Something has gotten into the New York Mets of late, something that was much-needed, long-awaited and on display again Tuesday night at Nationals Park in their 6-2 win over the Washington Nationals, their third in a row. What could have possibly turned the Mets around so suddenly, and pointed them in a decidedly upward direction, here at the quarter mark of a season full of outsize expectations?
The Mets themselves would have you believe it is simply a rounding into form of a championship-caliber team — one that added the likes of Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie and Edwin Diaz this offseason — and that had underperformed until now.
An armchair psychiatrist might point to Friday’s meeting in Queens, at the end of an ugly 1-5 road trip, in which Manager Mickey Callaway, already occupying one of the hottest seats in baseball, was called before Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon and General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen and told in no uncertain terms the team’s performance to that point was unacceptable.
But there is another explanation for the Mets’ explosion since then — with their three wins coming by an aggregate score of 21-5 — and it is painfully obvious to anyone paying attention to the state of the National League East division this season: There is nothing that can fix a struggling team faster than a nice stretch of games against the underbelly of what is arguably the worst division in baseball.
At the time of the Friday meeting — which, since news of the meeting leaked, the Mets have spun as a “solution-oriented” brainstorming session — the Mets were about to embark on a stretch of 13 straight games against two lowly division rivals, the Miami Marlins and the Nationals, who are now a combined 29 games under .500. Three decisive wins later (the Mets-Marlins game Sunday was rained out), the Mets, now back at .500 (20-20), can confidently claim they have it all figured out.
“I don’t think [the players] were doing anything wrong, as far as effort or focus or things like that, when we weren’t going like we wanted,” Callaway said after Tuesday night’s win. “But it’s nice to win some ballgames.”
Van Wagenen, in his first season as the Mets’ GM following a successful career as an agent, declined to address the meeting with Callaway — a manager he inherited from the Mets’ previous regime — but professed confidence in the direction of the team.
“We’ve shown at times this season we can pitch, and we can score runs. Our challenge will be doing both of those things at the same time,” he said. “We’ve done them separately, and when they come together more consistently we can put ourselves in position to win every night and maybe string some wins together. We still believe in the talent we have.”
Mets players voiced the same sentiment: “I think we’re in a good place,” said veteran catcher Wilson Ramos, who hit a grand slam Tuesday to lead the Mets’ offense. “We already know what we have on this ballclub. We still have work to do. We still haven’t put it all together yet, but we’re still winning games.”
Good for the Mets if they believe they have turned a corner, but to any neutral observer, it would be hard to read much into a trio of wins against the Marlins and Nationals, who occupy the bottom two spots in the decidedly underwhelming NL East.
Remember when 2019 was supposed to see a spirited, chaotic race to the top of the division among four would-be contenders — the Mets, with their aggressive offseason; the Braves, coming off last year’s division title; the Phillies, with their “stupid” winter spending-spree; and the Nationals, with as much talent, top to bottom, as any team in the league?
Yeah, it hasn’t quite happened like that. A quarter of the way through the season, only the Phillies, at 24-17, reside above .500, and everyone else, to some degree or another, has underachieved. (Even the lowly, downsizing Marlins, now 10-30, never expected to be on a 122-loss pace in mid-May.)
Is the NL East the worst division in the game? At least as measured by collective run-differential, it is: The East’s five teams are a collective minus-108, the worst of any division in either league. Though the Marlins (minus-95) account for most of the negative drag, the Nationals are contributing a minus-29 to the total, and even the Braves (-10) and Mets (-11) are in the red. Compare that, for example, with the NL Central, where four teams (the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates) are above .500, and the collective run differential is a league-leading plus-85.
“Everybody knew this division was going to be slugfest,” Van Wagenen said of the NL East. “The Nats have had injury adversity. The Phillies have played well of late. The Braves have played better. But the reality is, these teams are going to be battling. I can’t imagine anyone’s going to run away with it.”
This much is true: the mediocrity within the East should keep it competitive. The Mets and Braves, both at .500 entering Wednesday, were just 3 ½ games behind division-leading Philadelphia, while the Nationals, at 16-25, were still only eight games back.
“The way this division is, any one of us can go 9-1 on a 10-game span, and all of a sudden they’re right there, or even on top,” veteran Mets third baseman Todd Frazier said Tuesday. “I still think it’s going to be one of the top divisions in the game.”
That’s a generous reading of the NL East’s landscape, an easy one to make while the Mets are enjoying this stretch of games against the Marlins and Nationals — the worst team in baseball and the most disappointing, respectively. But beginning May 27, they embark on a grueling, month-long stretch where their opponents include current division leaders the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Phillies, plus contenders in the Cardinals and Diamondbacks followed by an early July date with the New York Yankees.
We’ll withhold judgment until the end of that stretch on the question of whether the Mets, still less than a week since their manager was effectively put on notice, have actually turned their season around.