WASHINGTON — The day before this new season began, Yoenis Cespedes, the New York Mets’ slugging outfielder, surveyed his team, its health and the new manager, Mickey Callaway.
And after the Mets toppled a divisional rival, the Washington Nationals, 6-5, late Sunday night to cap a three-game sweep, Cespedes repeated his claim. This time he had a little more proof.
“In my six years in the major leagues, this is the best team I’ve ever been on,” said Cespedes, who drove in the winning run in the 12th inning. “We’ve been showing it, and we will keep proving it.”
The Mets, whose implosion in 2017 is still bitterly remembered, are now one of the winningest teams in the major leagues. Entering Monday, the Mets, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox were the only teams that had won at least 80 percent of their games this year. And with a 4-2 win Monday night against the Miami Marlins, the Mets improved to 8-1 for the first time since 2006.
The victory over the Nationals (5-5), winners of four of the past six National League East crowns, epitomized the Mets’ formula so far this year: timely hitting, a stout bullpen, imperfect but inspired play, and the Midas touch of Callaway. The Mets’ hot start has been accomplished with limited contributions from some of their best players, such as pitcher Noah Syndergaard; outfielder Michael Conforto, who returned Thursday from shoulder surgery; and Cespedes.
“This team has got all the right pieces,” said Adrian Gonzalez, a first baseman new to the team who has reached the playoffs five times in his career, most of them with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The right pieces, in his mind, include capable pitching and hitting, experience and youth, and leadership from the front office to coaching staff.
“I’ve played on talented teams but talent doesn’t create a good team,” he said. “We have a good team. You can tell we’re structured well.”
Callaway’s style and tactics have been welcomed by several Mets players.
“He’s a young manager who understands modern baseball well,” Cespedes said recently of Callaway, who replaced Terry Collins, the oldest manager in baseball. “He communicates well and gives us a lot of confidence.”
Many young managers endure growing pains in their new jobs (see: Gabe Kapler of the Philadelphia Phillies), and Callaway hasn’t been perfect. But he has pulled the right strings often with lineup decisions and pitching changes, and the team’s talent has helped.
“It’s the players,” Callaway said. “They’re doing the job. It’s almost like you can throw anybody in that situation and they get the job done.”
Callaway, the former pitching coach of the Cleveland Indians, has deftly run the Mets’ bullpen, usually the trickiest bit of strategy for a manager during the game, and he has gotten relief pitchers to buy into the fluid roles of modern baseball.
In commending Callaway over the weekend, Mets relief pitcher Jeurys Familia, perhaps inadvertently, made comments viewed by some fans as a subtle criticism of Collins. “You can see the difference,” Familia said of Callaway. “He knows what he’s doing over there and it’s working. So far everybody is doing good in the bullpen.”
Following one of the worst-pitched seasons in Mets history, the rotation has been solid (3.09 earned run average).
The bullpen, on the other hand, has a 1.21 ERA, second best in baseball. Two off days and a snowed-out game have allowed Callaway to rely heavily on Familia and relief pitchers, a luxury he will not be afforded during the meat of the season.
Seth Lugo, who was supposed to be the fifth starter to open the season, has been a godsend as a versatile reliever, as has Robert Gsellman, another past starter. They have combined to allow just one run over 12 innings.
“We’re very proud of roles, the work we put in, and it’s been good to see it translate on the field,” Lugo said.
Health will likely be the biggest determinant in the success of the Mets this season. The medical staff was overhauled in the winter, and general manager Sandy Alderson spent nearly $89 million to improve the team by signing players such as pitcher Jason Vargas and Gonzalez.
“For me, it’s the length of our lineup that has really impressed me,” said outfielder Jay Bruce, who re-signed with the Mets this winter. What Bruce meant is the improved depth and quality of a lineup in which, for example, Brandon Nimmo is not a regular outfielder since Conforto’s return but has the talent to start.
This week will bring the Mets a long awaited but somewhat ceremonial moment. The Mets need a fifth starter on Wednesday against the Marlins while Vargas recovers from a hand injury, so they will call up Zack Wheeler, who struggled in spring training, from Class AAA Las Vegas for, at least, one start.
Time and injuries have changed some of them, but Wheeler’s return to the major leagues will mean that the Mets’ big five starters — Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Syndergaard and Wheeler — will finally all pitch in the same rotation.
After the win Sunday, Harvey said a message had been sent across all of baseball about the Mets. He applauded the attitude of Callaway, the coaches and his teammates.
“It’s nice to come in here and have fun with everybody once again,” he said. “It’s been a long time since that’s happened. We’re pushing, and we’re pushing each other.”
Before the season began, the Nationals were the prohibitive favorites to repeat as division winners and contend for the World Series because of talented All-Stars such as outfielder Bryce Harper, who is perhaps the hottest hitter in baseball now; starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg; first baseman Ryan Zimmerman; and second baseman Daniel Murphy, a former Met who has yet to play this season because of knee surgery. Across the division, the Phillies improved over the winter, and the Atlanta Braves have hit well to start the season.
Following the weekend sweep, Callaway was more realistic about the division landscape and the Nationals than some of his enthusiastic players.
“There’s a ton of season left and they have a really good team,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.