By Brad Kallet
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If you told 100 Mets fans before the club’s brutal 14-game stretch against the Nationals, Cubs and Marlins that New York would go 7-7 and still be very much alive in the playoff race heading into the All-Star break, I’d say 95 would have signed up for it.
The Mets played an even .500 against those three terrific teams to conclude their first half and, tied with the Marlins for the second wild-card berth in the National League, they’re right in the thick of things in the hunt for the postseason. (Six games behind the Nationals in the NL East, the Mets’ hopes for a division title are looking more and more unrealistic. Thanks, Daniel Murphy!)
Despite the team’s respectable 47-41 overall record, however, and its ability to stay afloat over a nightmarish two-week span, Mets fans won’t have great tastes in their mouths over the next four days as the league takes a break for its All-Star festivities.
After getting swept by the Nationals in D.C. in the last week of June, New York caught fire at Citi Field and improbably beat the then-league-best Cubs four times. The Mets then took two out of three against the Marlins and, in a thriller in which they came from behind three times, defeated the Nationals, 9-7, to take the series opener and pull within three games of the division leaders.
The Mets were rolling, seemingly out of nowhere, and had won seven of eight to begin their homestand.
Then Friday night happened. When it rains, it pours, they say, and on Friday night there was a figurative hurricane in Queens.
Hours after it was announced that Matt Harvey needs season-ending surgery, All-Star center fielder Yoenis Cespedes was pulled after three innings with what was later diagnosed as a right quad strain. To make matters worse, fellow All-Star and undisputed ace Noah Syndergaard had to leave in the fifth inning with “arm fatigue.” To make matters even worse, the Mets lost the game, 3-1, after blowing a golden opportunity to plate a pair of runs in the eighth.
Without Cespedes in the lineup, New York would go down meekly on both Saturday and Sunday, dropping the series and concluding the first half on a three-game losing streak.
Within the span of two innings Friday, the Mets transitioned from an invincible force that couldn’t be stopped to a listless, uninspired club that looked like it had lost its mojo. They reverted back to their pre-Cubs-sweep form Saturday and Sunday, barely putting up a fight over 18 rather monotonous innings.
It’s not even a debate. Cespedes and Syndergaard are, without a shred of doubt, New York’s best — and most valuable — players. They can’t afford to lose either one of them for a short period of time, let alone an extended one. And if both were to be placed on the disabled list? Forget it. The season would be as good as over.
That’s why the All-Star break couldn’t come at a more opportune time. With four days off, Cespedes and Syndergaard have a healthy amount of time to rest and get ready to return to action. According to multiple reports, neither player is dealing with anything serious, and manager Terry Collins expects both superstars to return to the field sooner rather than later—perhaps as early as the first series of the second half.
But we’ve heard that before.
Syndergaard and Cespedes have had injury scares already this season, but both dodged bullets and managed to avoid missing time. Will the Mets be so lucky this time around?
Syndergaard, who effortlessly throws 100 miles per hour and is the only young Mets starter yet to undergo Tommy John surgery in his career (Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler have all had the procedure), seems like a ticking time bomb. He’s already dealt with bone spurs in his elbow, and now arm fatigue — and in this day and age, it feels like a fireballer’s ulnar collateral ligament could tear at any moment.
The Mets’ pitching staff is shorthanded as it is. Harvey is finished, Matz — who is also dealing with bone spurs — hasn’t been particularly sharp, deGrom has performed more like a No. 2 than an ace, and Logan Verrett has come back down to earth as a run-of-the-mill, three-runs-over-six-innings fifth starter. There’s no telling when Wheeler will return, and Bartolo Colon … well, Bartolo Colon is a legend.
The Mets desperately need a bona fide ace, a top-five pitcher in baseball who can play the role of stopper. Syndergaard is just that, and if he misses even two to three starts, the Mets — who were supposed to have an all-time great pitching staff this season — will suddenly need to trade for a starting pitcher. Even then, whoever they would acquire wouldn’t be a third of the pitcher Syndergaard is.
Cespedes is a bit of a reckless player, making him somewhat injury prone, even though he’s managed to play in 80 of the Mets’ 88 games this season. What he means to this offense can’t really be put into words, so let’s just go to the numbers. At the break, the MVP candidate leads the club in batting average (.302) — Kelly Johnson is hitting .308, but he’s had just 52 at-bats — home runs (21), RBIs (52), doubles (16, tied with Asdrubal Cabrera), hits (87), on-base percentage (.372), slugging percentage (.583) and OPS (.955).
Yep, as he goes, so goes the Mets’ offense. Without him slotted in the three hole or cleanup spot, the lineup looks fantastically unimposing. The third and fourth hitters on Saturday and Sunday? Neil Walker-James Loney and Wilmer Flores-Walker, respectively. It’s tough to win games when you’re counting on that trio to drive in the majority of runs.
Without Cespedes, the Mets simply won’t score enough. Period.
New York will begin its second-half schedule with a nine-game road trip through Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami. They’ll then return home for series against the Cardinals and Rockies.
If Syndergaard and Cespedes are ready to go when the season’s second chapter gets underway — and they stay on the field — the Mets will stay in contention until October.
If they can’t suit up, this team could be all but finished by Aug. 1.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet