The Mets are at it again, doing that most Mets thing of all: keeping you guessing. Just when you think they’re out of the race, they pull you back in.
The Mets ambushed the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, 11-1, to complete a four-game sweep of another National League wild-card hopeful. After two close victories, the Mets blasted five homers on Wednesday and six on Thursday, a franchise record for a home game.
“We just put everything together,” Manager Mickey Callaway said, praising the defense, the pitching and the offense. “We played good baseball, and when we play good baseball, we can compete with anybody.”
So here they are, 76-70 with 16 games to go, trailing the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers by two games for the second N.L. wild card and the likely prize of a road knockout game against the Washington Nationals. Two other teams — the Diamondbacks and the Philadelphia Phillies — are also within four games of a playoff berth, setting up a tense final two weeks of the regular season.
This weekend at Citi Field, the Mets will face the Los Angeles Dodgers, already champions of the West division, and Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler. All three pitched in the All-Star Game this summer and will soon take turns in a division series. The Mets will not be daunted.
“The confidence of this group, it’s kind of unwavering,” said Mets starter Marcus Stroman, who worked into the seventh inning for Thursday’s victory. “You show up in the clubhouse and we feel like we’re going to win each and every day. We have that collective feeling, and that’s not something that you can install. That’s just something that’s there. It’s awesome.”
It is rather remarkable — amazin’? — that the Mets find themselves in mid-September with a chance. It has been a wild ride, with the annual dose of only-the-Mets hijinks: Yoenis Cespedes stepping in a hole; Jason Vargas threatening a reporter; General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen throwing a chair; the scoreboard memorializing two members of the 1969 champions who were not, in fact, dead.
Friday’s game will feature Noah Syndergaard likely throwing to Wilson Ramos, the hard-hitting catcher he does not prefer. That will be one story line to watch, and — if the game is close — the bullpen will be another. Expect to see a lot of Luis Avilan and Justin Wilson against the Dodgers’ left-handed sluggers, but perhaps not much of the shaky right-handers Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz.
“We continue to talk about the importance of our bullpen, and that’s probably going to be the most important factor moving forward,” Callaway said. “We have to have our bullpen perform and if we do that, our offense is solid.”
The rookie Pete Alonso is 0 for 12 with seven strikeouts in the last three games, and he shaved his mustache in the middle of Thursday’s game to change his luck. But Alonso remains a force who leads the majors in home runs (47), Robinson Cano is hot (.475 in his last 12 games) and Michael Conforto reached 30 homers Thursday for the first time in his career.
Center fielder Juan Lagares, a defensive specialist who was hitting .210, had two firsts: the first grand slam of his career (and probably his life, he said) and his first game with two home runs. He was so touched by the dugout’s jubilant reaction that he called it a career highlight.
“When he has an impact in the game, everyone’s fired up,” Conforto said. “He’s just one of those guys that we all love.”
There no metric to quantify camaraderie, but the Mets do seem to have it — at least more than one of the teams they are chasing. The Cubs won in San Diego on Thursday behind Yu Darvish, but they seem like a team headed for significant changes.
The Cubs’ grip on a playoff spot — and, more broadly, on their recent run of success — may be in peril. Theo Epstein, their president of baseball operations, was discouraged by last season’s weak finish, and history may be repeating.
“It’s immensely frustrating for me because I feel that responsibility on behalf of our fans having to watch this,” Epstein said Thursday, on 670 The Score in Chicago. “If you go back 12, 13 months, it’s been marked by underachievement and uninspired play, and that applies to us in the front office, too. It’s just been uninspired and unacceptable.”
That critique sounds ominous for Manager Joe Maddon, who guided the Cubs to the 2016 World Series title but is unsigned past this season. The Cubs have been playing sloppily — they led the majors in outs on the bases and ranked fifth in errors through Wednesday — and their star shortstop, Javy Baez, is out for the rest of the regular season with a broken thumb.
The Cubs do have six games left with the feuding, fading Pittsburgh Pirates, but also seven against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals (and three with the Cincinnati Reds). The Brewers play only losing teams after this weekend’s series in St. Louis, but must face them without the reigning N.L. most valuable player, Christian Yelich, who broke his right kneecap Tuesday on a foul ball.
The Phillies have the most challenging schedule: two games with Boston, three each with Atlanta and Cleveland, five with Washington and three with Miami, a team they have struggled to beat. The Diamondbacks face weaker opponents, but with five losses in a row, they are sputtering at the worst time.
The Mets are surging — at least enough to command your attention — as they finish with series against Colorado, Cincinnati, Miami and Atlanta after this weekend. That seemed like a remote possibility when the Mets were 10 games under .500 at the All-Star break, but Callaway insisted he is not surprised.
“I think we’re where we expected to be,” he said. “A chance to do something special.”