NEW YORK -- It would be difficult to find a Mets player more in need of a significant hit than Starling Marte.
Entering the eighth inning of Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader at Citi Field, Marte had gone 107 consecutive at-bats without an extra-base hit -- by far the longest stretch of any active big leaguer. Bothered early this season by a neck injury and, more generally, by the lingering effects of offseason groin surgery, Marte hardly resembled the player who garnered down-ballot National League MVP votes last season. He appeared slower on the basepaths, his outfield range affected, his power sapped at the plate.
But things have recently begun to turn for Marte, who contributed a few multihit games earlier this month. By the bottom of the eighth inning Sunday, he was playing with enough swagger to hint at a breakout. Then he broke out. Marte hit a go-ahead, opposite-field, two-run homer off Trevor Stephan, leading the Mets to a 5-4 win over the Guardians -- their fourth consecutive victory and their third in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion over that stretch.
“We’re starting to get close to where we want to be,” Marte said through an interpreter.
Marte’s late homer capped another volatile game that saw Max Scherzer deliver six scoreless innings despite a split callus on his pitching thumb, Brandon Nimmo hit a key solo homer in the seventh and Adam Ottavino and David Robertson combine to allow four runs in the eighth. It was hardly an efficient formula for victory. But the Mets feel that they now have a deep enough lineup to combat any sort of adversity, as evidenced by walk-off hits from Pete Alonso on Wednesday and Francisco Lindor on Friday.
“That’s the stuff that gets you going,” Scherzer said.
For the better part of a week, the popular narrative at Citi Field has revolved around the “Baby Mets” -- a group of rookies that have clearly sparked a struggling roster. Over the last few days, the veterans have reminded everyone that they’re a crucial part of this, too.
It’s a group that includes Alonso, Lindor, Jeff McNeil, and especially Marte, who is in the second season of a four-year, $78 million contract that will take him through his age-36 season. At his best, Marte possesses one of the most dynamic skill sets in baseball, as evidenced by his 16-homer, 18-steal campaign last season. But Marte has not been the same since undergoing surgery on both sides of his groin on Nov. 1. Although that operation typically requires a six- to eight-month recovery period, Marte had returned to full participation by mid-March. On the morning of May 9, less than two weeks ago, he was slashing .213/.292/.278.
“He’s a very proud man,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Can you imagine having that type of [skill] at your disposal and you can’t get to it for whatever reason? … With Starling, sometimes we’ve got to keep in mind what he did this offseason. It’s not going to just happen overnight.”
Asked how close he is to 100 percent physically, Marte demurred, saying only that he feels “good” and is “not going to stop playing hard.” Showalter likewise declined to give an estimate, despite bringing up Marte’s injury history unprompted. In addition to his recovery from groin surgery, Marte spent much of the early season battling a stiff neck that caused him discomfort when he turned to face the pitcher.
The truth is, at 34 years old, with those and other injuries in his recent past, Marte may rarely approach 100 percent again. Yet, he’s as good a bet as anyone to produce in spite of any aches and pains. In addition to his go-ahead homer on Sunday, Marte collected two singles, stole a base and threw out a runner attempting to stretch a single into a double.
“He’s been scuffling at the plate -- everybody knows it,” Scherzer said. “But at one point in time, he’s going to break out of it. He’s too good of a player not to.”