All season, the 2021 Mets have been defined by pitching and grit, finding ways to win games, often late, despite their feeble offense. Only now the pitching has fallen off a notch, while the lack of hitting still threatens to give their fans ulcers, so we’re about to find out just how far that grit can carry this team.
Because suddenly their hold on first place in the NL East is at stake, as the Mets limp into Philadelphia off a horrendous series in Miami that saw them lose three out of four games, the last of which left manager Luis Rojas beyond exasperated at his team’s inability to get a clutch hit, or sometimes just put the bat on the ball when it mattered.
The Mets left 15 runners on base in the 4-2 loss on Thursday, raising their total for the series to 41 while lowering their runs per game average to 3.8 this season, which ranks them 29th among 30 MLB teams, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates.
And if you thought Javier Baez was going to be a Yoenis Cespedes-like savior for this offense, well, this was a reminder that he doesn’t lead the National League in strikeouts by accident. Wednesday night, he hit a slider off the outside corner for a game-winning home run, such is his talent, but on Thursday he struck out five times, leaving eight runners on base, sometimes swinging at pitches even Amed Rosario wouldn’t have chased.
The Mets knew what they were getting in Baez, of course, but he came with a reputation for delivering in a big moment, and to see him succumb repeatedly to his lack of plate discipline against a less-than-overpowering lefthander, Braxton Garrett, in crucial at-bats had to be somewhat stunning.
Certainly that seemed to be the case with Rojas, though not only because of Baez. One day after calling a team meeting in part to urge his hitters to take a more aggressive approach at the plate, the manager couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing and, give him credit, he was candid enough to call his hitters out for it.
Speaking specifically of the first inning, when the Mets loaded the bases with no outs and came away empty when J.D. Davis and Baez struck out swinging, then Michael Conforto flied out routinely to center, Rojas offered a stinging indictment:
“It was almost as if we weren’t prepared for what the pitcher had,” he said.
When pressed on that statement Rojas explained that he didn’t mean his hitters were slacking off on their pre-game preparation, more so that they allowed the importance of the moment to affect their thinking, especially their readiness to attack fastballs in RBI situations.
“We haven’t been on time for fastballs, specifically,” Rojas said. “Because of being late on fastballs, it’s just tough sometimes to recognize secondary pitches, because we’re rushing.
“These guys do a lot of homework, I witness it. It’s about approach. Right now Pete (Alonso) has a good fastball mentality, but not everybody. We load the bases, then find guys who aren’t ready to hit, and the sequence just stops.”
Rojas was clearly referring to that first inning. After the Mets loaded the bases, Davis was late swinging at a 90 mph fastball before striking out chasing a changeup. Then Baez actually took a first-pitch fastball for a strike, which turned out to be the best pitch he saw in the at-bat, before eventually striking out chasing a sinker down and away, and Conforto took a 2-0 fastball for a strike before flying out on a 3-1 fastball at the knees.
“We’ve gotta have a better fastball mentality as a team,” said Rojas.
Specifics aside, the manager’s point seemed to be similar to what he said earlier in the season, citing the failures with runners in scoring position, when Rojas admitted players were being affected by the anxiety of such situations.
Is there a cure for that?
Well, it has been a problem for two seasons now. And while it was easy enough to dismiss it last year as a relatively small sample-size in a 60-game season, it’s far more than anomaly at this point.
Yet you can argue that these same Mets have been remarkably clutch at times, stealing games with what has often felt like late-inning magic on nights when the offense was quiet deep into games.
I’ve been calling it grit throughout the season, an ability to dig deep when it counts most that made it seem as if this team just had a knack for winning.
Of course, it’s also harder to pull off those types of wins when the pitching isn’t keeping games as close lately.
In addition, maybe there’s simply a limit to how many times a team can survive on late-inning heroics.
And finally, let’s be honest, these Mets are only a first-place team because the NL East is loaded with mediocrity.
However it all adds up, at a time when there’s no telling when Jacob deGrom will be back, their grit is being put to the test like never before this season.
They’ve lost six of their last eight games to fall to 56-52 while the Phillies are finally making a push, rallying late against the Nationals Thursday to run their winning streak to five games.
And so with just a half-game lead, these Mets find themselves hanging onto first place for dear life, a spot they’ve held by themselves since May 9.
In truth, however, with a stretch of 13 straight games against the Dodgers and Giants beginning next Friday, the Mets need to do more than merely survive this weekend. They need to find their mojo again and prove what they keep telling everyone, that they’re better than this offensively.
How do they do it? Rojas would say it starts with a clear mind and a crushed fastball.