What has gotten into the New York Metropolitans? I demand answers!
The world was a simpler place when the Mets—the deranged, over-caffeinated cousin of New York’s more accomplished baseball outfit—were a punchline, functioning as low-hanging fruit for embattled FAN callers and a cautionary tale for everyone else. You have to admit, even in their most coherent form, the Mets embody all the familiar symptoms of a ready-made train wreck—an ornery, woefully underqualified manager, an agent-turned GM who enjoys mindlessly pressing levers (“What does this one do?”) and just enough talent to convince their gullible fan-base that this might actually be the year. To that end, the Mets have largely held up their end of the bargain, balancing star turns from Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil with the usual upheaval, PR gaffes and chronic underachievement we’ve come to expect from the team Jerry Seinfeld holds in such high regard.
But over the last week, the Mets have done an inexplicable 180, abandoning their march toward mediocrity in pursuit of something more meaningful than headline puns from the New York Post and spirited soliloquys from Mike Francesa. The Mets—and I don’t say this lightly—are the hottest team in baseball. Winners of seven straight, New York flexed its muscles with another convincing effort Thursday against the White Sox, dispatching the Pale Hose 4-0 on the strength of seven strong innings from Zack Wheeler.
A free agent after the season, Wheeler figured to be a goner come July 31 but instead the Mets—who most figured would be sellers at the deadline—added to their pitching haul by poaching Long Island native Marcus Stroman from the Blue Jays in a trade that sent shockwaves through MLB. A one-time All-Star and the reigning World Baseball Classic MVP, Stroman was thought to be a top target of the starter-needy Yankees, but the Mets pounced first, landing the right-hander in a deal that netted Toronto two pitching prospects.
There’s no comparing Stroman—a pint-sized 28-year-old known more for summoning groundballs than missing bats—to tide-turners like Zack Greinke and Trevor Bauer. But nabbing Stroman was still a statement move by Brody Van Wagenen, who signaled that the Mets won’t be throwing in the towel any time soon. Some (though they’re in the minority) have already critiqued the Mets’ maneuvers as short-sighted, dismissing the team’s distant playoff odds as a laughable pipe dream. It’s true there’s still plenty of ground to make up—even with its recent hot streak factored in, New York would still have to leapfrog five teams just to claim the second Wild Card spot in the National League. But with two months to go and only four games separating the Mets from a postseason berth, why wouldn’t they go for it?
Whether it was the relief granted from the passing of Wednesday’s 4 PM deadline, the element of surprise going against a team he had faced on just one other occasion, a chip on his shoulder built from weeks of trade rumblings or a perfect storm of all three, Wheeler gave New York everything he had and then some on Thursday. Wheeler limited the White Sox to four hits (all singles) over the length of his 88-pitch gem, fanning seven without walking anyone in the right-hander’s most complete effort of 2019. The 29-year-old’s middling ERA (4.45) reveals a deep-seated inconsistency, a trait that has plagued Wheeler throughout his career. But as demonstrated in Thursday’s picturesque performance, the former sixth overall pick still has plenty of thunder in his right arm. It’s just a matter of when he chooses to harness those powers.
The Mets’ offense wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders Thursday, but the four runs they rattled off were plenty on a day where Wheeler mastered the strike zone like a maestro conducting a 30-piece orchestra. Robinson Cano and his bloated contract have been the subject of much criticism this year, but on Thursday he had the antidote, burying Chicago with a pair of hits including his 10th long ball of 2019. Don’t look now, but the 36-year-old has six homers since the All-Star break, two more than he had in the entire first half. Half of those bombs came in a single night (he massacred the Padres for a career-high three homers back on July 23), but it’s all the same to the Mets, who will take Cano’s scant production wherever they can get it.
The Mets have experienced an interesting role reversal this week, drawing praise for bettering their team at the trade deadline while the cross-town Yankees have been raked over the coals for their lack of activity, standing pat while contenders like Houston and Cleveland went to daring lengths to improve their rosters. Of course, we’re probably giving New York too much credit. Though they were buyers in the end (save for a trade that sent Jason Vargas down 95 to Philadelphia), it could have easily gone the other way. The Mets engaged countless teams on Wheeler and gathered a similar contingent of suitors for Noah Syndergaard (the Padres were thought to have made the strongest offer), but in both cases, their asking price was too high. Whether Van Wagenen overplayed his hand in trade discussions or was leaning toward keeping both players anyway, New York is left with one of the league’s strongest starting rotations, boasting a murderer’s row of Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Stroman and Wheeler one through four. That could make them a tough out in October, but they have to get there first, a potentially big ask for a team still sitting two games under .500.
