First-place Mets not sweating it as rivals inch closer

Winning streaks by Braves and Phils have cut into lead, but easier schedule awaits

June 12th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- When the Mets began their 10-game tour of Southern California on June 2, it seemed worth noting that even if they lost every game on the trip, they were still guaranteed to return home in first place. As their plane touched down at LAX that week, the Mets sported a season-high 10 1/2-game lead in the National League East. It was unrealistic to think they might lose all their games out West, of course, just as it was unlikely that the Braves would win all of theirs over the same stretch.

Consider those prognostications half right. The Mets have not, in fact, lost all their games in California. When they dropped an 11-6 contest to the Angels on Saturday, they fell to 4-5 on the trip with one game still to play -- a perfectly acceptable result, given the difficulty of cross-country travel and the quality of teams that awaited them on the Pacific Coast. And yet, remarkably, nearly half of New York’s NL East cushion has evaporated since the trip began. The Braves, who are riding a 10-game winning streak, haven’t lost since the Mets left Queens. Even the Phillies are catching up, thanks to a nine-game winning streak of their own.

Following Saturday’s loss at Angel Stadium, in which Jared Walsh hit for the cycle and Carlos Carrasco allowed a combined five hits, two home runs, four RBIs and four runs scored to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Mets held a 5 1/2-game lead over the Braves. Put in perspective, it’s still a comfortable margin -- the largest of any NL division leader. The Mets still boast the best record in the NL. They’re on pace for 104 wins. Were the sequencing different, fans would be loving it.

So exhale. As manager Buck Showalter, king of the big picture, likes to say: “The sky isn’t falling. It’s only raining.”

“I haven’t looked at the standings since we left New York,” Showalter said Saturday. “All that stuff, there’s nothing we can do about it, right? When you look at how good those [NL East] teams are, it’s kind of obvious at some point, they’re going to get going.”

It’s worth noting that the Braves’ winning streak has come against the D-backs, Rockies, A’s and Pirates, all of whom are well under .500. The Mets, meanwhile, have held their own against the Dodgers, Padres and Angels, all playoff contenders. (Yes, the Angels, despite their recent 14-game losing streak, are only three games out of a Wild Card spot.)

According to ESPN’s strength-of-schedule calculations, the Mets entered Saturday having tackled the fourth-hardest schedule of any team, while the Braves ranked 19th in that department. That equation will eventually shift, as the Mets face an easier slate of games in July than in June.

Most promisingly, New York’s September schedule features heavy doses of the Nationals, Pirates, Marlins, Cubs and A’s, all of whom are sub-.500. Twenty-one of the Mets’ 26 games that month will come against teams that currently have more losses than wins. It’s the perfect recipe for the Mets to pursue their first division title since 2015, if they can simply survive the rest of this stretch without injured superstars Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

“I think we pay attention to the way we play here,” Carrasco said. “We just take care of how we’re playing here. We don’t try to think about those games. We’re just going to continue to play hard, and that’s it.”

Players like Carrasco, who try to live by such “one game at a time” axioms, tend not to view the schedule in terms of easy matchups and difficult ones. They understand implicitly that games against the Dodgers, Padres and Angels will be more challenging than those against the Reds, Pirates and Cubs -- particularly when they come on the road, three time zones away from Queens, where factors such as jetlag and stadium conditions can affect their performance.

None of it colors their approach. The Mets are trying to win games now, no matter who they’re playing.

Despite the recent halving of their division lead, they’ve done so more efficiently than any other NL team.