by Paul West
For much of the regular season, the New York Mets had the season’s last three games circled on their calendar. The Washington Nationals would be coming to town to close the season out, and the hope was that the Mets would be in position to have something to play for. They do have something to play for, it turns out, but not in the manner expected.
The Mets secured the National League East in the final week of September, and now they’re tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for home-field advantage in the coming NLDS. The Mets have recently battled a mini-slump and suffered injuries to Juan Uribe, Steven Matz and Yoenis Cespedes. Fortunately, the Dogers have helped the Mets’ cause by going into a slump of their own, losing six of their last ten. The Mets’ magic number to clinch home field in the NLDS is three, with three games to go. This weekend’s series is not only significant for that reason.
NATS LOOKING TO SPOIL
The Washington Nationals, widely accepted as a preseason World Series favorite, have spent the past month imploding and turning their frustrations inward. They’re widely expected to undergo an overhaul in the coming offseason. Many of the Nats are playing for their jobs, and others are playing to preserve or improve their market value. Of course, many others are trying to finish a disappointing season on a high note. Last but not least, one can imagine how happy the Nationals would be to spoil their divisional rivals’ postseason plans. Probable MVP Bryce Harper is still playing with a chip on his shoulder, and the Nationals will come into Citi Field looking to play spoiler.
Though the Mets’ primary strength continues to be their starting pitching, one of the big reasons for their second-half explosion was a vast improvement on offense. After a record-setting turnaround for most of August and September, the offense has gone cold of late. This is in part attributable to emotional and physical fatigue; the Mets’ resurgence involved countless two-out rallies, comeback wins and highly emotional games. It can also be attributed to the long-term un-sustainability of just how hot they’d gotten and unbeatable they’d seemed. It’s better that the inevitable slump happen now than a week from now–but it’s imperative that the Mets get back into an offensive groove before they face Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and a formidable Dodgers staff. It isn’t necessary to put up slow-pitch softball numbers as they did several weeks ago in Colorado and Philadelphia. It is, however, necessary to plate enough runs to support their own formidable staff.
History has shown that it isn’t necessary to go into the postseason on a prolonged hot streak. In fact, there’s reason to believe that in baseball in particular, a ending on a prolonged hot streak is the proverbial kiss of death. However, starting the playoffs ice-cold is not a good idea. The Mets don’t need to go in on an unsustainable hot streak, but they want to be sure that their lineup is clicking and comfortable entering the postseason. Cespedes might need to rest his banged-up left hand, injured by a pitch in Philadelphia, but this might be a blessing in disguise as he’d begun to finally cool off. A few days’ rest might allow him to re-energize and seize the kind of moments he sometimes seems destined for. Travis d’Arnaud has looked lost at the plate lately, expanding his strike zone and showing his frustration. Postseason success can ride on a balanced, comfortable lineup and one or two hot bats, and Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy might be about to step it up. Duda just had his seventh multiple-homer game of the season, and hit his first career grand slam in the division clincher. He seems to be entering one of his signature hot streaks just in time, and when he goes on a hitting binge he can change an entire lineup. Murphy has rediscovered his line-to-line power and is seeing the ball well against both lefties and righties. The Mets hope one, or both, can help jump-start their slumping offense.
After struggling to win consistently at home for several years, the Mets have one of baseball’s best home records this season. While he’s begun to show signs of being comfortable pitching on the road, Noah Syndergaard generally saves his most heroic outings for the home crowd. Jacob deGrom, Jeurys Familia and the rest of the Mets seem to feed off of the energy at Citi Field, which has more and more reminded people of the old Shea Stadium. The Dodgers have a home advantage of their own, especially when their aces are pitching in their ballpark’s notorious late-day shadow patterns. The Mets would much rather feed off their home crowd’s vibe than battle against a shadow curtain sitting halfway between the mound and home plate.
It’s been suggested that the Mets should rest their starters in these final three games. While going in fresh is certainly a good idea, at this point it’s also a luxury. The Mets got to rest key players in the games following their clinch in Philadelphia. Now it’s time to get clicking, gather momentum and secure home field against a dangerous team.