|R.A. Dickey (right) is one of several stars Terry Collins considers a major key for the Mets. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- Left fielder Mike Baxter, the one Queens-bred kid on a Mets team as gritty as its environs, didn't hesitate to slam his shoulder into the fence and trade the next six weeks of his breakthrough season to make the catch and keep alive Johan Santana's no-hit bid. The Columbia- educated Baxter did a quick calculation: he waited more than a half-dozen years for his break, the Mets more than a half-century for Johan's no-no.
Baxter went to the disabled list Sunday with a smile. He liked his trade. He got an assist on Santana's ground-breaking night for a seat at one of the best shows in baseball right now.
"It was an honor to be part of that," determined Baxter, native of Whitestone, just a few exits up the Whitestone Expressway from here.
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It's been quite a ride for the Mets, who have taken three straight off the World Champion Cardinals and can make it a sweep today. This series started with Santana's inspiring, 134-pitch no-hitter Friday and so far has included 25 straight shutout innings by Mets pitchers -- 24 by starters -- following Sunday night's 6-1 victory.
Except, it isn't clear these Mets need any extra inspiration. They heard their fiery little 63-year-old manager Terry Collins tell them how good they are, and how good they can be, in a spring speech that was only for their ears.
Good thing, too. Because no one else would have bought it.
And, oh yeah, Collins told these Mets to pay no attention to anyone else, because the pundits know nothing about their skill and their heart. Turns out, Collins was fairly darned convincing, because pretty soon they were all buying, from the franchise player David Wright and the ultra-talented and rebuilt Santana on down to the kids, which is mostly everyone else.
"Wherever guys get the inspiration from, whether it's the us-against-the-world mentality or nobody gives us a chance, they got it," Wright said. "Let everyone else believe what they want. As long as we believe we can win, we'll be fine.''
The Mets are plenty more than fine today, as they are finally -- experts be damned -- tied atop the evenly competitive NL East, where no one has a losing record and everyone contends for now at least. We pundits must think we are looking at the list upside down, but the Mets earned their way to a tie with the talented Nationals and Marlins, meaning the third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers from 2012 have officially taken over.
Those two other teams bought and traded up a storm this winter, though, while the Mets' two biggest imports were relievers who pitched in Canada (for Toronto) last year, not exactly the way to impress the pundits. What little money the Mets had, they spent on the 'pen, which hasn't exactly thrived all the time, with its 5.45 ERA, which is nearly a run worse than anyone else in the NL.
No, it's the holdovers, the improving homegrown youngsters and healing veteran stars, that have this team rolling. Santana's ability to pitch this year was no certainty, and he is an ace again. Wright's return from a season in which he tried to play through a broken back is reminder what he can be when feeling his best -- yes, a superstar (no matter what anyone else thinks).
Collins thinks the key is the way the stars -- notably Wright, Santana and the knuckle-balling magician R.A. Dickey -- sweat and hustle that are one key to the team. Collins thinks the other key is a group of kids that played together in the minors and feel comfortable with each other, a group that procured almost without exception by previous GM Omar Minaya and is maturing now under the new regime.
But Collins is a key, too. He came in with a reputation for clubhouse combustibility from previous stops in Houston, Anaheim and Japan. But Wright said he'd be the first to admit he learned his lesson. He is beloved by the players in this stop.
"Through the good, the bad and the ugly, he's the same guy," Wright said. "That's what you look for -- a rock.''
GM Sandy Alderson, who hired Collins to manage after Minaya and Jeff Wilpon brought him in to run the farm, said the key is Collins' honesty, his effort and his all-world communication. Collins makes it a point to talk to all 25 guys each and every day. He didn't do that in Houston or Anaheim (and in Japan that would have been hard).
"We all learn from our experiences," Alderson said. Since Collins was run out of Orange County, Calif., Collins had more than a decade to think things over.
Collins brings passion now without volatility. He brings energy without craziness.
And boy has he ever mellowed. "I love what I do," he said.
Collins leads the league in tears of joy. He teared up at the end of last year when he realized that his players didn't hate him, and in fact, loved him. And he teared up again Friday upon recalling and recounting telling Santana that he is his hero.
Santana was the hero for a city begging for this game. Now he and Dickey, the only knuckleballer left in the game, are forming the most improbably, formidable top of a rotation. The group is 21-11 with a league-leading six shutouts. They are still only 13th best of 16 teams in pitching, thanks to the bullpen's transgressions. But they make up for it with an efficient offense that's third in on-base percentage (.336) and fourth in runs (239).
This 31-23 team comes through when it counts. It hits .272 with runners on base but only .251 when the bases are empty.
"I don't think we have a lot of power, and I don't think we have a lot of speed. But I think we've been a pretty good situational hitting team," Wright said. "We can't wait for a three-run home run or steal a bunch of bases. But we have to hit in situations. That's been our calling card."
Meanwhile, the confidence grows. Following this series with the Cardinals are series with the Nationals, the Yankees and the Rays. Followed by games with the Reds, the Orioles and the Yankees again. Unless someone falls from here, that's another 18 straight games against winning teams.
"This is the beginning," Wright sighed. "This is only the beginning.''
But fact is, the Mets already have 23 victories over teams .500 or better. That's a league high, so don't count them out.
You know darned well Collins doesn't. When he told the troops not to listen to the pundits, and that they are in fact a good team, he was quite convincing, the troops say.
"Absolutely, I believed it," Collins said. "I look at my lineup, and I said to myself, 'What's wrong with this lineup? Why can't we be good?'"