Cincinnati — Thousands of Mets fans chanted David Wright’s name as he wrapped up an on-field interview and headed back toward the sloshy clubhouse. He paused to wave and soak in the moment.
The team captain wasn’t sure he’d ever do this again, not with that last playoff appearance nine years ago. Finally, the wait was over.
As Wright’s champagne-and-beer-soaked shirt proclaimed: “The East Is Ours.”
The Mets are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after clinching their sixth NL East title on Saturday with a 10-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Lucas Duda hit a grand slam in the first inning, and Wright put the final touches on it with a three-run homer in the ninth.
“You just can’t help but smile,” said Wright, who was part of the 2006 team that reached the NL Championship Series. “For the last few months, I’ve tried to enjoy this as much as possible, soak this in. This is a surreal feeling.”
Surreal and fitting, too.
Matt Harvey (13-7) was most appropriate to pitch the clincher. He was the NL’s starter for the 2013 All-Star game at Citi Field, but needed Tommy John surgery that October and missed all of the 2014 season. Harvey gave up a pair of runs in 6-2/3 innings.
And there was Wright, capping it off after returning from a back injury in late August.
“It’s been a long time,” Wright said. “Too long.”
After two September collapses, the Bernie Madoff financial scandal and nine years of frustration, thousands of blue-clad NY fans along for the trip chanted “Let’s go Mets!” from Duda’s first swing — his first career grand slam — until the team returned to the field following a champagne celebration to high-five their supporters.
The players wore hats with “Postseason” written across the crown. New York will likely face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series.
“This is step one,” said Jeff Wilpon, the club’s chief operating officer. “Let’s get going.”
The Mets and Dodgers are neck-and-neck for home field advantage in the playoffs with a week left in the regular season, so there’s not a lot of time to celebrate.
“It’s worth all the time, all the effort, all the things you do — this is the culmination of it all,” said Terry Collins, who is heading into the playoffs as a manager for the first time. “We’re going to have a little fun tonight and relax tomorrow. Right now we have to go get home field (advantage), that’s next.”
Duda sparked a warm-up celebration with his first career slam in the first inning off left-hander John Lamb (1-4). Duda had a pair of three-run homers on Friday night. The slam gave him three homers in five at-bats with 10 RBIs.
Curtis Granderson added a solo shot, and Wright put it away in the ninth with his fourth homer since returning from the back injury.
This title was rather unexpected. Significant injuries and an inexperienced rotation played into Washington’s hands as the NL East favorite. But New York bolstered a struggling offense at midseason and beat the Nationals head-to-head while pulling away.
And finally, a long run of seasonal disappointment has ended for the Mets.
During their last postseason appearance, they lost Game 7 to St. Louis for the NL pennant. They seemed on their way to a second straight playoff appearance in 2007, but blew a seven-game lead with 17 remaining, allowing the Phillies to ascend as the division’s top team.
The next year, they faded down the stretch again. Then they got mired in a run of six straight losing seasons after they moved from Shea Stadium to Citi Field.
This season started ominously as starter Zack Wheeler and reliever Josh Edgin had elbow surgery. A young pitching staff led by Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Familia kept the Mets in contention while the offense struggled with Travis d’Arnaud, Michael Cuddyer and Wright hurt.
Everything changed at midseason when general manager Sandy Alderson traded for Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson. The infusion of hitters transformed the offense into one of the NL’s best.
It turned some heads, too.
“Certainly when we went out and got Juan and Kelly, the attitude in here changed,” Collins said. “All of a sudden guys said: ‘You know what? The organization went out and did something because they think we’re going to win this.’ And I think it changed the entire outlook in the clubhouse.”
The Mets won 33 of their first 50 games after Aug. 1. They caught and surpassed the Nationals by sweeping them in three-game series from July 31-Aug. 2 and again from Sept. 7-9, building a commanding lead. The big cushion allowed them to space out some of their young pitchers, easing their innings and keeping them fresh for the postseason.
One of Collins’ biggest challenges now is pacing his young pitchers who have piled up innings.
“One of the things we’ve had to do that’s very uncommon is juggling our pitching,” Collins said. “This time of year, it’s usually etched in stone. We’re not like that.”
They have a little time to get things in order.