After losing two of three games on the road to the Washington Nationals more than a fortnight ago, the New York Mets have become the hottest team in baseball. General manager Sandy Alderson's trades before the July 31 deadline appear to be paying off, as added depth to the lineup, to go along with the continued dominance of the starting rotation, have lifted New York to six wins in a row and a 1.5-game advantage over the Nationals in the National League East.
Only four teams have posted more runs than New York in the last week, as Terry Collins’ squad surged in slugging percentage (.473) over seven games. That’s a serious improvement for a lineup that has spent a majority of the 2015 season as one of the lowest run-producing teams in the Majors.
New York has received a lift from outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who hasn’t hit a home run yet, but has a .318 batting average and five RBI in five games. Juan Uribe has two home runs in 27 at-bats, and Kelly Johnson made his Mets debut by hitting a single and home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his first three at-bats.
“I think the front office sees this ball club, especially with the starting pitching as good as it has been all year, and felt like it was the right time to strike,” said Daniel Murphy, who has six hits in his last 11 at-bats. “Fortunately we’ve been playing well.”
Collins also welcomed back Travis d’Arnaud on July 31 after the young catcher had been sidelined since June 20. Michael Conforto, a highly regarded 22-year-old outfield prospect, made his debut on July 24, and could be set to heat up after posting strong numbers in St. Lucie and Binghampton.
The Mets still have Lucas Duda and Curtis Granderson to provide the power hitting, and in July Wilmer Flores hit .299 and Ruben Tejada batted .287. Those four players may be relied upon to boost an offense that is 29th in slugging percentage (.371) and last in batting average (.238).
It’s a major improvement from players like John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell, who were batting cleanup and No. 5 in the batting order as early as July 23. Reserve catcher Anthony Recker had just seven hits in 57 at-bats. With added depth, Collins can finally find a useful batting order to tinker with.
Meanwhile, more reinforcements may be on the way. Third baseman David Wright, who has been sidelined since April 14 with lower back pain, could be on his way back to the team as he begins a rehab assignment in the minors. How effective the 32-year-old will be is anyone’s guess, but he at least provides Collins with yet another option.
“That’s three days in a row now, I’m feeling good,’’ Wright said on Thursday. “It’s quite a change. I knew it was going to be a long, slow process, but knock on wood, the way I felt a couple of months ago, it’s quite a drastic improvement.’’
But the success of the Mets is still the pitching. Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, had some difficulties from late April to the middle of May, but has been excellent in his recent weeks, posting a 1.53 earned-run average in his last six starts. The Mets could have back-to-back ROY winners with Noah Syndergaard looking sharp. The 22-year-old was roughed up for most of June, but then posted a 1.26 ERA in his last 50 innings.
With the exception of two terrible starts this season, Matt Harvey has been quite consistent and effective. The right-hander has a 2.76 ERA on the season, and has only allowed two earned runs in the 14 2/3 innings he’s pitched during the Mets’ winning streak.
A key to the Mets final stretch might be Jonathan Niese. Fatigue can set in for the young starters, but Niese has the experience to pitch late into the season and may have a prominent role if the NL East race stays tight entering October. At age 28, he has 170 career starts in his sixth season as a regular starter, while deGrom, Syndergaard have combined for just 114. In Sept. 2014, Niese had a 3.06 ERA in six starts, which might be of some comfort for Collins.
Niese also seems to have overcome his struggles in late May, when he allowed 20 earned runs in 20 innings. Since then, Niese has settled down, and aside from a poor outing against the Dodgers on July 24, has posted very good numbers in his last 10 starts.
More good news could be on the way for the rotation. Collins can return to a six-man rotation should Steven Matz return from a partially torn lat muscle and be effective. The 24-year-old southpaw threw from 60 feet this week, though there is no timetable for his return. Collins described Matz’s effort has “very positive.”
Right now, the Mets’ outlook is very positive, as well. The bats and pitching are clicking at the same time, and there is finally some healthy optimism around Citi Field. Cespedes should be crucial to the Mets' success, and will need to have a better final two months than he did in 2014 when he totaled just five home runs with the Boston Red Sox in August and September and struggled to get on base.
A big obstacle might be overcoming their problems away from home. The Mets will need to improve on their lackluster road record (20-32) with 29 road games remaining on the schedule. It will also be interesting to see how the bats perform against pitchers like Tampa Bay Rays' ace Chris Archer, who faces New York at Tropicana Field on Sunday, or even on Saturday against Nathan Karns, who has pitched well in his last three starts.
It may be difficult to keep pace with the Nationals, who have more home games than road games on their schedule, and have Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer battling for MVP and Cy Young awards, respectively. Las Vegas casinos still have the Nationals (4/1) ahead of the Mets (7/1) to win the NL Pennant. There is perhaps a feeling that the Nationals have an edge because of their recent history of winning the NL East in two of the last three years.
But this is a new Mets team. The bats went from arguably the worst in baseball to now a respectable group, with enough depth to prevent a scoring funk, like the one in June when they managed just 16 runs over 10 games. Another stretch like that seems a lot less likely in the next 52 games. It's up to Collins to maximize the potential of this new collection of hitters and avoid too much dependence on an inexperienced starting rotation.