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NEW YORK — The dream was always there for the New York Mets, maybe not as far back as when Matt Harvey was starting an All-Star Game in 2013, but at least as far back as when Harvey and Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz were pitching in a World Series in 2015.
The Mets were plenty good then (although not enough to top the Kansas City Royals), but just wait. They still had Zack Wheeler coming back from Tommy John surgery then. They had a shot at a five-man rotation with five young aces, if they could only get them healthy at the same time.
They still had a dream.
The five aces are together, Harvey and deGrom and Syndergaard and Matz and Wheeler, all pitching in the same rotation for the first time ever. Sure enough, the Mets are 12-2, with the best record in the National League.
And yet, the truth is the hot start hasn’t been built on the starting pitching, and the Five Aces rotation likely won’t last as a group once Jason Vargas is ready to come off the disabled list. The starters have been good enough to keep the Mets in games and give them a chance to win, but they’ve hardly been dominant. Even Sunday, when Syndergaard struck out eight straight Brewers, he was out of the game in the sixth inning, and it took the bullpen and a Wilmer Flores walk-off home run to get the Mets another win.
So the Mets can still dream.
They can dream that this fast start is just a start, that they can build on it because these guys can still be dominant. As well as the Mets have done so far, imagine what they’ll do when these guys pitch the way they can.
“Barely scratching the surface,” Syndergaard said, referring to himself and to the rotation as a whole.
The Mets are good now. The Mets can be even better. Imagine it.
“They’ve been good,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “They can get even better. And I believe they will.”
And they’re 12-2, already with one three-game sweep of the division-rival Washington Nationals with another three-game series against the Nats beginning Monday night at Citi Field.
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A year ago, the Mets finished 27 games behind the Nationals in the National League East. A little more than two weeks into this season, the Mets are six games ahead. It’s far, far too early to declare this race over but not too early to proclaim that the Mets are back to being a serious division contender.
They’re on their way to justifying the confidence Yoenis Cespedes showed the day before Opening Day, when he said to reporters (including Anthony Rieber of Newsday) that the Mets were the best team he’d been around, “way better than the team we had in 2015.”
The next morning at a press conference, general manager Sandy Alderson said, “We have to improve by 20 games, but I think we’re capable of doing that.”
They’re already five wins ahead of last year’s pace. And that’s with the rotation carrying a 3.35 ERA, which is way better than the 5.14 from last year’s injury-hit group but not nearly the best in the game, either.
If you’re looking for dominance, this hasn’t been it, not when only one Mets starter has thrown a pitch in the seventh inning (Wheeler, who went seven last week against the Marlins).
“I felt like my first three starts were not up to par,” said Syndergaard, who missed most of last season with a torn lat and carried a 3.94 ERA before Sunday. Even Sunday, when Syndergaard did dominate and lowered his ERA to 2.95, he needed 101 pitches to make it through 5.1 innings.
Barely scratching the surface, as he said.
In fact, the best thing the Mets starters have done so far is to make it to the mound for every game. While Vargas, signed as a free agent over the winter, is still recovering from a spring training hand injury, the Mets haven’t had to go too far down the depth chart.
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That matters greatly, because it means Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo have both stayed in the bullpen. Those two made 40 starts last year; this year, they’ve made 12 relief appearances and have allowed just two earned runs.
And while the Mets rotation ERA ranks around the middle of the pack, their bullpen ERA of 1.51 is the best in the major leagues.
“We’re seeing the benefits of the depth,” Alderson said.
It’s what Mickey Callaway imagined when the Mets asked him to interview as manager. It’s what Callaway thought about when he watched the Houston Astros win the World Series with starting pitchers in the bullpen.
We can do that, he thought. And they have.
The Mets hoped Callaway, who was Terry Francona’s pitching coach with the Cleveland Indians, could get more out of their staff. They hoped Eiland, who has major league experience with both the New York Yankees and the Royals, could help dreams and potential become reality.
Callaway and Eiland believe that can happen, that instead of ERAs in the threes, these guys can have ERAs of 2.20 or 2.25 every year, that they can be counted on for 15 to 18 wins.
“Then we’re talking elite,” Eiland said.
It’s nice to dream. It’s even better to dream when you’re 12-2 and you think the guys you have can be better.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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