Could Mets' NL East pursuit wrap up early?

August 14th, 2022

NEW YORK -- For the first time in 16 years, the Mets have a chance not only to win the NL East, but to put it on ice before the start of September.

Their 6-0 win over the Phillies on Sunday was never much in doubt, featuring New York’s usual brand of sharp starting pitching, effective relief work and a relentless offensive attack. Chris Bassitt put up five zeros to extend his streak of innings without an earned run to 24. Reliever Trevor Williams ran his own such streak to 20 innings. Daniel Vogelbach hit a crowd-pleasing homer, Francisco Lindor set a single-season record for RBIs by a Mets shortstop, and the club won a rubber game for the 14th time in 18 tries.

The Mets did, in short, what they’ve been doing all season, and the result allowed them to maintain their 5 1/2 game edge on the Braves heading into another key showdown this week in Atlanta. If the Mets can even split that four-game series, they’ll squash the Braves’ best chance at coming from behind to defend their NL East title. If the Mets win three or four, they’ll effectively sew up the division before school returns to session.

On Sept. 5, New York will begin a stretch of 13 consecutive games against clear non-contenders. It’s one of the easiest September schedules in the game, giving the Mets a prime opportunity to maintain any lead they build here in August.

And build the Mets have. Despite Atlanta’s sustained pressure behind them in the standings, the Mets have maintained first place by winning eight of their last nine, 10 of their last 12 and 17 of their last 20 -- mostly against division opponents. They are turning away all challengers, including the Phillies, who came into Queens having won 12 times in 14 games themselves.

“They don’t overthink it,” manager Buck Showalter said of the Mets. “These guys get it. They’ve treated the season and the competition and the day-to-day grind with a lot of maturity. … I just think they stay in the moment really well.”

The Mets are now 35 games over .500, which is their highest mark since 2006. Only four Mets clubs have ever exceeded that level. They are also 14-0-2 in series against NL East opponents, marking the longest season-opening unbeaten streak by a Major League team since the 1999 Braves -- featuring four Hall of Famers -- also won or tied 16 series in a row.

Despite having only one surefire Hall of Famer in its ranks, the Mets’ rotation of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker has nonetheless managed a rather accurate impression of those ‘90s Braves. New York pitchers allowed merely two runs all weekend against the Phillies, their fewest in a three-game series since 2014.

“I think we’re still very short-sighted in the aspect of not trying to look ahead by any means,” Bassitt said. “I mean, Max throws it to Jake, Jake throws it to me, I’m throwing it to Cookie, now Cookie throws it to Tai. We’ve got five veteran guys that are really, really good and capable of putting up a lot of zeros.”

Of course, not everything is perfect in Flushing. Just as one half of the Mets’ third-base platoon (Eduardo Escobar) was healing, the other half (Luis Guillorme) suffered a groin injury that could knock him out for the upcoming Braves series. Brandon Nimmo is slumping, despite showing signs of life with a leadoff double in Sunday’s victory. Left-handed relief remains an unsolved problem for the Mets, who watched Joely Rodríguez struggle in the ninth inning of a six-run game.

But in the grand scheme of things, these are quibbles -- at worst, cracks that could widen later. For now, the Mets are thriving, with a chance to make significant strides toward their first division title in seven years.

In 2015, the Mets took control of the NL East in early August but did not wrap things up solidly until mid-September. The last time they did so was back in 2006, when their double-digit August lead allowed them to survive a mediocre September stretch.

These Mets may be blocking out thoughts of similar achievements, but with another series win in the books, they understand the opportunity before them.

“It’s a big week for us, playing the Braves and then the Phillies and then the Braves and then the Phillies again,” said second baseman Jeff McNeil. “We’re going to go out there and do the same thing we’ve done all year: come out ready to play, take it one game at a time, and then we’ll see where we are at the end of the week.”