(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)
What a difference a month can make.
At the end of July, the New York Mets were recovering from perhaps their worst loss of 2015, as their bullpen imploded under the weight of a post-rain delay collapse. Mets relievers blew a 7-1 lead after seven innings and a 7-5 edge in the ninth as New York suffered an unlikely and gut-wrenching 8-7 home defeat to the under-.500 San Diego Padres on July 30.
While the Mets closed July the next night with the first win in a key three-game sweep of the first-place Washington Nationals, New York still entered the month of August a mediocre 53-50 and two games behind Washington.
Since then, things have mostly clicked, as the Mets have surged past the Nationals, for a variety of reasons.
But two in particular stand out.
Although general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins had each come under some understandable and somewhat warranted criticism at times, that duo is responsible for successfully addressing the New York’s earlier gaps and making sure all of the pieces, new and old alike, have meshed extremely well.
After completing a 20-8 August with a 3-1 victory over the last-place Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field on Monday night, the Mets find themselves in pretty good shape — matching their high-water marks of 15 games over .500 (73-58) and 6½ games up on the Nationals for first place in the National League’s Eastern Division — with a Magic Number of 26 heading into September.
Prior to August, Collins had done a good job of keeping an injury-riddled, badly flawed offensive roster together while helping his team stay in the NL East race, even if Washington complied by severely underachieving all season.
And as July ended with the trade deadline, Alderson did his part by finally helping Collins out with some needed depth in the form of acquiring veteran utility men Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, before finally making the kind of big splash near Flushing Bay which Mets fans had been longing for, when Alderson landed Yoenis Cespedes two years after Cespedes won the All-Star Home Run Derby in the Mets’ own ballpark.
Alderson didn’t stop there. He shored up a struggling bullpen a bit by adding relief pitcher Tyler Clippard, and even as New York’s torrid August wound down, Alderson brought in yet another late-inning arm by dealing a couple of expendable minor leaguers for Addison Reed, who since regaining his health, had dropped his previously very high ERA by more than a full run in August before joining the Mets.
Collins, meanwhile, has been so focused on the task at hand, he wasn’t aware that he had accomplished something for the first time during his 11 seasons, spanning 22 years, as a major league manager.
“I didn’t know that was the 20th win [in August],” he admitted. “I had not had a team that won 20 games in a month.”
Quick to credit Alderson for both the direct impact of the Mets’ new additions and the trickle-down effect they had on the players they joined, Collins said, “The biggest difference is, July 31st, we made some moves that brought some energy, brought some enthusiasm to this team and the clubhouse and on the field, and I think it spread.
“I think… the other guys on the team… they might have been getting a little tired and a little down. They weren’t hitting, and everybody was getting a little frustrated, and these new guys came in, and popped in the middle of the lineup and all of a sudden, they started getting hits, and everybody took a deep breath, and the pressure was gone. So that’s where I think it started, and obviously, it’s just carried on from that.”
With yet another prized, young pitching talent like Steven Matz set to return on Tuesday (as part of September call-ups), and with 42-year-old starter Bartolo Colon continuing to get back on track with eight shutout innings against the Phillies on Monday night — to extend his current scoreless innings streak to 16 — Collins remains steadily and wisely concerned with the present and not too distant future.
Asked if Colon’s recent success might be fool’s gold because 15 of his 16 scoreless innings came in two starts against last-place Philadelphia, and the other inning, in relief, during a loss against last-place Boston on Saturday, Collins responded, “I don’t worry about it too much. Our rotation is what it’s going to be… the only thing I’m looking at is the next two games. That’s it.
“[Then] we’re looking at the road trip coming up, who’s going to fit where. We’ve got it kind of line up a little bit for the Nationals, but I’m not looking any farther than a week ahead. And what happens at the end of the month, we’ll worry about it then. Who’s going to pitch when… right now, I don’t worry about that stuff.”
Collins showed similar poise and an ability to adapt by putting his faith in Jeurys Familia, who despite very nearly blowing all of a 3-0 lead in the ninth on Monday night, rewarded Collins’ trust by holding on for his 36th save of the year, to tie John Franco for fifth place on the Mets all-time list for a season, while moving just seven saves away from Armando Benitez (43 saves in 2001) for the team record.
A year ago, with the closer role not as clearly defined, Collins confessed he would have left Colon in to pitch the ninth. But not this season.
“If [it] were last year? Yes,” he said. “We aren’t [like last year now]. I’ve got one of the best closers in the game, it’s a closing situation, I’m closing with him.”
Perhaps where Collins has shined the most is in creating a clubhouse environment in which everyone, from rookies to veterans, have contributed to a positive, winning culture in which they all have the confidence that they’ll come through when called upon.
As with his acclaim for Alderson, Collins humbly credits his players for that, even though he merits some accolades himself for the way in which he has kept the varied degrees of experience and age on his roster playing together in a the professional manner that befits a legitimate contender.
Praising the maturity and talent of players like rookie leftfielder Michael Conforto — who after being called up by Alderson hit his fourth major league home run and drove in his 14th big league run (to give New York a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning on Monday night), while raising his batting average to .293 in his 29th career game — Collins said, “Those first-year guys, they act like first-year guys. They know their place, they listen, they don’t try to be anything they’re not… [young players did that] last year, we’re seeing [rookie starting pitcher, Noah] Syndergaard do it this year. They’re just trying to fit in.
“When you have all the veterans that we have now, they appreciate that, because this is a game where you earn the right to be somebody, and Michael’s handled it great.”
Likewise, with the jobs that Alderson and Collins have done since the tail end of July, which to the surprise of their earlier detractors, have the Mets poised to reach the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, and a year or two earlier than most people expected.