Turnaround must start now to save season
As the Mets prepared to depart Arizona following their winless road trip, Lucas Duda, slouched on a couch in the visitors’ clubhouse at Chase Field, received a tap on the knee from Terry Collins.
“Head up,” the manager told his slumping first baseman.
It is a message Collins will continue to preach, but are the Mets listening? And how much does it matter at this point?
In a free fall amid seven straight losses, the Mets (16-23) are on the verge of seeing their season decimated in May. They will begin a six-game homestand against the Angels on Friday needing one thing: a victory — in any shape, size or form.
Team officials are clinging to two sources of hope for a turnaround within the next few weeks.
Foremost on that list is the expected return next week of Yoenis Cespedes from a strained left hamstring, with further help potentially not far behind in Steven Matz and Seth Lugo, who would bolster a hurting rotation.
Secondly, the Mets won’t face stiff competition until the middle of June. Until then, they get the Angels, Padres, Pirates, Brewers, Rangers and Braves on the schedule before a hellacious stretch against the respective division favorites (Cubs, Nationals and Dodgers). By then, the Mets hope to have the manpower needed to compete against top-tier competition.
“Plenty of baseball left,” Jose Reyes said. “Last year, everybody counted us out, too, and we fought back.”
The turnaround that began last August, when the Mets were two games below .500, and culminated in a National League wildcard berth coincided with players such as Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera returning to health while Lugo and Robert Gsellman emerged to fortify the rotation.
This task is maybe more daunting, with Noah Syndergaard and Jeurys Familia sidelined long-term — even after players such as Cespedes, Cabrera, Matz, Lugo and Travis d’Arnaud return in the coming weeks.
Matz, Lugo and d’Arnaud all made their first rehab appearances on Thursday night for Single-A St. Lucie. Matz went three innings, throwing 43 pitches and allowing two hits and a run with two walks and three strikeouts. Lugo went 3 ²/₃ scoreless innings, throwing 42 pitches and allowing two hits and hitting a batter. D’Arnaud spent seven innings behind the plate and went 2-for-4 with two singles.
In addition to the injuries, Matt Harvey and Gsellman have underperformed, contributing to the team’s 5.13 ERA that ranks last in the major leagues.
Even the team’s ace, Jacob deGrom, has scuffled. The right-hander, who is scheduled to face the Angels at Citi Field on Friday, has pitched to a 4.07 ERA while struggling — like the rest of his rotation mates — to work deep into games. DeGrom’s latest blip occurred Sunday in Milwaukee, when he couldn’t survive the sixth inning, surrendering a two-run homer that began the Mets’ epic meltdown — the Brewers scored 10 runs in the final three innings — in an 11-9 loss.
The bullpen’s fragile state was on display three times in four games, in which Addison Reed, Hansel Robles and Rafael Montero all surrendered go-ahead homers in the eighth inning or later. Lefty Jerry Blevins remains among the busiest bodies in baseball, on pace to appear in 100 games.
Until Cespedes returns, Collins is expected to continue with underperforming Curtis Granderson in center field, but the manager has broader options at first base, where he could play T.J. Rivera or Wilmer Flores if Duda — who has been nearly invisible since returning last weekend from the disabled list — doesn’t soon emerge.
Even without Cespedes, the Mets entered Thursday second in the major leagues in scoring for May. It is a lineup that recently has been carried by Michael Conforto, Neil Walker and Rene Rivera. But the importance of a bat such as Cespedes’ was underscored in the Arizona series, in which the Mets lost two straight 5-4 games: One key hit in each game would have swung the entire series.
“A good break or two and you get a win or two,” a team official said. “But that isn’t an excuse. We deserved to lose every game.”