Five days ago, the Mets were something of a wreck. Looking more like their earlier season selves than their post All-Star break juggernaut.
They lost a pair to the National League East-leading Braves that they could have won, then they beat the Braves despite seeming to do everything in their power to snatch defeat from the jaws of a blowout.
Then they took two out of three in Kansas City from the American League Central’s rebuilding Royals, nothing remotely close to the Royals who beat them in a World Series they could have won but for porous defense.
But there was still that little matter of coming home with the Indians due for a visit. The Mets’ rounds with the big boys weren’t over yet. Opening Tuesday night, the Mets began a set between baseball’s two hottest post All-Star teams. Making it arguably even up in import to the set they blew in Atlanta last week.
The pre-break Mess, risen from the dead. The pre-break Indians, yanking themselves from an injury, inconsistency, and once in awhile indifferent wreck to put a near-end to the juggernaut from Minnesota that’s proving you can’t always just bludgeon your way to the top and keep as much as an eleven-and-a-half-game distance in front.
The Mets suddenly re-resembled a group of crisis junkies whose apparent such addiction didn’t stop them from taking a set against the Nationals but threatened to wreck them against the Braves last week, before re-charging in Kansas City. The Indians finished pulling themselves all the way back to the AL Central’s penthouse. The Tribe even claimed first place for a couple of days and still sit only a couple of games behind the Twins in their division.
And they entered Citi Field Tuesday on an extended New York trip. After taking three out of four from the Twins but losing two out of three to the somewhat rickety Red Sox, the Indians split a set with the Yankees in the south Bronx before opening against the Mets. This may be the first time in the interleague play era that the Indians didn’t have to switch up their hotel reservations after finishing a visit to one team before starting the next one.
And with a little side intrigue involving Mets manager Mickey Callaway—once embattled, now looking somewhat more secure—compelled to try out-thinking and out-maneuvering his former boss, Indians manager Terry Francona, the Mets did something last week’s Atlanta excursion might have left people thinking was two things, difficult and impossible.
They beat the Indians 9-2 Tuesday night. They took the lead twice, and the second time they didn’t let the Tribe even think about trying to re-tie or overtake them by the time Mets reliever Paul Sewald—whose career has been described as up and down when observers have wished to be polite—struck out Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin back-to-back to end it.
It didn’t faze Mets starter Steven Matz when Jason Kipnis sent a hanging changeup over the right center field fence with two out in the top of the second. He still scattered five hits and a pair of walks otherwise while striking out seven in six and a thirds innings and outpitched Shane Bieber, whose striking out of the side before the home audience nailed him the All-Star Game’s MVP over a month ago.
And well it shouldn’t have fazed Matz because J.D. Davis had an answer for Kipnis in the bottom of the second. With Mets catcher Wilson Ramos aboard on a one-out base hit right up the pipe, Davis caught hold of a 1-0 Bieber slider down the pipe and sent it over the center field fence, right past the big housing for the big red apple that rises whenever a Met hits one out at home, a holdover from the ten-years-gone Shea Stadium.
“The scouting report was to attack him early,” Davis said after the game. “He threw strikes early in the count, and in that at-bat, I was aggressive with the 0-0 fastball. Then he went to the off-speed pitch, and we got him. I think that was his first time out of the stretch, and he left one over the plate.”
A throwing error by Mets third baseman Todd Frazier opened the Cleveland fourth with Yasiel Puig on first. He got as far as second when Jose Ramirez followed with a base hit before coming home on Kipnis’s single up the pipe to tie things at two. Then Matz contained the damage by getting a fly out, an infield force, and dropping strike three in on Bieber, whose hitting experience was limited to one walk and one base hit in a mere eight trips to the plate entering Tuesday.
Two three-up, three-down innings for each pitcher later, the Indians learned the hard way what happens when you make even the tiniest mistake against these Mets. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, left fielder Oscar Mercado had a perfect bead drawn on Mets second baseman Joe Panik’s opposite-field fly. That despite shortstop Francisco Lindor looking likewise before Mercado called him off.
Against the railing, the ball descended into and right out of Mercado’s glove in an instant. A fan may or may not have interfered with the play. Francona elected not to challenge it because, as he put it, “It was really iffy.” The fan was ejected from Citi Field post haste.
A center fielder ordinarily, Mercado didn’t try to excuse himself, either. “I just dropped it,” said Mercado after the game. “I thought I had it just like with every other flyball I’ve caught in my life, but it just popped out of my glove.” After Pete Alonso struck out looking at one that barely hit the low outside corner, there was nothing iffy about Michael Conforto popping Bieber’s 1-2 slider almost exactly into the same spot where Kipnis’s second-inning blast landed.
