It is easy, from a writer’s vantage point, to reduce a 162-game season, particularly a 162-game season decided by one game, to the intangible. In 2007 and 2008, history says, the Mets fell just short of the playoffs because they lacked chemistry or swagger or sufficiently strong intestines. (Never mind that we’d be hailing them as clutch and courageous if they had happened to win just two more games.)
When the first-place Mets, in the midst of a seven-game winning streak as of this writing, displayed an as-yet-unfamiliar vigor in last week’s series against the Phillies, one could not help but assign responsibility to the attitude and assume that this season is different, that the feeling won’t meekly fade away when summer turns into fall.
We’re forgetting, of course, that the Mets displayed such vigor just last summer, when David Wright crossed home plate and excitedly threw his fist at the ground during a win over the Phillies on July 24. The series turned out well; the season, not so much.
Even so, swagger is a sign of health. And the Mets had it when they “swept” their division rivals last week in a two-game series. During Thursday’s 7-5 win, Jerry Manuel argued with first-base umpire Bill Welke over an inconsequential call early in the game; later, after Welke awarded the Phillies’ Shane Victorino second base after a questionable collision with Jose Reyes, Manuel was livid. His incidental contact with Welke brought him a one-game suspension, but the arm-flailing performance prompted Springer-like chants of “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” from 37,295 observers and fired up the Citi Field cheering section in a manner unseen so far this year. (As the game wound down, the Phillies’ Jayson Werth was treated to a right field chorus of “Jay-son Werth-less,” too.)
The spark was also apparent in the locker room, where Wright openly ridiculed May 7 starter Mike Pelfrey for his lack of strikeouts.
In baseball, such signs of confidence are too often seen as causes of success, too rarely as products. Where it falls on the list of recent Mets tendencies is unclear. What is clear is that the team’s starting pitching has vastly improved: Santana was scoreless in Game One, and Pelfrey scattered three runs over seven innings in Game Two. Against the not-so-daunting Pittsburgh Pirates in the following series, Jonathon Niese, John Maine, and Livan Hernandez proved incapable of letting more than two baserunners cross the plate.
Relief pitching – the presumed difference between the Mets’ 2008 and 2009 editions – has kept the team in the lead, even if that means using Francisco Rodriguez for a fourth consecutive day, as Manuel did on Thursday.
The mound, Manuel believes, is where the swagger has come from.
“I think good pitching … kind of initiate[s] that type of thing,” he said. “I also think that once you get two of the four core guys swinging the bat well, that gives you the chance to do some damage offensively. And our bullpen has been pretty good.”