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The once-chaotic New York Mets are suddenly strong and steady

Pete Alonso celebrates after hitting a walk-off two run home run Thursday. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — For a few hours Thursday, the New York Mets found themselves sliding toward a familiar kind of compounding frustration.

That afternoon, the team announced that a moderate- to high-grade oblique strain would keep Max Scherzer out of the rotation for six to eight weeks, meaning the three-time Cy Young Award winner would join Jacob deGrom on the most decorated injured list in baseball.

A few hours later, New York’s so-far dominant closer, Edwin Díaz, and some shaky defense blew a one-run lead in the ninth. On-field misfortune followed off-field missteps, a classic Mets combination, at least in the context of recent history.

But this time, instead of spiraling, the often-talented Mets did something they have seemed talented enough but too frenetic to do in recent years: They recovered.

By the early evening, everything was fine again. Enthusiastic slugger Pete Alonso destroyed a two-run walk-off home run to salvage the game and secure a series win over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Mets began what might be a two-month stretch without their aces with a seven-game lead in the National League East. They were poised to finish the first six weeks of the season with the most wins in the National League. Not everything was going right. But not everything was going wrong, either.

To anyone eager for proof that owner Steve Cohen, General Manager Billy Eppler and Manager Buck Showalter’s Mets will be different from the chaotic, old Mets of recent years, a day such as that could offer some.

So could their strong and steady start to a season that has seen them lose not only deGrom and Scherzer to injury but also starting catcher James McCann and key reliever Trevor May.

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So could the fact that they are doing it all without a decisive breakout from shortstop Francisco Lindor, who has looked more like the man who disappointed in the first year of his 10-year, $341 million deal than the star who earned it. Then again, all of this may mean nothing at all a few months from now.

“We’re all looking for, ‘This might mean that this trend is starting.’ That’s what we do. Heck, I did it,” said Showalter, in his first year with the team. “I understand. But I look at one thing: We’ve got to be better than four teams this year.”

Much of the difference in demeanor of these Mets stems from Showalter, who is known for his attention to detail and ability to exert his influence on a clubhouse during his first years in it. He has done everything from making the lights in the clubhouse brighter to keep everyone alert to putting a greater emphasis on defensive minutia and aggressive base running than the Mets have in recent seasons.

Entering Saturday’s games, the Mets had stolen 18 bases, a third of the number they stole in 2021. They rank 11th in the majors in infield fielding percentage. Last year, they ranked 22nd.

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And under Showalter’s watch — and perhaps in part because of his detail-oriented influence — the Mets have emerged as reliable situational hitters. Entering Saturday’s games, the Mets ranked eighth in the majors with 4.60 runs per game. They strike out less than all but four teams in baseball. Their ratio of strikeouts to walks is better than all but four teams, too. Entering Saturday, only one team had seen more pitches than the Mets. Last year, no team in baseball saw fewer.

Outfielder Mark Canha said when the Mets were in Washington for their season-opening series with the Nationals, they talked about taking a less ambitious approach. It was April. They knew the ball wouldn’t fly well in cold weather. It didn’t make sense for the Mets to try to launch homers when they could win with singles through the opposite side.

“It’s a focus thing. It’s a thing that a lot of players have the ability to do that they just don’t care to tap into or try to make the effort to do,” Canha said of managing the desire to swing big vs. the reality of taking what is given. “Our guys are doing that a little more consistently. I feel like it’s a choice, obviously.”

Good situational hitting at the expense of reliable power certainly feels preferable when it results in wins. New York’s approach has done that. But anyone looking for cracks in these Mets could focus on the fact that they are not hitting with the kind of power that elite teams often rely on these days.

The Mets are 22nd in the majors in home run rate and 21st in at-bats per home run. Of the 12 teams that have hit as many or fewer home runs as the Mets entering Saturday, only one, the San Diego Padres, has a winning record.

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And when it comes to the peripheral statistics that are the more trusted indicators of offensive potency these days, the Mets are not hitting like a team destined for a power surge. They have the ninth-lowest average launch angle in the majors. They have the third-lowest average exit velocity. Only five teams are averaging fewer barrels per plate appearance than the Mets.

“Statistically, we’re not hitting home runs like a lot of the other teams, but it turns up in other ways — in more hits, more getting on base, more walks,” Canha said. “It shows up in ways that don’t show up in the scorecard, seeing more pitches, making other pitchers work hard to get us out.”

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Exactly how much is needed of that lineup will depend on how the Mets’ starting rotation, which began the year with elite depth at the top but less certainty elsewhere, will hold up without Scherzer and deGrom. They have a de facto third ace in Chris Bassitt, who has seemed as comfortable in New York as any newcomer can be. They have a reemerging former American League wins leader in Carlos Carrasco. And breakout star Tylor Megill is already on his way back from a biceps injury that stalled an otherwise outstanding start to the season.

Together, Mets starters were sixth in the majors in ERA and eighth in strikeouts per nine innings entering Saturday’s games. Scherzer has helped, but deGrom hasn’t factored into those calculations yet at all. When he does, that rotation could be even better. But the question for the Mets has never been whether they are good enough when things are going right. This team and its new manager must prove that, unlike Mets teams of old, this one is good enough to move forward when things go wrong.

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