Standing in the corner of the room, Jeff Wilpon, the Mets’ chief operating officer, asked Collins to pose for a picture. For Wilpon and his father, Fred, one of the team’s owners, this was a vindication. Under the Wilpons’ watch, since their last playoff appearance, the Mets had endured two late-season collapses, six consecutive losing seasons, entanglement in the Bernard L. Madoff financial scandal, questions about their financial health and calls from fans for Fred Wilpon to sell the team.
But when the Mets saw the Nationals, a preseason World Series favorite, reeling, the Wilpons authorized General Manager Sandy Alderson to bolster the roster. Now, back at Citi Field, a pennant-shaped sign will adorn the facade down the left-field line to commemorate this team, the one that redeemed eight years of misery.
“This is Step 1,” Jeff Wilpon said of winning the division. “So let’s keep it going.”
Clinching the division had been so important, though, that a few days earlier, Matt Harvey had told Collins he wanted to push past his innings limit for Saturday’s start, no matter what.
Much of Harvey’s season, his first back from Tommy John surgery, had been overshadowed by debates over how the Mets were handling him, his innings limit and whether he would be shut down early. Mets fans had vilified him for appearing to side with his agent, Scott Boras, and putting his health ahead of the team’s goals, especially after he was pulled from his last start after only five innings and the Mets went on to lose to the Yankees.
Amped up, Harvey held the Reds to two runs and struck out six in six and two-thirds innings on 97 pitches, and he exceeded his soft innings limit by three and a third innings. He looked exhausted when Collins came to retrieve him, but he left the mound with the fans chanting his name.
“This is the best day of my baseball career, by far,” Harvey said during a break in the clubhouse party. “We’re here to stay. We’re here to do this more often. It’s what we’re about.”
At one point, the Mets headed back onto the field to celebrate with the hundreds of Mets fans remaining. Wilmer Flores ran back and forth holding a sign announcing the division crown. The Mets had rallied around him, after he had hit a game-ending home run against the Nationals in late July, two days after he had cried on the field thinking he had been traded.
“I’ll tell you what: This is why I didn’t want to leave,” Flores said.
The Mets now have seven games left and are neck and neck with the Dodgers for home-field advantage in the division series.
Amid the celebration, Wright, who missed about four months of the season with a back injury, hugged Alderson and complimented him on the team he had built. Two months ago, Alderson had called up his top prospect, Michael Conforto, and had acquired four veterans with playoff experience at the trading deadline — Yoenis Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Tyler Clippard — to bolster the offense and strengthen the bullpen. Those moves gave the Mets enough firepower to sweep the Nationals twice down the stretch.
The bullpen coach, Ricky Bones, approached Alderson ready to spray him, but Alderson begged off. “Cespedes already got me!” Alderson said.
By then, the Mets were running out of Champagne and had started lighting cigars. Cespedes, a Cuban import who had become an instant star in New York, took a puff. Asked if it was a Cuban cigar, Cespedes inspected it for a moment and then shook his head. “That’s O.K.,” he said, looking at it again.
Compared with all the revelers, Wright seemed more subdued. He took a selfie with Michael Cuddyer, a longtime friend. He politely conducted interview after interview. Often, he stopped and looked around the room, at his younger teammates smoking their cigars.
“I’m trying to bottle this up,” he said, “bottle this emotion and save it for as long as I can.”Continue reading the main story
We are 11 days away from the beginning of the 2017 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. This week we wrap up the division previews -- we'll look at potential postseason matchups next week -- with the National League East.
This is not a particularly relevant fact for this division this season, but I feel obliged to point it out every time the NL East comes up.
NL East titles over the past 25 years
Atlanta Braves: 12
Philadelphia Phillies: 6
Washington Nationals: 3
New York Mets: 2
Miami Marlins: 0
World Series titles for NL East teams over the past 25 years
Miami Marlins: 2
Atlanta Braves: 1
Philadelphia Phillies: 1
New York Mets: 0
Washington Nationals: 0
Baseball is so weird.
NL East predicted order of finish
5. Philadelphia Phillies, 68-94
It's not difficult to see the Phillies being a monster in a few years. There's a ton of young talent working its way through the system, with J.P. Crawford coming this year, Mickey Moniak on his way and some intriguing young arms. In Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez, they have two fascinating pitchers to build around, with a solid core starting to emerge. And they're going to be a spending behemoth: The Phils make a ton of money and have shown a willingness -- almost too much willingness at times -- to spend it when it's time to spend it. When you think of all the massive young stars who are going to hit the market in the next five years -- Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, even Mike Trout -- there's no question that the Phillies will be major players for all of them. The rebuild is being constructed for that specific point.
