ATLANTA — If the Mets remain on this trajectory, if their season becomes a waste because their vaunted arms failed to figure it out, the tipping point won’t be hard to find.
Since that surreal Sunday afternoon in Washington on April 30 when Noah Syndergaard clutched at his injured lat muscle and walked off the field, their rotation has endured a crisis of identity, one that has had a crippling effect on the Mets’ season.
“Every day we’re meeting, we’re talking, it’s an open conversation about how we can get back to being ourselves where we just attack the strike zone and trust our stuff,” pitching coach Dan Warthen said.
The lineup has weathered the absence of Yoenis Cespedes, but the starting rotation has faltered without Syndergaard functioning as staff stopper. Statistically, the difference has been stunning.
In the first 23 games, Mets starters pitched at least six innings 13 times. Collectively, they posted a 3.89 ERA. They struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings and walked 2.7 for a healthy ratio of 3.45.
But in the 34 games beginning with Syndergaard’s injury-shortened start, Mets starters have logged six innings only 12 times. In that span, the rotation has posted a 5.98 ERA. Strikeouts per nine innings have dipped to 8.2 and walks per nine have nearly doubled to 4.4, producing an alarming strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.86.
Syndergaard won’t be returning to the mound any time soon, meaning the Mets must find answers from within.
“I probably won’t be able to pick up a ball for quite some time,” Syndergaard told WFAN radio Thursday. “I have no pain right now, but I want to make sure my lat is nice and stretched out and flexible before I’m ready to go.”
In Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, the Mets have two pitchers who have been All-Stars and have produced ace-type results, but both are coming off surgery. Even though they insist they’re healthy, their production has prompted speculation about potential lingering effects from surgery.
“I’ve learned a lot of things about guys after having surgery,” manager Terry Collins said. “Maybe, it took longer than we expected. It’s like every other things in the health world: Some people heal faster than others. Maybe we’re just not getting back as fast as we hoped.”
In seven starts since Syndergaard’s injury, deGrom is 3-2 with a 6.25 ERA. In that same span, Harvey is 2-2 with a 6.54 ERA in six starts.
The only ray of light has been Zack Wheeler, who is 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA since the Mets lost their ace. Of the 12 starts of at least six innings since Syndergaard’s injury, Wheeler has five.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect coming in,” he said after missing two years while recovering from Tommy John surgery. “There was a lot of stuff going on. I didn’t even know if I was going to get out of spring training with the team.”
Yet he seemingly is getting stronger as the season goes along. He’s averaging a little more than six innings per outing, providing perhaps the only semblance of predictability.
“Right now, he’s as steady as we’ve got,” Collins said.
But even with Wheeler’s emergence, there is a catch. At some point, the Mets will have to be mindful of his innings, meaning he could be skipped or shut down. Even if he channels Syndergaard, he can’t do it alone.
That leaves the Mets exploring other options such as a six-man rotation. The return this weekend of Steven Matz and Seth Lugo makes such a plan possible, and Collins said the extra rest could help Harvey and deGrom.
But time has emerged as yet another adversary.
More than a third of the way through the season, the Mets are 25-32, meaning they are hardly a speck in the rearview mirror for the NL East leaders. The Mets are 12 games behind the Nationals and nine out in the race for the second wild card, ahead of only four teams. Just to equal the 87 wins they had last year, they must play .590 ball (62-43) the rest of the way.
None of it can happen unless the rotation figures out life without Syndergaard.
“We’ve got some work ahead,” Collins said. “It’s not easy.”
Cespedes resumes rehab. After a setback that cost him nearly two weeks, Cespedes resumed his rehab assignment Thursday, going 0-for-4 and playing the whole game in leftfield for Class A St. Lucie. Cespedes’ first rehab attempt ended after one game when he suffered a quadriceps injury while running the bases on May 26. He hasn’t played for the Mets since April 27 because of a hamstring strain.
The absence of Noah Syndergaard has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Mets’ rotation.
WITH SYNDERGAARDWITHOUT SYNDERGAARD
23 Games 34
13 6-plus innings 12
3.89 ERA 5.98
9.2 K/9 IP 8.2
2.7 BB/ 9 IP 4.4
3.45 K/BB ratio 1.88