by Paul West
This is a pivotal time for the New York Mets.
Coming into the season, predictions varied regarding how the Mets would fare in 2015. Some believed they were turning the corner; some believed they were still a year away; some believed they would always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot. But as of August 20th, they sit at the top of the National League East, resurgent with new personnel and a dominant pitching staff. It’s now widely believed that should they make the playoffs, the Mets would be a tough out.
They just have to get there.
The Mets battled injuries and slumps for the first half of the season, and they’re finally getting fully healthy. Captain David Wright is scheduled to return early next week in Philadelphia, and Steven Matz looks on target for a return in early September. Curtis Granderson, after struggling for much of the first half and being widely declared a disappointment, is one of the Mets’ hottest hitters. New acquisition Yoenis Cespedes has fortified a lineup that looks reborn, with Lucas Duda hitting the ball hard again and contributions coming from top to bottom and in multiple situations. The Washington Nationals have spent the past week and a half in free-fall; Bryce Harper has struggled to stay healthy and ace Max Scherzer was hammered by the Giants and seems less dominant of late. The rest of the division has played itself thoroughly out of contention.
With all that said, it bears noting that the Nationals only trail the Mets by four games. The Nationals are not only far from out of the race, they’re extremely dangerous and have the talent to close ground quickly. Fortunately for the Mets, they have one of the easiest remaining schedules–on paper–in baseball. They also play the Nationals six more times, including three times at Citi Field to close out the season. While the Nationals no longer seem to have the Mets’ number, the fact that they play each other this many times down the stretch could work out for either team. This is all the more reason the Mets need to hold serve in the meantime, increasing their margin of error later as the season comes to a close.
The Mets follow the Nats into Colorado for a weekend series against the Rockies, and while this looks on paper like a series they should win, the Rockies can score in bunches and are dangerous. If the Mets are going to win and hold serve, they will have to use the same formula that’s put them in first place: pitching, versatility, timely hitting and good selective aggression at the plate. Their recent home-run binges notwithstanding, the Mets are at their best as a team that shoots the gaps and is dangerous throughout the lineup. In an effort to home run-proof their park, the Rockies pushed the Coors Field fences back, leading to huge expanses in the outfield and enormous gaps between fielders. This should favor line-drive hitters like Travis d’Arnaud, Daniel Murphy and rising star Michael Conforto, and the extra spacing should make defensive shifts less effective against Granderson and Duda. If they run into home runs against the Rockies’ erratic pitching, so be it–but they should refrain from chasing the big fly in Colorado. As for their own pitching, the Mets need their top-line rotation to live up to its hype; again, the Rockies are a dangerous lineup.
The biggest concern in Colorado will be the Mets’ ailing bullpen. Bobby Parnell ended a beleaguered week by being placed on the disabled list; Jeurys Familia, despite settling down recently, no longer seems like the sure thing he was in the first half. The Rockies are known for late-inning outbursts in their own stadium, and could feast on the Mets’ relief pitching if the Mets’ starters don’t go deep into games. And most troubling of all, the Mets are reportedly considering skipping Matt Harvey‘s start this weekend in order to manage his innings for the season. While there are valid arguments both for and against this move, skipping Harvey’s start would deprive the Mets of an ace in a hitter’s park in a must-win series. And make no mistake, this is a must-win series.
The Mets are still in the driver’s seat in the National League East. But there’s still a lot of time left, and the time to cement the division is now.