By Ernie Palladino
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Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon, Steven Matz.
Those were the Mets who started the first five games of the season.
Here’s what that rotation looks like now in light of Jacob deGrom’s probable season-ending right ulnar nerve surgery: Syndergaard, Colon, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, and Sunday’s debuting starter Gabriel Ynoa.
In Terry Collins’ wildest, most grotesque dreams, he surely never imagined he’d spend the final stretch of the season trying to hang onto a wild card lead with a rotation that easily could have looked like F-Troop, but has performed more like an elite cavalry division.
Indeed, the real cavalry isn’t coming for a group that has lost three of its original starters. With Harvey gone, Matz still an uncertainty as he rehabs his sore left shoulder in the minors, and now deGrom probably done for the season after battling a bone chip once thought less serious than the one floating around in Matz’ elbow, Collins has to continue his longtime practice of piecing his pitching together.
What the Mets have done is survive — as they have for the most part this season — on extra parts. And now those spares have become ever more important as they try to keep a playoff spot against, for the most part, the dregs of baseball.
It’s good that 10 of these final 13 games come against the Braves and Phillies. It’s bad that Collins now has one less established, quality pitcher to get the job done.
It makes one wonder how long this piecemeal stuff will last. When will the bubble burst? When does the edge get so close that the Mets can’t help but slip off it?
Not that Lugo and Gsellman haven’t done a wonderful job so far. Since Lugo joined the rotation on Aug. 19, he’s gone 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA. Gsellman hasn’t done quite that well since taking on his starting role Aug. 28, but he still has performed above all expectations at 1-1 with a 3.58 ERA.
Together, that’s a 5-2, 2.73 pitching performance.
Add the measly one run Ynoa allowed while striking out eight over 4 2/3 innings in Sunday‘s 3-2 victory over the Twins, and there is more than sufficient evidence for fans and management to consider this a playoff-worthy rotation. In fact, one could regard it as a group that could actually survive a wild card game and make some noise in the NLDS.
But with deGrom out of the picture, Matz undetermined, and yet another young plug-in in Ynoa to make Collins ponder why, exactly, the baseball Furies have it in for him, one has to wonder if the Mets have reached the tipping point.
Even the most resilient teams can only stand to lose so many bodies. The injuries catch up with them. Youth and inexperience eventually cede to veteran know-how. Right now, the only veterans in the rotation are Syndergaard and the ageless Colon. And that may not be enough to carry this team into the postseason if Lugo, Gsellman, and Ynoa sink to the level their overall experience would indicate.
The Mets have already shown that they will never consistently outhit their opponents, regardless of how Downy soft the rest of the schedule appears. Going life-and-death with the Twins — baseball’s worst team — only to be bailed out with a tying single by Yoenis Cespedes and homers in the 11th and 12th innings by Curtis Granderson on Saturday and by T.J. Rivera’s third-inning homer Sunday is far from encouraging. And Saturday’s game wouldn’t even have come to that if Lugo hadn’t come up big with five innings of one-run ball.
Even as Lucas Duda and Juan Lagares return from extended absences, the Mets find themselves dancing on the edge. Locking down the wild card spot will not be as easy as some expect.
It’s a matter of how long this patchwork of a starting rotation can hold out.
Whatever cavalry the Mets expected to ride to the rescue is here, and has performed well. They must continue to do so as a group.
But with deGrom joining Harvey, Matz, and still-rehabbing Tommy John patient Zack Wheeler in the viewing gallery, those prospects grow much dimmer.
With that, so does fending off San Francisco and St. Louis for the wild card lead.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino