Things never seem to get easier for the Mets, who begin a 5-game series at Citi Field against the Braves on Monday with a doubleheader, which will merely be their 11th of the season so far. On Sunday, they started 41-year-old Rich Hill, the 16th pitcher to start a game for them this season. The Mets won again, made it two of three against the Jays, kept their lead over the Phillies at four games.
They have now been in first place in the East since May 8. According to my pal John Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the longest stretch for them at the top of their division since 2007, when they were in first place for 135 consecutive days between May 16 and Sept. 27.
There were a lot of reasons why the Mets came from behind and won again on Sunday. Jeff McNeil, who started the game on the bench because of weakness in one of his legs, came off the bench to pinch-hit a rousing, go-ahead double up the gap. Edwin Díaz managed to shut the Blue Jays down and preserve a one-run lead in the ninth against the top of the Jays order, striking out the side around a walk to Vlad Guerrero Jr.
But as usual, what felt like the biggest swing of the game came from Pete Alonso, who hit another home run, his 22nd of the season, fifth since he won the Home Run Derby in Denver. Jacob deGrom was the Mets' star for so much of this season, pitching like the ace of the whole planet. But he is sidelined again with soreness in his right forearm. So Alonso is back to being what he was two years ago, when he hit 53 home runs and broke the all-time rookie record that Aaron Judge had set the year before:
The Polar Bear is the Mets star again, the home run star in the middle of the batting order the way Mike Piazza once was.
Pete Alonso carries the Mets these days the way Piazza did. The Mets had Carlos Beltran as their big stick when they were in first place for all those days in a row in 2007, before collapsing at the end of September. They had Yoenis Céspedes the last time they made it to the World Series in 2015.
But it’s different with Alonso, the kid from Plant High in Tampa who showed up as a rookie in 2018 and started hitting homers and wouldn’t stop. For Mets fans, he is one of theirs the way deGrom is. He comes out of the farm system. And from the start, even as a rookie, he has embraced being a team leader and playing in New York. And when the Mets need him the most while they wait -- and hope -- for deGrom to come back, Alonso has acted as if the Home Run Derby simply continued for him after he won it again in Denver.
"I don't know if the Derby played a role in [the way he’s hitting], but he's very, very confident right now," Mets manager Luis Rojas said.
You may have heard by now of the toy “Home Run Horse” in the Mets dugout, as yet unnamed according to Alonso, which was the idea of hitting coach Hugh Quattlebaum. Hugh’s theme was that the Mets need to start hitting more balls over the wall in the second half of the season after hitting just 88 in the first half. The one who took his charge most to heart is Alonso, whose last five homers have come in his last nine games, as the Mets have led everybody with 18 homers in their last seven.
“The Home Run Horse is finally here in the second half,” Alonso said Friday night.
Even last season, the short 60-game season of 2020, Alonso’s power numbers were better than you think. He hit 16 in 57 games which would have had him at nearly 40 homers over 162 games. Now he has 22 this season, which makes it 38 in his last 143 games. More importantly, he hits them at a time when the Mets need them the most -- and with flair. After he tied Sunday’s game with his 2-run shot to left off Jays reliever Ryan Borucki in the sixth, he looked over at the Mets dugout as he ran to first base, shrugged and put his arms out, palms up. As if to say, “What did you expect?”
While the Mets wait for deGrom, Alonso is not just their star, he is the star of New York baseball at the moment. He is the hot kid all over again.
The Mets made a run at a Wild Card when he was a rookie. They weren’t even a .500 team in 2020. So this season is new and different for Alonso. This is first place, for nearly three months. This is what he thought New York could be, even before what he expects to be his first pennant race in September.
He didn’t hang around to speak with the media on Sunday. He’d said pretty much everything he needed to say when that 3-1 Jays lead became 3-3. And the way he’s going, really, what did you expect? Right now the Home Run Horse is him.