On Monday, the New York Mets swept the Marlins in a doubleheader at Citi Field (NYM 6, MIA 2 and NYM 5, MIA 4) to climb to within 2 1/2 games of the second National League wild-card spot. At 57-56, the Mets are over .500 for the first time since they were 16-15 on May 2.
Here are the NL wild-card standings as of Tuesday morning:
- Washington Nationals: 59-53
- Philadelphia Phillies: 59-53
- St. Louis Cardinals: 58-53 (1/2 GB)
- Milwaukee Brewers: 58-56 (2 GB)
- New York Mets: 57-56 (2 1/2 GB)
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 56-57 (3 1/2 GB)
- San Francisco Giants: 56-57 (3 1/2 GB)
The Mets have baseball’s best record since the All-Star break (17-6) and yes, they’ve built that record against bad teams — they’ve played only two games against teams currently over .500 since the All-Star break — but you can only play the schedule you’re given, and besides, you’re supposed to beat bad teams. That’s how you get back in the race.
“We still have a long, long way to go, but it’s fun,” manager Mickey Callaway told reporters, including Howie Kussoy of the New York Post, following Monday’s doubleheader sweep. “The fans are absolutely amazing out there, and hopefully we’ll be selling out every game for the next two months, and do something special.”
If nothing else, the Mets have put themselves in position to play meaningful games down the stretch in August and September. That’s about all they could ask for after going into the All-Star break 10 games under .500 and seven games behind the second wild-card spot. There’s still a chance for the 2019 Mets do something amazin’.
Of course, climbing to within 2 1/2 games of a postseason spot is the easy part. Jumping over at least three more teams and into wild-card position — and staying there — is the hard part. Here are five things that must happen for the Mets to complete this improbable run to October.
1. The rotation continues its recent excellence
For better or worse, the Mets have built around their rotation the last few seasons. That rotation carried them to the 2015 World Series, though injuries in subsequent years kept them home in October. At the All-Star break, New York’s rotation ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.45 ERA and 11th with a .310 weighted on-base average allowed. Good, but not truly great.
Since the All-Star break though, the Mets’ rotation has been the best in baseball, with five starters — Marcus Stroman essentially replaced Jason Vargas at the trade deadline — collectively performing like Jacob deGrom. Here are the club’s rotation ranks in the second half:
- ERA: 2.76 (first)
- WHIP: 1.09 (second)
- wOBA: .260 (second)
- K/BB: 4.2 (sixth)
- WAR: 4.8 (first)
The improved rotation work dates back further than the All-Star break. Truth be told, it dates back to June 20, when the Mets fired pitching coach Dave Eiland and replaced him with Phil Regan. The starters had a 4.27 ERA with a 3.3 K/BB in 74 games under Eiland. In 39 games under Regan, it’s a 3.73 ERA and a 3.7 K/BB.
Remember, there were rumblings the Mets would trade Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler after adding Stroman. That did not happen and now New York is sending a quality starter to the mound every single game. With all due respect, the less innings that go to Wilmer Font and Walker Lockett types, the better. The rotation has been outstanding lately and the Mets will need it to continue to have a realistic shot at the postseason.
“(Pitching well is) contagious,” Syndergaard told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post recently. “There is a positive energy coming through this clubhouse and we are going to run with it. It’s kind of snowballed right now in terms of the positive energy.”
2. Alonso snaps out of his second half slump
The narrative is unavoidable: Pete Alonso has slumped in the second half because of the Home Run Derby. I don’t believe that’s true, but to each his own. Whatever the reason, Alonso has slumped since the All-Star break, hitting .175/.330/.388 with a 33.0 percent strikeout rate in 23 team games. Pretty amazing the Mets have won as much as they have with Alonso doing that.
The good news is Alonso appears to be getting himself back on track. He’s gone 6 for 16 (.375) in his last five games and, Monday night, he capped off the team’s three-homer seventh inning with a go-ahead blast that electrified Citi Field.
Hitting coach Chili Davis told reporters, including Mike Puma of the New York Post, that Alonso had been caught in-between in recent weeks, meaning he has been behind on fastballs and out in front on offspeed pitches. It happens. Players slump, even for weeks at a time, and especially rookies in their first full MLB seasons. It can be frustrating as a fan, but it is part of the game.
