With Subway Series showing and scorching-hot June, the Mets are proving their lineup is legitimately good

After a sluggish first two months, the highest payroll in baseball is living up to its billing

NEW YORK — Mets owner Steve Cohen, the 97th-richest person in the world, gazed out at the masses from his gilded perch atop Citi Field and flashed a grin.

The view — his Mets in the process of pulverizing the crosstown Yankees in front of a sold-out summer crowd with celebrities sprinkled throughout — was a taste of what he’d envisioned when he bought the club in October of 2020.

Seated next to Cohen: former NBA player and current TV personality Kenny “The Jet” Smith, who’d thrown out the first pitch an hour before. Also in the owner’s suite were Mets Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, former Mets All-Star hurler Matt Harvey and all-NBA guard Donovan Mitchell. Mike Francesa, the retired king of New York sports-talk radio, hovered in the first row behind home plate.

The Subway Series, no matter the quality of the Big Apple ball clubs, is always a scene. Yankees fans flocked to Queens on Tuesday. Mets fans will do the same in the Bronx when the two teams face off again in a month.

But the Mets’ volcanically hot June, which has propelled them back into playoff contention, coupled with the Yankees’ recent rough stretch, made this particular showdown all the more enthralling. A month ago, the Queens club was deep in the muck, 11 games under .500 on May 29. Worse, they were a punchline, a conveyor belt of calamity. People were, understandably, dreaming up Pete Alonso trade packages.

Now that feels a universe away.

While Tuesday’s 9-7 final score implied a close contest, the Mets were in control for most of the night. They pounced early and often on Yankees starter and reigning Cy Young Gerrit Cole, who was making just his second start of the season after missing 10 weeks due to an elbow issue. Budding third baseman Mark Vientos crushed a pair of homers off Cole. Brandon Nimmo and Harrison Bader also went yard. Only a late grand slam from AL MVP frontrunner Aaron Judge, his 29th home run of the season, made things interesting late.

The atmosphere at Citi Field lived up to the moment.

“It was really cool,” Yankees all-world slugger Juan Soto told reporters after the game about his first Subway Series experience. “I feel like it was a sold-out crowd, pretty fun experience. You know, tough loss, but good energy out there.”

For first-year Mets skipper Carlos Mendoza, who spent seven seasons on Aaron Boone’s staff in the Bronx, the moment was one to savor. He entered the postgame media conference with a smile plastered across his face, one that didn’t fade as he answered questions.

“Playing against my former team, the fan bases, the electric crowd, it’s special,” he said. “We’re talking about playing summer baseball here in New York with two teams going at it. And they’re both pretty good teams.”

A month ago, nobody — not even Mendoza — would have described the Mets as a “pretty good team.” But after they posted a 14-6 record in June, that statement doesn’t feel so ludicrous now.

How the Mets resuscitated their season in four weeks isn’t actually that complicated. The offense, which was underwhelming and injured for two months, got its act together and got healthy. After Tuesday’s victory, Mendoza was asked what has enabled his lineup to maintain such a high level of play over the past month.

“It starts with having really good hitters,” he said. An obvious answer, but a good one.

The Mets entered 2024 with an estimated payroll of $326 million, the highest in the sport. One does not drop such sums on bums. This lineup began the season with 17 combined All-Star appearances, all from players 29 or older. The core of Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Francisco Lindor are all between 29 and 31. Veteran slugger J.D. Martinez was brought in late in camp to lengthen the lineup. Now-23-year-old catcher Francisco Álvarez wowed last year, smashing 25 homers as a rookie. There were enormous questions about the Mets’ pitching entering 2024, sure, but this team was supposed to rake.

Then things got off to a shaky start. Martinez missed the first month due to a back issue. Álvarez tore a ligament in his thumb and missed six weeks. Lindor, Nimmo and Alonso were fine, though unspectacular, through April and May. Stalwart second baseman Jeff McNeil was adrift. Young third baseman Brett Baty scuffled mightily until Vientos was promoted to replace him.

Health and time turned the ship around.

The Mets’ offense, which was exactly average through the end of May, has been the league’s best outfit in June. Only the Baltimore Orioles have scored more runs. No club has a higher OPS than the Mets’ .859 mark. They won’t be this hot forever — or maybe even for long — but all of this is a sign that the Mets’ lineup is legitimately good.

Of course, it’s irresponsible to squeeze too much meaning from one strong month or one galvanizing win over the Yankees. The Mets’ pitching, which has actually gotten worse over the past month, remains a huge issue. Their resurgence has been assisted by a painfully mediocre crop of National League contenders. The remainder of the season is long and full of terrors. But the energy and the outcome on Tuesday in Queens were a window into a desired future.

The Mets will never be the Yankees, no matter how much money Cohen pumps into this operation. The team in the Bronx has an aura, a brand, a presence that cannot be bought or emulated, as eye-rolling as that sounds. But on-field superiority is the best path to a foothold.

Winning brings eyeballs, respect and prestige. It also takes time, patience and continued investment, but finally, things in Queens are heading in a positive direction.