thing was set up for them to fail. The Mets hadn't seen the postseason in nine years, and the lone survivor from that 2006 team, David Wright, couldn't tell enough bedtime stories to the newbies to calm them in what had devolved into an unholy mess of a National League Division Series.
Chase Utley dropped this series on its ear by blasting Tejada in Game 2, and the Mets were being duped into believing their manhood would be questioned if they didn't pick a fight with someone, anyone, inside the third-base dugout.
This could have been ugly for the home team. This could have been an amateur-hour spectacle to be regretted for a long time. The Dodgers manager, a great old Yankee named Don Mattingly, agreed before Game 3 that a visiting team could use the energy from a hostile New York crowd to its advantage and said he was looking forward to an "electric" atmosphere.
Mattingly was looking forward to the emotional unraveling of a foaming-at-the-mouth Mets team with a deeper roster than Mattingly's. Utley had been suspended for two games, then liberated on appeal, then kept out of the lineup by Mattingly despite having the history of considerable success against Matt Harvey that Howie Kendrick didn't have. It was as if Mattingly was toying with the Mets, dangling the carrot and then yanking it away.
The manager even caused a fuss with Harvey warming up to start the first, delaying the game and sending the umpires scurrying about because the Dodgers' replay phone wasn't in working order. And then the Dodgers scored the game's first three runs in the second inning off Harvey, a drama queen with more riding on this night than anyone in a packed building that suddenly was as quiet as a church at midnight.
Mets manager Terry Collins had ordered Harvey and his teammates to play angry but to also play within themselves. "The minute we make this some type of a grudge match," Collins had said, "we're going to make some mistakes, and we can't do that." Maybe Collins had left his team flat. Maybe he had pushed the wrong human button with a starting lineup that included six players who had never before appeared in a postseason series.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a proposed Dodgers' 2-1 series lead and a potential Clayton Kershaw clincher in Game 4: The Mets immediately pounded Brett Anderson for four runs in the bottom of the second, three on Curtis Granderson's double off the wall, and announced they were here to play baseball whether or not Utley remained on the bench.
The Mets told their fans right then and there this night wouldn't be about Tejada peg-legging his way onto the field during introductions with the aid of a walking boot and cane, uplifting as that scene might've been.
The Mets weren't only going to overcome the relentless questions about payback and the circumstances that made it acceptable; they would overcome Harvey's mediocrity as well. Just as they overcame Harvey's missed workout to win Game 1. Just as they overcame the sandstorm Harvey and his agent, Scott Boras, kicked up last month by suggesting the Mets might have to win October games without their ace.
Monday night, the Mets did win an October game without their ace. Harvey was so uninspiring out there, Collins had Jon Niese warming up in the pen in the third inning. Harvey managed a huge strikeout of Andre Ethier, and then another one of Carl Crawford, to escape.
"That's all they're getting," Harvey told his manager in the dugout.
Harvey ultimately made it through five innings. Collins said beforehand he didn't want Harvey throwing more than 120 pitches. As it turned out, Collins didn't even give him 100. But that was OK on two fronts. First, Collins said his pitcher has never worked harder while trying to get by on his B-minus stuff. Second, the Mets proved they don't need a vintage Harvey to win a game defined by win-or-else stakes. Travis d'Arnaud hit a two-run homer in the third, and Yoenis Cespedes launched a monstrous three-run shot in the fourth, punctuated by the mother of all bat flips, and Citi Field nearly came tumbling down.
"We want Utley," the fans chanted, a cry that would be heard throughout the night.
When Utley's name was called and his face was shown on the videoboard during pregame introductions, the public address announcer waited longer than usual to move on to the next Dodger, giving the crowd its chance to greet him like Shea Stadium greeted John Rocker 15 years ago.
But commissioner Rob Manfred had met with Collins and Mattingly before the game to implore them to represent the sport the right way. The pep talk was an unnecessary one for the Game 3 winners. The Mets weren't playing for the Utley boos or the Tejada cheers. They were doing what their manager asked them to do: playing baseball with a purpose and precision to match their passion.
Granderson was good for five RBIs, and Cespedes started the second-inning rally by doing something he doesn't always do -- busting it down to first on a routine grounder.
"You can have five at-bats," Cespedes would say later through an interpreter, "and I think it's important to go into each one with the mentality that you need to run fast, you need to hit hard, play hard. You need to go in there playing hard because there's not many games."
Unless Kershaw is lights-out on short rest, there's only one game left in 2015 for the Dodgers. Mattingly never did use Utley as a pinch hitter in Game 3, saying the game was too far out of reach to use him during a garbage-time rally in the ninth.
So this was the Mets' only form of retribution. All those runs, Harvey said, "kind of did all the talking."
The statement was loud and clear. Under the Monday night lights, with Chase Utley watching from the worst seat in the house, the Mets made it official: Yes, they are good enough and tough enough to win the whole damn thing.