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It is hard to make too much of this hot start for the Mets when they’ve played the majority of their games against two of the worst teams in National League. But there is also no mistaking the dramatic difference from a year ago in the way they’re playing better baseball in all phases of the game.
Maybe it has to do with Buck Showalter’s philosophy that he has stressed from Day 1. That is, do the little things well, pay attention to details, and the big things will take care of themselves when you have a roster loaded with talent.
It’s something the underachieving Mets of recent years could never get right, from making mental mistakes on the bases and on the field defensively to overthinking themselves into outs with the bats in clutch situations.
“They’re playing more crisply so far this year,” was the way one NL scout put it after watching the Mets pound the Diamondbacks 10-3 in Friday’s home opener at Citi Field. “It’s always going to look better when a team is winning but you can see Buck’s influence in some of the little things.
“I have to think some of their guys needed a manager like him to believe in and buy in for after the last few years. Look at (Francisco) Lindor. Buck was probably the right guy to talk to him about what he went through last year and help get him back on track.”
In truth, Lindor was a good bet to have a bounce-back season no matter who was managing him. It’s an old story: star player comes to New York, tries too hard to justify a mega-contract in his first year, then relaxes in Year Two and beyond.
Maybe that’s all it is with Lindor in this young season, as he’s off to a hot start, hitting two home runs on Friday and looking like the guy who earned a reputation as a superstar in Cleveland.
But it’s certainly worth noting that Showalter has repeatedly made a point of talking publicly -- and privately to players, I’m told -- about the best way to deal with the New York factor.
He always credits David Cone, whom he managed in 1995 with the Yankees, for something that he has turned into his own motto, making the point that no matter how tough the New York fans can be at times, they’re really just dying for someone to give them a reason to embrace the ballclub again.
In the case of Friday, when the sold-out crowd at Citi Field was already amped up emotionally from the unveiling of the Tom Seaver statue before the home opener, Showalter himself admitted to feeling a certain pressure to deliver a win.
“You want to do something the fans are proud of,” he said. “It’s an electric place. There’s a great sense of urgency with our fans. They’re waiting to embrace you.”
In regard to Lindor’s big day, Showalter said it again:
“The fans are waiting to embrace you and he gave them something to embrace him about.”
In some ways it may seem trite, to be sure, but Lindor probably needed to hear it after all of his problems last year, when he came off as overly sensitive about getting booed and seemed to let it affect the way he played, even lashing back with the thumbs-down gesturing directed toward fans by him and others.
Showalter knew all about it when he took the job, of course. One Mets’ person said that talking to Lindor and working on his frame of mind was “at the top of his list going into spring training.”
Maybe it mattered, maybe it didn’t. After Friday’s game, Showalter made a reference of sorts to whatever talks he had with Lindor, but in typical fashion he gave all the credit to his shortstop for recognizing the need to forget 2021 and start fresh.
“He’s very quietly been on a mission since spring training,” the manager said. “He beat me to the punch on everything I was going to say to him.”
Perhaps, but it’s hard to believe Showalter’s influence hasn’t helped Lindor gain a fresh mindset. It was noteworthy that the manager made a point of essentially saying Lindor is learning to just relax and play, rather than thinking his $341 million contract means he automatically should be the leader in the clubhouse.
“He’s in a good place mentally and emotionally,” Showalter said. “He’s comfortable with the challenge of playing shortstop for the New York Mets, and not having to be everything to everybody every second.
“What I like is that he really likes to play baseball. He’s engaged all the time in competition. It was just good to see him have a good day.”
If this is just the start for Lindor, if he plays like a star again this season, then a lot of things fall into place for the Mets offensively, especially with the veteran free agents they brought in -- Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, and Mark Canha -- who are all tough outs and so far have helped change the futility that defined the Mets’ offense last season, especially with runners on base.
It was noteworthy, in fact, that Lindor indicated he was inspired by watching Marte hitting just ahead of him in the fifth inning, fighting to foul off some tough pitches with two strikes in an eight-pitch at-bat that ended with him singling up the middle.
“I won the at-bat in the on-deck circle,” Lindor said. “I saw Marte grinding in his at-bat and I said, ‘I’ve gotta do that. I’ve gotta stay inside the baseball and give myself a chance.'”
In short, don’t try to do too much, which Lindor did so often last season. This time he was patient, worked the count full and got a thigh-high sinker that he drilled for the first of his two home runs.
“Smooth and relaxed,” the NL scout said of Lindor’s swing. “It’s a good sign for him and for them.”
Again, it was the Diamondbacks. It was Zach Davies on the mound. Yet even this early it seems significant that the Mets have the look of a winning team, especially with Lindor raising his game again.
And at least to this point it feels like the manager is a big part of it.