by Paul West
For a while, it almost looked like the New York Mets might have an unexpectedly easy home stretch. Countering the increasingly shrill backdrop of those calling for his head, general manager Sandy Alderson made a series of moves (and one critical non-move that was something of a happy accident) that seemed to vault the Mets to new heights. In the month following July 24th, the Mets were at or near the top of the National League in several offensive categories; they stormed into first place in the National League East, and for one week in particular they seemed to break a new team or league record every other day. Even on nights when their highly touted pitching staff faltered, fortune smiled on the Mets as they put up slow-pitch scores to continue their hot streak. They won back-to-back 14-9 games in Colorado. In Philadelphia, they were the first team in roughly a century to be down five runs and win by more than four runs twice in one series. Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals went into a free-fall. Their aces put up clunkers; Bryce Harper was the only one on the team who hit consistently, but he was in and out of the lineup with injuries. The Mets’ lead in the division ballooned to seven games, and analysts far and wide began to declare the NL East the Mets’ to lose. Harper’s repeated ‘what, me worry?’ proclamations started to look like whistling past the proverbial graveyard.
Then the Nationals got hot again, and the Mets briefly stumbled. The lead closed to four games, on the eve of one of two remaining series between the two teams. The topic of Matt Harvey‘s innings ceiling was suddenly revisited by his (generally unpopular) agent, Scott Boras. And everyone seemed to remember how many of the Mets’ young aces were approaching uncharted territory in terms of innings in a season, not to mention the high-pressure innings that can come after Labor Day. And as Labor Day has come and gone, it feels like a pennant race again.
The key to the Mets’ success is embracing just this fact: they are in the thick of a pennant race, against a team that seems unlikely to go away.
The absolute worst thing the Mets can do is look over their shoulders–not just at the trailing Nationals, but at the still-looming shadow of their spectacular 2008 collapse. As Mets fans painfully recall, the Amazins were clearly the best team in the National League in 2006–until they lost Game Seven of the NLCS to a fluke Yadier Molina home run and a third-strike curveball from a future ace who was still unheralded. Things got increasingly painful for years after that.
Fortunately for the Mets, their current team doesn’t carry the emotional baggage that has much of its fan base often waiting for the worst to happen. The most notable exception is captain David Wright, and perhaps it’s instructive that their late-season charge began while he was on the disabled list. Wright has contributed since his return, and his presence, leadership and experience will help them through the home stretch. But this is a new Mets team now, remodeled and driven by a youth movement that has the future looking as bright at Citi Field as it ever has.
Yesterday, the Mets took another big step toward completing their recovery from 2008. They won a see-saw battle against the Nationals, in the Nationals’ own park, and increased their lead to five games on Labor Day. They received contributions from all parts of the lineup, from breakout rookie Michael Conforto to newly acquired slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Wright’s go-ahead single. Kelly Johnson, a recently acquired roleplayer with experience in games of significance, contributed a home run. Curtis Granderson, one of the big names brought in during the offseason to help lead the metamorphosis, contributed two doubles. Wilmer Flores, Citi’s newest folk hero, had a hit in a big moment. It was a team effort, despite the continued struggles of starter Jon Niese, and most of all, it served notice to the Nationals and the league: these Mets won’t be caught easily, if at all.
The Mets’ fate remains in their hands, and they’re just weeks away from returning to the official postseason. But make no mistake: these games are the most important they’ve played in half a decade. So far, they’re off to a good start.