It is early. This is the familiar refrain. A baseball season is a marathon, and judgment in April is an errand reserved for fools.
Logic, however, offers only so much cover. It does little to make lackluster play more palatable.
Just ask the Mets, who after a 3-1 loss Saturday must face Max Scherzer on Sunday night as they attempt to avoid a three-game sweep by the Nationals.
“It is April, but it’s not going to be April soon,” said the Mets’ Jay Bruce, the rightfielder pressed into service at first base because of injuries. “We need to start playing well and we will. There’s no panic. It’s definitely not lack of effort, lack of preparation.”
The NL East was a battle between the Mets and Nationals the previous two seasons. This summer promises to bring another duel. But May Day hasn’t even arrived yet, and the banged-up Mets look punched out.
Nationals lefthander Gio Gonzalez allowed two hits, three walks and one run in 6 1⁄3 innings. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Juan Lagares lined a single. The hit spared the Mets further humiliation, but it didn’t save them from more frustration.
“He didn’t make a ton of mistakes, and when he did, we didn’t take advantage of them,” Bruce said of Gonzalez, who improved to 12-5 with a 2.96 ERA against the Mets.
Playing for the second straight day without Yoenis Cespedes and his tender hamstring, the Mets lost for the seventh time in eight games.
“We just haven’t caught a lot of momentum yet,” Bruce said. “We’re obviously pretty banged up right now, but it’s something we have to endure.”
Thus far, the challenge has been overwhelming, with the only victory in eight games coming when Bruce knocked in five runs with a pair of homers. During this brutal stretch, the Mets have averaged 2.9 runs, an indictment of a lineup that has been dependent on the home run.
“You can look at today,” said manager Terry Collins, who watched the Mets finish with just two hits. “When you get beat 3-1 and you think you got blown out, that’s not good. Our pitching staff has kept us in games and we’re just not getting them any help.”
While starting pitching is expected to make the Mets contenders, arms alone will not be enough. One day after a stiff neck scrubbed his scheduled start, righthander Jacob deGrom allowed three runs, eight hits and a career-high six walks (one intentional) in 5 2⁄3 innings. His 10 punchouts gave him his second straight double-digit strikeout game and the 12th of his career.
It was far from perfect, but the outing should have been good enough for a win. However, when deGrom left in the sixth inning after 101 pitches, he trailed 3-0.
“Our pitchers have done a good job keeping the games close,” Rene Rivera said. “One day, we’re going to get that walk-off hit, score some runs, and this stretch is over.”
The Mets scrounged up only one run, which came in the sixth. Jose Reyes came off the bench to work a walk and scored on Asdrubal Cabrera’s single to centerfield. But the next 11 Mets went down in order before a sellout crowd of 42,145 at Citi Field.
“It’s early,” Rivera said. “And you prefer to get this stretch out of the way early, not late. You have to keep playing hard.”
At 8-10, the Mets are off to their worst 18-game start since 2011, when they began the campaign 5-13.
The difference, of course, is expectations. In 2011, the Mets still were in the wilderness, the darkest period of a post-Madoff rebuilding. In 2017, they began the season as contenders for the division title and their third straight postseason. Lately, though, they haven’t played like it.
“It’s just one of those times,” Bruce said. “It’s not a lot of fun not winning. But there’s going to be a lot of winning baseball to be played and we’re kind of looking forward to doing that.”