New York Mets manager Buck Showalter, center, reaches to shake...

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter, center, reaches to shake hands with Francisco Lindor as they celebrate after a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Washington. The Mets won 9-5. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Credit: Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON -- The Mets tried to cram as much fun as possible into Wednesday’s series finale at Nationals Park, where Juan Soto only exists as a parking lot billboard now and visiting teams will continue batting practice long after the opening pitch.

Buck Showalter & Co. took full advantage. For the first eight innings anyway. 

Towering home runs by their newly-paired bash brothers, Pete Alonso and Daniel Vogelbach, who punctuated the latter’s grand slam with a biceps-rippling arm-wrestle handshake. Chris Bassitt’s pleasure cruise through a Nats lineup devoid of Soto and Josh Bell, striking out four over seven scoreless innings, to lead the Mets to a 9-5 victory that should have been easier than the final score indicated (until a very noisy ninth-inning by trade deadline prize Mychal Givens, who served up a pair of home runs a few hours after arriving from the Cubs). 

Following the anxiety-filled countdown to Tuesday’s deadline, along with nervously watching Jacob deGrom’s return to the rotation after a 391-day absence, the Mets really needed a chance to exhale. And aside from the sauna-like heat, Wednesday’s W was mostly enjoyable, with every Met starter (Mark Canha the lone exception) recording at least one hit.

But this victory, in relatively low-stress fashion, was more important than it might seem, coming against a Nats team that has raised a white flag next to their World Series banner for the next few years. That’s because recess is over. Starting Thursday night, when Atlanta shows up at Citi Field for a five-game showdown for NL East supremacy, the Mets have to play 21 games in 20 days, a brutal August stretch that could dramatically impact their playoff positioning.

It’s not an exaggeration. As much as we like to fire up the hype train, the baseball gods conjured up a devil of a runway for the Mets this month, as Mother Nature teamed up with whoever pushes the scheduling buttons in the MLB office to spit out this obstacle course. The Mets face the Braves nine times in 15 days, including Saturday’s doubleheader, and also have seven against the Phillies, who host another doubleheader Aug. 20 at Citizens Bank Park.

Oh, and for the closing act? The back end of the Subway Series, featuring two games at Yankee Stadium (Aug. 22-23). The only series in this grueling marathon that would qualify as a breather, comparatively speaking, is the three games with the Reds at Citi next week.

 

“We approach it like we’re trying to get to the airport so we can get home,” Showalter said after Wednesday’s win. “Then we’ll take the flight, see how the traffic is going back home, then coming back in. Take it in segments. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. We’ll plan it as it goes.”

Showalter’s micro outlook extends to the clubhouse, and has served these Mets well in improving to 28 games over .500 with a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL East. As far as this upcoming series against Atlanta -- a battle that could flip the division’s top spot -- the Mets are in far better shape than they were the last time they clashed in mid-July at Truist Park.

Back then, Showalter’s crew was slipping badly, having lost nine games in the standings over five-plus weeks. The Mets showed up in Atlanta with two of their All-Stars absent from the lineup -- Jeff McNeil away on paternity leave, Starling Marte nursing a groin strain -- but still took two of three to deliver a statement. Wounded or not, they weren’t going anywhere.

This weekend is a much different story. Not only are McNeil and Marte back, but the Mets have upgraded their DH platoon with Vogelbach (acquired on July 22) and Darin Ruf, another deadline pickup who arrived Wednesday morning. Vogelbach became the 11th player to hit a grand slam for his first Mets home run, and with one swing, eclipsed Dom Smith’s homer total in 58 games. Vogelbach also has reached base safely in 16 of his 34 plate appearances with the Mets, and seems primed for his turn on the big stage this weekend against Atlanta.

“Winning is fun and this is what you play for,” Vogelbach said. “We just got to take it game by game and control what we can control. Continue to play good baseball and play for each other.”

Givens had a bumpy introduction Wednesday, but Trevor May benefited from a smoother tuneup in the eighth inning, three months to the day he landed on the injured list with a stress reaction of his right humerus. With the Mets up, 9-0, heading into the ninth, Showalter didn’t anticipate having to use Seth Lugo, but it was only for one out, and fortunately he still got to preserve for Edwin Diaz for Atlanta.

Speaking of those upgrades, the Mets get to unleash Jacob deGrom on their despised rival this Sunday, a weapon that should tilt this matchup in their favor. Things are about to get serious again.

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