For the New York Mets, the first 16 weeks of this season featured plenty of highs: an 11-game winning streak, electrifying performances by the team’s young pitchers, and continued folk-hero status for Bartolo Colon. Of course, they also included a slew of injuries and failure after failure by an abysmal offense. Taken together, the Mets entered the week before the trade deadline looking like a .500-ish team with some incredible pitching but an apparent lack of ambition at the top of the organization, a group seemingly destined for yet another also-ran season.
Then came Week 17.
It brought trades, tears, and redemption. We witnessed moments of greatness, Mother Nature’s fury, even an episode of unimaginable stupidity. Can one truly crazy week alter a team’s season? Or is it destined to be just the premature exclamation point in a ho-hum year? Whatever happens next, Mets fans aren’t likely to see another week quite like the last one. And I was in New York to watch much of it unfold.
Monday, July 27: Upgrades
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
The Mets were off, but with only four days until the deadline, general manager Sandy Alderson had plenty of work to do. Three weeks into July, the offense was so bad, it was actually worse than the offense put up by the expansion 1962 Mets, who lost 120 games and rank as one of the worst clubs in baseball history.1
Mets fans were understandably skeptical that Alderson would do anything exciting. With their owners, the Wilpon family, still feeling the aftereffects of the Bernie Madoff scandal, the Mets rolled into the 2015 season with a lower Opening Day payroll than small-market clubs like the Twins, Brewers, and Rockies. The Wilpons didn’t appear to have much money to spend, they got grilled for it, and the team’s GM, by extension, did too.2
At MLB headquarters, getting caught up in a gigantic Ponzi scheme isn’t viewed as such a major problem. In fact, family patriarch Fred Wilpon is held in such high regard on Park Avenue that he can do things like get appointed to head up Major League Baseball’s finance committee.
Whenever asked about the team’s finances, Alderson would deny that he was constricted by ownership’s issues. With the Mets in the thick of the NL East and wild-card races, competing for their first playoff berth in nine years and their first winning season in seven years, this was a chance to prove it.
The first significant upgrades came a few days before deadline week. On July 23, after months of watching top outfield prospect Michael Conforto tear up the minors,3 the Mets called up last year’s first-round pick. The next day, Alderson made his first trade of the season, sending minor leaguers Robert Whalen and John Gant to Atlanta for utilityman Kelly Johnson and third baseman Juan Uribe. While you wouldn’t quite classify the trade as “sexy,” both Johnson and Uribe had been productive with the Braves, batting .275/.321/.451 and .285/.353/.464, respectively.
He hit .297/.372/.482 while splitting his time in tough hitting environments in the Class A Florida State League and Double-A Eastern League.
“We needed both the length in our lineup and a stronger presence in the middle of our lineup,” Alderson said.
Ideally, this wouldn’t be true. But David Wright has missed most of the season with a back injury, and Michael Cuddyer hasn’t been able to consistently stay healthy, either. When you’re trotting out Wilmer Flores and John Mayberry in the three and four slots, Johnson and Uribe are upgrades.
“We added two, what I call, professional hitters,” manager Terry Collins said. “It gives you some depth on your bench. You can play one and you can have one waiting on the side for any major occasion.”
On this off day at the start of deadline week, the Mets made another move, sending minor league pitcher Casey Meisner to the A’s for right-hander Tyler Clippard, a high-leverage reliever who’s been one of the best righties ever against left-handed batters thanks to a nasty changeup. With four days to go before the deadline, the Mets hadn’t given up any premium prospects, and the roster now looked a bit stronger and a bit deeper. The Clippard deal, especially, would soon look prescient.
Tuesday, July 28: Bad Choices
On April 11, Jenrry Mejia had received an 80-game suspension without pay after testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug stanozolol. Jeurys Familia took over the closer duties and thrived, using his sinker-slider combination to strike out a batter per inning and generate tons of ground balls. When Mejia returned, he slotted in as a setup man, firing 7.1 scoreless innings in support of his replacement.
