3 questions facing sputtering 1st-place Mets

August 1st, 2021

NEW YORK -- The Mets are nearly two-thirds of the way through their season, with the post-Trade Deadline landscape stretching out before them. They’re in first place -- and have been for more than 12 consecutive weeks. But they have also been a sub-.500 team for the last seven of them, leaving the door significantly ajar for other teams to catch them.

This weekend provided the latest example of the Mets’ inconsistencies. After walking off the Reds on Saturday night, New York dropped a lackluster 7-1 game to Cincinnati on Sunday to lose the three-game series at Citi Field. Since topping out at 10 games over .500 on June 16, the Mets (55-49) are four games under the breakeven mark.

They’ve also barely lost any ground in the division over that stretch, thanks to similar issues in Atlanta and Philadelphia.

Sunday’s loss became a reality in the sixth inning, when Marcus Stroman allowed three hits and a walk over a six-batter stretch. Miguel Castro relieved him and proceeded to walk the next two batters in succession, including opposing pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez with the bases loaded.

And that was that for a Mets team facing some significant questions over the final two months of the season.

Who will start hitting?
Manager Luis Rojas rejiggered his lineup a bit for Sunday’s finale, giving hot-hitting Brandon Drury another start while benching slumping J.D. Davis for a second consecutive day. Rojas’ hope was that Michael Conforto, who entered the day in an 0-for-11 funk, would find a way to wade out of his slump.

Instead, Conforto finished 0-for-2 as the Mets mustered just three hits as a team. This one was hardly on Conforto alone, even though he represents one of the most significant reasons why New York's offense has gone awry. An All-Star-caliber hitter one year ago, Conforto is batting .196, with no end in sight to his struggles.

“He’s working hard every day,” Rojas said. “The number of swings that he’s taken in the last couple days, and he’s finding his way into his rhythm, his timing -- everything. … You guys know that Michael has a solid attitude, so he’s simplifying things. … I think he’s close. I always think he’s close.”

But he’s not there yet; if Conforto was, the Mets might have thought twice about acquiring hitting help at the Trade Deadline. Instead, they traded for Javier Báez, who followed up his electric debut on Saturday with an 0-for-4 performance in the series finale. Báez did contribute with a 91.2-mph relay throw to cut down a run at the plate in the fourth inning, but even he could not rescue the Mets’ flagging offense.

It doesn’t have to be Báez, but it does have to be someone. Conforto, Davis, Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo or Jeff McNeil, who homered for the Mets' lone run on Sunday. For months, the Mets have stressed that they have hitters with track records, so it’s about time for multiple members of this group to get hot at once.

“There was a sample today of the things that have gotten us in trouble,” Rojas said. “I think we’ve just got to be more stubborn with our approach. We’ve got to believe in it more.”

Will the pitching survive?
Heading into the Trade Deadline, the Mets luxuriated in the idea that they were finally past a string of “TBAs” on their schedule. Carlos Carrasco was healthy, with Jacob deGrom perhaps to follow.

But things have since soured. deGrom is now out until September at the earliest, Taijuan Walker owns a 15.43 ERA in three starts since the All-Star break and Marcus Stroman allowed four runs over 5 2/3 innings on Sunday. On paper, the Mets have enough pitching to get by between Stroman, Walker, Carrasco, Tylor Megill and Trade Deadline acquisitions Rich Hill and Trevor Williams. But they can ill afford another injury. And they can ill afford anything less than excellence from both Stroman and Walker, who gave it to them consistently throughout the first half.

“Confidence doesn’t waver, ever,” Stroman said. “Obviously, losing the G.O.A.T., anybody could look in from the outside and obviously see that it’s a huge hit, but it’s not something that we can dwell on in the clubhouse. It’s not something that we can sit and hope that he’s going to be back here tomorrow, as much as we all do. It’s reality. We’re all praying for Jake. We’re all hoping that he gets back as quickly as possible, and we’re going to have to do our part while he’s gone to hold them down.”

Which NL East team can best take advantage of the schedule?
The good news: New York’s final 58 games include 20 against the last-place Marlins and the gutted Nationals, beginning with four in Miami this week. Compare that to 13 for the second-place Phillies and 15 for the third-place Braves, and it’s clear the Mets have a significant opportunity before them.

The bad news: The Mets’ schedule also includes 13 consecutive mid-August games against two powerhouses of the NL West: the Dodgers and Giants. They won’t necessarily need to dominate those teams, but they will need to hold their own to give themselves a chance late in the season.