In spite of a patchwork bullpen and a bumbling manager who can’t get out of his own way (taking the ball from Wheeler after 88 pitches Thursday was the latest in a long line of Mickey Callaway head-scratchers), the Mets are very much alive in the NL Wild Card race. But are they legit? It’s hard to tell with New York getting its licks in against lambs like the White Sox and Pirates, the latter playing host to the Mets this weekend. Their recent schedule has provided some nice padding and the Mets certainly deserve credit for getting it done against inferior opponents, a necessary trait for any team with playoff aspirations. But the training wheels will come off soon with the Nationals headed to Queens next weekend followed by a difficult three-game stretch in Atlanta against the division-leading Braves. Will New York stand tall in the face of division foes or revert to laughingstock status? Maybe there’s a middle ground to be had, but knowing the Mets and their penchant for extreme highs and lows, it will probably be one or the other.
AL Quick Hits: Thursday marked Danny Salazar’s return from a nearly two-year absence, though the results weren’t very encouraging as the right-hander bowed out with an injured groin after throwing just 66 pitches. Salazar is confident it’s nothing serious, though we won’t know the full extent of his injury until he undergoes tests on Friday. The Cleveland hurler’s fastball topped out at a concerning 88.3 mph in the loss to Houston. … John Means is slated to come off the injured list when the Orioles host the Yankees next week. Baltimore’s lone All-Star representative, the left-hander has been shelved with shoulder inflammation. … Hanser Alberto was one of several Orioles hurt in Thursday’s loss to Toronto. Alberto went for X-rays after fouling a ball off his shin while teammate Stevie Wilkerson also got checked out after fouling a ball off his knee. Both are day-to-day. … Ken Giles resumed throwing Thursday and “felt great,” according to Toronto skipper Charlie Montoyo. The Blue Jays closer received a cortisone injection for his injured elbow earlier this week and it must have done the trick as Giles could return to game action as soon as Sunday. … Lourdes Gurriel was a spectator Thursday night against the Orioles on account of a jammed knee he suffered a day earlier. Gurriel’s teammate, Randal Grichuk, went down with a scary injury in that game after fouling a ball off his mouth in the ninth inning. The outfielder was taken to the hospital for a CT scan, though fortunately he avoided a concussion. … Matt Chapman ended a 1-for-31 dry spell in style, launching a two-run, go-ahead homer off Brewers closer Josh Hader (who was called on for the third straight day) in a 5-3 A’s victory. Chapman, who also happens to be a Gold Glove defender at third base, leads Oakland in both home runs (24) and RBI (64) this season.
NL Quick Hits: MLB has handed down punishments stemming from Tuesday night’s brawl between the Reds and Pirates with Keone Kela (10 games), Amir Garrett (eight games), Jose Osuna (five games), Kyle Crick (three games), Jared Hughes (three games) and Yasiel Puig (three games) all receiving suspensions. Managers David Bell (six games) and Clint Hurdle (two games) were also banned for their involvement in the melee. … Cole Hamels (oblique) will return from a month-long absence when he takes the mound Saturday against Milwaukee. The ace left-hander got the green light after collecting a 5.06 ERA across two minor-league rehab starts for Triple-A Iowa. … Newcomer Shane Greene will operate as Atlanta’s closer, according to manager Brian Snitker, with Chris Martin serving in a setup capacity. The Braves made a concerted effort to improve their bullpen, addressing their need by acquiring Greene, Martin and Mark Melancon at the trade deadline. … Nicholas Castellanos made his Cubs debut Thursday, supplying Chicago’s only hit—a sixth-inning single off Jack Flaherty—in a lopsided loss to St. Louis. Castellanos joined the team Wednesday in a trade that sent right-handers Paul Richan and Alex Lange to Detroit. … Long-time Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina will begin a minor-league rehab assignment with Triple-A Memphis on Friday. Molina missed most of July with a strained thumb. Matt Wieters has been filling in for him behind the plate. … The Pirates will be without Jameson Taillon for the remainder of 2019 as the right-hander is expected to undergo surgery to repair a strained flexor tendon. Assuming a normal recovery time (7-9 months), Taillon should return by May of next year. … Jake Arrieta admitted he was “in a rough spot” Thursday against the Giants. The right-hander has been trying to pitch through a bone spur in his right elbow, an injury that will likely require offseason surgery. … Brandon Crawford took a spill Thursday against the Phillies, jamming his shoulder while diving for a ball at shortstop. Giants manager Bruce Bochy admitted the injury gives him “some concern”. … Clayton Kershaw reached 2,397 career strikeouts on Thursday, passing Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax for third in franchise history. The three-time Cy Young winner earned his 10th victory as Los Angeles waxed the visiting Padres by a final count of 8-2.