5 things to watch as Mets face Rays in three-game series at Citi Field

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander / Lon Horwedel - USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a 4-9 stretch against four different opponents with losing records, the Mets will now host the team with the best record in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays, for a three-game series that starts Tuesday at Citi Field.

Here are five things to watch for in the series:

1. Can Verlander be a stopper?

With their starting pitching proving largely undependable, the Mets desperately need Justin Verlander to set a tone Tuesday night against the Rays’ offense, which statistically is by far the best in the majors.

This will be Verlander’s third start after missing April with a shoulder injury. The right-hander is coming off a seven-inning gem in Cincinnati against the Reds, and partly because he threw 104 pitches, the Mets gave him an extra day of rest before this start.

Over his two outings this season Verlander has allowed three runs in 12 innings, but even with his contributions the Mets’ starting pitchers have a 5.33 ERA, which ranks 13th in the National League.

Kodai Senga and Tylor Megill will start the final two games of the series.

2. These Rays can mash

The Rays annually seem to have one of the better pitching staffs in baseball, and currently their 3.26 ERA is the best in the majors. But this year they’ve turned into an offensive juggernaut, which helps explain their 31-11 record.

Tampa leads the majors in home runs by a wide margin: they’ve hit 81, while the LA Dodgers have the second-highest total of 68. Likewise, their .857 OPS is miles ahead of the next best in the majors, the Atlanta Braves at .792.

And they’re doing it with contributions up and down the lineup.

Yandy Diaz and Randy Arozarena each have 10 home runs, but five other players have at least seven each. Six players have an OPS above .900, which amounts to rarefied air.

Look at all of that, and the fact that the offense is coming off a four-game series where they scored 29 runs against the Yankees, the Mets pitching staff is going to need to step up.

3. Is Tampa’s pitching vulnerable?

The Rays have lost two top-notch starters to significant arm injuries: Jeffrey Springs was lost in April and needs Tommy John surgery, while Drew Rasmussen went on the 60-day IL due to a flexor strain just last Friday, the day after he pitched seven scoreless innings against the Yankees.

Ace Shane McClanahan was roughed up by the Yankees on Saturday, as he blew a 6-0 lead in a 9-8 defeat. However, the lefty is still 7-0 with a 2.34 ERA and likely to pitch in Thursday’s series finale.

And nobody has been better in recent years at patching together starts with multiple pitchers than the Rays, and it appears they’ll be doing more of that now.

They invented the concept of the opener, and Jalen Beeks will be in that role on Tuesday, likely to pitch only a couple of innings before manager Kevin Cash uses multiple relievers the rest of the way.

The Rays haven’t announced a starter for Wednesday’s game.

4. On paper the series is a mismatch

At 20-22 the Mets don’t look like contender, especially after their embarrassing 4-9 stretch against the Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds, and Washington Nationals, all teams with losing records.

Maybe they’ll be able to raise their level of play against the Rays, but statistically it looks like they’re no match.

Most significantly, their starting rotation, even with a boost from Verlander of late, has pitched to a 5.33 ERA, which ranks 13th in the NL and 25th in MLB.

And unlike the Rays, the Mets don’t mash. They’ve hit 41 home runs for the season, which ranks 22nd in the majors, even though Pete Alonso leads the majors with 13.

In addition, they didn’t hit a home run in their just-completed series against the Nationals -- the first time they’ve failed to go deep in a four-game series since 2013.

5. Alvarez, Baty making their mark

Rookies Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty haven’t had as much impact offensively as the Mets might have hoped, but they’ve shown enough to offer reason to believe they’re here to stay.

If anything, it’s significant if that both have played better than expected defensively, after the Mets’ front office had expressed reservations about their major-league readiness with the glove.

Baty has made all the plays at third base and looked smoother than when he came up last year. He ranks in the 94th percentile in Outs Above Average, a range-based metric on MLB Statcast.

And while Alvarez made a rookie mistake on Monday, getting picked off first with the bases loaded, he has impressed the Mets with his maturity behind the plate, communicating with pitchers, blocking balls in the dirt and framing borderline strikes. He ranks in the 90th percentile in framing, also via MLB Statcast.