After 2nd-half surge, improved Mets lament early mistakes

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              New York Mets' Pete Alonso follows through on his 53rd home run of the season during the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Long after the Mets‘ season finale had ended, Pete Alonso was still posing for photos with his fiancée near first base as children dashed by — a postgame promotion offering their own chance to circle the bags excitedly at Citi Field.

You could certainly understand why Alonso, the newly minted rookie home run king who seems a giant kid himself, would want to linger out there and preserve every last memory of a most incredible debut.

Now, if only New York could simply forget that first half.

Doomed early by an ineffective bullpen, the Mets were 40-51 on July 12 before rallying into the National League wild-card race with a surprising summer surge that captivated fans for a while. Powered by Alonso and another Cy Young-caliber performance from Jacob deGrom, they got within striking distance in September but ultimately missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.

The slow start proved too much to overcome in a topsy-turvy season.

“We need to put the full six months together,” said outfielder Michael Conforto, who had 33 homers and 92 RBIs. “We have the talent. Maybe this experience will put us over the top next year.”

This one was a disappointment, despite several positive signs and New York’s never-say-die resolve 50 years after the Miracle Mets won the 1969 World Series.

Confident general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, after upgrading the roster during his first offseason, challenged rivals in a competitive NL East to “come get us.” The Mets closed with a 40-21 rush to finish 86-76 — a nine-win improvement over 2018 that was only good for third place in the division behind Atlanta and Washington.

On one hand, young hitters Jeff McNeil, J.D. Davis and Amed Rosario really emerged, and there’s reason to believe they can get even better.

On the other hand, the vaunted rotation remained mostly healthy and still the Mets fell short. They wasted sensational seasons from deGrom, who could win a second consecutive Cy Young Award, and Alonso, who had 120 RBIs to go with his rookie-record 53 home runs. The humble, enthusiastic slugger became the first rookie since 1900 — and first Mets player overall — to capture an outright major league home run title.

“A lot of these guys are going to be back and it’s encouraging knowing the hole we dug ourselves out of,” said deGrom, who ended the season with 23 straight scoreless innings. “Hopefully next year we don’t put ourselves in that situation and play really good baseball from start to finish.”

Things to know as the Mets enter the offseason:

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

The first order of front-office business is a decision on whether to retain manager Mickey Callaway, who has one year left on his contract. Callaway, often criticized, is 163-161 in two seasons at the helm.

“Obviously, I have the utmost confidence in myself,” he said. “I’m never going to give up, never going to quit and I think I’m the right guy to lead that team in there.”

RELIEF ROLES

For the second consecutive season, the bullpen was a major problem. New York blew 21 of 40 save chances through June before Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson helped the unit rebound after the All-Star break. Still, the relievers finished with a 4.95 ERA that ranked 25th in the majors.

New closer Edwin Díaz (26 saves in 33 chances) hung one slider after another, gave up a whopping 15 homers in 58 innings and lost his job. He went 2-7 with a 5.59 ERA after posting a 1.96 ERA and leading the big leagues with 57 saves the previous season for Seattle.

Jeurys Familia also was a flop as setup man after signing a $30 million, three-year contract to return to the Mets — and it’s easy to surmise if those two former All-Stars had even been just adequate, New York would be playing in October.

The 25-year-old Díaz has an electric arm and is under club control for three more seasons. But the Mets must determine whether he possesses the chops to close in New York, or it would be best to trade him and move on.

“I think first and foremost we need to figure out our ‘pen, right?” Callaway said. “Our bullpen has got to come out next year and get the job done, and we can do something special.”

THE ROTATION SITUATION

Zack Wheeler can become a free agent at age 29 after going 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts covering 195 1/3 innings. He figures to draw plenty of interest on the open market and if he leaves, it would create a sizable hole to fill.

Noah Syndergaard (10-8, 4.28 ERA, 197 2/3 IP) also heads into an uncertain winter following a rocky season. He bristled at pitching to No. 1 catcher Wilson Ramos and it seems plausible the Mets might finally deal the talented right-hander nicknamed Thor. He’s had a rocky relationship with the front office and has already been mentioned in trade talks several times.

“I love being a Met. It has a special place in my heart,” Syndergaard said. “I’m pretty confident that I’ll be in the orange and blue for a while.”

SECOND CHANCE

After arriving with Díaz from Seattle in a blockbuster trade, expensive second baseman Robinson Canó got off to a terrible start during an injury-plagued season. He came on later — when healthy — but batted a career-low .256 with 13 homers and just 39 RBIs in 107 games. How much will the eight-time All-Star have left next year at age 37?