Monday, April 19, 2021

Mets off to a Promising Start Despite the Interruptions

The New York Mets won another game yesterday behind a strong performance from Marcus Stroman. A storyline that has taken a backseat given all of the postponements so far in April is the spring training injury to Carlos Carrasco and the worries of how the New Yorkers would hold their rotation together until he returned. Thanks to Stroman, Taijuan Walker, and David Peterson, the Mets are surviving Carrasco's absence quite well. Unlike 2020, Jacob deGrom doesn't find himself a one-man show in the rotation. Seriously, if I told you before the series in Colorado that the Mets would score 4, 2, and 2 runs in the three games, how many would you have expected them to win?

As frustrating as it can be to watch the Mets offense continue to sputter, how much more would it be if they weren't getting the effective starting pitching and losing most of their games? Certainly, the staff of the 2020 Mets couldn't have carried them through an offensive stretch like this one.

Of course, it's not just the pitching. I thought the game-ending play last night was significant beyond the already meaningful fact that it was — you know — the game-ending play. I remember watching it unfold, seeing how far along Trevor Story was in his attempt to steal second base while catcher James McCann was beginning his throwing motion. Based on previous seasons, I honestly thought Story was going to be safe. Even with McCann's quick release and precise throw, I still thought Story would beat it, but Francisco Lindor sealed the deal with a lightning-quick, perfectly executed tag.

While the play's success was still sinking in, it occurred to me how things would have gone last season. With Wilson Ramos or any other of the Mets' catching crew from last season behind the plate, it's a given that Story would have stolen second. Then, if he had scored on any sort of bloop hit, the story after the game would have been all about Edwin Díaz blowing his first save of the season instead of a great starting pitching performance and a series win.

Sometimes the differences between a good ball club and a bad one are obvious, like the Mets' roster improvements from last season to this one. Sometimes they're more subtle, such as the lift a team gets from getting a marvelously executed defensive play that allows them to walk off the field feeling good about themselves. Speaking of feeling good, I loved Lindor's celebration after the play.

Over the last few seasons, we've become used to seeing opposing teams stealing bases at will against the Mets in key situations such as the bottom of the ninth yesterday. At least it won't be quite that easy going forward. In many ways, both big and small, the Mets are making themselves tougher to beat in 2021. That will translate into more wins and a team that's more fun to watch.

I don't believe that the Mets starting pitching will continue being quite this good all season, but I expect to see them producing much more offense soon. Eventually, they will be playing games on most days, and that will certainly help things along. Today was a scheduled off day, but it was still the 9th time in 19 days this month they didn't play. And one day they did play, April 11 against the Marlins, they didn't even make it through the top of the first inning before the game was suspended by rain. We've still yet to see what the Mets might look like once they have the opportunity to settle into the baseball season.

I was impressed with the roster improvements heading into the season, but I wasn't fooled into thinking that the Mets would automatically contend. It's a lot harder to be a winning team than a losing team or a mediocre one, and it takes more than just a bit more talent to bridge the gap. Winning teams play under greater expectations and higher pressure. Everyone they play gets up for the challenge and wants to take them down. Great teams have to bring it just about every night.

It's easy to be good for a series, a week, or even a month. It's a lot more work to sustain that over the course of a season that stretches out over a full six months. You never know how any team is going to hold up over that grind. Even if they can avoid serious injuries, maintaining will and focus for 162 games is just not a given for a club that doesn't have a history of contending. I'm cautiously optimistic from what I've seen so far that the Mets are building something like that here this season. Only time will tell if they can maintain it. 

Francisco Lindor may only be carrying an uninspiring .189/.340/.216 batting line 11 games into the season, but he's brought contagious energy on the defensive side that the Mets will need if they hope to be a contender in 2021. He's been an energetic and vocal leader. The team is showing some resilience and will in fighting through some of their early-season obstacles. They'll need a healthy dose of those qualities to survive a season in the uber-competitive NL East and make this the special season Mets fans have been waiting for since Madison Bumgarner silenced their bats in the Wildcard game at Citi Field that ended their 2016 season and began the club's current playoff drought.

Please stay safe, be well, and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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