By Ed Coleman
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The Mets and Giants just split a four-game series in San Francisco that was pretty crucial to both teams in their quests for a playoff spot. The difference? The Giants travel down the coast for a three-game showdown with the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers and will throw aces Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto in the first two games. Meanwhile, the Mets will visit the St. Louis Cardinals, whom they trail by 4½ games for the final wild-card spot, with Jon Niese and Seth Lugo set to bookend Jacob deGrom in an equally important series.
Not exactly ideal, but that’s been life for the banged-up 2016 Mets. Another hill to climb, another obstacle to overcome. This was a team that was six games over .500 (47-41) and tied with Miami for the second wild-card spot at the All-Star break. Since then, they’ve stumbled to the fifth-worst record since the break at 15-21.
The primary reason for that is the Mets’ Achilles’ heel — the inability to hit with runners in scoring position. They’re at an almost incomprehensible .196 since the break, a paltry .208 on the season — the worst mark since the expansion Padres of 1969, who finished with just 52 wins.
And the main reason the Mets have already surpassed that victory total and won’t be anything like that San Diego squad is their pitching, despite that the rotation has continued to take hits throughout. Matt Harvey is gone again. Zack Wheeler won’t be coming to the rescue. The latest blow is Steven Matz to the disabled list. Matz, already with a rather large bone spur in his elbow, added a mild strained shoulder and rotator cuff irritation to that. The only cushion for the Mets is that Matz can be backdated to his last start, will be eligible to come off the DL a week from Tuesday and can slot in against the Marlins if he’s good to go.
But there seems to be little question that Mets pitchers are paying a price for playing until Nov. 1 last year. They’ve logged a lot of innings — and a lot of pressure innings, too. I remember a conversation with Hall of Famer John Smoltz earlier this season at Citi Field, and he lamented the fact that the young Mets pitchers were thrown into the deep end of the pool without life jackets, so to speak. Having been through it on countless occasions during his career, Smoltz said that the innings you pitch in the postseason are two to three times more stressful and pressure-packed than those you pitch during the regular season. The residual effect of that can catch up to and cost you down the line.
But these Mets have been resilient if anything. And they do have an apparently healthy Yoenis Cespedes. While playing through a quad injury over a 14-game stretch, Cespedes struggled mightily, hitting .205 with just one home run and seven RBIs. After a stint on the DL, Cespedes has come back with a bang. He’s blasted three homers in the last two wins, including the game-winner Sunday to back up Noah Syndergaard’s gem. If there’s anyone who can shake the Mets out of their RISP doldrums, it’s No. 52. Since his acquisition at the trade deadline in 2015, Cespedes has batted .283 with nine home runs, twice as many extra-base hits and a .926 OPS with RISP. Pretty good pop!
The Mets won’t have one of the hottest hitters in baseball, Neil Walker, in St. Louis. He’s away on paternity leave for the birth of his first child and won’t return until Friday. Bronx native T.J. Rivera has been called up to take his place. Rivera is not Walker, but after a somewhat slow start, he’s 9-21 with a .344 on-base percentage. Robert Gsellman, a ground ball pitcher and supposedly the next in line, will take Matz’s spot on the roster. Niese has surrendered 25 home runs, including two in his only Mets start, and the Cardinals have hit an NL-best 173 homers, including 26 in their last 12 games. Doesn’t sound appetizing. But then Jaime Garcia, who opposes Niese and owns an ERA under 2 in his starts against the Mets, gave up three long balls in his last start, and St. Louis is shockingly just 28-33 at Busch Stadium this season.
A 3-4 road trip thus far is a little short of expectations. With 38 games to go, the Mets don’t need a sweep of the Cardinals, but two of three — a series win — would be nice. And we’ll begin to see whether the 2015 workload on top of the 2016 injuries is catching up to this club — or whether they survive and advance.
C U soon