By Ernie Palladino
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Just a few short weeks ago, one might have thought the biggest news the Mets would offer this week was Thursday’s signing of Tim Tebow to a minor league contract.
Oh, how wrong that was. The Mets woke up that day tied for the second NL wild card spot with the slumping Cardinals. And Friday, they begin a six-game stretch with the dreadful Braves and the East Division-leading Nationals that could determine whether they hit their next off-day ahead of the Giants for the first wild card spot or back with the Cards as also-rans.
It’s going to be a lot of fun from here on in. But this next stretch will also beg a question heard more on the basketball floor than the baseball diamond.
To wit: Have the Mets expended so much physical and emotional energy in their fight for their wild card tie that they’ll have nothing left for this decisive stretch run?
As silly as that might sound — comparing a 1 1/2-month stretch of games to a seven-minute comeback from 14 down in a basketball game — a comparison between last year’s post-July 31 surge and this year‘s situation makes it a legitimate question.
The two are like night and day.
Last year, the arrival of recognized power hitter Yoenis Cespedes energized a formerly run-poor lineup that was actually getting healthier. The comeback of starters David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud actually served to strengthen the bench.
On top of that, a major contribution from Double-A power hitter Michael Conforto bolstered the outfield rotation of Cespedes, still-productive leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson, and Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares.
And the pitching staff remained beyond belief. Matt Harvey was still firing his fastballs. Jacob deGrom wasn’t as lights-out as he was earlier in the season, but still went 4-2 with five no-decisions during the Cespedes-fest. Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz both came up big. And Bartolo Colon, well, he was Bartolo Colon — steady, entertaining, and jovial.
Add the Nationals’ utter collapse from their season-long perch atop the NL East, and a perfect storm of success enveloped the ballpark in Queens.
That team surged.
This is a far different situation, which is why such a question exists.
Every day, manager Terry Collins goes into his office to patchwork another lineup. Is it time to rest Cespedes and that balky quad? Has Granderson finally started to break out of his season-long slump, especially now that he victimized Cincinnati with homers in each game of the three-game sweep? And when will Conforto revert to his 2015 form?
Neil Walker is gone for the season. Lucas Duda, who started hitting soft-toss last week, may or may not be back for the final couple of weeks after rehabbing since May. A bunch of kids and no-names litter the rotation and bullpen as Collins bites his nails over deGrom’s aching elbow and whether an otherwise solid Syndergaard has fully emerged from a rough July.
Colon? Still steady. He’s the only starter Collins can truly rely on right now.
Power import Jay Bruce has only just started to look useful. Kelly Johnson and Wilmer Flores yo-yo in and out of the lineup. Lagares is gone, and Alejandro De Aza and his .205 batting average gets more than pinch-hitting duty.
The only guy who knocks runners in without benefit of the homer is leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.
With all the daily juggling and sleight of hand going on in the manager’s office, the very ownership of a playoff spot should put Collins in the running for Manager of the Year.
The question is, does his team, so resilient so far, have the emotional and physical wherewithal to turn this wild card deadlock into a permanent, final surge to the postseason?
Or have they expended so much energy in the scrap upward that a grand falloff is in the offing?
They’ll start answering those questions Friday in Atlanta.
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