NEW YORK — Over the last three weeks, as the Mets have walked off opponents and shut out opponents and adopted puppies and coined censorable catchphrases and dragged themselves back into relevance and generally made themselves the most exciting team in baseball, the man who built them has remained mostly silent.
GM Brodie Van Wagenen, once ubiquitous, now rarely circles the cage at batting practice or holds court in the dugout. Other than the standard press conference to open the second half and conference call to explain his club’s trade-deadline moves, he has largely kept reporters at bay. Asked if he would be available for an interview, a Mets official said maybe next week.
That might be for the best. He might not want to crow just yet. Next week—once the cellar-dwellers leave town and the playoff squads show up—next week we might know if this team is for real.
“Come get us,” Van Wagenen, the agent-turned-rookie-GM said to the rest of the NL East in January.
“They came and got us,” he acknowledged in July.
New York went 40–50 before the All-Star break and opened the second half solidly in fourth place in the division, seven games back of the second wild card. By that point, manager Mickey Callaway had already acknowledged to WFAN that “it’s gonna take a miracle.” Van Wagenen told righthanded starter Zack Wheeler that if the team didn’t pull it together, he was a likely trade candidate. They flew to San Francisco on a four-game win streak … and promptly lost three extra-innings heartbreakers to the Giants. Wheeler packed a suitcase. Rumors swirled that No. 2 starter Noah Syndergaard was available, too.
“We looked ourselves in the mirror,” says first baseman Pete Alonso.
And they started winning. Two of three from the Padres, a sweep of the Pirates, a sweep of the White Sox, two of three from Pittsburgh, a sweep of the Marlins. Not only did the Mets not sell, they bought at the deadline, keeping Syndergaard and Wheeler and adding righty Marcus Stroman. As columnists decried Van Wagenen’s strategy, his players rejoiced. The boss was giving them a chance.
And now, all of a sudden, they are 59–56 and a game out of the second wild-card. Rightfielder Jeff McNeil held a press conference on Wednesday to announce that he and his wife, Tatiana, have adopted an Alaskan Malamute–Great Pyrenees–shepherd mix. (McNeil met Willow last month, during a North Shore Animal League event at Citi Field, and hit a home run that night. “We need this dog,” he told Tatiana. He has gone deep four times since Willow entered his life.) SNY, the team-owned cable network, has begun tweeting #LFGM, after Alonso introduced it last month when he encouraged fans to come out. Players have begun comparing themselves to the 1969 Miracle Mets, who came from 10 games back on Aug. 14 to win the division and eventually the World Series.
Those Mets beat everyone. These Mets have beaten everyone who is fighting for the No. 1 draft pick. The opponents on whose backs they have built this resurgence are on pace for an average of 68 wins. So which team is real? The one that was 10 games under .500 three weeks ago? Or the one that now can’t lose?
“It’s both real, if you want the truth,” says third baseman Todd Frazier. “People talk about the schedule. Of course there’s better teams. But, you know, they’re still Major League Baseball teams you’ve gotta beat.”
New York has done that well this season. Its .660 win percentage against sub-.500 opponents is ninth-best in baseball. Since the beginning of that Padres series, the Mets’ 2.37 rotation ERA is best in the NL. Their 25 home runs rank first. Their victories have come by an average of four runs. They have absolutely crushed the tanking teams.
Unfortunately, they will face very few of those going forward. New York has 47 games left. Thirty-four will come against clubs currently above .500. That’s the hardest remaining schedule among contenders.
The test begins after Thursday’s off-day. The Nationals come to town on Friday, towing a 61–53 record and a hold on the top NL wild-card spot. Up next are the Braves, who lead the division by six games. The Mets have 21 more shots at the teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
The Mets insist they are eager to face this gauntlet. You have to beat the best to be the best, and all that.
“At the end of the day,” Alonso says, “If you’re not holding up the trophy and dog-piling on the field, then what’s the point?”
Maybe then Van Wagenen will gloat.