One day after injuries took another chunk out of his roster, Mets manager Terry Collins was asked if he needed to do anything to preserve morale in the clubhouse. He laughed, then reached for levity.
“Bubble wrap,” Collins said Friday afternoon “It’s key. Very important.”
For these newly diminished Mets, however, it could be too late. At least, that’s the territory they’re approaching in the middle of June, when a 7-2 loss to the division-leading Nationals unfolded with little suspense.
Max Scherzer continued his mastery of the Mets, allowing only Jose Reyes’ solo shot in the eighth inning. Just twice did the righthander allow a runner into scoring position. Both times, he got a double-play grounder to turn away trouble.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” said Reyes, who had two hits. “He had everything working for him.”
Meanwhile, Mets lefty Steven Matz allowed a career-high three homers in his second start after coming off the disabled list with an elbow injury that sent him to the shelf just before Opening Day.
Matt Wieters and Michael A. Taylor began the third with back-to-back solo shots. And in the sixth, Anthony Rendon bashed a two-run shot to the bullpen in right-center.
Matz departed after allowing four runs in seven innings. It was a start that might have put the Mets in position to make a game of it had it not been for Scherzer’s eight dominant innings.
“When you’re facing a guy like Scherzer, one of the best pitchers in the game right now, those mistakes hurt you,” Matz said.
In the last four days, the Mets have placed five players on the 10-day disabled list. The wounded includes the starting middle infield: shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (thumb sprain) and second baseman Neil Walker (partially torn left hamstring).
Those circumstances forced Collins into tinkering with new ideas, as he did before the game during a meeting with his coaches. As he considered his starting lineup against Scherzer — one that featured slugger Yoenis Cespedes batting second — his thoughts drifted back in time.
“I came to the ballpark today and thought who was the Most Valuable Player in the National League last year? Kris Bryant. He hit second. Who was the Most Valuable Player in the American League last year? Mike Trout. He hit second. So I thought it would be OK if he hit second. He’s in that elite group, in my opinion.”
So there was Cespedes hitting in the second spot for the first time since the second half of 2015, when he was traded from the Tigers and helped the Mets storm into the playoffs.
The move hardly mattered. Cespedes reached base just once, when he was plunked on the leg in the first. He finished 0-for-3 with a pair of pop-ups and an eighth-inning strikeout that punctuated Scherzer’s brilliant evening.
On his 118th and final pitch of the night, Scherzer unleashed a wipeout slider. Cespedes swung through it, helplessly. On the mound, the Nationals ace pumped his fist and began his walk back to the dugout with a hop. It was his 10th strikeout, giving him double-digits for his fifth consecutive start.
Said Collins, “When he starts walking around the mound with those long strides, he’s locked in.”
Since signing a megadeal with the Nats in 2015, Scherzer has pitched seven games at Citi Field. He’s 5-2 with a 1.39 ERA, including a no-hitter.
With a season slipping away for the Mets, things don’t get any easier. Two games remain in this critical series against the Nationals, who have outscored the Mets 15-5. Only consecutive wins would salvage a split before a daunting road trip that begins against another buzz saw in the Dodgers.