Todd Frazier swung that cave-man club of his and a fastball became a Screaming Mimi of a home run soaring into the periwinkle night and my son Aidan was waving his white rally towel and screaming like a banshee in sync with 30,000 or so delirious fans and I thought to myself:
How did we get here?
Punctuated by Frazier’s clout, the Mets put together a four-run, ninth-inning comeback Friday night. Their 7-6 win over the Washington Nationals extended an improbable streak that has seen the Mets win 14 times in 15 games and elbow into playoff contention.
I flashed to just 40 days ago when Aidan and I made our last pilgrimage to Citi Field. That late June evening was sultry, and the Mets played listlessly and lost badly.
A miasma lingered over that bonfire of a team. Its relief pitchers were arsonists, its manager had cursed out a reporter and fumbled his apology, and a few days later the rookie general manager tossed a chair in a meeting with the coaches. Talk around the league was that the new G.M., Brodie Van Wagenen, planned to preside over a fire sale of the team’s best pitchers.
We exited that night, father and son, mumbling of portents and talking of hope returning next season.
Now, in the space of just six weeks, we have a Lazarus risen from the dead, a team that on Saturday morning sat within a game and a half of the wild-card-leading Nationals. On Friday night, this handsome stadium by Flushing Bay was packed and raucous in the ninth inning — minus perhaps 8,000 unfortunates who decided to beat the traffic only to find themselves standing in the parking lot and on the No. 7 train platform listening to radios and cursing their decision. Inside, as New Yorkers are prone to, we exchanged high-fives and joyous obscenities.
Frazier’s three-run moonshot tied the score, and five batters later Michael Conforto hit a laser beam of a single that scored Juan Lagares with the winning run. As it happened, I had wandered by Conforto’s locker before the game and asked if he sensed New Yorkers were taking his once somnolent team seriously.
He pulled on his uniform shirt and peered up at me. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We’re not even halfway through August.” He smiled and conceded that as a right fielder he was a sort of human barometer, registering catcalls and encouragement. “I will tell you that I don’t get booed nearly as much right now.”
The Mets throughout their nearly 60-year existence have been prone to seasons-long slumbers only to awaken and go on pipe dream runs toward glory. Even in their Ur-championship season in 1969, the Mets stood 10 games out in mid-August. Four years after that, in 1973, the Mets did not break through the membrane of .500 baseball until late September and then battled the Oakland A’s to the seventh game of the World Series.
This season has been odd even by the Mets’ eccentric standard. The team possesses a fine corps of starting pitchers and young hitters. Last season’s National League Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom, is joined by the wondrously talented Noah Syndergaard. And the hitters include Conforto and Amed Rosario, a 23-year-old who has weathered the congenital impatience of Mets management and appears poised to become a fine shortstop. Jeff McNeil is a bat-wielding magician, and the rookie Pete Alonso offers Popeye power heroics.
Through Friday, Alonso had lodged 38 homers and 85 runs batted in and drawn comparisons to Aaron Judge, the prodigious young Yankees slugger. It’s a measure of his success that Alonso may have pieced together the more impressive offensive résumé.
Judge over his still young career has hit like a prince at home, .322 with 60 home runs, and a pauper on the road, .224 with 35 home runs. Alonso is a paragon, hitting .253 with 20 home runs at Citi Field and .265 with 18 home runs away from it.
For all of this, though, the Mets still stumbled through the season’s first half, as relievers tossed away wins like a profligate drunk handing out dollar bills.
Van Wagenen offered a curious spectacle, as the former player agent this winter signed and traded for former clients to elaborate contracts. One such client, Robinson Cano, is old and injured and most likely gone for the season, and another, Jed Lowrie, signed a two-year, $20 million contract and has yet to appear in a single game, with rumored sightings extending from the Jersey Turnpike to the high Pyrenees.
Van Wagenen spent July trying to sell off the team’s pearls, in the forms of Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, two of his best pitchers. The desire to swap Syndergaard was perhaps the most strange, as he was but 26 and under team control for two more years.
Van Wagenen can be standoffish, but he agreed to speak with reporters Friday. I asked if he perhaps looked at the current winning streak and considered that the best trades are those you don’t make. He frowned.
“I don’t know which kind of rumors or deals we’re talking about,” he said.
This puzzled me. I asked if he’d read any papers during the month of July, as near all were filled with reports of his plans to sell off one pitcher or another.
“I think we knew we had players other teams were interested in, but we stayed true to our mission,” he replied.
The best of the current Mets were brought in by previous management. But let’s give credit where due: Marcus Stroman, a good and feisty little pitcher, took the mound Friday, and Van Wagenen had somehow picked him up from Toronto even as he was trying to trade off others.
All is not perfect with this team. Injuries have depleted the roster to the point that the first pinch-hitter off the bench Friday lugged a .161 average to the plate. The putative closer, Edwin Diaz, has a 1-6 record with a 5.32 earned run average.
But basta. The Mets’ newfound magic held for yet another evening. When Conforto whacked his game-winner, he was mobbed by teammates and had his shirt stripped off. So he stood bare-chested and soaked in applause from tens of thousands of fans, my son and I among them, who had yet to leave the stadium. “I’m lucky to play in New York,” he said. “Sometimes I take it on the chin, but when you’re going well, damn, it’s great.”