For Luis Rojas, the tipping point was a called third strike on Brandon Nimmo. That sent the Mets’ manager aflame, leading to his ejection in the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to the Marlins at loanDepot park on Tuesday.
An inning later, Javier Báez showed some fire of his own after flying out in the eighth, barking at relief pitcher Richard Bleier. Up and down the visiting dugout bench, emotions ran high for the Mets, who fell for the fifth time in six games to lose a bit more of their grip on the NL East lead.
If the Mets do not turn things around quickly, they know, the 12-plus weeks they’ve spent in first place will mean little by season’s end. But they are determined not to panic now, with plenty of opportunity still before them.
“I don’t think we’re frustrated as a team,” Rojas said. “There’s going to be emotions in the game. I was the perfect example tonight, and Javy’s a guy that wears his emotion. … [But] there’s no frustration. These guys, they fought until the last out of the game. You saw it last night, too. They’re going to keep fighting.”
Tuesday’s loss followed a familiar script, as the Mets fell into an early four-run hole for the second straight night -- this time behind Taijuan Walker, whose second-half struggles continued against the Marlins. Although Walker recovered to retire nine of the final 10 batters he faced, he allowed four runs and owns a 12.00 ERA in four starts since the All-Star break.
“I think I’m going in the right direction, honestly,” Walker said. “I felt like I finished really strong at the end.”
The Mets battled back to pull within one run on a pair of Dominic Smith sacrifice flies and a J.D. Davis RBI double, but as another frustrating night drew to a close, they had lost a game in the standings to both the Phillies and the Braves. Philadelphia defeated Washington to pull within 1 1/2 games of the first-place Mets, while third-place Atlanta defeated St. Louis and sits just 2 1/2 games out.
Then again, “frustration” is not a word Rojas prefers to use. The manager explained away his ejection as a disagreement over balls and strikes, and nothing more. Rojas is so focused on the daily tasks of improving the team, he said, that there is no room for frustration or any other emotion.
“I’m pretty even-keeled,” Rojas said. “I keep things in range. These things happen in a baseball season. Yes, they do. But what we do on a daily basis, we look at ourselves in the mirror like, ‘OK, what are we doing right now? Who needs help? Who needs maintenance?’ … Our daily approach is what we focus on. There shouldn’t be any room for any emotions outside of that.”
These are, however, human beings, who have a closer view of this than anyone. Since reaching 10 games over .500 on June 16, the Mets have lost six more games than they’ve won. Their .435 winning percentage over that stretch ranks 22nd in the Majors, but until this week, it hadn’t really hurt them in the standings. Now, that narrative is quickly changing. As recently as Sunday morning, the Mets held a four-game lead in the division. They’ve given more than half of it back in a matter of days.
Of particular issue is the Mets’ starting pitching, which had struggled even before Jacob deGrom received his latest suboptimal MRI results. Walker’s ERA since the All-Star break is a concern, but no Mets starter has been particularly consistent since mid-July.
Despite that, the Mets did not acquire any top-market starters before the Trade Deadline, dealing only for Rich Hill and Trevor Williams. The former has allowed seven runs in his first 10 innings, while the latter is currently pitching every five days at Triple-A Syracuse. Both can help the Mets, but not in the same way that deGrom, Walker or Marcus Stroman can.
So it’s on the players already in-house to get healthy, stay healthy and improve.
“Guys are trying to stay positive,” said catcher James McCann, who gave the Mets a bit of life with a two-out RBI double in the ninth after the Marlins added an insurance run in the eighth. “You find the hidden positives in a day like today. We never gave in. … When you focus on the positives, when you focus on the process vs. the end result, good things will come.”