This kind of stretch happens in May, or in June, it might be concerning but not terrifying. For one thing, as Charles Barkley once said about early-season games against poor NBA teams: “This early, the [crap] teams don’t know they’re [crap] teams yet.”
But forget the opponents. Forget the fact that the Nationals and the Pirates are probably going to share the dubious distinction of losing 100 games this year. The opponents matter little. This is about the Mets now. This is about the Mets team that cruised through the season’s first 133 games, and the one that has looked like a jalopy leaking oil the last three.
And yes — it is only a three-game losing streak. Even if it may feel like a three-week skid.
Still, in September, in this September, against the relentless pursuit of the Braves — who finally, almost inevitably, caught the Mets Tuesday by surviving a scare against their own last-place opponent, the A’s, 10-9 — every game matters. Every squandered opportunity matters. And so this 8-2 loss to the Pirates — following matching 7-1 losses to the Nats — stings a little extra. The Mets aren’t hitting a lick. The last three games the pitching has been alarming.
And as a bonus addition to the anxiety closet, Starling Marte spent most of the game getting X-rays and sliding into an MRI tube after getting drilled in the right hand by a Mitch Keller fastball. Manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t share what the preliminary results said — “Maybe we can get lucky” — but it sure sounds like there’s at least a chance this could be a calamitous turn of events for a Mets offense that can’t afford one.
“It catches your attention because it’s been so good for so long,” Showalter said of the Mets’ offensive sag, which has now yielded but 38 runs the last 13 games. “Guys are frustrated right now because they know they’re capable of better.”
You can believe, with absolute confidence, that Showalter was taking nothing for granted these last three games. He has preached from Day 1 that a team’s record means nothing once a game starts, that everyone’s on scholarship. And mostly, his team has simply and professionally manhandled lesser foes.
Until these lesser foes. Until the last three games. The Pirates and Nats combined are 98-171. They have been playing out the string for weeks. But they managed to lasso the Mets with that string in three games in which the dregs have outscored the Mets 22-4. Those are the kind of numbers that make little sense in a vacuum.
But baseball isn’t played in a vacuum. Tuesday night it was played in front of a cozy friends-and-family gathering of 8,817 at PNC Park. And if you didn’t know who the first-place team was and who the last-place team was…well, watching the game sure wouldn’t have helped you out with that one.
“We’re still in good spirits,” said Taijuan Walker, who was less than his best across five innings and 80 pitches and was pulled before the initial hints of a blister on his finger that could worsen.
Those good spirts must be helpful to the Mets, because they could sure use a few when they report to work Wednesday for what will surely feel like one of the longest days of the year, a day-night doubleheader before what promises to be a couple of more sparse audiences.
It was only six days ago that the Mets finished off a series win against the superpower Dodgers, and the positive vibes were everywhere in Queens. All of New York’s baseball angst was centered in The Bronx. If there was talk of “folding” or “free-falling” it was all about the other team in town. The Mets? The Mets had survived the Dodgers and now could attack the soft underbelly of the schedule.
Was that really only six days ago?
“You always tip your cap to your opponent,” Showalter said, and look: even the ’62 Mets won 40 games, often leaving their victims wondering how in the world any of them happened. Bad teams occasionally beat good teams (although the Braves have spent most of the summer disproving this theory).
Eventually, those good teams must say: “Enough.”
At some point today, the earlier the better, these Mets could use a crooked number or two to serve as a smelling salt. The losing streak is only three, it isn’t 10, even if it feels like 10. The Mets need their mojo back, need their confidence back, because there are no easy days the rest of the way.
Same, it would seem, as there are no easy opponents. No matter what the standings say.