By Ernie Palladino
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Every once in a while, you see a spark.
Not a full-fledged flame, of course. Just a flicker of hope that doesn’t necessarily spring off the flint that is the magnificent Matt Harvey.
And then, like after the Mets’ 2-1 victory over the Rockies Thursday, you wonder if the young and hungry future at Citi Field isn’t brighter than the one that looms over the ever-aging, often-injured squad that plays at Yankee Stadium.
And then the manager springs to mind. Should the Mets keep Terry Collins after this year, when some money for real players becomes available? Or should they just assume they’ve seen the best out of him and try to find the next Tony La Russa to take this development project the rest of the way to the postseason?
If this was the end of May, the question would hold no interest of all. Of course, launch Collins. He was on the verge of losing the locker room, the Mets were playing Double-A level ball, and the record stunk.
But things change during a baseball season. When a team appears to turn things around, it’s up to management to analyze that reversal; determine whether it’s a function of playing loose in a lost season, or whether the young talent that held together those preseason hopes has truly started to develop.
It’s why Sandy Alderson gets the big bucks. And right now, Collins and his team are giving him much to consider as this season winds down, not the least of which is the question of just how far Collins can take this group.
Thursday’s 7 2/3-inning, one-run, eight-hit gem from Dillon Gee, which followed Harvey’s first career complete-game shutout, put the Mets at 52-60. They most likely won’t finish at .500 this season, thanks to that disastrous first half of the season. But they are 12-10 post-All-Star break, and 19-15 since July 1. And they are 27-21 since their doubleheader sweep of the Braves on June 18.
These days, it’s the Yanks who look like the minor league team, and not because of A-Rod’s PED issues.
The Mets have flourished in the summer months. Over the last 30 games, center fielder Juan Lagares has rolled up a .342 average with 12 RBI. Daniel Murphy is hitting .314 over the same span with three homers and 18 RBI. Marlon Byrd, another member of that dugout whose future Alderson will have to consider at the end of September, has hit .300 with four homers and 17 RBI.
Even Ike Davis has joined in after a demotion-stained first half with a .279 BA.
Aside from Harvey, in a class by himself at 2-1, 0.91 ERA over his last four starts encompassing a tick under 30 innings — that’s seven-plus innings per start — the Mets have benefited from Gee’s 1-1, 2.62 resurgence. Jenrry Mejia has come in nicely in three starts for a 1-1, 1.98 mark. Zack Wheeler, the No. 2 man in the Harvey-starred future, must still conquer some control issues, but has looked good enough at 2-1, 3.34 over five starts.
With Jon Niese set to return Sunday against the Diamondbacks as a sixth starter, it is undetermined how the others will fare with extra rest. But then, how he handles his rotation from here on out could become a factor in Collins’ future.
One important facet should catch Alderson’s eye even now, however. The Mets fight. They don’t hit for power. Sometimes they don’t even hit for average. For proof, reference the majority of Harvey’s starts or the two measly runs they scratched out without benefit of a hit Thursday.
But they tend not to give up. They’re fourth in the NL with a 2.87 ERA in 47 extra innings this year, over 15 games. A number of those have been because of comebacks. One, against the Marlins, went 20.
That isn’t conducive to a great record. But it does show that Collins indeed has his players’ hearts and minds.
The question will soon involve whether all that is worth keeping the current skipper around. Can he actually win if the Mets get some real power in the lineup, if they bulk up their bullpen, and add one more quality starter over the offseason?
The answer will determine Collins’ future. For now, he has them playing winning ball, which is a lot more interesting than what the first half at Citi Field offered. That, alone, should serve as a check-mark in favor of some job security.
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