You can’t talk about Sunday’s 2-1 Mets win at Coors Field without acknowledging the run the Mets strung together in the second inning, built on a Pete Alonso  single, a Michael Conforto  double and well-placed Jeff McNeil  groundout. You can’t talk about the Mets taking their three-game series without taking note of J.D. Davis ’s bat making its statement via a two-out single that scored Conforto in the fourth.
Duly acknowledged and noted. Now let’s talk Mets defense.
Mets defense? That’s a thing? It hasn’t been all that much in recent years. “Where have you gone 2014 Juan Lagares ?” we might have asked as Metsopotamia turned its Gold Glove eyes to a display case gathering dust. The Mets featured few irrefutable defensive standouts once Juan began spending more time on the (then) DL than in CF. If the Mets were going to win, it would be via pitching, three-run homers and an innate hope that nobody hit the ball anywhere except right at somebody, and even then, maybe not too hard.
The spirit of the departed Lagares (himself presiding over funerals for fly balls  for the Angels before haunting their IL) was alive and well for a change in Denver on Sunday. Defense was alive and well in the field for the Mets. When you win by one run, you need all the help you can muster, and you need to not hurt yourself in the process.
I counted seven separate plays Sunday that went beyond the routine and involved something more than a catcher cradling strikes. In Saturday’s doubleheader opener, Mets pitchers, mostly Jacob deGrom , struck out 17 Rockie batters. When Jake is really on, “just don’t drop strike three” is the extent of the Mets’ defensive strategy. In Sunday’s finale, Marcus Stroman  took the mound. Marcus Stroman isn’t Jacob deGrom, and not because nobody is Jacob deGrom except Jacob deGrom. Nobody who isn’t Marcus Stroman is Marcus Stroman, either.
We’re not talking about asking for ID. Stroman approaches his outings like nobody I’ve ever seen in more than fifty years of watching Mets baseball. He doesn’t “attack” the batter or the strike zone. He attacks the entire game. If a top rope surrounded the rubber, he’d climb atop it, jump off of it, pin the batter he’s startled and egg the crowd on to chant his name. That’s “his attitude,” Conforto said of his 3-0 teammate in Sunday’s postgame Zoom, “the ultimate confidence in himself, and I think that can be contagious sometimes.” Rooting for our first-place team, we should all come down with a case of that kind of self-belief.
There may be spectacle to Stroman’s starts, but the substance is sophisticated. Maybe if Marcus thought he could strike out everybody in sight, that’s how he’d approach each encounter. But he understands his stuff and he pitches a game different from deGrom or most contemporary pitchers in the age of the K. He pitches to his strengths — “I throw an elite sinker” — and he pitches to his defense. Against the Rockies, he struck out five over eight innings, which registers at a glance as something well short of deGrominant, but Marcus’s final line tells its own something-to-love story: 3 hits, 1 walk, 1 run. And did we mention the eight innings? Stro’s ERA thus far in 2021 is 0.90. Sub-one is deGrom territory. Or deGrom/Stroman territory. Two aces will deck any opposing batting order.
Usually Stroman produces ground balls, and the bottom of every inning at Coors Field — a pitcher’s park when Jacob and Marcus are at work — involved at least one groundout. But a couple of times the ball took off in the thin air, deep into the outfield. Mets flycatchers, despite the absence of a Lagares type, were up to the challenge. Brandon Nimmo  had to hustle to deepest center to reel in a belt by C.J. Cron. Conforto had to fight the sun through his sunglasses to retire Garrett Hampson; he prayed a little, laid out a lot and took care of the mission.
Within the infield, Francisco Lindor  reminded us what a fully formed shortstop looks like. He plays a very fast game. Maybe too fast? For a skosh, I thought so when, on a potential double play ball, I saw Stroman’s fling to Lindor on a sacrifice attempt apparently bounce out of his glove. But no, Francisco had grabbed the throw and got credit for an out before the ball briefly escaped his clutches “on the transfer”. That may not be the best example of a smooth play, but it felt like Lindor knew what he was doing. What Conforto said about confidence vis-à-vis Stroman applies to Lindor. He knows what he has to do out there and he knows he’s going to do it.
