Nieuwenhuis and the Mets win, convincingly

Kirk Nieuwenhuis. (mlb.com)
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The Mets began the season 18-13, putting them just 0.5 games out of first place in the National League East. But they'd scored 128 runs and allowed 146. To some stats nerds, this suggested that there was something flukey about their performance.

Then the Mets seemed to prove the nerds right, going 14-16 in the period that ended Sunday with a sweep by the Yankees. Over that stretch they'd scored 134 and allowed 135. 

Then came a three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays this week, punctuated by a 9-6 victory on Thursday afternoon. The Mets outscored Tampa Bay, 29-9, and have now scored more runs than they've allowed on the season. The Mets are 35-29.

Scoring aside, there were lots of other encouraging indicators in the Tampa series. The Mets won on Thursday even though Johan Santana did not pitch particularly well, leaving an 8-4 game in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and nobody out for Jon Rauch. The struggling reliever got the Mets out of the jam, and the bullpen kept Tampa Bay off the board until the ninth inning, when they scored a pair of runs off of Miguel Batista, horribly miscast as a setup man.

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The Mets got two home runs from Kirk Nieuwenhuis, whose combination of offense and defense has made him one of the most valuable Mets outfielders, along with Scott Hairston.

As for a pair of Mets who were expected to contribute significantly to the 2012 team, there were encouraging signs as well. Jason Bay, who had been 1-for-21 since coming off of the disabled list last week, hit a home run, and against a right-handed pitcher to boot. (Righties had been especially perplexing to Bay since he joined the Mets.)

Ike Davis reached base three times, drove in two runs, and saw his batting average reach .188. If that seems unimpressive, consider that his average hasn't been that high since May 1, and that also represented the highest his average has been at any point all season.

If Davis and Bay begin to hit, the Mets will find themselves with a legitimate middle of the order, instead of a patchwork support for David Wright, who has been hitting all season. 

An elite offense and starting pitching the likes of which they've received so far from Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee could be enough to overcome an awful bullpen and terrible defense by these same hitters to keep the Mets interesting all year long.

There's no guarantee things will continue this way. But it can no longer be said that the Mets are outperforming expectations by winning more than their share of close games. 

They're simply winning, period.

Elsewhere in New York sports:

YANKEES

The Yankees take on the Washington Nationals Friday night. They'll do so with David Robertson, who returned from the disabled list, but without David Phelps, who is going back to the minor leagues to get stretched out in case the Yankees need another starter at some point. He's quite an insurance policy. Brett Gardner, alas, is still at least several weeks from a return.

SOCCER

In Euro 2012, Croatia tied Italy to stay at the top of their very strong group, and Spain opened up Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland.

The Red Bulls, who return to M.L.S. action on Sunday in Chicago, did not deny interest in Stephen Ireland, who Aston Villa has been shopping. Ireland would be a good fit for the Red Bulls, who have a Designated Player slot open for him.