By Ernie Palladino
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It’s always a good thing when a team gets players back from the disabled list. But it’s going to take more than the anticipated return of Steven Matz and Seth Lugo this weekend to get the Mets back in the division race.
Unless those two can spark some sort of miracle transformation of the pitching staff, the Mets are cooked for 2017. No two arms will make up an 12½-game deficit by themselves. But if the length they provide can egg the rest of the starters on to deeper outings than the team’s bullpen-exhausting 5 2/3-inning average so far, the Mets might have a chance of mounting a legitimate charge at the Nationals.
But let’s be honest here. Matz and Lugo are not magicians. Neither has pitched this year, so who knows what manager Terry Collins can expect from either one of them. Chances are, he’ll find out about the left-handed Matz before Lugo, as he would be the most logical starter for Sunday’s undecided slot against the Braves.
Even immediate success, however, will have only minimal effect on the season. The Mets need so much more, including slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who has yet to return to rehabbing the pulled hamstring that has sidelined him more than a month. And the hole they have dug for themselves at 24-32, combined with Washington’s NL-best .649 (37-20) winning percentage, have allowed the Nationals to fly into runaway mode in the NL East.
There’s no use in remembering 2015, either. For all the offensive spark Cespedes provided after his July 31 arrival from Detroit, the Mets never had this much of an uphill climb to reach the Nationals. For all their offensive problems that year, the pitching kept them right off Washington’s shoulder the whole time.
Their biggest deficit was 4½ games on July 5, and they cut that by more than half five days later.
Once Cespedes got there, the Mets simply exploded, regaining the division lead they held for the second half of April and first half of May on Aug. 2, and stretching their lead from there as Washington imploded. New York wound up winning the division by seven games.
A wild card bid like last year’s remains a possibility, of course. Just about everybody is in that race at this point. But if the pitching continues to falter as it has, even that nine-game gap between the Mets and wild card leaders Los Angeles and Arizona will be impossible to make up.
The Mets really do miss Noah Syndergaard and his ability to dominate deep into games. But the torn lat muscle that has disabled him since May 1 is a long way from healing. Collins may not see him until well after the All-Star break.
So the heat will fall upon Matz and Lugo to produce where Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Robert Gsellman, Zack Wheeler, and the bullpen haven’t. They will need to eat innings and hold leads.
Collins might even go to a six-man rotation to get both men in there. He might also contemplate throwing Harvey in the bullpen.
Neither is a good option. The six-starter alignment has often caused more trouble than it’s worth, given how it takes pitchers out of their normal rest schedule.
How effectively Harvey can pitch as a reliever is anybody’s guess.
Still, it’s always good to get bodies back. Recent events show just how much the once pitching-rich Mets need arms; the healthier the better.
Just remember that neither Matz nor Lugo work miracles. Even with more than three months remaining in the season, the Mets are probably too far gone to mount a serious challenge for the division title.
But the wild card hunt remains active. That’s where Matz and Lugo will help the most.
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