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Mets hoping bats get hot as they open second half in Pittsburgh

Michael Conforto of the New York Mets follows

Michael Conforto of the New York Mets follows through on a three-run home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Mets are in first place, and they know they are in first place, but forgive them if they aren’t aware of the specifics beyond that.

"I haven’t really heard the guys talk much about the standings or how many games up we are," Michael Conforto said Sunday, before the Mets went their separate ways for the All-Star break. "I couldn’t even tell you how many games up we are."

The answer, for the record: The Mets lead the NL East by 3 1/2 games over the Phillies. Atlanta and Washington are within striking distance, too, but none of the division rivals have inspired confidence through three and a half months.

That puts the Mets in prime position for a postseason push beginning Friday, the unofficial start of the second half, when they visit Pittsburgh for a three-game series against the Pirates.

Coincidentally, they wrapped up their pre-break schedule against the lowly Pirates, too, so it’ll be seven straight games against them. But they managed only a split of the four games at Citi Field. After a few days of rest — and watching from afar as Pete Alonso won his second consecutive Home Run Derby — they will try to do better, especially at the plate.

In the first half, the Mets averaged 3.76 runs per game. That was second-worst in the majors behind only, yes, the Pirates (3.54).

"We’ve got a lot of great hitters," Conforto said, "that haven’t quite hit their stride yet."

As Conforto admitted, he is very much among them. He is batting .202 with a .646 OPS, both the worst marks of his career and far from what he expected in a contract year. Manager Luis Rojas said he appears to be turning it around, citing a walk on Saturday and a home run (his first since May 1) on Sunday, after working to fix a timing issue that has plagued him all year.

"You could see it in his eyes," Rojas said Sunday. "It was very relieving that he got the three-run homer. He was really happy. Everyone was pumping him up."

Conforto isn’t alone. Francisco Lindor has a .227/.326/.377 slash line, all personal lows, but has improved from April (.542 OPS) to May (.637) to June (.765) to July (1.015 in 11 games). Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith also have underperformed relative to their track records but have shown signs of improvement lately.

Despite all of the above, plus a wild rash of injuries, the Mets will have been alone in first place for 68 days by the time they play Friday.

How have the Mets overcome so much adversity?

"You gotta single out a guy like Lindor, because he keeps things light," Rojas said. "He talks to everyone the same. The new person coming in is going to get to see him, and he’s going to make that person feel really comfortable. The whole team does, too, but he’s one of the guys that you call a leader in there that makes everyone feel comfortable."

Speaking of those new people: The Mets have had plenty. They already have used 51 players. The franchise record is 56, set by the 2018 team.

The last major missing piece among position players is J.D. Davis, who has missed more than two months with a sprained left hand. The Mets expect him back Friday — that should help with the offense, too — but Rojas noted last week that he will be part of a rotation at third base.

Rojas is inclined to stick with what got the Mets here.

"Blending the pitching and the defense is always going to put us in a position to win games," he said. "Even though the offense has been lacking and underperforming — we can call it that, it’s fine — we have guys that are going to start hitting."

If they do start hitting, it will help the Mets in their quest for a third division title in 30 years.

"We know the bats are going to get hot," Conforto said. "The rest is staying healthy and playing way we know we can."

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