Time to face the possibility the Mets are for real this time

Mets manager Buck Showalter has his team atop the NL East standings early in the season. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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Mets manager Buck Showalter has his team atop the NL East standings early in the season. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Mets beat the Phillies the other day by scoring seven runs in the ninth inning. Good for them. At least they have a May memory to cherish before the many blown leads to come. The Mets began Tuesday with a six-game lead in the National League East. Looking forward to seeing when and how they inevitably collapse.

I’m not trying to be funny. I’m just sticking with my baseline assumption that, no matter how good the Mets look on paper and regardless of what’s happening now, something eventually will go wrong. The Mets used to make me look bad for believing in them. Eventually I learned the Braves are a much better bet. They haven’t disappointed, save for that nightmarish Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the 2019 division series.

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But now the Mets are rolling, and the Braves are meandering. I know, I know. It’s early, and these are the Mets. They fall on their faces so often that entering “Mets collapse” into Google prompts the search engine to offer several different seasons as suggestions. You have to be more specific. Last year, the Mets had a five-game lead at the end of July. They finished 11 ½ games behind the East champion Braves.

That history is why I went looking for reasons why New York’s hot start is smoke and mirrors. There must be some clear signals that what we’ve seen from the Mets over the first 30 games can’t possibly be sustained over the next 132. Surely the Braves, who played the Mets to a four-game draw last week, still don’t need to worry about their hated rivals being a serious threat.

I regret to report that I haven’t found much to doubt about the Mets. Instead, I see a ballclub that’s already had its usual share of bad luck but just keeps on winning. It’s time to contemplate the possibility that the Mets are for real this time.

The annual injury to one of their top pitchers happened during spring training. Jacob deGrom, a two-time winner of the NL Cy Young Award, is on the 60-day injured list. New York’s starting rotation still has been elite. How good will it be once deGrom makes his expected return by June?

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The Mets are scoring a lot of runs without hitting for much power. They had the fifth-most runs scored in MLB entering Tuesday while ranking tied for 17th in home runs and tied for 20th in extra-base hits per at-bat. How many runs will the Mets score once more of their big boppers get going?

Then there are the intangibles. Braves observers know what can happen when a ballclub discovers the right mix of the mysterious thing known as team chemistry. The Mets may have found it with manager Buck Showalter. He’s drawing rave reviews for his handling of the team after the past two Mets managers weren’t up to the job.

After the Mets rallied to win in Philly, Showalter told reporters he was trying not to get ahead of himself. It’s a long season. There are lots of games left. But Showalter had to admit the game was an example of how the Mets have something good going.

“A night like tonight makes you realize what could be,” Showalter said.

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In some ways, that’s a strange sentiment for a team that likely will outspend everyone except the Dodgers on player salaries this season. The Mets hardly are scrappy underdogs who need magic to win. But it’s not so weird for the Mets to think that way. After years of expensive underachieving and lousy luck, I can’t blame them if they see that comeback as evidence that things will be different this year.

Look close enough and you can find some reasons to think a regression is coming for the Mets. Innings pitched by starters is at the top of the list. The Mets ranked third in the majors in that category entering Tuesday. That’s a good thing in isolation. In context that could become a problem for the Mets, and especially right-hander Max Scherzer.

Scherzer, 37, signed with the Mets in December. He has a 2.92 ERA through six starts. But he’s pitched more than 2,500 career innings and ranks among the MLB leaders in innings early this season. A dead arm prevented Scherzer from pitching an elimination game for the Dodgers against the Braves in the 2021 NL Championship Series. It’s doubtful he can keep up his current innings pace and still be available when the Mets need him most.

If Scherzer and his rotation mates can’t keep carrying a heavy load, then Showalter will have to rely more on his thin bullpen. That could be an area where team owner Steve Cohen’s willingness to add salary could come in handy. But Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has noted that trading for relievers is hard because nearly every contender is looking for bullpen help.

Mets closer Edwin Diaz has been very good. His track record indicates that won’t change. Journeyman lefty Chasen Shreve is pitching well above his career norms. The amount of hard contact he’s allowed suggests that won’t last. If he regresses, the Mets won’t have a lot of good options to cover important innings, even if Trevor May (arm) returns within two months as projected.

Those are the kind of problems faced by every team. They must seem like nothing for the Mets after so many years of injuries, underperformance and team owners getting caught up in Ponzi schemes. The Mets have a shot to win their first division title since 2015, when they went on to win the NL pennant.

That was an outlier for the Mets. They didn’t make the postseason from 2007-14. They were shut out at home in the 2016 wild-card game. They couldn’t finish better than third in the East from 2017-21. Last year the Mets never looked great even while leading the East for weeks. Then they fell apart while the Braves surged.

Now the Mets are surging while the Braves are plodding around the break-even mark, just like last season. I still think the Braves will find their footing. This time they may not be able to rely on something going wrong for the Mets, like usual.

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