PHILADELPHIA -- In the 48 hours before the non-waiver trade deadline, the New York Mets' postseason aspirations seemed to crater.
Wilmer Flores was crying at shortstop during a July 29 game after hearing from fans monitoring social media that he was headed to the Milwaukee Brewers. Then the deal fizzled when Mets doctors expressed concern over Carlos Gomez's hip, leaving general manager Sandy Alderson little time to scramble and locate a desperately needed offensive upgrade in the outfield.
A day later, closer Jeurys Familia served up a three-run homer to Justin Upton with two outs in the ninth as the San Diego Padres rallied from a six-run deficit. The dispiriting loss dropped the Mets three games behind the first-place Washington Nationals entering a showdown between the National League East clubs.
One month later, the 24-year-old Flores is a cult hero. Fans chant his name on a daily basis, at home or on the road, as he steps to the plate, to express their gratitude that he so visibly wanted to remain a Met.
And the Amazin’s have made an amazing turnaround. After the Gomez debacle, Alderson landed rental Yoenis Cespedes from the Detroit Tigers 13 minutes before the trade deadline, giving up highly regarded pitching prospect Michael Fulmer. The Mets went on to sweep the Nationals that weekend at Citi Field. What had been a three-game deficit entering that weekend now has turned into a 6½-game division bulge over the underachieving Nats.
“If you’re saying it has something to do with it, I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” Flores said about his tear-filled episode. “But since that day, it’s been really fun. On the road and playing at home, it’s been really fun. I can’t tell you it was because of that.”
Asked if the past 30 days have been the craziest month he has experienced in baseball, Flores said, “Well, what happened to me, I think, is the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s in the past now. We’re fighting for a spot.”
New York has not always been an enticing place to play, thanks to blaring tabloid headlines and, shall we say, spirited fans. But fifth-year manager Terry Collins has made it a mission to change the desirability of being a Met, particularly in terms of insulating the clubhouse from negativity.
Flores’ on-field bawling because he thought he was leaving certainly suggests Collins has accomplished making Queens a desirable place to play. Heck, Flores was not the only player emotional that day about potentially leaving the Mets. Zack Wheeler, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the Mets' complex in Florida, called Alderson before the trade deadline to passionately indicate his desire to remain with the organization. Wheeler would have joined Flores in Milwaukee had the deal for Gomez gone through.
Hours before the Mets landed Cespedes, Wheeler was due to be shipped to Cincinnati for Jay Bruce. That deal ultimately unraveled too.
“I understand it’s a business. Sandy has got a job to do to make this team as good as he can,” Wheeler said. “But I’ve been with this organization through some of the growing pains. I like what Sandy has done here. I want to be a part of it because we’re about to be good this year and next year and the years after that. It’s definitely going to be fun to play here.”
“We’ve brought great personalities in the clubhouse that have lightened it up,” Collins said. “And that’s helped. Guys like to come here. Guys like to be at the park. You’ve got to have that.”
After coming within a game of the World Series in 2006, the Mets squandered a seven-game lead with 17 to play the following season and missed the playoffs. In 2008, the Mets were eliminated on the final day of the regular season for the second straight year. That led to a solemn postgame ceremony featuring Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza to recognize the closing of Shea Stadium. Since then, the Mets have endured six straight losing seasons, matching the Houston Astros for the longest active streak in the majors. Both of those streaks appear sure to end this season.
“You watch it on TV and you can just see the look in these guys’ faces. They never believe that they’re going to lose,” said captain David Wright, who rejoined the Mets this week after a four-month absence while dealing with a hamstring strain and then spinal stenosis.
Mets fans repeatedly cheered Wright on Monday in Philly during his first major league game since April 14. The captain joked after the game that he nearly became too emotional and “pulled a Wilmer Flores.”
That same game, Flores had a two-homer, five-RBI performance as the Mets overcame a five-run deficit to beat the Philadelphia Phillies 16-7. A once-moribund offense has rebounded through the trade-deadline additions of Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, the promotion of 2014 first-round pick Michael Conforto from Double-A Binghamton and now Wright’s return.
Fans particularly respond to Flores no matter the city, more so than any other member of the Mets.
“It’s really fun,” Flores said. “Even though we’re in Philadelphia, it felt like we were in New York. It’s really fun. I really appreciate the fans doing that.”