CHICAGO -- Zack Wheeler wasn't really supposed to be in Chicago on Thursday. The New York Mets aren't really supposed to be part of this season's postseason picture. But Wheeler was in Chicago, putting up seven zeros, and the Mets have won seven straight. None of this was supposed to happen, but it has.
At this point, it's fair to ask: Just how amazing can these Mets be?
"[It feels] good," Wheeler said on Thursday, after throwing seven shutout innings on just 88 pitches in a 4-0 Mets win over the Chicago White Sox. "Winning some ballgames. Pitching is clicking. Hitting is clicking. Guys out there in the field today made some amazing plays."
To be clear, it's too soon to get excited. At the very least, you can give credit to the Mets' players and manager Mickey Callaway for hanging in during a season that just about a month ago appeared to be completely off the rails. In fact, that off-the-rails moment happened the last time New York visited Chicago.
Just to refresh your memory, it was a Sunday getaway day at Wrigley Field, June 23 to be exact. The Mets lost to the Cubs that day, then after the game, Callaway and pitcher Jason Vargas got into it with a beat reporter. The loss that day turned out to be the first in an eight-game losing streak. Eventually, the Mets thudded to 11 games under .500 that left them with the second-worst record in the National League.
From that off-the-rails moment, the Mets got back on track to the point that they may have saved their season. New York has won 12 of 16 and the current seven-game spree is the Mets' longest since April of last season. They've closed back to within two games of .500 and, pending Thursday evening's play in the Senior Circuit, New York is just four games back in the National League wild-card chase.
While the contributions have been coming from everywhere, it has been the Mets' vaunted starting pitching that has been fueling the current run, just as it was designed to do. New York leads the majors with a 2.56 ERA since the break. Its team home run rate (0.78 allowed per nine innings) is almost half the league rate during that span (1.42). The starters have given up just seven homers in 113⅓ innings while posting a 2.22 ERA -- best in the majors by more than half a run -- and are averaging a MLB-high 6⅓ innings per outing.
"The pitching staff overall, and certainly over the second half of the season, has shown us signs of what we thought we could be early in the year," general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said after Wednesday's trade deadline had passed. "We are excited to continue that momentum as we go forward over the next several days."
Van Wagenen lauded the team's play during his teleconference, which took place about an hour after everyone found out that the Mets' lone substantial moves during the deadline period were to send Vargas to the Philadelphia Phillies and acquire Marcus Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays to take his place. It's a fairly marginal upgrade -- Vargas had been solid -- but more importantly perhaps, it was a vote of confidence for a roster that hadn't done much to earn one before the recent surge.
"The move to bring Marcus in was not just a 2019 focus," Van Wagenen said. "There is really benefit to where we are at in the standings now, thanks to the attitude and energy and effort our team has put forth since the All-Star break. But this was a now-and-next year look."
As much as you might want to dismiss the 2019 Mets, dwelling on their murky organizational strategies and off-field dramas, you have to pause when you consider the fact that New York is one of the few teams in baseball right now that can trot out a quality seven-inning starter from all five spots in the rotation. If that fivesome gets on a roll, it can paper over a whole lot of other shortcomings on the roster.
Wheeler's gem came a day after a fine outing from ace Jacob deGrom and two days after an excellent showing from Noah Syndergaard, perhaps his best of the season. Steven Matz threw a complete-game shutout in his most recent outing against the Pirates and is slated to take the mound in Pittsburgh on Friday, when the Mets begin a weekend set at PNC Park. Then, on Saturday, Stroman -- who ranked fifth in the American League in ERA before being dealt to the Mets -- will make his debut with the club.
For Wheeler, who reportedly was all but on his way to St. Louis, according to the Athletic, Thursday's was a dominant outing. His game score (73) was his best since April 23 and the 10th best of his career. After being the subject of countless trade rumors for the past month or so, could the passage of the deadline preceding his dominant start merely be a coincidence? Was he consumed with relief?
"Not really," Wheeler said. "I go out there every time just to win a ballgame."
OK. Zack doesn't want to play along, but Callaway said, "Outstanding. That was probably one of the better games I've ever seen him pitch. Relaxed, fluid, just executing pitch after pitch, not overthrowing at all. Kept his pitch count down. Just a tremendous job today."
An addendum to the Mets' hot streak has been an uptick in defensive play. New York's batting average allowed on balls in play ranks third in the NL since the break. On Thursday, shortstop Amed Rosario, whose defensive metrics have sparked discussion of a position change, made a couple of fine plays. And utility player and all-around-gritty performer Jeff McNeil made a play that is definitely going to be a thing going forward.
Call it a net catch. The White Sox made Guaranteed Rate Field the first ballpark with extended netting all the way to the foul poles, a look that debuted after the All-Star break. The goal obviously is to protect the fans. But here's a consequence nobody considered: In the fifth inning, McNeil, playing in right field, raced toward the stands in pursuit of a curling fly ball up the line off the bat of Chicago's Eloy Jimenez. Running out of room near the stands, McNeil lunged to make the catch and threw himself over the rail and into the netting, which caught him and very gently rolled him back onto the field.
"That was awesome," Callaway said. "Maybe all fields should have that. It actually maybe saved him from getting hurt. You can kind of commit and it'll soften up like diving into a trampoline at a circus. Not only saving the fans, but maybe we're saving the players."
Indeed, it was a happy and smiling Callaway conducting his postgame interview, just seven miles south from where his darkest moment as the Mets' manager unfolded five weeks ago. It seems like a different season from the one New York is now playing. Free of trade rumors and buoyed by positive on-field results, the Mets are playing like a different team.
And yet we have to check ourselves. The Mets are playing their best ball of the season, but are still two games below break-even and in fourth place in the NL East. Entering the day, Baseball-Reference.com gave them just a 5.8% shot at the postseason. For this to really get serious, New York is going to have to keep this roll going, then when it ends, go on another one. The best thing, really, is to not get to far ahead of themselves, even when a nightmarish season suddenly has started to morph into something pleasant.
Luckily, Callaway says, the Mets have that part of it covered.
"I feel like we're kind of flowing at this point," Callaway said. "Obviously still not where we wanted to be at this point, but you can't worry about what's happened. All you can do is keep pushing forward. I feel like the players are focused on that. Winning the next game, winning the next pitch. Executing the next pitch.
"If we continue to do that, we have the personnel that can get to where we ultimately want to go. And that's to get to the playoffs and make a deep run."
Likely? No. But the fact that it no longer feels impossible is an accomplishment in and of itself. You might even say it's kind of amazing.
"Honestly, I would say that it's clicking together, defense and offense and pitching," said veteran Robinson Cano, who homered on Thursday to open the scoring. "The good thing about this team is that we always stay positive. We have a great chemistry here. When you win, you get to celebrate."