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Last season, the Mets held first place in their division for four months before collapsing. They finished with a 77-85 record, their 10th losing season in the past 15. One of the biggest culprits: an offense that was one of the worst in Major League Baseball. Only three teams have scored fewer points and these teams have averaged close to 100 losses.

The Mets look drastically different this year. They have the best record in the National League. They’re only ahead of the Yankees in wins and the Yankees and Dodgers in points scored per game through Thursday. Their offense is more disciplined and patient, leading baseball in on-base percentage a season after finishing 17th in that crucial stat.

The reasons for the turnaround are many: new additions to the roster who are experienced hitters (Mark Canha, Starling Marte and Eduardo Escobar), returning players with improved performance after years of decline (Jeff McNeil and Francisco Lindor) and new batting coaches (Eric Chavez and Jeremy Barnes). Not to be overlooked, however, are plenty of deep breaths and a bit of inner talk.

Watch the Mets batting closely, and you’ll see four of their best hitters – Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Canha and McNeil – frequently come out of the batter’s box not just to readjust their batting gloves or look for signs of a coach, but also to fill their lungs with air, calm down and channel their concentration.

It’s not unique to the Mets — Boston’s Rafael Devers, one of baseball’s best hitters, does that — and it sounds simple, but “it makes a big difference,” said Nimmo, 29, an outfielder. “There’s a reason Pete does it, Jeff does it, I do it.”

“For sure it helped,” added Alonso, a first baseman. “If you look at not just us but other guys, like all athletes, they have their own way of liking it.”

During a marathon 162-game regular season, it can be difficult for even veteran players to control their emotions. A relatively healthy and capable player will amass over 600 plate appearances in a year, and each plate appearance is about four pitches. Imagine being at your peak of mental focus for at least 2,400 throws, many of which come in at over 90 miles per hour and launch in all directions and some with the game in play.

“In any situation – in any big situation – I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t beating fast enough,” Nimmo said. “You get this feeling of anxiety that comes over you. And one way to combat that is to try to take a little breath, take a deep breath and you can actually slow your heart rate down.

But it’s not just nerves that have to be fought, said Canha, an outfielder. From the start of spring training to the end of the World Series, there are nine months of near-daily play. Deliberately stopping to inhale while punching, Canha said, forces her to regroup.

“It’s so easy, day in and day out, to lose focus because it’s so repetitive and monotonous that you need something to stay connected with,” he continued. “Otherwise there are times during the season where you walk mindlessly, and it’s almost like routine, and you’re not really focused on what you’re doing. So it’s kind of a way for me to stay present and focused.

Alonso, 27, said that since his high school days he was always good at inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly while punching. Mental skills coaches, he said, helped him refine that approach along the way.

“I’m thinking about my plan in the circle on the deck, visualizing where I want to see baseball,” said Alonso, who had a strong 2021 season but is on track to top it this year (20 homers, 66 runs products, .913 on the base plus slugging percentage through Thursday). “But when I get up there, it’s basically breathing and mind-blowing. The best is when I feel like numb in the box, and I just trust what I see and go from there.

Canha, 33, said that although he has read books on breathing techniques (“this stuff is a little hokey”), he has developed his own method throughout his career.

“I make sure I always breathe,” he said. “It’s just important to inhale and hear the breath come out.”

When Nimmo first hit the big leagues in 2016, he said Will Lenzner, the Mets’ mental skills coach at the time, helped him learn more about the mental side of baseball and how this could help him gain an edge at the highest level. sport.

Nimmo said Lenzner helped him embrace visualization (the act of imagining success) and breathing techniques. On an at-bat, Nimmo comes out of the box, takes a deep breath, and then thinks, “That’s what I want to do: I want to hit a line down the middle.” He said it allowed him to reset after each throw, rather than letting his mind race with the moment.

“Slowing down your heart rate makes you think a little more clearly,” said Nimmo, who has a career on-base percentage of .388, including a .361 mark this season, during which he’s battled a few injuries. “When your adrenaline spikes and you enter an anxious fight-or-flight state, it shuts down the part of your brain that thinks critically.”

After a dwindling 2021 season in which he hit .251 with a .679 OPS, the 30-year-old McNeil is enjoying a resurgence. Among the Mets with at least 200 plate appearances this season, he leads them with an average of .327 through Thursday. His .850 OPS trailed only Alonso’s.

No Mets hitter, however, is better at calmly working a stronger opposing pitcher than Canha. Entering Wednesday, he was seeing 4.23 pitches per plate appearance, the team’s highest rating and one of the best in baseball. His .286 batting average and .378 on-base percentage trailed only McNeil.

Canha leads an offense that hit MLB’s best .283 with runners in the running position, one of the most tense moments at home plate, and has come from behind in 16 of their 45 wins. When she’s on the plate, Canha doesn’t just breathe; he also speaks to himself.

“It’s so that my shots have rhythm and I don’t forget or lose sight of what my approach is,” he said. “It’s a bit like a mantra. It’s not the same every time. It’s just like, ‘This is what you’re trying to do and stick to the plan.’

If he’s looking for a fastball down and away, Canha said he remembered it out loud. When asked if the opposing team could hear him or read his lips, he replied: “They don’t know where the ball is going anyway.”

Whether it’s with the help of a little fresh oxygen or some personal talk, the Mets know where their offense is going this season. They hope this helps them earn their first playoff spot since 2016 and possibly their first World Series title since 1986. Until then, Mets fans, take a deep breath.

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