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Only the Strong Survive

Everything is a small sample size if you want it to be. Nothing proves anything until it does. After 20 games of 2015, when the Mets were 15-5 and led the last-place Nationals by eight lengths, it indicated they were gonna run away with the National League East — but it proved nothing. After 102 games of the same season, when the Mets were 52-50 and trailed the first-place Nationals by three, it indicated the Mets were in for a dogfight — but it proved nothing.

After 162 contests, the Mets had won their division by seven games over the Nationals. That proved something, at least until Game One of the NLDS, at which point you could throw away all the regular-season records because they didn’t mean a damn thing. As long as you’re still playing, every game is scheduled at the historic Proving Grounds.

In this context, eighteen games is but a drop in the baseball bucket. One-hundred forty-four games remain in 2016 and are capable of negating anything that came before them. Plus, the Department of Rational Thought requires I reiterate that it’s still early. Yet eighteen games is a sample size. It is one-ninth of the schedule, and we know how ninecentric baseball can be, particularly in the only league that plays the game correctly. Though the season just started nine minutes ago, look at it this way: if you take how many games we’ve already seen and do the same amount eight more times, we’ve got 162.

Geez, that went fast.

We’re not there yet, but we’re somewhere. We’ve eked into standings territory. It’s OK to look and take them a touch seriously. I mean, why not? It’s what we’re going to be doing for the next five months and change with any luck. So let’s see where we are after Monday night’s 5-3 victory over the Reds [1] at Citi Field.

Second place in the N.L. East.
Three games behind Washington.
First in the Wild Card race.
One game ahead of Pittsburgh for home field.
One-and-a-half games ahead of St. Louis and Arizona for a playoff spot.

Granted, “if the season ended today” talk is ridiculous (and depressing) on the morning of April 26, but there appear to be some reasonable indicators in the standings. Today’s playoff participants would be us, the Nats, the Bucs, the Cubs and the Dodgers, with the D-Backs and Redbirds hovering directly to the rear. No projected non-contenders in there. The only perceived good National League team not above .500 is San Francisco, and they’re 10-11, a scant 2½ behind L.A.

It’s early, but it’s not so early anymore that we can’t begin crafting a few impressions of what this team of ours is like besides fairly hot (9-2 since starting 2-5).

We can pitch, which isn’t a surprise. The question is can we pitch the lights out of every ballpark every night or do we simply have better than average arms doing better than average things? The latter isn’t bad, but we hunger for all-time validation. It’s what was on the preseason menu. Monday night, Noah Syndergaard [2], one of the handful of best pitchers in the world in April, didn’t flirt with perfection. It was, I have to admit, a bit disappointing. We’re at that stage with Thor that when he hasn’t retired 18 of 19, something seems Thor-oughly off. Runners got on against Noah. They also stole at will. Somehow Cincy tied the game while he was the pitcher of record.

How dare this happen! Or it shows that when things go a little wrong for Thor, the sky mostly stays aloft. The kid (which he still is, last I checked) lasted six-and-two-thirds, was charged with three runs, walked nobody and struck out nine. That’s not too bad, even if your name is Noah Syndergaard.

Not a single Met has thrown a perfect game in 2016, but hardly any of their starters has pitched us out of a chance to win yet. Let’s go with that for now as a trend and take it on faith that everybody in this rotation is going to have a good night almost every night. We should survive quite nicely.

Whereas the pitching strongly resembles the strength of 2015 (give or take an ace or two still working out some bugs), the hitting is diverging from its predecessor. The biggest difference between now and then is Michael Conforto [3], certified No. 3 hitter and perhaps the best addition to the lineup. Conforto is not new, but, like Thor, he has evolved and developed and is a threat to do whatever it takes in a given situation. He hits. He hits with power. He hits to the opposite field. He hits the ball hard. He’s really quite the find. I worried too much would be put on him entering his first full season. I was haunted by the ghost of sure thing Gregg Jefferies [4] and how 1989, his first full season, came crashing down on him and us. Early but solid impressions say Conforto ain’t Jefferies — and Jefferies had himself a pretty good career after a fashion.

The other upgrade to the power-packed assemblage of bats is Neil Walker [5]. Neil is on pace to hit 72 home runs, and if the wind is blowing out, watch out Barry Bonds [6]! “On pace” silliness notwithstanding, you have to love this guy’s April and feel confident that he’ll stay steady if not spectacular as his Month of Living John Buck [7]-ily turns to May. He seems to know what he’s doing up there and out there.

And, yes, I said upgrade. No offense to the second baseman he succeeded. I’ll take my chances with steady.

The Mets as a whole pound the bejeesus out of the ball when they must. That’s how they won against the Reds, with Conforto, Lucas Duda [8] and Walker each going very deep. It makes a nervous person overlook the leaving runners on base when not homering. It also allows five bases stolen against Thor and Travis d’Arnaud [9] to go for happy naught, though you can’t be happy five bases were stolen on the catcher of the present/future. Word eventually came around that Travis is experiencing some shoulder discomfort. Like Yoenis Cespedes [10]’s right leg needing draining and sitting (and the continued uncertainty over David Wright [11]’s durability), that’s a cause for concern, with 144 games to go.

We can’t see all that’s ahead of us, but we’ve seen enough to feel OK. Better than OK, actually. That feels fine for now.