CINCINNATI — The home run has been their enemy and their salvation, a fickle partner that ultimately will shape their fate. But perhaps the Mets need to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Yoenis Cespedes proved the swift and cleansing powers of a well-timed homer on Tuesday night. In a 5-3 win over the Reds, the slugger’s two-run shot in the seventh sailed over the 404-foot sign in straightaway center, giving the Mets the lead for good.
It was one of four homers they used to score all five of their runs, a typical evening, for no club in baseball history has leaned upon the home run more than the Mets.
“Well, that’s what we are,” manager Terry Collins said, unsure of what to make of that distinction.
He isn’t the only one. The Mets have seen both sides of the equation, going into deep offensive droughts this season whenever the ball has stopped flying over the fence.
“I think it’s good when we’re hitting home runs,” said Cespedes, shortly after swatting his 28th homer. “But when we’re not, we need to find ways to [manufacture] runs.”
If this season has proved anything, it’s that small ball hardly fits the Mets. And they’ve shown it once more as they’ve vaulted themselves back into the playoff race, an ascent fueled largely by home runs.
The Mets (73-66) have won 13 of their last 17 games, and their victory on Tuesday kept them just one game behind the Cardinals. In that span, attrition has made a mess of the starting rotation. But the Mets have averaged 5.2 runs per game, powered by the 31 homers they bashed during a hot streak that has saved their season.
So it went again against the Reds. The Mets got only 4 1/3 innings out of Rafael Montero, who yielded three runs because he struggled once more with his command.
Yet, the Mets got homers from Curtis Granderson, Jose Reyes, Alejandro De Aza and Cespedes, whose clutch shot turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Then, with his powerful arm, Cespedes helped protect that edge in the eighth by throwing out Brandon Phillips while trying to stretch a single into a double.
Given a cushion to protect, the Mets’ bullpen made it stand up. Veteran Fernando Salas tossed a shutout seventh, giving him 4 1/3 scoreless innings in four appearances since his acquisition via a trade. Addison Reed worked an unblemished eighth.
Closer Jeurys Familia nailed down his 46th save, adding to his club record, and extending what has been a season-altering run for the Mets.
“The team right now is playing like last year’s team,” said Cespedes, the leader of an offense that a season ago also relied heavily upon the home run.
Entering play Tuesday night, the 2016 Mets scored 53.2 percent over their runs this season on homers, the highest rate in the history of baseball according to Baseball Prospectus.
But for all the grousing about finding other ways to score, the Mets historically have fared well when they go deep. Of the four other teams in franchise history that have most depended on the homer for their scoring, three made the postseason.
Two have won the pennant.
The 2015 team scored 39.7 percent of their runs on homers and the 2000 squad checked in at 39.16 percent. Both ended the season as National League champions.
In 2006, the Mets scored 38.97 percent of their runs on homers and reached the National League Championship Series.
Throughout the game, it has been an exceptional season when it comes to power, perhaps a partial explanation for the team’s extreme dependence on the long ball. If the season ended today, three of the top five teams all-time in scoring runs on homers would be from this season: the Orioles (50.86 percent), the Mariners (49.14) percent, and of course, the Mets.
For better or worse, whether the Mets finish their climb out of oblivion and reach the postseason will hinge largely on their ability to keep swinging for the fences.
“We’re not trying to do that,” said Reyes, a member of that 2006 team. “I’ve been on some good teams that have hit a lot of homers. But this one’s a little bit different.”