But they won their first four games of the season against a pair of division favorites, and just like that, Flushing was buzzing again. At the end of May, they were threatening to rise to first place. By the end of June, they were legitimate playoff contenders.
Their starting rotation, a lone bright spot in 2011, had grown even stronger. Johan Santana was in vintage form, R.A. Dickey looked like an ace in his own right and Matt Harvey was biding his time in the Minors, waiting for his chance. With the Bernard Madoff litigation squarely behind them, there was even talk of adding pieces at the Trade Deadline.
What happened next, of course, came to define their season. The Mets lost 12 of 13 in mid-July to fall out of contention, squelching talk of a Deadline deal and undoing virtually everything they had accomplished over the first three months of the season. Santana was never the same after firing the first no-hitter in franchise history, ultimately landing back on the disabled list and prematurely ending his season. David Wright cooled after an otherworldly start. Injuries hit. Reality set in.
So the Mets can look at 2012 in two different ways. Either they can take heart in their ability to thrive over the first half despite overwhelming expectations of gloom, or they can interpret the second half of a harbinger of more pain to come. Either they can view the development of Harvey and Zack Wheeler as springboards for the future, or they can focus on the pressing issues up and down their lineup and bullpen.
Given those perspectives, the 2012 Mets had plenty to offer both the optimists and pessimists of the world. They overachieved and then they underachieved; rarely did they play at a steady clip. As has become their custom even in down years, they managed to keep things interesting throughout the summer.
How that affects them heading into another long offseason remains to be seen. For now, here's a look back on where things went right for the Mets in 2012, and how they took a turn for the worse:
Record: 74-88, fourth in NL East
Defining moment: The Mets sat in second place on the morning of July 8, spurring talk of a buyer's mentality at the Trade Deadline. But they lost, 7-0, to the Cubs that day, then opened the second half with five more consecutive defeats. By July 25 they had dropped 12 of their last 13 games, pushing them out of playoff contention as quickly as they had arrived there.
What went right: No matter what happened afterward, Mets fans will always have Santana to thank for the first no-hitter in franchise history. In his return from major left shoulder surgery, Santana was brilliant over the first two months, going 3-2 with a 2.38 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 68 innings. ... But Santana, of course, was not even close to being the best pitcher on the staff. That honor belonged to Dickey, who threw back-to-back one-hitters in June and hardly slowed his pace all summer, putting himself squarely in the Cy Young conversation. ... The rotation as a whole, in fact, was strong for a second straight season. Along with Santana's first half and Dickey's best season yet, the Mets enjoyed by far the finest campaign of Jon Niese's young career. Dillon Gee was also well on his way to a breakout year before a blood clot ended his season at the All-Star break. ... Any talk of the rotation would be incomplete without a discussion of Harvey, who struck out 11 in his big league debut and dazzled in 10 starts, before the Mets shut him down in mid-September on an innings limit. ... The Mets were not sure how effectively Ruben Tejada would be able to replace the departed Jose Reyes at shortstop, but Tejada's contact hitting and trustworthy defense quickly put their minds at ease. ... With so many offensive pieces struggling around him, Wright constructed one of the best first halves in franchise history, hitting .353 with 14 homers and 65 RBIs through his first 88 games despite battling a fractured finger. ... Ike Davis recovered from his early struggles to give the Mets their first 30-homer season in the Citi Field era.
What went wrong: Davis began the season in a massive slump and barely dodged a demotion to the Minors; it was not until mid-June that he became an offensive force. ... The bullpen struggled mightily for a second straight year, spending the most of the summer ranked dead last in the Majors in ERA. ... Wright was not the same player in the second half, tailing off drastically before a hot stretch toward the end of September allowed him to claim the franchise's all-time hits record. ... Santana's drop-off following his no-hitter was even worse -- he went 3-7 with an 8.27 ERA until the Mets finally shut him down with lower back inflammation. Santana struggled in particular over his final five starts, going 0-5 with a 15.63 ERA. ... Rather than rebound, Jason Bay actually became less productive in his third year with the Mets, spending two lengthy stints on the DL and producing next to nothing when healthy. By August, Bay had fallen into a left-field platoon. ... While Angel Pagan enjoyed a bounce-back season in San Francisco, Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez -- the two players the Mets acquired for him last winter -- both scuffled in Flushing. Neither held onto prominent roles for long. ... The Mets received precious little offensive production from their starting outfielders and catchers, casting uncertainty over those positions for the future. Lucas Duda even earned a midseason demotion to the Minors, with the Mets questioning his long-term defensive viability as an outfielder.
Biggest surprise: After ranking 28th in baseball in bullpen ERA in 2011, the Mets made relief help their top -- really, their only -- offseason priority, importing what they believed to be a trio of upgrades in closer Frank Francisco, setup man Jon Rauch and crossover dynamo Ramon Ramirez. But it did not quite work out as planned. Those three all struggled for long stretches and the Mets nearly went wire to wire with the league's worst bullpen, carrying an ERA over five for much of the summer.