All winter new Mets general manager Omar Minaya had envisioned the scene that was unfolding before his eyes last Saturday at Shea Stadium. After spending nearly $200 million in the off-season to remake a crumbling team, Minaya sat in his private box and felt the ballpark shake from the fans' excitement as his new ace, righthander Pedro Martinez, shut down Marlins hitters for seven innings. Minaya saw centerfielder Carlos Beltran, whom he had signed to a seven-year, $119 million contract in January, drill a two-out single in the eighth inning to tie the game at 2. And the G.M. witnessed the sellout crowd of 55,351 erupt as Victor Diaz scored the winning run on a Ramon Castro single in the bottom of the ninth. "It was electric out there," catcher Mike Piazza said after the game, New York's sixth straight victory.
Only a week earlier the Mets were 0--5 and a punching bag for New York tabloids and talk-radio shows. But last weekend, with the team taking two of three from Florida and the Yankees getting swept by the Orioles to fall to 4--8, the city was--for three days, at least--buzzing about the Mets. "I was confident the whole time [during the losing streak]," says cool-headed new manager Willie Randolph, the former Yankees second baseman who spent 10 years as the club's third base coach before becoming bench coach under Yanks manager Joe Torre last season. "Guys that know me know I wouldn't be concerned. Being in the Yankees [culture] meant that I'd be in control of the situation."
The 50-year-old Randolph, who grew up in Brooklyn, impressed his players. "He's calm and unflappable," says third baseman David Wright. "The confidence that this team had even when we were losing all trickled down from him. He was the same when we were 0--5 as he was after we won six in a row. He never panicked."
The New Mets, as Beltran is fond of calling them, also find comfort in having Martinez taking the mound every fifth day. The three-time Cy Young winner, who signed a four-year, $53 million contract as a free agent in December, has been as dominant as ever, striking out 30 in 22 innings en route to a 1--0 record and a 2.45 ERA in three starts. What's more, he has been throwing consistently in the low 90s and hummed a 96-mph fastball past Carlos Delgado during the first of his three strikeouts of the Marlins' first baseman on Saturday. "I don't know what people are talking about when they say he's lost something," says Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley. "It's pretty clear that he's still without question one of the premier pitchers in the game."
Another key to the Mets' quick turnaround has been 21-year-old shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes. In New York's sweep of the Astros earlier last week, Reyes scored or drove in the winning run in all three games. "The offense gets going with Jose," says Piazza. "He gives us so much energy with his speed."
Reyes, who was hitting .278 with three stolen bases, missed significant time the last two seasons because of ankle, hamstring and other leg injuries. At home in the Dominican Republic in the off-season, he followed an intense daily training regimen that included lunges and step exercises to strengthen his legs. "Last year was very difficult," says Reyes. "I cried almost every day when I was hurt. It's great to be back. My legs feel stronger than ever."
By winning six straight after the team's worst start in 42 years, the Mets sent a message to the rest of the National League that they are in the pennant race for the long haul. "Overall, they can be a dangerous team," says an NL general manager. "You've always got a chance with a guy like [Martinez], and their lineup can score enough runs. If they straighten out the bullpen [which had blown three saves through Sunday], there's no reason why they shouldn't be in the hunt all year."