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If there was a knock against these Mets as they ground their way through the first two months of the season it was this:
They feasted on patsies.
They looked awfully ordinary — and worse — against good teams.
It wasn’t just a feeling, either. The Mets lost their first seven games against teams with winning records this year. They lost 10 of their first 12 against winning teams. There was a helpful diet of games against the Rockies and Diamondbacks, and thanks to the mediocrity that’s seized the NL East from the start they could keep their heads above water.
But it was fair to wonder if the Mets were as good as their record.
It is now fair to wonder if the Mets aren’t better than their record, especially with a cavalcade of injured players set to return to the lineup across the next couple weeks. The Mets improved to 33-25 by hammering the Cubs on Monday, 5-2.
There were lots of things to like about this one, starting with the six shutout innings sophomore southpaw David Peterson tossed at Chicago, on a night when it had to be at least on Peterson’s mind that he might have one foot in Flushing and one in Syracuse.
There was clutch hitting up and down the lineup: every hitter who drove in a run did so with two outs. James McCann broke the ice in the fourth with an RBI single. Kevin Pillar knocked in two right after that with a hard-hit single. Dominic Smith broke a long 0-fer with a home run in the fifth. Brandon Drury snuck one through for a 5-0 lead in the sixth.
But this is probably the most satisfying:
Across the past 11 days the Mets have played eight games against two of the best and brightest teams in the National League — the Padres and the Cubs — and they’ve won five of those games. Forget simply pasting patsies. The Mets are no longer merely punching down. And this is still with half their expected lineup watching from the wings.
“Teams at top of their division, those are really good tests for us to show the kind of baseball we’re playing,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said after the Mets won their 12th game in their past 17. “Regardless of what team we’re playing we go ahead and play. Guys don’t become timid against certain teams.
“We know what teams have been playing hot but that doesn’t tell us to upgrade our game. Just get just ready to play every day.”
Nobody on the team embodies that spirit more than Pillar, who was supposed to be a nice luxury as a fourth or fifth outfielder and then, after showing he still had the chops to offer more than that, took a scary fastball to the face a few weeks ago in Atlanta. But he’s come back from that without flinching.
And Monday he offered the most important moment when he drove in a pair, a few innings after Cubs starter Jake Arietta had made him look — Pillar’s words — “like a Little Leaguer.”
“We forget sometimes,” Pillar said later, “how mental this game is.”
If Pillar wasn’t enough of a reminder there was Peterson, who in his last two starts — in Phoenix and in Baltimore — was staked to a 4-0 lead and then a 2-0 lead and seemingly couldn’t wait to cough up both. His struggles were real and they were made more stark because he is surrounded by Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker. Even Joey Lucchesi has started to pitch well.
“It’s part of the job,” Peterson said. “You’re going to go through rough patches.”
He was talking about himself, but he could have been referring to his team which, by all rights, could be mired eight or 10 games under .500 yet instead wake up Tuesday morning as a first-place club for the 37th straight day. There are three doubleheaders next week; it’s like someone keeps updating the obstacle course. The Mets don’t seem to mind.
“That’s what’s special about this,” Rojas said. “The guys are staying neutral regardless of who are playing.”
It’s the mark of a good team. Suddenly there are no qualifications in describing the Mets’ success. Last place, first place, ice cold or raging hot. The Mets are going to give an honest day’s work and believe that’s good enough. So far, mostly, it has been.
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