This was supposed to be the soft underbelly of the Mets schedule, a 16-game stretch against the Washington Nationals, the Miami Marlins and the Detroit Tigers, three bottom-feeders who were supposed to be gobbled up to rejuvenate a flagging ballclub.
And while the record says they did OK -- with Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Tigers at Citi Field, the Mets won nine of 15 games (there was one rainout) and six of seven at home -- the standings say that while the Mets have gained some traction, they are still spinning their wheels in the NL East.
When this stretch began, with a three-game mini homestand against the Marlins, the Mets were three games under .500 and sat 4-½ games behind the Phillies in the division.
Fifteen games, nine wins and one uncomfortable press conference at which GM Brodie Van Wagenen announced he would not be firing his manager, Mickey Callaway, just yet, the Mets are back to .500 -- and still 4-½ games behind the Phillies.
And while 9-6 might seem more than acceptable, it is easy to forget there was a five-game losing streak in the middle of it, including a three-game sweep by the Marlins in Miami.
So while a return to mediocrity was one goal they achieved, closing any ground on the team they are pursuing was one they did not.
And the road only gets tougher from here; Monday kicks off a seven-game West Coast trip, beginning with four against the Dodgers in L.A., that easily could undo all of the good feelings the Mets generated over the past week. While the Mets are 17-11 versus opponents with sub-.500 records, they are 9-15 against winning teams. At 34-18, the Dodgers have the best record in the National League.
That is why, when asked to express his relief at having at least returned his team to square one, Callaway chose instead to salute the Flushing faithful.
“I think it was great for the fans,’’ he said. “The fans came out, man, and they had a lot of energy and they didn’t have to do that. They stepped up and brought energy to our team and we went 6-1 on the homestand. They brought us life.’’
Pressed again to answer the question from a team standpoint, Callaway then veered off into praise of Van Wagenen for blessing him with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, who hit a key home run on Sunday, and Rajai Davis, who was handed his walking papers before the game after hitting a similar home run in his first at-bat for the team Wednesday night.
“Coming out of that Miami series, coming home, getting some guys hurt, it would have been easy for most organizations just to fold at that point,’’ he said. “But to Brodie’s credit, the front office’s credit, they went out and got the players that can step in and keep us competitive, and not only competitive, but we went 6-1. It showed we’re going to be competitive no matter what out there.’’
The idea that the Mets, or any professional baseball team, for that matter, would “fold’’ before Memorial Day after investing as much money as the Mets did this off-season was questionable, to say the least.
But in retrospect, Callaway’s answer may have been partly a diversionary tactic, designed to deflect attention from what, upon closer inspection, was not nearly so impressive a homestand as the numbers might indicate. Especially the past three games.
The Mets swept, amd mostly dominated hapless Washington in the first four games of the week, but lost to Detroit Friday night, with Noah Syndergaard getting hammered yet again, and were life-and-death to beat them Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday’s game took 13 innings, depleted their bullpen and needed a shocking walkoff home run by backup catcher Tomas Nido to finally come to conclusion more than four hours after it began,
And while Sunday’s featured a mostly fine start by Zack Wheeler, who took the game into the eighth inning, and an encouraging appearance by Jeurys Familia, who struck out two batters to quell a minor eighth-inning threat, the game ended with the tying run on third, the potential go-ahead run on second, and JaCoby Jones, a thorn in the Mets sides the previous two games, at the plate hoping to completely ruin their weekend.
Closer Edwin Diaz, who had blown his first save of the season Saturday, was in hot water up to his neck, needing 10 pitches to strike out John Hicks for the second out, and battling Jones for nine more before getting what might have been a gift of a third-strike call on a borderline 32 pitch by home plate umpire Jerry Meals.
Meanwhile, the Mets, who fell behind 3-0 after three innings, were stifled in all but one inning by Detroit starter Spencer Turnbull, but rallied for four runs in the fourth. Three of them came on an opposite-field home run by Hechavarria, who is only playing because Robinson Cano is on the IL with a quad injury. The other run, the Mets first, came on a heady push bunt through the vacated right side of the shifted Tigers infield by Todd Frazier that scored Smith from third.
“That was awesome,’’ Callaway said. “He recognized what they were doing to him (Saturday) night and even mentioned on the bench, he was like, ‘If i ever get the opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of that.’ It’s hard to defend. It’s kind of right ot there for the taking. It was a great heads-up play by Frazier and probably ended up winning us the game.’’
It was hardly the kind of thumping of an inferior team that Mets had hoped it would be.
Still, it sends them to Los Angeles, and a matchup of Jacob deGrom and Clayton Kershaw in Monday afternoon’s series opener, believing they have turned a corner of sorts on their so-far disappointing season.
“This week has been fun. It’s been awesome,’’ said Dom Smith, who got a rare start in place of slumping Pete Alonso and responded by getting on base three times, with two singles and a walk. “I know we’ve been talking about our potential, and what we can do and what we’re capable of doing. I think this week was just a little taste of what we can do.’’
A taste, maybe. But so far, not enough to avoid being swallowed up by the Dodgers this week, or by the Phillies the rest of the season.