AnalysisNL East

First to Third: A colossal collapse with no end in sight

On a warm July night in Denver, CO, New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso won his second consecutive Home Run Derby crown, defeating Baltimore Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini in the final round. Slamming 74 total home runs that night, Alonso deemed himself “the best power hitter on the planet” and was confident and poised to lead the Mets into the playoffs during the second half.

Later that week, the Mets opened the second half against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a stunning turn of events, the team suddenly lost star shortstop Francisco Lindor and star pitcher Jacob deGrom to injuries that have threatened the prospect of either of them playing again this season. While the injury bug had been a familiar pest towards the Mets during the first half, they had effectively found ways to utilize their organizational depth and rebound to stay in the pennant race. Unfortunately, that resilience, combined with the ineptitude of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves to capitalize on the Mets’ misfortune, expired fast.

Both the Phillies and the Braves have had their share of injuries this season as well, most notably Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s season-ending ACL tear just before the All-Star break; however, they have found ways over the last month to make up ground in the tight National League East — and fast.

In what hoped to be an easy three wins against a Pittsburgh team that was rebuilding turned out to be one of the worst series of the year for the Mets, dropping two out of three, highlighted by an excruciating loss when Jacob Stallings hit a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning off of Mets’ closer Edwin Díaz. Yes, the final game of that series was a comeback that will surely be replayed during rain delays and postponements in the future; Michael Conforto completing the comeback after the team went down 6-0. Of course, the play that put them down by such a large margin was Taijuan Walker‘s arguing with the home plate umpire over a ground ball that was called fair, allowing three runs to score, something quite reminiscent of David Cone‘s play during the 1990 season against the Atlanta Braves.

Following that series, in which the team went 3-for-33 with runners in scoring position, they went to Cincinnati, OH to take on the Reds, a team that, at the time, was coming off of being swept in three games by the Milwaukee Brewers. In the first game of that series, Díaz blew his third consecutive save, ceding a game-tying double to All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The team, though, showed resiliency, with Kevin Pillar ultimately hitting a go-ahead home run in the top of the 11th inning that would give the Mets the win, 15-11. The team did not win the second game of the series after spot-starter Robert Stock had to depart the game early with a hamstring tear, which required season-ending surgery. Still, it routed Cincinnati 7-0 in the rubber match, thanks to eight scoreless innings from Marcus Stroman and a grand slam from outfielder Dominic Smith.

The 3-3 road trip, after losing two star players to injury, could be considered a success for the Mets as they returned home for an 11-game homestand where they had a significant opportunity to distance themselves in first place in the National League East. Yet it was this week-and-a-half period in Flushing, NY, where the season slowly began to fold onto itself, starting with the rumors swirling around the team’s first-round draft pick, Kumar Rocker.

Rocker, who was a star pitcher at Vanderbilt, had been selected 10th overall by the team in the 2021 MLB Draft. However, before the 21-year-old standout inked a previously agreed upon rookie contract with the Mets, which included a $6 million signing bonus, he underwent a physical that left the organization with more concern than confidence in the young starter’s potential. His pitching elbow, which was reportedly not a source of trepidation for Rocker’s camp, seemed to impact the pitcher’s velocity. However, he still led college baseball with 122 innings pitched and tied his teammate and second-overall pick Jack Leiter with 179 strikeouts. However, the deadline was quickly approaching, and nobody seemed to know whether the Mets would be able or willing to renegotiate the sizable contract.

In the end, that didn’t happen, and as summed up in a tweet by owner Steve Cohen, it wasn’t over money. Instead, it was because the Mets organization believed he would not live up to the contract they were originally prepared to give him due to his elbow impingement.

The Mets hosted the Toronto Blue Jays in an interleague matchup at Citi Field to kick off the homestand, taking two of three games, largely due to Pete Alonso hitting three home runs in three games, including a mammoth 450-foot blast off of former teammate Steven Matz. The organization also conducted their first significant pitching acquisition with the trade deadline approaching, acquiring veteran southpaw Rich Hill from the Tampa Bay Rays. He debuted for the injury-stricken team in the final game of that series, tossing five innings and giving up three earned runs. After the Blue Jays series, the Mets were 52-44, four games ahead of the second-place Phillies in the NL East, with a 79% chance of making the postseason. There was buzz and anticipation in and around the ballpark comparable to that in 2015, when the team went on a run in early August that, at one point, had the club as the National League favorites to make the World Series. Then, it all tumbled.

The Amazins’ hosted the Atlanta Braves for five games, including a doubleheader to open the series after the infamous May 28 postponement following a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay. Unfortunately, following the split of the doubleheader, in which three total runs were scored between the two teams, the Mets proceeded to lose two of the three remaining games. That slide, combined with the Phillies taking one of three games against the Washington Nationals, caused the Mets’ division lead to shrink to three and a half games, with Atlanta looming just four games behind as well.

