The first month of the season is done, and the Mets are holding on to first place in the NL East standings.
Had I been told five weeks ago that this article would begin with that sentence, I probably would have been ecstatic, or least delighted. I mean, “first place”, that was not necessarily expected. However, had I been told 2 weeks ago that this article would begin with that sentence, my focus would have obviously shifted to “holding on”. So, here’s a collection of reflections to help sort this out.
The Mets got off to their best start in franchise history. After a 9-game winning streak, the team found themselves with an 11-1 record. They didn’t do this against minor league teams either (aside from the Marlins), but against real teams with good players, like the Nationals, the Phillies, the Cardinals, and the Brewers. Some of these games were exciting, come-from-behind thrillers, while others were solid, in-command performances. That lasted all the way through Friday the 13th of April. Eerily, the Mets have not won consecutive games since that date. The clutch play on both sides of the diamond that the team displayed in the first two weeks of the season has since given way to sloppy fielding, unproductive at-bats, and inconsistent pitching.
About that pitching…Fans finally got to experience the long-awaited premier of “The Five Aces” and it was a successful debut. The five Mets wins fromApril 8th through the game on Friday the 13th, featured starts from the following pitchers (in order): Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz. This may have been a few years later than hoped, but it happened and it went well. And then it kind of fell apart, and before we knew it, Harvey had some notably bad starts and was subsequently banished to the bullpen, Matz and Wheeler threw a couple of duds, and recently acquired and newly healthy, Jason Vargas, had the most disappointing season debut by a Mets lefty starter since Tom Glavine’s team debut in 2003. Now there are reports that Matz is experiencing back stiffness and may miss his next scheduled start. So it’s not an issue yet, but it could become one. What is an issue is that deGrom has pitched very well, Syndergaard has pitched almost as well, and the rest of the staff has been inconsistent with as many strong starts as awful ones.
Then there’s the bullpen…Coming into the season, the Mets bullpen was considered adequate, at best. One of the tasks for Manager Mickey Callaway was to figure out how to maneuver the pen to get the most out of his relievers. After the first two weeks, these pitchers were at the heart of the team’s success. Most of the games featured good but not great starting pitching, and sporadic bursts of offense, but the guys in the pen formed the most reliable aspect of the team. In the second half of the month, the relievers have still been good, but not quite as automatic as they were in the first half. This was highlighted, or lowlighted, in a disastrous come-from-ahead loss to the Nationals at Citi Field, with the Mets giving up six runs in the 8th and an additional run in the 9th to turn a 6-1 lead into an 8-6 defeat. Five days later, the bullpen coughed up another late lead, eventually losing to the Braves in the bottom of the 9th. Still, after a month into the season, the Mets bullpen has been an incredibly pleasant surprise, albeit an imperfect one.
Hitting…Asdrubal Cabrera has been a dream. In case you’re curious, I just Googled that sentence, and there is no record of it on the web. Ten months ago, Cabrera asked for a trade when he was moved from shortstop to second base. He wasn’t traded, he even remained the team’s second basemen, and now he’s batting .340 and leading the NL in hits. Yes, I checked that sentence as well…same results, although to be fair he’s tied with the Braves Ozzie Albies and Scooter Gennett of the Reds. Still, Cabrera has found himself in each of the slots in the top half of the Mets lineup, and has performed well wherever he’s been. And then there’s the rest of the lineup. Other than outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Juan Lagares, who have been great despite not playing every day, the rest of the lineup has been inconsistent. Usual leadoff hitter, Michael Conforto, has been great at getting on base (.390 OBP) but not especially reliable in key situations. Todd Frazier’s first month as a Mets player has been better than expected, but not without its holes. Yoenis Cespedes’ highs and lows were featured last week. In the first half of the month, the Mets feasted on the notion that any player can be the hero on any night, while the second half of the month served as a reminder that some nights have no heroes.
The Mets close out April in first place. They close out April with 17 wins, which is more than they’ve ever had heading into May. At times they have surpassed the dreams of even their most optimistic followers. At other times, they have lived down to the expectations of their most pessimistic patrons. If the back end of the rotation can straighten their issues out, and if the lineup can find some stability, and if they can all (or mostly) stay healthy, this team will go places. And if they don’t, they’re going nowhere.
One last twist to all this…in spite of the incredible start, and the team’s place in the standings, the highlight of the first month of the season has been the emergence of Keith Hernandez’s Twitter account. Whether he’s discussing his cat, Hadji, his meal from the previous night, his upcoming book, his website that hawks his merchandise, it’s always a pleasure to read, as evidenced by his 66k+ followers.