NL East tightens after Mets drop 'letdown' set

September 4th, 2022

NEW YORK -- The good news for the Mets is, their rotation is back at full strength. The bad news for the Mets is, not every pitcher in it is, exactly. And now with their division lead shrunk to its smallest size in more than six weeks, this Labor Day weekend marked the unofficial start of scoreboard-watching season for the Mets.

“It’s something we’re aware of,” second baseman Jeff McNeil said. “It’s a little bit of a letdown not playing our best baseball these past two days.”

To be clear: The sky over Flushing isn’t falling just yet. But there were few obvious positives in Sunday afternoon’s ill-timed 7-1 loss to the Nationals at Citi Field, when Carlos Carrasco’s uneven return from the injured list sank the Mets to their first home series defeat to Washington since April 2019. Sunday’s loss concluded a disappointing weekend of injury concerns for New York and loosened its grip atop the National League East to one game over the Braves, who polished off a sweep of the Marlins in Atlanta.

That lead is the smallest it's been since July 24, with 27 games to play.

“It’s about us,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s been that way the whole year. That’s an obstacle we’ll face when we face it.”

In the meantime, a few pressing questions face the Mets as they head to Pittsburgh for their Labor Day matinee with the Pirates. Here are three they must answer to ensure the sun doesn’t set early on their magical summer thus far.

1. How serious is the Scherzer situation?
The morning after Max Scherzer’s early exit sent alarm bells echoing through Flushing, Scherzer awoke to find his left side feeling … exactly the same. That counts as good news for the Mets, who stand by their decision to remove Scherzer for precautionary reasons Saturday night and remain hopeful he’ll make his next start. The question now becomes whether that happens, and if not, when he next takes the mound. 

“I woke up OK, kind of as expected,” Scherzer said. “There is nothing that’s sharp or grabbing. It’s more dull. …  I passed every test. It’s no injury. I’m good.” 

The Mets already had an extra day of rest baked in for Scherzer before his next turn, and Scherzer reiterated Sunday that he doesn’t expect the fatigue to require any additional tests or imaging. Still, the real test won’t come until Scherzer tests the side during his mid-week bullpen in Pittsburgh. That’s when the Mets should get a better sense of whether Scherzer’s fatigue morphs into a more serious issue or is simply a lingering one at precisely the wrong time. 

“The big thing will be when he takes his work day,” Showalter said. “Where is the bite, if any?”

2. What can they expect from Cookie?
Carrasco was going to be kept on a short leash Sunday regardless, and the veteran righty probably deserved better (four unearned runs) in his first start since Aug. 15 due to his own oblique strain. For the Mets, the bigger takeaway was that Carrasco got through the 54-pitch outing without any lingering health concerns.  

“I feel good,” Carrasco said. “There were little mistakes today and I need to fix them, because this is the end of the regular season and I need to finish it strong.”

Said Showalter: “He was rusty.”

By his own admission, Carrasco struggled with fastball command and finding his release point after his three-week layoff. The focus now becomes whether he can do that consistently while building back up in the middle of a pennant run. Coupled with the Scherzer uncertainty, it's why the Mets aren’t rushing David Peterson back to the bullpen just yet, especially as they prep rehabbing arms like Tylor Megill and Joey Lucchesi to return as relievers. 

All year, pitching depth has separated these Mets from past teams. It’ll be a big part of their attempt to strike a balance between winning the division and keeping their top arms healthy down the stretch.

3. Where did the bats go?
The Mets’ most pressing on-field issue this weekend was the offense, which managed two combined runs Saturday and Sunday against a Nationals staff with MLB’s worst ERA. It’s a funk for a lineup averaging more than 4.6 runs per game, but just three per game over its past 12 contests. The Mets are hitting only .173 (13-for-75) with runners in scoring position during that stretch.  

“That falls under ‘Captain Obvious’,” Showalter said. “We’re all seeing it.”

Fixing it is trickier, with Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and several other regulars slumping simultaneously. But given that firepower, a breakout might soon be inevitable, given the Mets’ long string of upcoming games against non-contending teams.