The Mets hosted the Reds for another three-game series to conclude the homestand and were lucky to take one game with an offense that looked more anemic than amped up to distance themselves in the division. Something else of note during that series was the blockbuster trade just minutes before the deadline that sent star infielder Javier Báez to the Mets in exchange for top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong. Báez, 28, won the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs and was considered one of the organization’s foundational players. However, since he and the club were unable to come to terms on a contract extension, the Cubs traded him and his final two months under contract to the Mets, a team looking to compete in a pennant race. The infielder, who was nicknamed “El Mago” for his magician-like play in the field while with the Cubs, brought his magic to Queens in his Mets’ debut, hitting a long home run that put the Mets back into the game, which was ultimately tied in the ninth inning thanks to a game-tying hit from Dominic Smith. Then, in the 10th inning, Brandon Drury completed the comeback on a great piece of hitting to the opposite field and was consequently mobbed by his teammates in commemoration of the walk-off single.

Dropping two out of three games against the Reds did not impact the Mets’ spot in the National League East, remaining three and a half games in first place. However, arriving in South Beach, the Mets, once again, had a compelling chance to put the division out of reach, with Báez at the heart of the batting order for four games against the last-place Miami Marlins. Entering the series, the Mets had failed to take advantage of a rebuilding Miami team, earning two wins over their first five games against them. Immediately after the Marlins series would be a bout with the Phillies, who seemed to finally solve their offensive struggles in a 15-4 rout of the Pittsburgh Pirates the prior day.

The series in Miami was quickly off to an inauspicious start when Lewis Brinson, a platoon outfielder who began to get the chance to play every day following the trading deadline, hit a grand slam off of rookie starter Tylor Megill to give the Marlins an immediate 4-0 lead. The game would be out of reach from there, with the Mets going a lackluster 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, leaving nine runners on base in a 6-3 loss. The next game would not be much better for the Mets, as Taijuan Walker’s struggles at preventing the home run ball continued over his 5.2 innings pitched, in which he allowed four earned runs, two due to the home run. Again, the Mets’ situational hitting failed them, with the club going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, leaving five runners on base.

Game three of the Marlins series would be the bright spot for the Mets, their sole win in the contest. New acquisition Javier Báez catalyzed the offense with a go-ahead opposite-field home run in the eighth inning, leading the Amazins to a 5-3 victory. The next day, though, would be more of the same in terms of the offense’s struggle, with Báez earning a platinum sombrero by striking out in all five of his at-bats in a 4-2 loss. While the Mets and their fanbase knew that Báez would bring strikeouts to the lineup, he has been unable to hit doubles or triples, with both of his extra-base hits thus far being home runs. Additionally, after the team visited loanDepot Park, the Mets offense went just 8-for-43 with runners in scoring position.

This brings us to this weekend in Philadelphia. Citizens Bank Park was near or at capacity for all three games throughout the series, with a mixture of Mets and Phillies fans in the crowd cheering on their team. The Phillies honored legends Manny Trillo and Roy Halladay with plaques on the team’s wall of fame prior to their games on Saturday and Sunday against the Mets and sent the hometown crowd home happy with a convincing three-game sweep of the Mets.

Philadelphia entered the series coming off of a sweep of the Washington Nationals after they had an especially active trade deadline, highlighted by the blockbuster trade that sent star pitcher Max Scherzer and star infielder Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for a package of high-end minor league prospects. On Friday, Kyle Gibson made his second start with the Phillies after being acquired from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline and threw six innings while giving up one run. For the Mets, Marcus Stroman got the ball and put up a stellar effort in five innings pitched, allowing two earned runs. However, the Mets lineup failed to capitalize on a plethora of opportunities with runners in scoring position yet again, leaving eight runners on base, many of whom reached early on in a given inning.

Saturday and Sunday’s contests were remarkably similar for the fact that the Mets lineup, preaching patience and positive energy to its fanbase, found new ways to fail to drive in runs. Whether it was bases loaded with no outs, and then a concurrent strikeout and double play, or a leadoff double and two strikeouts and a flyout, the Mets could not buy runs in any way except through their dependence on the home run. The Mets certainly made Saturday’s game intriguing in the ninth inning when they hit back-to-back-to-back home runs for the first time since 1988. On Sunday, the Mets were two-hit over eight scoreless innings from Phillies’ ace Zack Wheeler, failing to score a run in a 3-0 loss. The Mets are now two and a half games back from the first-place Philadelphia Phillies and sit in third place in the National League East after the Braves beat the Nationals 5-4 Sunday.

Following Sunday’s loss, Pete Alonso continued to preach patience to the fanbase, saying that the team was aware of its recent struggles and asked for fans to keep the faith. In short, his message was, quite simply: “[We’ve] got this.”

The Mets return home from their 1-6 road trip tomorrow when they take on the Washington Nationals at Citi Field and will try to quickly make up the ground they lost in the division before they start a 13-game stretch against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, two of baseball’s best teams.

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