Had someone told you the Mets’ first two starting pitchers would combine for 11 innings with just three hits and two runs allowed, while striking out 15 batters, you'd think they would be 2-0, atop the NL East going into Sunday morning.
But with one strike left in the bottom of the ninth inning and a 2-1 lead, the Mets blew it. Again. This time to the Braves, a team that has tortured the Mets for years. Meanwhile, ESPN bought a cardboard cut-out of Chipper Jones - the greatest Mets tormentor of all - plus his son, Shea, at Citi Field, to watch it happen.
But no matter the team or town, the game had a hauntingly familiar feel.
As of the 82nd game of 2019, just over halfway through last season, the Mets had 20 blown saves and were 37-45 on June 27, 2019. They overcame their baleful bullpen and finished 10 games over .500 for the season, but these Mets don't get buffers or mulligans with just 60 regular season games. They can't afford to lose games such as these, especially the way they did it, with Edwin Diaz on the mound in the ninth, his head jerking back to watch another pitch launched over the fence (Diaz hemorrhaged 15 homers last year, to go with his 5.59 ERA).
The Mets made a major investment in Diaz, who was so awful last year he lost his job as the closer, and had a year Keith Hernandez called “the worst I’ve seen.” They simply can't suffer a 2019 redux from the pitcher who saved 57 games and sported a 1.96 ERA in 2018.
Diaz says he won't lose any confidence over this, the latest episode in a Mets career full of more choking than a street fight. The Mets need to keep a finger on Diaz's emotional pulse, and if he plans to implode right away, the Mets can't afford to keep shoving him out there simply because he used to be really good.
Leads are too precious to lose, especially with these Mets, a team that lost Noah Syndergaard for the season this spring, just watched Marcus Stroman plop on the IL with an injured calf, and then watched Sunday as the Braves battered newcomer (and former Cy Young winner) Rick Porcello as if he were a BP pitcher. Losing leads with no one on base, two outs, and two strikes in the ninth will hurt the club down this short road if they don't fix it.
Last year, the Mets’ bullpen was basically Seth Lugo and simply pray when he wasn't available. The club poached Dellin Betances from the Yankees, the only team on Earth that doesn't truly need someone of his talent, and while he missed virtually all of 2019 due to a litany of issues, the four-time All-Star has the stuff to close baseball games. In his last full season, 2018, Betances fanned 115 batters in 66 2/3 innings, for an astounding rate of 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Sure, the ideal late-game combo would be Lugo and Betances teeing it up for Diaz in the ninth. And demoting Diaz would stretch an already thin bullpen. But they can't afford too many experiments if they lead to blown saves. Not only did Marcell Ozuna's home run all but cost the Mets the ballgame Saturday, it surely knocked the air out of a team that hoped it was past these agonizing losses.
We'd all love to know what happened to Edwin Diaz between the time he was the fiercest closer in the game and now. He's young, strong, and has never landed on the Injured List. But the Mets can't keep waiting for some epiphany from a pitcher whose job is so vital to the team's success. Maybe the 2019 Dodgers and Nationals - the former making the playoffs and the latter winning the World Series - had more blown saves than the Mets. But they were also better just about everywhere else, particularly in their rotations and lineups. And the Nats, who won it all with a woeful bullpen, are an extreme anomaly.
The Mets aren't good enough to overcome losses in games they had in the bag. Maybe Diaz will morph into the closer the Mets acquired from Seattle, but they don't have 80, or 60, or even 40 games to find out. Pete Alonso called the Mets the team to beat in the NL East, but right now, they're already a game out, and if it's same old Mets this season, Alonso's prediction is simply going to go down as the usual bluster backed by the usual bust.