Edwin Diaz is such a dominant, lights-out closer right now that when he enters the game in the ninth inning, the Mets TV broadcast doesn’t even go to a commercial break. Instead, the camera follows him as he enters the field through the bullpen gate and heads to the pitcher’s mound, the stadium loudspeakers blaring Blasterjaxx & Timmy Trumpet’s “Narco,” the best entrance song in the majors.
Once those trumpets start playing, the crowd is up dancing and clapping. It’s as if the fans are already celebrating the impending victory, which is usually official after a few minutes and, as often as not, with Diaz striking out the side.
That was the case on Sunday at Citi Field. After Jacob deGrom‘s triumphant return in his first home start in 13 months, Diaz entered with the Mets leading the Braves 5-2 and struck out the heart of the Atlanta lineup — Dansby Swanson, Matt Olson and Austin Riley — on 14 pitches, the crowd erupting as Riley went down on three pitches, looking at a 101-mph fastball for the final strike.
Yes, it’s fun when you have a great closer, it’s fun when you’re winning, and it’s especially fun if you’re the Mets and you just beat the Braves four out of five in the biggest series of the season so far in the majors. The Mets played most of the first half in the shadow of their New York neighbors, with the Yankees on pace to challenge the single-season record for wins. But with deGrom back and this statement series against the Braves behind them, the Mets proved they are the best team in the NL East — and maybe even the best team in New York.
Indeed, with the Cardinals sweeping a series against the Yankees, the Mets are now 70-39. The Yankees? 70-39.
Just as importantly, this series was a chance for the Mets to prove they won’t collapse like so often in the past. On July 23, the Braves, 10.5 games back at the beginning of June, had clawed their way to just a half-game behind; they were 3.5 back at the outset of this series. Now they leave 6.5 games back against a Mets team that hit better, fielded better, managed better — and had deGrom pitching in stunning peak form.
Making just his second start of the season, deGrom retired the first 17 batters he faced, striking out 12 of them. The Braves whiffed on the first 18 sliders they swung at from deGrom, not even making contact on one until Michael Harris II fouled off two sliders in the sixth inning. In the pitch-tracking era since 2008, that was the most consecutive swings and misses against a single pitch in one game. The Braves had no chance.
Buck Showalter took deGrom out after 76 pitches when he walked Ehire Adrianza and gave up a two-run home run to Dansby Swanson, but it was a thrilling performance — a sign of what the returning ace can offer down the stretch. “I felt good all day today,” deGrom told reporters after the game. “I just wasn’t able to execute a couple pitches when I needed to, but I felt like I still had more in the tank. It’s just being smart with it now. Hopefully the next one I’ll be able to stay out there a little longer.”
By the end of Sunday’s game, the Mets pitchers had 19 strikeouts in all, tying the franchise record for a nine-inning game (the previous instances were individual game performances by Tom Seaver and David Cone).
“I just feel bad for whoever has to face him,” Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo said postgame. “He’s throwing 101, 102 up there, and 95-mph sliders and he’s locating everything. Hats off to him for getting healthy and getting back to us. He’s primed and ready to go and we feel good about him going forward.”
The return to health and dominance of deGrom is the key reason why the Mets aren’t going to … well, do what the Mets so often do, which is somehow fumble and bumble their way out of first place or a playoff position. You know, like they did last season, when they had a five-game lead at the end of July, then went 21-37 the final two months.
Over his last 33 starts — about what you would expect from a No. 1 starter over a full season — deGrom is 14-4 with a 1.49 ERA, 303 strikeouts in 198.2 innings, and a ridiculous 0.68 WHIP. Granted, we had to go back to Sept. 9, 2019, to get to 33 starts, but deGrom’s first two starts back suggest this is still vintage deGrom. Oh … and he’s really just the co-ace, as Max Scherzer this season is 8-2 with a 1.98 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 95.2 innings. In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, with a tired bullpen needing innings from the starter, Scherzer pitched seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts, so hyped up after the performance that he spent the next inning walking the Mets dugout, chattering away with his other rotation mates (and presumably telling them, “That’s how you do it”).
Another key reason this Mets team is different: Buck Showalter. He issued a masterclass in managing throughout the series. Witness:
In the first game on Thursday, with the meat of the Braves lineup coming up in the eighth inning and the Mets up 6-4, he used Diaz for a two-inning save. It was just the third time in his Mets career that Diaz had pitched two innings and the first two-inning save of his career. Showalter has said this is the time of year when you have to start thinking and managing a little differently. He wasn’t about to let the first game get away.
The Braves won the second game as Taijuan Walker got shelled, but the Mets made it interesting in the middle innings. The Braves brought in lefty reliever Dylan Lee in the fifth and Showalter countered with pinch-hitter Darin Ruf, who doubled in two runs. Eduardo Escobar pinch-hit and drove in another run, and the Mets nearly rallied from an 8-0 deficit. A point was made: If Brian Snitker makes a move, Showalter now has the bats off the bench to counter it.
In the first game of the doubleheader on Saturday, the Braves rallied in the ninth inning against the back of the bullpen to close to 8-3 with two runners on. Again, Showalter wasn’t about to let the game get away, calling on Diaz for the final two outs.
Up 4-1 in the eighth inning of the second game, pinch-hitter Tyler Naquin singled to drive in a run, and then Tomas Nido squeezed in another. That gave the Mets a little breathing room in the ninth, so they didn’t have to use any of their top three relievers (Diaz, Adam Ottavino and Seth Lugo), all of whom had pitched in the first game.
On Sunday, he stayed with the hot hand, letting the much-maligned Joely Rodriguez pitch 2.1 scoreless innings in relief of deGrom — it was the longest outing of the season for Rodriguez, who has an ERA over 5.00.
Would Showalter even use Diaz for the third time in four days? Of course. These were big games.
“It was huge,” Nimmo said. “Five games in four days against a great team is no small task, and the Braves are a great team, no question about it. But we were able to take four out of five and that really puts us in a good position.”
Yes, in years past, the Mets have been in a good position and let it slip away. But those teams didn’t have a deGrom-Scherzer 1-2 punch or the depth this team has now. They certainly didn’t have a reliever on a roll like Diaz. He’s averaging a Little League-esque 18.9 strikeouts per inning, whiffing 52.9% of the batters he’s faced. He’s working on a stretch of 18 consecutive scoreless appearances in which he’s fanned 38 batters and issued just one walk.
Sound those trumpets. The Mets are the real deal.