Alonso made a superstitious attempt to end his slump — “I stopped hitting with the beard, so I decided to shave it,” he said — and it does seem he is starting to come out of it. He’s racked up some hits lately and had the big game-winning homer Monday., meaning Alonso’s importance in the middle of the lineup has increased.
3. Get Diaz back on track
Relievers, man. You need ’em, but you can never fully trust ’em. Edwin Diaz was arguably the best reliever in baseball last year. This year he’s already allowed more hits (48 to 41), runs (26 to 17) and home runs (10 to 5) than last season in 29 1/3 fewer innings. Since May 29, Diaz has a 9.00 ERA and opponents are hitting .337/.406/.630 against him. Yikes.
More than anything, the slider has been the root cause of Diaz’s struggles this year. The pitch has been a wipeout put-away weapon throughout his career. This season, it’s almost been a batting practice pitch. Here are the numbers on Diaz’s slider:
|Year||Exit velocity allowed||Batting average against||Slugging percentage against||Swing-and-miss rate|
My guess — and this is only a guess — is Diaz is having trouble throwing his slider with the current baseball. Several players have noted this year’s ball is harder and has lower seams*. That could make gripping the slider and getting the usual break difficult. When a pitch doesn’t behave the way you’re used to, it can be a big problem.
* Diaz would not be the only pitcher to struggle with the current baseball. Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka told reporters, including James Wagner of the New York Times, the current baseball has made it difficult to throw his splitter.
Diaz pitched with a four-run lead in the first game Monday while Seth Lugo recorded a two-inning save with a one-run lead in the second game. New York is not blessed with the deepest and most impactful bullpen. At some point they’ll need Diaz to become a reliable option who can get them big outs in high-leverage situations, and sooner it happens, the better.
“I think that at this point, he understands that he’s going to go out there when his name is called,” Callaway told reporters, including Tim Healey of Newsday, when asked whether Diaz may be removed from the closer’s role.
4. Take advantage of head-to-head games
The Mets are 2 1/2 games back of the second wild-card spot with four teams ahead of them in the standings. Two of those teams, the Nationals and Phillies, play in the NL East. The Mets have six head-to-head games remaining with each. Here is their remaining schedule:
Three games at Citi Field (Aug. 9-11)
Three games at Nationals Park (Sept. 2-4)
Three games at Citizens Bank Park (Aug. 30 to Sept. 1)
Three games at Citi Field (Sept. 6-8)
The Mets will play 12 of their final 49 games against either the Nationals or Phillies, or roughly one-quarter of their remaining schedule. Needless to say, winning the majority of those head-to-head games is a necessity. The easiest way to gain ground in a postseason race is to win games against your direct competitors.
The standings work to New York’s advantage. Two of the teams they’re chasing for a postseason spot play in their division, which means head-to-head games and opportunities to take care of business yourself. The Mets are 25-24 against NL East rivals this year, including 8-5 against the Nationals and 4-9 against the Phillies. A well-above-.500 record in their remaining intra-division games is imperative.
5. Get some help from other teams
At this point, the Mets do not control their own destiny. They’ll need help from other teams, even if they sweep their head-to-head games with the Nationals and Phillies. The Cardinals and Brewers are ahead of them in the wild-card standings as well — given the NL Central race, we should also mention the Cubs as a possible wild-card competitor — and there’s nothing New York can do about that. The Mets have finished their season series with the Brewers (1-5) and Cardinals (2-5).
I suppose the good news is the Brewers and Cardinals are in the same division and have nine head-to-head games remaining. If the Mets takes care of their own business, they know they’ll gain ground on someone whenever the Brewers and Cardinals play. The same applies to the Nationals and Phillies. They have five head-to-head games remaining. The Mets are in scoreboard watching mode now. They need other teams to beat the Brewers, Cardinals, Nationals, and Phillies as much as possible.
More than anything, the Mets need their best players to be their best players the rest of the season. That means Alonso, Diaz, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, and all five starters. They also need to beat up on the Nationals and Phillies whenever they have a chance, and hope some other teams give them a hand the rest of the way as well.
According to SportsLine, the Mets have increased their postseason odds from 2.6 percent at the All-Star break to 19.2 percent following Monday’s doubleheader sweep. FanGraphs says they’ve gone from 4.9 percent to 32.7 percent. That is both a big improvement and a reminder the Mets still have a long way to go. At least now they are in race though. It wasn’t long ago that this looked like a lost season. Meaningful baseball is being played in Flushing.