last update: Aug. 12, 2019, 7 a.m.
Just after the All-Star break, the Mets hitting coach Chili Davis suggested to outfielder Michael Conforto that he place the hitting tee a few inches closer when warming up in the batting cage before games. Conforto had developed a habit of swinging too hard and opening his lead shoulder prematurely.
This simple fix has yielded great results for Conforto. The left-handed slugger has batted .308 in 27 games since the break with nine home runs and a team-leading 21 R.B.I. — including his first career walk-off hit.
That type of steady production, alongside that of fellow outfielders J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil, has helped the Mets become the hottest club in baseball: Entering Sunday, they had won 15 of 16, doubling up their opponents by outscoring them, 92-46.
The Washington Nationals finally halted the Mets’ eight-game win streak with a 7-4 win Sunday at Citi Field, keeping the Mets just outside of the playoff picture for now. But spirits remain high in Queens after the Mets, playing in front of large and lively crowds all weekend, staked claim to the majors’ best record since the All-Star Game. Since mid-July they’ve leapfrogged seven National League clubs in the standings to claw within a game of a postseason berth.
“It’s unfortunate that we fell short today, but I mean, hell, we were on an eight-game win streak,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said, before adding of coming visits to Atlanta and Kansas City: “Regardless of today, we have a ton of momentum going into this road trip.”
Conforto provided the dramatic highlight on Friday night, hitting a game-winning single off a 94-mile-per-hour heater on the inside corner from the Nationals’ lefty closer Sean Doolittle to cap a four-run, ninth-inning rally. The raucous on-field celebration ended with a tattered uniform jersey, a bare-chested Conforto and a “Holy Shirt!” tabloid headline.
“It’s allowed me to not pull myself off the ball if it does run away, stay on the changeups and off-speed pitches and still get to the inside fastball, which for a lot of guys is the toughest pitch to get to,” Conforto said of his swing tweak.
The Mets’ current run has had shades of 2015, when a hot streak around the time of the trade deadline propelled them toward an N.L. East crown and World Series trip, but the circumstances are considerably different this season.
Whereas the run in 2015 was a concerted plan, 2019 has been more of a patchwork push.
Four years ago, when the Mets won seven straight and 11 out of 13, it came on the heels of the trade acquisitions of left fielder Yoenis Cespedes (who homered 17 times in his first 40 starts) as well as the relievers Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed, and infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe.
Conforto, a top prospect who made his big league debut on July 24, 2015, and the reserve outfielder Juan Lagares are the lone position players from that season who are still on the active roster. Starting pitchers Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz remain — although Matz only made six starts in ’15 — as does reliever Jeurys Familia.
At this year’s deadline, Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets’ rookie general manager, acquired pitcher Marcus Stroman in a move that, with the Mets five games below .500, appeared to target contention in 2020 more than 2019. Post-deadline, the Mets, after losing Robinson Cano to a torn hamstring, added second baseman Joe Panik. They also signed reliever Brad Brach to bolster the bullpen. Both are former All-Stars, albeit ones who had endured tough stretches that resulted in being designated for assignment by the Giants and Cubs, respectively.
That the Mets were adding at all was unexpected, considering the fact that a week before the deadline most reports suggested they were attempting to trade Zack Wheeler and Syndergaard.
“We welcome them with open arms,” Wheeler said of Panik and Brach. “Any help helps.”
On Sunday, Panik contributed a run-scoring single and a diving stop in the infield while Brach stranded two inherited runners in a tied sixth inning. Stroman struck out a season-high nine batters in a no decision Friday night.
All three hail from the greater New York City area: Panik grew up in Dutchess County and attended St. John’s University; Stroman was raised on Long Island; Brach spent his childhood in New Jersey.
Before his first home start on Friday, Stroman wore a vintage Mets jersey with Darryl Strawberry’s name on the back. Strawberry starred during the franchise’s 1986 World Series championship season — the first time, incidentally, the Mets had a stretch of 15 wins in 16 games.
DeGrom, Syndergaard and Wheeler have combined for 10 starts with a cumulative 1.20 E.R.A. during this stretch. Wheeler hasn’t allowed a run in 15 innings over his last two starts, and in his last outing, found himself summoning the approach of Bartolo Colon, who led the 2015 staff in innings pitched. Colon rarely deviated from variations of his fastball, and Wheeler acknowledged trouble with his breaking pitches in last Tuesday’s start against the Marlins. At one point in the dugout, he thought to himself, “I want to see my fastball percentage, because I feel like Bartolo.”
In the midst of the streak, the Mets have embraced a new rally cry, “L.F.G.M.” — a profane embellishment of the popular “Let’s Go Mets” chant — that was evident on Alonso’s pregame T-shirt and even the faux license plate adorning Dominic Smith’s KneeRover scooter, as the left fielder recovers from a stress reaction in his left foot.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Manager Mickey Callaway said. “All we’ve done is put ourselves in a better position than we were prior to this. There’s a long, long way to go.”