“I feel like that swung the whole momentum of the game,” Bieber said after the game. “If I make a better pitch there, we probably have a different result.”
“We’ve had a feeling over this run that we’ve been on that we might not get them the first time through the order,” said Conforto, mindful of how good Bieber has been overall this year, “but our lineup has been so good, our hitters have been able to figure out ways to get on base, figure out ways to get runs in.
“We just feel that regardless of who is pitching, we’re going to put a lot of runs on the board. Any time the defense gives us an opportunity like that, we have to take advantage of it, so that was huge.”
All the Mets have to do in concert with that is keep from giving the other guys even remotely comparable opportunities. While taking advantage of every gift from every bullpen bull they can handle.
With both starters out of the game by the bottom of the seventh, the Mets got even more playful with the Indians’ bullpen in that inning. They introduced themselves to Adam Cinder with a leadoff single and a followup walk. Then they re-introduced the Indians to an old buddy, Rajai Davis, called up after a term in Syracuse found him re-grouping respectably enough to get a second term as a Met.
Davis tried bunting both runners over. He got Juan Lagares (the walk) to second but the Indians nailed Frazier (the leadoff hit) at third while Davis arrived at first. Then Mets shortstop Amed Rosario, one of their hotter bats of late, drove Lagares home with a base hit up the pipe.
“This game can really bring you to your knees sometimes,” Cimber said after the game. That’s the voice of a righthander against whom righthanded batters hit only .227 against him before he tangled with the Mets’ righthanded foursome. “You’ve just to keep moving forward and fight your way through it. The last couple of weeks I’ve been grinding a little bit. It’s something everybody goes through and it’s my turn now.”
Exit Cinder, enter Hunter Wood. And Panik sent Davis home with an opposite-field single, before Alonso atoned for looking at strike three his previous time up by doubling home both Rosario and Panik, then taking third on a wild pitch before Wood and the Indians escaped.
Davis the Rajai re-joined the Mets’ party a little more forcefully in the bottom of the eighth, when he turned on Indians reliever Phil Maton’s slightly hanging curve ball and hung it down the left field line for an RBI double sending Lagares home with the ninth Mets run.
All that on a day when injured list news was mixed for both teams. The Indians shut Corey Kluber down two more weeks with an abdominal strain he suffered during a rehab outing; the Mets shut down reliever Robert Gsellman, possibly for the season, after his injury turned up a torn lat muscle.
But Carlos Carrasco’s comeback while battling leukemia goes to a second rehab outing after he looked impressive enough in his first, which stands to help the Cleveland bullpen since that’s where they plan to bring him.
And Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (bulging neck disk) advanced to Syracuse on his rehab and had a 2-for-5 day while playing center field for five innings. Nimmo’s return may provide a slightly ticklish outfield situation for the Mets, but these Mets have known far more troublesome knots this year.
Maybe last week in Atlanta really will prove a little hiccup, after all, but these Mets haven’t begun full recovery from crisis addiction just yet. Even if they’re still talking as much in postseason mode as they’ve begun playing again. Taking at least two of the three with the Indians will go big in that recovery. Especially with more big boys awaiting them.
“I think we all knew,” said J.D. Davis, “that even though it’s August, the playoffs started today. We have to have that playoff mentality, that playoff atmosphere, that every game counts, especially with the hole we dug ourselves into. I think the elephant in the room is that we have a lot of home games but a lot of games against playoff teams.”
That’s not elephant singular. That’s a pack of pachyderm awaiting them still. The Braves and the Cubs come to town after they’re finished with the Indians; between the two, the Cubs could be slightly easier pickings based on recent performances. And, after a road trip to Philadelphia and Washington, the Mets return home for a ten-game homestand against the Phillies, the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers.
Tuesday night? The Mets send Marcus Stroman out to face the Indians’ Adam Plutko, who beat the Yankees to open the Indians’ New York excursion. With the Mets 25-10 since the break and the Indians 24-14 in the same period, this isn’t exactly a plain pit stop for either team.
And if you’re looking for historically rooted omens, half a century ago the Mets were ten games out of first in the NL East—and went all the way to win their first World Series. Four years later, they eleven and a half out and dead last in the division—and won the pennant before pushing the Swingin’ A’s to a seventh World Series game.
Today they’re nine games out of first but two games away from the second NL wild card. With a clean shot at re-proving their post All-Star mettle against the AL’s wild card leaders, who’ve proven they’re not exactly willing to play dead when told to do so, either.