By Jon Weisman
When the Dodgers last landed in New York City, the Mets were a contender, but also a bit of a laughing stock.
Exciting starting pitching, but that offense was offensive. The bad kind of offensive. The smelly kind. Am I being clear?
Before the All-Star Break in July, the Mets had the worst OPS (not adjusted for park effects) in the National League. Having already lost two of three to the Dodgers in early July, the Mets took the field July 23 against Clayton Kershaw with Stanford alum John Mayberry Jr. and his .565 OPS batting cleanup, and the results were predictable if not tantalizing. Kershaw retired the first 18 Mets on his way to a 3-0 shutout.
The next night, Ian Thomas understudied for Zack Greinke, who was back in Los Angeles on New Dad alert, but the scoreboard barely paid any mind to the switch. Thomas pitched five innings of one-run ball in a 7-2 Dodger win. New York blasted Zach Lee in his first Major League start in the third game of the series, but that 15-2 result was easily chalked up as an aberration.
Dodger fans might have been put on notice in the final game of the series July 26, when the Mets ended cross-country traveler Greinke’s 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak, got 7 2/3 shutout innings from Jacob deGrom, then survived a bullpen stumble in the ninth and beat the Dodgers in the 10th. Painfully, the game-winning hit off Kenley Jansen came off the bat of former L.A. fan favorite Juan Uribe.
That final victory gave the Mets a 4-3 advantage in the season series with the Dodgers and pulled them within two games of Washington in the NL East. Still, that Mets team of two months ago feels an era away from the one that will match up against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series beginning October 9.
Remarkably, the Mets offense has gone from worst to first. New York is working on a league-leading .790 OPS since the All-Star Break. How did this happen?
On July 31, the Mets would acquire outfielder Yoenis Cespesdes from Detroit, adding him to a trading deadline haul that already featured infielders Uribe and Kelly Johnson. You might also include the trade of Wilmer Flores for Wilmer Flores — the shortstop had apparently been sent to Milwaukee, only for that deal to go by the wayside and the Mets to spiritually reacquire him. And not for nothing, throw in David Wright, who was activated August 24 after more than four months on the disabled list, and outfielder Michael Conforto, who made his MLB debut during the Dodger series.
Cespedes, playing for his fourth team in the past 15 months, drummed up an East Coast bias MVP campaign with 14 homers in his first 36 games as a Met and a .961 OPS since the trade, as the team charged from contender to contented. Contributions from Uribe (.730 OPS) and Johnson (.743) have been more modest, but hardly inconsequential.
Then there’s Flores, who played like a new man after his non-trade. Flores OPSed .660 before July 31. Since then, his OPS is .805. Wright’s OPS in his first 26 games off the DL is .857. Conforto is OPS-ing .866. Enjoying his own renaissance is first baseman Lucas Duda, whose .961 second-half OPS represents nearly a 200-point improvement from the first half.
Not to be forgotten are Curtis Granderson (.815 OPS), the only Met who will play in more than 150 games for the team this year, second baseman Daniel Murphy (.782 OPS) or part-time catcher Travis d’Arnaud (.839 OPS in 63 games). While a chest injury might keep Uribe out of the NLDS, this Mets lineup seems far deeper than it did in July.
Weirdly, the pitching generated more question marks than the hitting in September, spurred largely by the controversy surrounding Matt Harvey’s innings limit, but also by misgivings over how well the other youngsters in the starting rotation were holding up. New York’s September ERA is 4.32, nearly a run worse than any previous month this year.
Harvey allowed 11 runs in 11 2/3 innings over his first two September starts, while deGrom gave up six runs in five innings to the Marlins on September 15, then took 11 days off. And over the past 30 days, the Mets bullpen has been less effective than the Dodger bullpen.
Still, as Dave Cameron notes at Fangraphs, the Mets made themselves look scary in their most recent turn through the rotation (which will reportedly be righties deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Harvey for Games 1-3, followed by lefty Steven Matz for a Game 4). To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, they’re a formidable opponent.
The bottom line of this series is very similar to the bottom line of all recent playoff series involving the Dodgers. In the majority of games, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke will be starting for the Dodgers. That alone could make the Dodgers favorites to win the series, but others would argue that the supporting casts of the two teams leave the Dodgers as an underdog.
I don’t mind seeing the Dodgers that way. For all its disappointments, this team has a habit of responding when it’s taken lightly.