On July 28, just three weeks after returning from that first penalty, Mejia got slapped with another PED-related suspension — this time for 162 games. Working feverishly to improve the team before Friday’s deadline, Alderson suddenly found himself down one of his top setup men. The Clippard pickup was well timed, and helped limit the damage. Still, the Mets GM appeared shocked.
“Not surprisingly, there’s a tremendous amount of disappointment — I think to some extent anger, to some extent amazement — that this could happen so soon after a previous suspension was completed. And some sadness,” Alderson told assembled media. “This is the consequence of making bad choices.”
Fortunately, the day’s news wasn’t all bad. Facing the Padres in the opener of a three-game series, rookie sensation Noah Syndergaard dominated, firing eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball, striking out nine, and walking none. For a while, the night held even more potential, as Syndergaard retired the first 18 Padres he faced for a team that has just one no-hitter in its 53-year history.
Armed with a hammer curve and the hardest fastball of any starting pitcher in the majors, the 22-year-old Syndergaard had shown flashes of potential since getting called up in May. But he’d found another gear more recently, allowing a total of just six runs over his previous five starts leading to his masterpiece against the Padres.
“I feel like I’m a completely night-and-day pitcher,” compared to his debut, Syndergaard said. “My two-seam grip is completely different; it’s a lot more comfortable and consistent. And the pitch has a lot more movement down in the zone. That’s just improved my game drastically.”
The numbers bear out Syndergaard’s theory: Opponents batted .308 against his sinker/two-seam fastball in May, .355 in June, .143 in July, and .222 in his one August start. Forget the stats for a second, though. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, with a shock of long, blond hair, Syndergaard’s nickname, “Thor,” fits perfectly. Just ask Yunel Escobar.
Wednesday, July 29: The Trade That Wasn’t
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
A couple of thirtysomething infielders and a reliever were nice. But rumors suggested the Mets were after a big bat: preferably an outfielder who could offer team control beyond the end of this season. This was the acid test for Alderson and the Wilpons: get a legitimate cleanup man and accusations of passivity (against the GM) or financial handcuffs (against the owners) would quiet down.
A few minutes before first pitch, it looked close to a regular night at Citi Field — an impromptu media scrum with the commissioner appearing to be the big news on an otherwise quiet day. So much for that.
By the middle innings, the Internet lit up with word that the Mets were trading right-hander Zack Wheeler and Flores to the Brewers for center fielder Carlos Gomez. The 29-year-old was exactly the kind of two-way player Alderson & Co. wanted: the best available player at his position, equipped with an affordable contract that would keep him in New York through 2016. Wheeler, the 25-year-old starter with big upside but who underwent Tommy John in March, was the main attraction for Milwaukee. Flores, a 23-year-old infielder who had some potential but probably not enough to be a quality everyday shortstop on a championship-caliber team, was the afterthought.
By the time Flores came to bat in the seventh inning, word of the trade had spread through the stands, and Mets fans responded by saluting the soon-to-be-traded youngster. At the time, only Flores, Collins, and a few others hadn’t heard the news. So as the shortstop started jogging out to his position in the eighth, a fan relayed news of the deal to him. That led to a surreal scene: A member of the Mets organization since his 16th birthday, Flores was about to become property of the Brewers, yet he was still on the field, playing for his soon-to-be-former team. As the Mets tossed the ball around the infield in preparation for the top of the inning, Flores began to cry.
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Of course, Flores never became a Brewer. Not long after tears streamed down his face, he and everyone else learned that the deal had dissolved.
When asked about it a few days later, Alderson expressed regret for how the situation played out.
“I can remember having an internal discussion on whether we would make the deal with Milwaukee as the anthem was being played,” Alderson said. “Then making the call to [Brewers GM] Doug Melvin right as the game was starting. This was [middle infielder] Ruben Tejada’s first off day in a while, so if we took Flores out, we would have played with a man short. I figured the medicals would take a while since Wheeler had been on the DL all season, and they would have to be comfortable with Zack’s health.
