NEW YORK -- After taking a 12-5 pasting in the first game of Tuesday’s day/night doubleheader against the Yankees, it would have been easy, very easy, for the Mets to sleepwalk through the nightcap, take their day off on Wednesday and try to reset their season once again when the St. Louis Cardinals come to town for the weekend.
And certainly, on paper it looked as if Game 2 would be a mismatch and this doubleheader, necessitated by Monday;s rainout, would be just another of the 40% or so of twin-bills that end up being sweeps.
The Yankees had James Paxton, their big-ticket starting pitching acquisition of the off-season who came into the game with a 0.34 ERA in five Yankee Stadiums starts. The Mets had Jason Vargas, owner of a fastball that would get passed on the Autobahn and who had never beaten the Yankees in 11 career starts and was 0-5 with a 7.53 ERA in the Bronx.
So of course, seven pitches into the game, Pete Alonso dropped a Paxton fastball over the centerfield fence to give the Mets a 3-0 first-inning lead, and six innings later, Vargas was still out there, having mostly baffled the Yankees with his repertoire of slow, slower and slowest.
The Mets wound up with a 10-4 win and were .500 for the day, which is still one game better than they are on the season.
Still, Mickey Callaway saw reason for hope that this would be the win that would spark his team onto the destiny he seems sure is theirs.
“This was huge,’’ Callaway said, “It’s kinda what we’ve done all year. Sometimes you get slapped in the face early in the game and then we come back at the end. This is who this team is. To lose like we did in the first one, and get beat around a little bit, and to come out in the second one and do what we did, beat them up, you got to give it to the players, they did a great job.’’
In truth, game two was a combination of Vargas having a very good night, his fourth in a row, and the Yankees looking as if it was they who had gone to sleep. Somehow, they collected three singles and a walk to start the third inning -- and came away with just three runs because neither Clint Frazier, Gio Urhsela nor Cameron Maybin could come up with a big hit.
Then, an inning later, Urhsela, who is normally a defensive wizard, inexplicably let a Jeff McNeil pop up pop out of his glove while attempting a Willie Mays-style back-to-the-plate catch. J.D. Davis followed with a two-run homer off Chance Adams, in relief of Paxton -- who lasted just 2.2 ineffective innings -- and a relatively close 6-3 game became an 8-3 blowout.
But give the Mets offense credit, too. Michael Conforto and Wilson Ramos strung together RBI singles in the third, Carlos Gomez belted a solo homer, and Amed Rosario hit a laser of an RBI double in the ninth, keeping the pressure on the Yankees all game and chasing so many of their fans out of their own building that when Brett Gardner homered into the rightfield seats leading off the bottom of the ninth, some cheeky fan threw it back onto the field.
“Paxton is a dude for a reason, and to rough up a guy like that is huge resilience for us,’’ said Alonso, whose homer was his 22nd, second-most in baseball. “It was really good opportunity for us to get momentum for the rest of the game and take it into the next series.”
But that has been the problem for the Mets through the first 67 games of 2019 -- maintaining momentum for more than one series, or sometimes even one game. The wash of a day left them at 33-34 for the season and in third place, five games behind the first-place Phillies. They have not been as many as four games over .500 since April 15, when they were 10-6.
Callaway addressed the issue between games of the doubleheader, when the sting of the first loss still stung, but somehow still saw reason for hope.
“I’ve been on a few teams whether it’s the 500 mark or getting 4 games above 500, there’s always these marks that seem to be difficult for teams and once you finally eclipse them you can take off,’’ Callaway said. “One time we couldn’t get above four games above the 500 mark, and then we rattled off 22 in a row. We’re going to get to .500 and then we’re going to take off at some point.’’
Callaway was referring to the 2017 Cleveland Indians, for whom he served as the pitching coach. That team was actually 16 games over .500 when it went on its 22-game winning streak in late August on their way to a 102-win season. They also had a pitching staff that included Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer.
Right now, the Mets have an inconsistent Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, who got lit up for nine runs (five earned) in the first game, and Vargas, who in a league of flamethrowers is somehow getting by with a menu of soft-serve.
“Now maybe Jamie Moyer will come out of retirement,’’ Callaway joked. “Against the sluggers, you want guys taking big swings against guys like Jason Vargas or Josh Tomlin. The way to get those guys is stringing together hit after hit, and that’s hard to do when you’re a sluggin team. They want to hit the ball out of the ballpark and you want to keep ‘em off balance.’’
That is what Vargas has done all season -- first to his own team, which was so alarmed by his early struggles Callaway temporarily banished him to the purgatory of middle relief -- and now to their opponents. Over his last four starts, Vargas has shut down the Tigers, the Dodgers and Giants in succession, allowing two earned runs in 21 innings, and held the Yankees in check well enough to earn his third win of the season. His ERA is 3.68, second-lowest among the Mets starters.
“This is who we signed, this is who we wanted and this is who he is,’’ Callaway said. “You want your fifth starter to be doing exactly what he’s doing,’’
Now, if the other four can follow suit, Callaway might have real reason to hope.