Mets early to rise to occasion, grind through road slate

April 24th, 2023

The Mets play a home game against the Nationals on Tuesday night, their first game at Citi Field since they beat the Padres there on April 12. It is going to feel like their home opener all over again, just without all the pageantry. The Mets have now played more road games than any team in baseball -- 17 out of 23 -- and they just finished a West Coast swing that saw them have a chance to go 8-2 when they were tied late with the Giants on Sunday night before losing, 5-4, and getting on their red-eye flight back to New York, finally landing at six in the morning.

“When does an off-day not feel like an off-day?” manager Buck Showalter said when he finally got home.

But he comes home with a 14-9 team to whom so much has happened since Spring Training, one that is only a half-game behind Atlanta in the National League East, with the Braves on their way to Citi Field this weekend for what feels like the first "Big Series" of the long season the Mets feel as if they have played already. You look at the schedule they’ve had to play just so far, and it’s as if they lost a bet.

The Mets are still right there with the Braves, the battle between those two teams in the NL East already having been joined. They’ve done what they’ve done without , the best closer in the sport last season, who tore up his knee in a postgame celebration in the World Baseball Classic. hasn’t made a start yet, and  made four before being suspended for 10 games and two starts after being ejected from the Mets-Dodgers game last week because the umpires decided there was too much sticky substance on his pitching hand.

José Quintana, who was supposed to be in Buck’s rotation, was injured in the spring, and , who almost won as many games for Showalter last season as Scherzer and Jacob deGrom combined -- Carrasco was 15-7, Scherzer and deGrom won 16 between them -- still has a sore elbow.

The Mets also lost one of their catchers, Omar Narváez, after just five games with a calf injury that sent him to the sidelines for two months at least.

With that and with the schedule they’ve played, the Mets show up back in New York with the same number of wins as the Braves, and with Verlander -- barring any further setbacks -- expected to make his first start as a Met next week when the club is back on the road in Detroit.

“You better get us early,” Showalter said last week, and then his team went 7-3 in Oakland and Los Angeles and San Francisco, finally ending up with a split of their four-game series against the Giants.

The Mets are still a team of grinders, led by , the Polar Bear, who comes back to New York with 10 home runs in April with a week still left in the month. Only the Dodgers' Max Muncy, who has 11, has hit more. And Alonso, who broke the Mets' all-time single-season RBI record last year with 131, has 23 now in 23 games. Ahead of him in the Mets' batting order, has been a total star at leadoff. Nimmo, who had a five-hit game against the Dodgers, comes home hitting .350, and making the free-agent money owner Steve Cohen spent to keep Nimmo with the Mets as smart as any Cohen has spent so far.

, who has been the Mets closer on the occasions when Adam Ottavino hasn’t as Showalter continues to mix and match with his bullpen -- and who turned 38 a couple of weeks ago -- has pitched brilliantly as he tries to soften the blow of Díaz’s loss: a 0.96 ERA, four saves, 10 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings and just five hits allowed. In the process, the pitcher who was the Yankees' closer nearly 10 years ago (2014, 39 saves), has been as valuable a presence on the Mets' staff as anybody the Mets have.

“[Robertson] is a relief pitcher with a position player’s mentality,” is the way Showalter described him. “He showed up in Spring Training and said, ‘I’ll need to pitch five times and then I’ll be good to go.’ And he was absolutely right.”

But it has not just been the bullpen as the Mets have been forced to reimagine the rotation they thought they were going to have when Spring Training began. On Saturday in San Francisco,  made his first start in two years following Tommy John surgery and produced the best start any Mets pitcher has had this season: seven shutout innings, nine strikeouts and retiring 14 of the last 17 batters he faced. For that one day, Lucchesi felt like a whole squad of reinforcements coming over the hill when his team needed them the most.

Last season, the Mets talked a lot about “all 26” contributing. This season, it’s felt like a lot more than that. They finally come home now, for what does feel like a reboot of the home opener. A half-game behind the Braves. Before long both Scherzer and Verlander will be in the rotation. Maybe Buck’s right. Maybe you better get them early.