Stroman demonstrates the most defensive confidence in Stroman. If he’s around a ball, he’ll be involved and he won’t worry that he’s only the pitcher. He’s a Gold Glove pitcher (2017 AL) and he trusts the fielder who was thusly awarded. On Sunday, in the seventh, Marcus had to leap high en route to first to pull down a toss from Alonso to make the first out on Ryan McMahon. He did, assuring us he can indeed do as Mountain Dew commercials once advised and get vertical. In the eighth, Stroman pivoted from 3-1 in the scorebook to 1-3, but not like you’re conditioned to expect. Josh Fuentes’s sharp grounder to Marcus’s right necessitated the pitcher make a spectacular behind-the-back stab — which he did — and then a kickball kind of pitch toward Pete (“I want it slow and bouncy”) — which he also did. “That was bizarre!” Gary Cohen marveled. But it was also effective. It was an out.
Eight innings is almost unheard of in today’s game, at Coors Field or any field, but Stro went nearly the distance. Luis Rojas, learning as he manages, left him in for ninety pitches. In the ninth, it wasn’t surprising to see Edwin Diaz  relieve him. It was a little stunning, however, to notice the Mets simultaneously make three defensive maneuvers, sending in Luis Guillorme  for Davis at third and Albert Almora, Jr. , for Nimmo in center while shifting Brandon to left in place of Dom Smith . The Mets had their defensive lineup out there.
I swear I can’t remember the last time the Mets had a defensive lineup.
Though the Mets seemed confident, and their confidence was internally contagious, no Mets fan can ever have be vaccinated with enough doses against doubt. For all the sharp plays they’d made, they were still leading by a single slender run. The Mets were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. McNeil’s calculated risk in trying to stretch a double into a triple in the top of the ninth didn’t pay off. Lindor’s offensive momentum didn’t carry over from Saturday’s big hit; he went 0-for-4 and is batting .189. As deep as the lineup looks, the Mets have scored more than four runs in a game only twice in eleven games.
Which is why, for now, the Mets have to rely on pitching and defense. Especially defense.
Diaz struck out the side Saturday. A less fresh Edwin couldn’t strike out anybody Sunday. But he had gloves on his side. Francisco took care of a liner for the first out of the ninth. Brandon, having just moved to left, raced to the wall and brought down a scarily long out for the second. Trevor Story singled to keep the Rockies alive, bringing Charlie Blackmon to the plate as the potential Sugar shocker. Blackmon could theoretically ruin the entire day and series with one swing. Never mind a Coors Field homer. A gapper could get Story on his horse and galloping for the tie. Trevor understands the dimensions as well as anybody in Colorado. He also grasps that scoring from second is an easier sprint in mile-high elevation than scoring from first.
On the first pitch Diaz threw Blackmon, Story lit out for second. Cringing replaced confidence back in New York. Great, they have a runner in scoring position was my initial reaction, brewed with only the most natural ingredients of Rocky Mountain water, Moravian barley and Mets fan anxiety born of perennially porous defense.
But what’s this in my mug? It’s James McCann  — @McCannon33 to his tweeps — rising and throwing and gunning to second. And it’s Francisco Lindor, swiftly covering, catching and tagging. In a blink, Story is out and the game is over. A couple of extra blinks are required partly because replay review has to be fired up and partly because we are rubbing our eyes from a touch of disbelief.
Yup, he’s out, and yup, we won a defensive struggle . We have a defensive lineup. We have gloves and players who know how to use them. And we finished off our Sunday on a play that rarely finishes off any Met day. Some helpful Twitter researchers and an additional dive into Baseball-Reference’s Stathead service indicated this was only the eighth time a Met catcher recorded a caught stealing to seal a victory. Jerry Grote did it first, in 1968. Omir Santos had done it most recently, in 2009. In between, there were Duffy Dyer in 1970; John Stearns in 1976; Mike Fitzgerald in 1984; Gary Carter in 1989; and, in his brief recidivist return, Kelly Stinnett in 2006. I was at what we’ll call, for our purposes today, the Stinnett game , versus the Dodgers at Shea. The Santos game , too, against the Brewers at Citi. They were smashing notes on which to exit the ballpark, but they didn’t necessarily seem to capture the Metgeist of their moment. I looked up what I blogged in the one-run victory recaps that followed and didn’t think to mention either throw.
McCann to Lindor, however, felt like something that tells us something about these Mets and their latest one-run win. They’re not scoring a ton, but they are winning a lot, even if it’s not by a lot. Sunday’s was the Mets’ fourth one-run win out of a total of seven. They’ve pitched, defended and edged their way into a division lead. It’s early. But it’s confidence-inspiring.