50 years from miracle season, resurgent Mets eye magic run
NEW YORK (AP) — Two months ago, as the New York Mets commemorated the 50th anniversary of a most improbable World Series title, 74-year-old alum Ed Kranepool stood at a Citi Field lectern and tried to encourage a languishing team.
"They can do it like we did. You gotta believe in yourself!" Kranepool said that afternoon, addressing both the cheering crowd and current Mets players clapping in the dugout. "So good luck. You have a half a season. We want to wish you the best so that we can celebrate in October."
It was a noble sentiment, even if that optimism felt farfetched with New York nine games under .500.
And then the next night the maligned club publicly apologized on the scoreboard to two living members of the 1969 Miracle Mets who were mistakenly included in a video montage of players from that team who had died.
Turned out, though, maybe Kranepool was on to something.
Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz finally hit their stride on the mound. Justin Wilson and Luis Avilan returned from injuries to help Seth Lugo steady a ghastly bullpen. Young shortstop Amed Rosario, veteran catcher Wilson Ramos and fill-in left fielder J.D. Davis emerged to supplement the consistent brilliance of ace Jacob deGrom, rookie slugger Pete Alonso and NL batting leader Jeff McNeil.
Ever since pitching coach Dave Eiland was fired, 82-year-old replacement Phil Regan has drawn rave reviews.
"The second half, something clicked," Davis said.
And to almost everyone's surprise, the Mets took off after the All-Star break. This all-but-buried team still had a postseason pulse.
The Mets added local product Marcus Stroman to the starting rotation in an aggressive trade with Toronto and climbed into playoff contention by early August thanks to a 15-1 surge against mostly weak competition. They've stayed afloat since the schedule stiffened and head into perhaps their biggest series of the season when the Chicago Cubs visit the Big Apple for three games beginning Tuesday night.
Both teams were off Monday after getting swept at home last weekend — the Mets by Atlanta, the Cubs by Washington.
"We're a motivated bunch. I mean, we've come a long way," Alonso said recently. "We've been resilient, we've been fighting this entire year. ... I just think that the way we turned it around is just a testament to the character in all these guys."
New York (67-63) trails Chicago by two games for the second NL wild card, with Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Arizona all within striking distance despite mediocre records. None is playing particularly well lately, while the streaking Nationals have opened a four-game lead over the Cubs for the top wild card.
The Mets have 20 of their final 32 games at home, where they are 37-24 and play pingpong in the center of an upbeat clubhouse with a different vibe these days.
It wasn't so long ago general manager Brodie Van Wagenen threw a chair during a meeting with coaches. In late June, embattled manager Mickey Callaway cursed at a beat reporter who was then threatened at Wrigley Field by former pitcher Jason Vargas.
About a month before that, the slumping Mets announced Callaway was keeping his job and — oh, by the way — rehabbing slugger Yoenis Céspedes had an accident on his Florida ranch that will sideline him all season.
Now, charged-up fans hungry for success following consecutive losing seasons have energized Citi Field, the site of several wild celebrations this month. Davis and Michael Conforto even had their jerseys ripped off by Alonso and other jubilant teammates after game-ending hits to cap comeback wins.
"You hit a walk-off, your shirt's coming off. That's about it," Alonso said.
Davis, a Californian acquired from the Houston Astros last winter in maybe the best move of Van Wagenen's first year as GM, endeared himself to the Queens crowd following his extra-inning single that beat Cleveland last week.
"Hey Mets fans, we did it again! Woo!" Davis bellowed during an interview on the field. "We had that New York swagger, that New York attitude. We didn't quit! We didn't quit!"
The Mets face a difficult road, with only 10 games remaining against teams currently out of the playoff picture. They're still thin in the bullpen, where new closer Edwin Díaz has been a colossal disappointment, and second baseman Robinson Canó is on the injured list, along with several other significant players.
But they have an unexpected opportunity right in their own hands, with the Cubs series plus six games left versus the Phillies, four at home against the Diamondbacks and three in Washington.
Five weeks ago, it was hard to imagine any of them would matter much.
"I think we're feeling good right now. I think we've been feeling good all year. I think when we weren't going well, we were just trying to figure out what was going wrong," Conforto said.
"For a while, it was frustrating because we knew we had the talent in here. We knew we had high hopes to start the year and we were just underachieving. We weren't putting the whole package together. So, I think our confidence has always been there, but now that we're playing complete baseball, I think we're just kind of riding that wave right now."
Fifty years ago, Tom Seaver and the Mets were 10 games behind the first-place Cubs on Aug. 13. New York, which had never finished higher than ninth place in its first seven seasons, went 38-11 down the stretch to win the NL East going away with a 100-62 record.
Those plucky Mets swept Hank Aaron and the Braves in the playoffs, then took down mighty Baltimore in the World Series.
Is another mini miracle in store?
"You've got to give credit where credit's due and that's on the players, man," Callaway said. "They come to play, they come to win and they kind of accept whatever challenge (is) in front of them."