Saturday, July 7, 2012
Amazin' Mets are starting to believe
By Johnette Howard ESPNNewYork.com
NEW YORK -- To get the best feel nowadays for how this quirky New York Mets team could possibly be about to go winging into the All-Star break as a playoff team -- roll that around a few times in your mind, just for fun -- you don't swing by the locker of one of the team's bona fide stars like David Wright or Johan Santana. Not this year. Wright is having an MVP-caliber season and Santana threw the first no-hitter in team history, it's true. But the real story of the Mets' season so far has been guys like catcher Josh Thole. He's one of the Mets' killer B-listers. Or Other Guys.
If you want to know why this season is starting to feel like it could be something special -- and why the Mets dare to think it could last -- you go ask them.
"And I'm telling you," Thole said Saturday afternoon, looking around the Mets' clubhouse before their smooth 3-1 win against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field, "I'm a firm believer that it's not always going to be the most talented nine players in baseball that are going to win championships.
Dillon Gee was outstanding on Saturday, as the Mets' starting pitching continues to be stellar.
"What we have going on here, in this room, is the best."
It's a counterintuitive thing for Thole to say, isn't it, considering heading into this season what the Mets didn't have anymore was Carlos Beltran (who's now having an All-Star season for St. Louis) and Jose Reyes (the defending NL batting champion and the Mets' most electric player since, well, who -- Mike Piazza, or maybe Pedro Martinez, at least for one blessed stretch early on). These Mets don't have Mike Pelfrey or Jason Bay or Frank Francisco, their latest in a long line of high-wire closers. Those three are all on the disabled list.
And yet, have you noticed, the Mets have been so good that those names hardly come up anymore?
The Mets' new mainstays are guys like R.A. Dickey, and Ruben Tejada -- Reyes' replacement, who made a terrific over-the-shoulder ninth-inning catch on Saturday. It's about Lucas Duda, and lately, Jordany Valdespin, who hit his second homer in as many games as the Mets ran out a homegrown starting nine on Saturday for only the fourth time in their 50-year history.
They win because Ike Davis may be hitting only .205, but he also has 49 RBIs and hit his 12th homer on Saturday, a two-run shot. They win because of their go-go-go manager Terry Collins, and a pitching staff that has seen Santana go only 6-5, but has also gotten a magical 12-1 start from Dickey, and a lot of outings like the eight-inning, seven-hit performance Dillon Gee hung up Saturday, on a day when the temperature was 94 degrees at game time.
Gee admitted that when he came into the dugout after the top of the seventh, he urged Collins to let him stay in the game to hit. But he also could not tell a lie: "I asked," Gee stressed. "I don't think I have the status to say, 'Hey, I'm sticking in there.'"
No. And the Mets have a lot of guys just like him. Yet they're 46-39 anyway.
"Right. But look," Thole said. "It's like I talked in the offseason to a couple of my buddies that were with [defending World Series champion] St. Louis last year. And they said, 'Yeah, we had a good team. We had [Albert] Pujols and Matt Holliday. But for the most part, you're looking at a lot of guys like David Freese -- and, I mean, who really knew who this guy was before last year?' You know? They told me, 'It was more what we had in our clubhouse.' ... And Andres [Torres], Andres tells us stories of how it was the same thing when San Francisco won two years ago. He says, 'We had a great pitching staff. But other than that? We didn't have the best players.'"
"You can appreciate that," Thole added. "It's a long season and you've gotta stick together, you've gotta root for each other. ... And we have that too. Everybody's on the top step, rooting for everybody else, you know? It doesn't matter [who is the hero]. We don't have guys lobbying for their jobs. It's, 'Let's win. And let's win tonight.' That's what's been important."
Less than 12 hours before Thole spoke Saturday, the Mets had pushed the Cubs to the limit Friday night, scoring four runs in the ninth inning of an 8-7 loss that ended with them stranding the potential tying and winning runs on base.
Two nights earlier, the Mets had pulled off a rousing, come-from-behind 6-5 win over old nemesis Philadelphia, and it was another of those special nights they've given us this year -- a game full of clutch hits and comebacks heaped atop comebacks that starts to make you laugh, and think they really maybe oughta kinda should stay in the race all the way until October, even if they've folded in prior autumns with even better teams. The Phillies saw the Mets scratch out only the second blown save Jonathan Papelbon has coughed up this year when Wright ended a terrific night with a walk-off RBI single that left him trying to outrun a team hug-out by second base.
"What we did two nights ago to win against Philly was pretty awesome," Thole said. "But I think Friday night [against the Cubs] showed more about what we have in here even though we lost. To battle back from four runs down like we did against the Cubs with one out in the ninth inning -- [Kirk] Nieuwenhuis had a good at-bat, he ends up striking out on a check swing, and we were still like, 'OK -- they're two outs away.' But next thing you know, we got the tying run on base. Then we got the go-ahead run on base. And it's like, 'Wow, what's going on?' Then, 'Here we go again.'
"You can just feel everybody feeding off each other."
That's a huge attitude shift for the Mets, all right. Remember when "Here we go again" used to be the precursor to fans wailing "Same old Mets"? Remember when it was the Phillies that overtook the Mets for the NL East crown they choked away -- twice?
Who can forget?
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This Mets team's best trait in the first half of this season has been its resilience, and its stubborn belief (even before it had a half-season of proof like this) that it could compete. So far, this team also has a way of crawling into your mind and making you reach for the remote control, even on a night you don't intend to watch the Mets, just to see what they're up to. They began play on Saturday having scored the most two-out runs in the majors this season.
"Here we go again" isn't a figment of their imagination. They're right to think like that.
The question for the second half of the season is, of course, "Can the Mets keep it up?" And Thole already knows one of the thoughts that he, personally, intends to keep in mind when the Mets come back from the All-Star break.
It's another memory involving the Phillies.
"I remember a few years ago, we were in Philadelphia and they were getting ready to clinch the division," Thole said. "There were 55,000 people waving rally towels around on a 3-2 count, two outs in the seventh, and you couldn't hear yourself think by then.
"And I'm telling you," Thole continued, breaking into a wide smile, "it was the coolest thing ever. If that doesn't get you pumped up to play in the playoffs, nothing will ever get you excited."
So, does Thole think the Mets' killer B-listers can keep up this playoff push?
What do you think? And where have you been?
"We're good," Thole said.