“Maybe it’s the technocrat in me that wants to make sure we’re not playing short. Maybe it was someone from my generation underestimating the speed of media and access. I apologized to him later, though. Wilmer is such a great kid — he’d been with the Mets since he was an adolescent. It shouldn’t have been surprising to us that he reacted the way he did.”
Speculation swirled over what exactly had happened, and blame eventually landed on the Mets being the ones who cancelled the trade. From there, theories spread that New York’s ownership had balked at paying the approximately $12 million left on Gomez’s contract. Alderson quickly denied that claim, though, noting that it was the Mets’ doctors who’d advised not going through with it due to concerns about the health of Gomez’s hip.
That explanation was only marginally better, though. This season, the Mets had made multiple public statements about players with health concerns, only for those comments to be proven far too optimistic, raising doubts about the team’s ability to properly diagnose injuries.4 When Gomez; his agent, Scott Boras; and the Brewers all denied that Gomez was hurt, the situation looked even weirder, even Mets-ier. And when the Astros acquired Gomez (and right-hander Mike Fiers) from Milwaukee less than 24 hours after the Wheeler-Flores deal blew up, the Mets were, simply, the laughingstock of the baseball world.
Thursday, July 30: It’s Like Raiiiinnnn, Just Before Deadline Day
That linked chart doesn’t even include Steven Matz, who voiced concerns to the coaching staff about a lat injury before his second major league start, made the start anyway, aggravated the injury, and now won’t be back until September.
On Thursday, things hadn’t changed. With the Mets up 7-5 against the Padres, Familia was two strikes from a save. Dark clouds had been forming all day, though, and a nasty thunderstorm smacked Citi Field, triggering a 44-minute delay. How’s that for symbolism? Once the tarps were removed, San Diego’s next two batters got on base, and then, as rain began to fall once more, Justin Upton launched a three-run homer over the wall in right-center to make it 8-7.
Of course, the agony couldn’t end there. The skies opened again and the umps called for another stoppage. The grounds crew couldn’t even get the tarp rolled out onto the field, and the delay lasted an excruciating two hours and 52 minutes. When play resumed, the Mets went down 1-2-3 in the ninth. The loss dropped the Mets to three games behind the division-leading Nats. The latest chapter in the history of Mets misery looked like it was complete.
Friday, July 31: Redemption
Despite the embarrassment of the past few days, there was still time to push the story in another direction. And with just minutes to go before the deadline, Alderson got his man — multiskilled outfielder Yoenis Cespedes came over from the Tigers in exchange for minor league pitchers Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa.5 New York’s weak offense was even worse against lefties, and Cespedes is a strong righty bat to slide directly into the middle of the lineup. With only the rest of this season left on the slugger’s contract, dealing for Cespedes is more of a risk than bringing in someone like Gomez, but it’s also a clear-as-day win-now move from the front office. There was much rejoicing.
“Cespedes was not in the picture before we made [the aborted trade for Gomez],” Alderson said. “It was actually that night, when everything fell through, that we learned he would be available.”
With their new bat in tow, next on the docket was a three-game series against the Nationals, who led the division by … three games. First to take the mound: Matt Harvey, who’d posted a sparkling 1.97 ERA in the seven starts before facing Washington, but had some clunkers in his rearview mirror, too, as he worked to regain his pre–Tommy John form.
“I felt like for a stretch there I could not find a rhythm,” Harvey said. “From talking to people that have had [Tommy John] before, that’s something they go through quite often. I know [John] Smoltz had made some comments regarding certain things he wasn’t able to find for a while. For me, it was more of a mechanical issue than anything. That and just getting used to being out there every fifth day and playing a whole season again.”
Going 7.2 innings with one run, five hits, no walks, and nine strikeouts, Harvey didn’t disappoint. But he wasn’t the story of the night.
