These mid-2010s New York Mets teams are a strange breed. Clearly, they’ve had some talented players, but that hasn’t stopped them from experiencing long stretches of poor play and high levels of tension, both among the fan base and in the front office.
If there is one defining characteristic, though, it is this: these teams find a way to win.
Take this year’s squad. As the reigning National League champions, the Mets faced high expectations going into 2016, and with one of the most impressive young starting rotations in recent memory, they had more than enough talent for another pennant run. Sure enough, the team burst out of the gate to start the season, posting a 20-11 record through May 9.
Then, as has happened far too many times in the history of the Mets, disaster struck. First baseman Lucas Duda suffered a back injury and hasn’t suited up since May 20. Team captain David Wright, suffering from a chronic back condition known as spinal stenosis, is out with a herniated disk in his neck, limiting his contributions to just 37 games. Starting pitcher Matt Harvey, ineffective in 17 starts this year, opted for season-ending surgery at the beginning of July, while Travis d’Arnaud missed a whole two months — not abnormal for the injury-prone catcher, but still frustrating.
Playing with a stripped-down roster, the Mets went 40-51 from May 10 through Aug. 19: a three-month stretch of sub-.500 baseball. They looked dead in the water, with no remote chance of a playoff berth. The Nationals held a wide division lead in the NL East, while the orange and blue trailed lackluster teams like the Marlins and Pirates in the wildcard standings.
Then, out of absolutely nowhere, the Mets transformed into the hottest team in Major League Baseball. Through Sept. 11, they have gone 16-5 over their last 21 games — exactly the kind of surge they needed to make a late playoff run. Half a game clear of the St. Louis Cardinals, they are in line for the second wildcard spot.
And yet, the injuries have continued to roll in. Juan Lagares is on the disabled list, as are midseason acquisitions Jon Niese (back in New York after a few months in Pittsburgh) and Justin Ruggiano. Second baseman Neil Walker underwent back surgery less than a week ago, putting an end to his season, and possibly his tenure in Flushing too. Furthermore, major trade deadline grab Jay Bruce has been atrocious, slashing a listless line of .193/.267/.328.
So why all the recent success? In this unpredictable year for the New York Mets, a few things have actually gone according to plan. Starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard is finishing up an incredible year, posting a 161 ERA+ and ranking among the league leaders in strikeouts. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes has continued to impress, smacking 30 home runs and 21 doubles to the tune of a .568 slugging percentage. Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon and Asdrubal Cabrera have also had consistent seasons — without these five, this team would not be where it is right now.
But while these players were expected to perform from the get-go, the Mets have gotten value from a laundry list of unexpected players. Rookie pitchers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have been tremendous rotation pieces, picking up the slack as both Steven Matz and Jacob DeGrom — yes, more injuries — went down in late August and early September, respectively. Infielder Wilmer Flores has looked great, slugging .469 in part-time duty, while utility man Kelly Johnson has been among the best clutch hitters on the roster. It’s all adding up to a surprising late-summer surge for the Mets, and with the momentum on their side, a postseason berth looks more like an inevitability than a pipe dream.
Less than a month ago, this was a team in dire straits, but one hot stretch has the 2016 Mets looking a whole lot like another great team from recent history: their direct predecessors, the 2015 Mets. Last year’s team was just 53-50 through the month of July, trailing the Nationals by a few games in the division race. However, a sizzling 37-22 finish, arguably brought on by the deadline acquisition of Cespedes, sent the team sailing into the playoffs. From there, the rest is history — Ruben Tejada gets decked, Daniel Murphy transforms into Sylvester Coddmyer III, the whole nine yards.
This year, the Mets are not the most talented team in the National League, but they don’t need to be. The postseason is a crapshoot — any squad can get hot enough to win the required 11 or 12 games, even against the best in the MLB. Given their recent play, it looks like these Mets will be in the thick of the World Series conversation, and even if they don’t make it, they’re going to go down swinging.