This year, though? It is likely to be another slog. Odubel Herrera is the Phillies' best hitter, which is fine but not exactly what you build a whole lineup around. There's a bunch of one-year vets hanging around who look suspiciously like Trade Deadline chum, from Howie Kendrick to Pat Neshek to even ole Clay Buchholz. (One would say Jeremy Hellickson exists solely for this purpose, but that's what he was for last year too and he still didn't go anywhere.) 2017 is another cobble-away-at-the-foundation season for the Phillies in which their record doesn't particularly matter. The Phils are seeing what they have here. Can Nick Williams stick? Is Nola going to be an ace? How will Crawford work his way in? Those are the only 2017 questions that particularly matter. By 2019, the Phillies could be scary. But 2019 is still a long way away. We could all be dead, or on the moon, by 2019.
4. Miami Marlins, 73-89
How many more years will we look at the Marlins and think about Jose Fernandez? His death was a horrific tragedy that it's still difficult to wrap your mind around: He seemed to represent the future of baseball, at its absolute best and most joyous, in a way that feels ripped away from all of us. Even with a superstar like Giancarlo Stanton on the roster, this always felt like Fernandez's team. Every five days, the Marlins were the best show in baseball, and now that's gone forever.
You can't replace Fernandez, on the field or off, and the lack of his presence feels like a huge gaping hole blasted in the middle of the franchise. The Marlins have tried to throw innings at the problem with Dan Straily and Edinson Volquez, but this is still a team whose opening day starter might be Wei-Yin Chin. (He was last year's too, actually.) The whole strategy for the Marlins in years past was to:
A. Keep Fernandez and Stanton healthy;
B. Simply put together an average team around them.
That was enough right there for an NL Wild Card team. The Marlins were never quite able to do that, and while there are pieces here -- Christian Yelich looks like a reliable All-Star, and Justin Bour can hit a ball a mile -- it's just difficult to see how anything comes together for them in a Fernandez-less universe. There could be some much-needed good news for Miami in the next few years, depending on how a potential sale of the team goes. But this year is just going to be a year of recovery.
3. Atlanta Braves, 76-86
The Braves are opening their new stadium this year, so they've felt obliged to put at least a halfway decent team on the field. They've put their rotation in the hands of veterans -- sometimes extreme veterans -- like Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. Atlanta's offense, so terrible last season, came on strong in the second half and could be pretty decent if Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips can stay healthy and have league-average seasons. This is a sneaky .500 team, and who knows, if every bit falls right, the Braves could even climb up a little bit higher.
But is that what the purpose of this year should be? Does it really serve the Braves' long-term interests to have a .500 team this year? The Braves -- like the Phillies and the Reds and the Padres and so many of those "going through the Cubs/Astros process" teams -- have not completed their rebuild. Frankly, they're not even close. So does it help that process along if Atlanta is a .500 team this season? Does it make the Braves better in 2019 if they win 80 games this year?
Maybe it does. Maybe it's good for Dansby Swanson to be on a competitive team his rookie year rather than a tanking one. But right now it looks like the Braves are going all half-measure with their process. It might help this year, particularly with the new stadium opening in the face of a ton of public skepticism. But we'll see how it works down the line.
2. New York Mets, 83-79
Ah, the Mets. The Mets have the highest ceiling of anyone in this division, maybe anyone in the NL. If all goes right, the Mets are terrifying. If Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey are all healthy and operating at peak capacity, this is could be the best rotation in baseball. But what in the world would give anyone the sense that that could possibly happen? All of them have had injury problems, haven't proven to be able to pitch at a high level for a full season, or both. The Mets' rotation is the type you dream on, the one you want to imagine being that truly dominant group you know it can be. But it's a dream. This team needs, like, an R.A. Dickey or a Lance Lynn: Just some boring dude you know is gonna throw 200 average innings and you never have to worry about it. Weird to say it: It needs a Bartolo Colon.
That's a ton of risk for one rotation, because the offense has Yoenis Cespedes and … a bunch of other question marks. Can Jose Reyes really be your leadoff man all season? Can Curtis Granderson, who is now in his late 30s, really hold up in center field? Can Jay Bruce rebound? Will Michael Conforto ever get to play?
The excitement for the Mets is based on that rotation, and I get it. But that offense -- and the questions about whether or not the organization will bring in reinforcements if needed -- doesn't look strong enough to make up for even the slightest hiccup. The Mets require everything to fall perfectly for them to be the team they expect to be. And since when does everything fall perfectly for the Mets?
1. Washington Nationals, 90-72
The injury concerns for Max Scherzer are enough to give me slight pause; this isn't the monster rotation it was a couple of years ago. (Or at least was supposed to be a couple of years ago.) And the Nationals seem to have a lot more confidence in their bullpen than the rest of us do.
But I'm still probably too low on the Nationals here. Trea Turner just makes all the difference in the world for this offense. Having a stud like him, along with Adam Eaton up top, getting on base, stealing, just causing all sort of chaos, lengthens the whole lineup and makes it dangerous top to bottom. Anthony Rendon has to have his breakout season at some point, right? Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman at Nos. 6-7 puts less pressure on the rest of the Nats' hitters, and signing Matt Wieters helped give the team more depth all around. This is a scary lineup. And they still have Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Team USA hero Tanner Roark. This looks like the best team in the NL East, and, frankly, I'm not entirely sure why anyone would think it's close.
Next Week: Looking forward to our fictional postseason.
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Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.