Come the 12th inning, Flores had already received three standing ovations: for a diving stop in the first inning, his first at-bat since Wednesday, and an RBI single. Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen had declared it “Wilmer Flores Night at Citi Field,” while color man Keith Hernandez said that Flores was “rising like a phoenix.”
Then, with the game tied 1-1, Flores drove a 1-1 fastball into the stands. Walk-off homer. Mets win.
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After the game, Flores summed it all up in one word: “Unbelievable.”
Saturday, August 1: Duda and deGrom
As good as Harvey and Syndergaard have been this year, it’s been Jacob deGrom who’s pitched like the team’s ace, even if he’s never been given that title by name. The second-year right-hander has shown impeccable command, as only Max Scherzer, Colon, and Clayton Kershaw own a better strikeout-to-walk rate among National League starters. After winning the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Award, deGrom has been even better in 2015, thanks to a confusing five-pitch repertoire and pitching coach Dan Warthen.
“Dan taught me a lot,” deGrom said, three days before his Saturday start. “He realizes right away whenever I’m starting to get off mechanic-wise, or flying open, and he’ll even tell me during the game. That way, the next inning I’ll go out and try to make the adjustment — that seems to work out a lot.”
In front of the second-largest crowd in Citi Field history (trailing only this season’s Opening Day gathering), deGrom went six innings, striking out seven and allowing two runs on six hits and one walk. A resurgent Lucas Duda, who’d looked like an MVP candidate through May (.298/.394/.539) but had hit like a pitcher in 39 games from June to mid-July (.159/.272/.262), smashed two homers and hit the game-winning RBI double in the eighth. The Mets won 3-2 and were now a game back of first.
Sunday, August 2: Dropping the Hammer
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
After a couple of nail-biters, Sunday never felt close. The Mets treated their fans to something extraordinarily rare at Citi Field: a fireworks display.
A five-run, three-homer third inning was all the hosts needed, especially with Syndergaard on the mound again. As fans brandished Thor hammers and chanted “WE WANT FIRST PLACE!” from the bleachers, the big right-hander went eight innings, allowing just two runs, striking out nine, again issuing no walks, and clinching a 5-2 win, a series sweep, and a first-place tie for the Mets. Syndergaard became just the third Mets pitcher to go at least eight, strike out nine or more, and walk none. The other two? Pedro Martinez and Dwight Gooden.
“So much emphasis in the minor leagues is about development,” Syndergaard said. “Here, you’re encouraged to develop, to get better every day. But the big thing is, it’s about winning.” He paused, and smiled. “And when we’re winning, it’s a lot of fun.”
After a pair of wins against the Marlins, the Mets now lead the Nationals by one game in the NL East.
The good news is that the Mets will get a bunch more games against lesser teams like the Marlins, as no club in baseball owns a weaker schedule the rest of the way.6
The Nats have the second-easiest schedule.
In addition to keeping pace with a talented Washington team that figures to get better as it gets healthier, New York will face an internal challenge as the season wears on: managing its young pitchers’ workloads. The plan is for the Mets to return to a six-man rotation if and when Steven Matz returns from the DL next month, thus limiting innings for Harvey, deGrom, and Syndergaard. They’ll likely lean on Jon Niese a little more in the meantime, and the veteran lefty owns a 2.45 ERA in his past eight starts. They’ll also hope for a continually improving offense, as catcher Travis d’Arnaud returned over the weekend, and they could soon welcome Cuddyer and even Wright back into the fold.
A disastrous week doubled as an exhilarating one, and somehow, it’s got the Mets — in first place, with playoff odds hovering around 50-50 — right where they want to be. Even their normally stoic GM couldn’t help but marvel at the past few days.
“It’s been a pretty tumultuous time in Mets Land,” said Alderson. “And then the excitement level in the stadium [Saturday] was something I’d never seen before. This could all come crashing down tonight, or tomorrow. But so far, it’s all been crazy to watch.”
This piece has been updated to correct an error regarding the Mets’ August 1 game: It was the second-largest in Citi Field history, not Mets history.