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NEW YORK — It was barely two weeks ago that the New York Mets were on the verge of being dismantled.
They had just come off a series in which they lost three of four to the struggling San Francisco Giants, who needed those wins to limp back to .500. It was at that point that a decision was made among the Mets hierarchy: It was time to pull the plug on the 2019 season and allow former player-agent turned rookie GM Brodie Van Wagenen a chance to remake the roster he had built over the winter.
And the most likely Met to be an ex-Met by the July 31 trade deadline was Zack Wheeler, a talented but inconsistent right-hander who was due to be a free agent at the end of the season.
The odds of Wheeler being traded were “pretty high,’’ a team official told Yahoo Sports on July 23, and the odds were nearly as high that Noah Syndergaard would soon be getting his mail at a different ballpark as well.
“If we had played better in San Francisco, maybe we’d be thinking differently,’’ said a high-ranking member of the Mets front office. “And we could have won all four of those games. But it didn’t happen for us, so this is the way we have to go.’’
But then, something serendipitous happened for the Mets between that conversation and the trade deadline: The schedule served them eight games against creampuffs -- three each against the San Diego Padres and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and two against the Chicago White Sox, two last-place teams and the third 11 games under .500.
To their credit and perhaps their front office’s surprise, the Mets won seven of them. Suddenly, the Mets were in no rush to trade anyone.
Instead of shedding players, the Mets were adding talent. Rather than breaking up a promising but underperforming rotation, the Mets chose to make it stronger. (Parting ways with Jason Vargas was considered addition by subtraction).
Since that day, the Mets have won another seven of eight, and there is no longer any reason to deny the obvious. The team that had plunged to 11 games under .500 and 14 1/2 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in mid-July, the team that had nearly fired its manager after a humiliating sweep by the Miami Marlins in May, the team that had led the league in clubhouse meetings with no discernible results for the first half of the season had battled its way back into playoff contention.
No joke. With the Mets’ 5-0 victory over the Marlins Tuesday night at Citi Field, their 13th win in the 15 games played since what appeared to be a season-ending trip dive into San Francisco Bay, now sit just 1.5 games out of the second NL wild-card berth.
Call it the law of averages -- no team can continue losing at the rate the Mets were losing for an entire season -- an anomaly of the schedule, or a mirage created by easy wins over terrible opposition -- the prospect of the Mets playing at least one game in October this season can no longer be dismissed.
And the decision to hold on to Wheeler, who pitched eight scoreless innings Tuesday and has pitched 15 scoreless innings since learning he would remain a Met through the end, looks like the best decision Brodie and his boss, Jeff Wilpon, have made since their association began last October.
“I think that when 4:01 hit that day, you saw a lot of excitement in our clubhouse,’’ Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “And the guys have gone out there and backed up the moves that we did or didn’t make, and that’s good to see.’’
That sentiment was echoed by a member of the Mets front office, who said, “The team got a huge bounce from not moving anybody. You heard it, you felt it, you saw it in our clubhouse right away. And it spurred competition among the [starting staff].’’
Since the All-Star break, the Mets starting rotation is 13-3 with an MLB-best 2.61 ERA, and since the trade deadline, Wheeler, Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have combined to allow four earned runs in 29 innings (1.24 ERA).
And if last year is any indication, Wheeler could wind up being the best of the three over the final two months of the season. Over the second half of 2018, Wheeler was the best starter on the Mets staff, going 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA, which is saying something when you consider that deGrom wound up winning the NL Cy Young.
Wheeler wasn’t great against the Marlins on Tuesday, allowing eight hits and a walk over eight innings, but his penchant for inducing ground balls, combined with the offensive ineptitude of the Marlins, continually got him out of trouble. Fifteen of Wheeler’s 24 outs came on the ground, and he was helped immensely by two double plays and a bizarre play in which Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas appeared to beat out a double-play relay, only to be felled by a hamstring strain that caused him to hop over first base and be tagged out by Mets first baseman Pete Alonso to end the third inning.
“We know how good we can be and how good we are and we’re shooting for it,’’ Wheeler (9-6, 4.20 ERA) said. “We got a good group of guys and the intensity’s up. We got a good chemistry going right now and we’re running off some ballgames and hopefully we can continue that.’’
The Mets supported Wheeler with a three-run home run by Wilson Ramos and a solo shot by Alonso, the 36th of his remarkable rookie season, and won for the fifth time in five games against the Marlins at Citi Field, and are poised to sweep the four-game series in Wednesday’s finale.
“The fact that [Wheeler] wasn’t traded is big,’’ Alonso said. “I feel like if he was gone there’d be a missing piece here.’’
The cakewalk, of course, could end at any moment; the Washington Nationals come to Flushing over the weekend and the Mets travel to Atlanta. They still have nine games left against the Braves, six against the Phillies and a visit from the Dodgers in mid-September. On the bright side, they still have four more against the Marlins on the last week of the season.
“We understand who we’ve been playing,’’ Callaway said. “But that doesn’t matter to us. We try to win every game every day and if we take that approach, you really shouldn’t worry about your opponent. As I’ve said all along, we have enough talent in this clubhouse to beat anybody.’’
A couple of weeks ago, that would have sounded like a punchline.
Now, it looks more like a threat.
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