Terry Collins laughed, but there was no levity behind the smile. It was more to prevent himself from crying.
Hours before the weekend series with the Nationals was to begin, there would be no conversation about the Mets’ chief adversary or the potential game-changing matchups to follow. No talk of measuring sticks or early-season tests.
The Mets’ task, more and more, has become a battle against themselves, about finding a way to combat the fragile nature of their roster. How could they possibly take time to worry about the Nationals when the simple act of filling out a lineup card felt like climbing Everest, over and over?
“I’ve got a good team,” Collins said Friday afternoon, “but they’re only good when they’re playing.”
Ah, yes. Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Mets have developed a nasty habit of getting hurt. A lot. Year after year. And 2017 has been no different, as Collins & Co fought for as long as they could Friday night before falling to the Nationals, 4-3, in 11 innings.
Matt Harvey pushed through seven innings and Curtis Granderson finally made his presence felt with two RBIs, including his first home run. Collins even deployed Zack Wheeler as a pinch hitter and Robert Gsellman as a pinch runner, but it was Jeurys Familia, the once-trusted closer back from a 15-game suspension, who failed them.
“You have to play with what you have,” Harvey said, “and I think we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now.”
For the Mets (8-9), it’s not good enough. Last season, they had 16 different players on the disabled list. Three pitchers among their rotation’s top five couldn’t make it to the finish line. Lucas Duda, David Wright and Neil Walker were lost to serious back injuries.
Despite all that, with their roster in shambles, the Mets fought to earn a wild-card berth, a testament to the depth of the farm system and perhaps some old-fashioned grit, an asset that can’t be determined by advanced analytics.
Collins gets all the fancy numbers piled on his desk, but when a team faces this type of adversity before April is even done, the straight calculus doesn’t necessarily apply.
Before the game, the Mets basically were stripped of Duda, Wilmer Flores, Yoenis Cespedes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis d’Arnaud and even Jacob deGrom, who had to be scratched from the start because of a stiff neck. Collins found that out a day earlier, on the outfield grass, when deGrom told him he didn’t think he’d be able to open the Nats series.
The Mets were able to move up Harvey without too much fuss, but peeling away those other players left Collins with only Kevin Plawecki and a handful of starting pitchers on the bench to do anything else that might be required. The newly promoted T.J. Rivera already was starting at third base, and Friday’s other call-up, Sean Gilmartin, was on standby as a replacement Saturday for deGrom if the neck issue persisted.
In other words, there were a ton of moving pieces heading into this series, and on paper, it didn’t look so hot for the Mets. Yet they’ve somehow shown an uncanny knack of muscling up when it matters most.
Harvey shook off a long two-run homer by Bryce Harper — the former MVP he usually owns — and allowed only one more run in the next six innings. Collins even pushed him to 108 pitches a night after nudging Noah Syndergaard up to 114, perhaps coming to the realization that six innings or less, with an overworked bullpen, isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Just as Harvey was up to the challenge, so too were a few others Collins called out before the game. Michael Conforto was put back in the leadoff spot for the third time and hit Tanner Roark’s first pitch over the leftfield wall. The Mets later clawed back on two RBIs from Granderson, who previously collected only four in 15 games.
“This is a group that rallies around each other,” Conforto said. “Now we just have to grind through it.”
The Mets can grind with this depleted group. But can they win? This weekend would be a good time to start.