Mets in first ... just not how we expected

May 13th, 2021

The Mets head into a weekend series with the Rays in St. Petersburg in first place and riding a seven-game winning streak. They still don’t have or . is hurt, is hurt and then there is the granddaddy of them all: being on the injured list with a sore right side.

Everybody knows that , who’s just now fought his way past .200, looked helpless as he did in April as he tried to introduce himself to Mets fans and New York City after signing his $341 million contract. hasn’t hit a home run in nearly three weeks.

The Mets are hot anyway. They come from behind and they’ve had a couple of walk-off wins in the last week. They are good and are going to get better, and in a month we might be having a fun baseball conversation about whether it’s the Mets or Yankees who are the best team in New York.

I asked team president Sandy Alderson on Wednesday what he likes the best about his team so far.

Alderson: “Depth in bullpen and with position players.”

The depth with the position players will get challenged again now that Albert Almora Jr., a backup outfielder, is the latest Met to get banged up after crashing into the center-field wall at Citi Field the other night.

Twice during the winning streak the Mets have plated the winning run on a roller in the infield hit by Patrick Mazeika, who still doesn’t have a hit in the big leagues, but has knocked in three runs anyway, and keeps getting his jersey ripped off by his teammates after he’s helped the Mets get another improbable win.

But Alderson is right about his bullpen. Obviously the Mets’ greatest strength is deGrom, who continues to pitch, when healthy, like one of the great right-handed pitchers of all time. Before he did go on the IL the other day, deGrom’s record was 3-2, his earned run average was 0.68, he had struck out 65 batters in 40 innings and given up just 17 hits all season.

deGrom pitching this way, like the best pitcher in the world, is no surprise. The consistent excellence of manager Luis Rojas’ bullpen, at least so far, that has been a surprise. While everybody waits for the Mets offense to kick things up a notch -- or two, or three -- the bullpen really has turned out to be a powerhouse. If Edwin Díaz has not reverted all the way back to being the kind of closer he was in Seattle, he is back to being a reliable and occasionally dazzling closer again, at the age of 27. The other day he even got his first five-out save as a Met.

Behind Díaz are Trevor May, Miguel Castro, Aaron Loup, former Mets closer Jeurys Familia, Jacob Barnes and Robert Gsellman. They all have a lot to do with the Mets winning seven games during which deGrom pitched just five innings, and getting the Mets to first place at a point in the season where they rank No. 13 overall in team batting average at .238 and No. 21 overall in team OPS at .679. Seth Lugo, once a huge piece in the Mets bullpen, is tentatively expected back at the end of May after elbow problems.

The other day Rojas was talking about the collective success his relievers have had to this point in the season.

“It just keeps everyone fresh because you think of, ‘Who should I bring in next?’” Rojas said. “And it can be anyone at any part of the game because you know they're going to attack that first batter and nothing is going to build up before they find their command.”

In the best Mets season, Syndergaard returns by July. They expect Carrasco, recovering from a hamstring injury, to be back sooner than that. deGrom is expected back at the top of the rotation by the last week of May, barring any setbacks for him.

The Mets have been resilient so far, and fun to watch, even as they wait for their big hitters to really hit, even as they’ve watched guys like Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar come off the bench -- along with budding folk hero Mazeika -- to help them win games. Even with the modest gains Lindor has made over the past couple of weeks, after having been lost in the place that Keith Hernandez used to describe as a “deep, dark forest” when he was in a slump, he has begun to show Mets fans the possibilities of what the top of the order can look like when he regains his old form at the plate.

It has not all been a feel-good story for the Mets, of course. There was that bizarre episode last weekend when Lindor and Jeff McNeil talked about seeing a rat or a raccoon in the runway, when it seemed there had been some kind of altercation between the two. And they have dismissed hitting coaches Chili Davis and Tom Slater.

But there the Mets sit in first place, at 18-13. A win-now team has done some very nice winning lately. Maybe the season Mets fans wanted, and the one they’ve waited a long time for, is the one they’re going to get.