In the first season of a partnership between two cities that never sleep — New York and Las Vegas — it was only fitting that the 51s came alive late in their rookie year as the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate.
Reeling off 32 wins in their final 49 games — including a sizzling 18-7 mark at Cashman Field — Las Vegas finished the 2013 season with an 81-63 record that was the second-best in the Pacific Coast League and only the fourth 80-win season in franchise history.
Under the guidance of manager Wally Backman, the fiery former member of the Mets’ 1986 World Series title team, the 51s won the Pacific Southern Division title to clinch the club’s first PCL playoff berth since 2002.
Missing several key players who were called up by New York at the end of the season, the 51s lost to the Salt Lake Bees in four playoff games that were each decided by a run.
“We had to bring up some young guys who really weren’t ready for Triple A to play in the playoffs,” Backman said. “I believe the team we had before all those call-ups, we would’ve won the whole thing.”
Las Vegas promoted 19 players to the Mets last season, and several became key contributors for New York — including outfielder Juan Lagares, first baseman Josh Satin, and right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler.
“The most important thing in the minor leagues is developing players, getting them better and getting them to the next level,” Backman said. “But winning is part of development for these players. To go to the big leagues and come from winning teams is very important.
“When they learn how to win, they’re hungry. You try to instill that in players, to have that desire to win. It rubbed off last year.”
While the parent Mets suffered their fifth straight losing season last year, there was no shortage of winning teams in their farm system.
In fact, New York led the majors in most combined wins by its Triple-A and Double-A affiliates, as Binghamton finished a franchise-best 86-55 en route to a division title.
Backman said the maturation of the Mets’ farm system played a key role in the 51s’ success.
“You’ve got an organization that was always usually pretty good on the bottom levels, and the upper levels seemed to suffer. Finally the players coming through the system have really gotten on track,” he said. “There’s a good string of young talent still coming, and we’re kind of right at the peak in Triple A. It’s a very solid organization right now.”
Eric Campbell was the unlikely winner of the 51s’ Most Valuable Player award last season, when he hit .314 with 66 RBIs and led the PCL in on-base percentage (.435).
Wilmer Flores (.321, 15 HRs, 86 RBIs) and Zach Lutz (.293, 13, 80) also excelled last year for the 51s, and all three will return to help lead this season’s squad.
“These guys are close to getting to the big leagues. A lot of guys have come a long way,” Backman said. “Eric Campbell almost made the major league club. He had a great spring training and showed what he’s capable of doing.
“Here’s a guy who wasn’t supposed to get many at-bats last year, and he was our MVP. To have him back, with his leadership, those things rub off on some of the younger guys we did bring up.”
Campbell said a big factor in last year’s success was great team chemistry.
“It was the best group of guys I’ve played with in my minor league career,” he said. “That’s what helped us. We all were excited to come to the field every day because we all got along. We could joke around with each other and not take each other too serious.
“If we can jell like we did last year, I think we’ll be in the same position.”
Lutz said the tight-knit team — which led the PCL in home runs (148), RBIs (764) and runs (828) and tied for the league lead in batting (.287) — believed it was never out of a game.
“We knew if we got down a couple runs, it really didn’t matter. We knew we were going to come back and win,” he said. “That’s how we have to go about it this year. When you have that confidence as a whole team, that no matter who we play, we’re going to go out and win.
“It’s the same thing with hitting. One guy gets going, and the other guys feed off it. That’s what happened last year. We all jelled together.”
It also didn’t hurt to have a proven winner such as Backman in their corner.
“If you give 100 percent, he’ll be behind you no matter what,” Lutz said. “That’s why we went so far last year. All the guys, we busted it all year to make him proud of us and get to the playoffs. Hopefully, we can do that and go even farther this year.”
■ NOTE — The 19 players Las Vegas promoted to the Mets who started last season in the minors were right-handers David Aardsma, Gonzalez Germen, Collin McHugh, Carlos Torres and Wheeler; left-handers Tim Byrdak, Rob Carson, Pedro Feliciano, Sean Henn and Aaron Laffey; outfielders Andrew Brown, Matt den Dekker and Lagares; infielders Flores, Lutz, Satin and Omar Quintanilla; and catchers Juan Centeno and Travis d’Arnaud.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.