By Brad Kallet
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With the Mets on the verge of falling completely out of the race before mid-June, the cavalry returned — well, some of it at least — this past weekend.
After the Mets lost six of eight, including the series opener to the lowly Braves on Friday night, Yoenis Cespedes — New York’s most dangerous hitter, who was placed on the disabled list with a strained hamstring in late April — returned to the lineup Saturday in the first half of a doubleheader at SunTrust Park. Manager Terry Collins didn’t waste any time, slotting him right into the third hole, and Cespedes didn’t waste any time reminding Mets fans what they’ve been missing for more than a month.
After ripping a single in the eighth for his first base hit since April 27, the two-time All-Star punctuated his comeback with a ninth-inning grand slam that, with the Mets leading 2-1, put the game out of reach.
Cespedes didn’t play the second game of the twin bill, nor was he in the starting lineup Sunday — he did pitch-hit in the ninth inning — but is expected to start Monday and Tuesday against the Cubs at Citi Field.
If Cespedes was the story Saturday afternoon, then Steven Matz and Seth Lugo were the stories on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, respectively.
The Mets’ pitching, both their starting rotation and bullpen, have been dreadful this season — the offense has actually been somewhat competent in Cespedes’ absence — and Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson have been desperately waiting for reinforcements.
The lefty Matz, placed on the DL at the beginning of the season with a flexor tendon strain in his left elbow, was absolutely brilliant in his debut Saturday night. The Long Island boy, who’s struggled to stay on the field ever since his major league debut on Oct. 13, 2015 — he’s only made 29 career starts — completely shut down the Braves in his first outing of 2017. He surrendered just one earned run on five hits in seven efficient frames, earning the win in the Mets’ 8-1 victory. Matz didn’t blow Atlanta’s hitters away — he struck out just two — but was economical, tossing 98 pitches and walking just one.
Seth Lugo followed Matz in the series finale and nearly upstaged him. The 27-year-old right-hander, whose arm troubles were likely the result of his heavy workload for Puerto Rico during the World Baseball Classic, was awfully impressive in his first start of 2017. Lugo, like Matz, held the Braves to one run in seven effective frames, striking out six and throwing a minimal 90 pitches.
With a rotation of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Robert Gsellman, Zack Wheeler, Matz and Lugo — it’s unclear when, or if, Noah Syndergaard, Collins’ clear-cut ace, will return — and Cespedes back in the middle of the lineup, can these Mets get back in the hunt? They’re certainly in position to win more games, but they’ve dug themselves a huge hole — and the schedule is about to get downright haunting.
New York, at 28-33, begins play on Monday 9½ games behind the Nationals in the National League East — the division is all but settled — and nine games behind the Diamondbacks for the second wild-card berth in the NL. And if you’re giddy about the past two days, you may want to avert your eyes, or perhaps avoid this week entirely. New York hosts the World Series-champion Cubs for three at Citi Field from Monday to Wednesday, and then the Nationals come to town Thursday for a four-game set. After New York’s 1:10 game against Washington on Father’s Day, the Mets will fly to the West Coast for three against the Dodgers and three against the Giants.
Are the Mets better now than they were three days ago? Absolutely. But is it enough, especially with Syndergaard and closer Jeurys Familia still on the mend for the foreseeable future? Probably not.
I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention how well Wilmer Flores has been of late. The 25-year-old has never found consistent playing time since breaking into the league in 2015 — only once, in 2015, did he play more than 130 games — but he’s taken his opportunity and run with it in 2017.
The infielder is hitting .326 with five home runs and 18 RBIs in 44 games (135 at-bats) and has been extremely versatile in the field, mostly manning third base but also seeing time at first and second. He’s also learned how to hit righties (.301 with three home runs in 103 at-bats) and continued to mash lefties (.438), which he’s done throughout his career.
With Jose Reyes having an awful year, Flores — forever a fan favorite in Queens — has supplanted him as the starting third baseman, and it’s well-deserved.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet