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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

With eye on playoffs, Mets manager Luis Rojas making the tough decisions on juggling players

Mets manager Luis Rojas walks to the dugout

Mets manager Luis Rojas walks to the dugout during the second inning against the Yankees at Citi Field on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The easiest decision the Mets ever have to make is sending Jacob deGrom to the mound every fifth day and the payoff was predictable again in Sunday’s 14-1 rout of the Phillies at Citi Field. Beyond that, however, a few of the bumpier choices have forced manager Luis Rojas into some difficult conversations, all filed under the category of “best chance to win” for these last 19 games.

Two in particular were obvious Sunday as Andres Gimenez made his third consecutive start at shortstop and Dominic Smith was back at first base instead of Pete Alonso, the DH for the fifth time in his last nine starts. Those are no longer aberrations or rest days.

It took this truncated season to be two-thirds over before Rojas got to this point — or Brodie Van Wagenen or whoever you suspect is calling the shots. The Mets had to be looking up at .500, their playoff chances teetering on the brink, to basically turn the shortstop reins over to Gimenez, the 22-year-old prodigy, and have the 2019 Rookie of the Year share his position with Smith.

By now, those moves are no-brainers, especially after the Mets hammered Phillies’ ace Aaron Nola on the way to 17 hits and 14 runs, both season highs. The rookie Gimenez already is Amed Rosario’s superior, and when Sunday’s game was still close, he showed why with a two-out, two-run single off Nola in the fourth inning that gave the Mets a 4-1 lead.

For a team whose RISP struggles had been comical, hits like that — jumping on Nola’s first-pitch 86-mph changeup — are gold. Plus, Gimenez’s timely single came only a few hours after Rojas acknowledged pregame that he had taken Rosario’s starting job, in so many words.

Rojas said the Mets were “basically matching up” going forward, but that was a thinly-veiled euphemism for Rosario’s best match being mostly the bench. The manager admitted to speaking with Rosario about his new role in an effort to smooth things over for what’s ahead.

“We talked about staying ready for when he gets the chance,” Rojas said.

Bravo to Rojas for that. We’ve seen plenty of seasons wither away out of loyalty to the incumbent and the Mets no longer have time for such emotions. After Sunday’s romp, they’re one game out of the NL wild card and 2 1/2 in back of the Phillies for second place in the East, with the Marlins between them. Right now, FanGraphs gives the Mets a 55.8% chance of making the playoffs.

But the Gimenez-Rosario dynamic isn’t the only one in play here. Tougher still is jumping Smith ahead of Alonso on the first-base depth chart, even if it’s obvious that Dom is the better glove at the position. From an offensive standpoint, the Mets can put Smith anywhere — first, leftfield, DH — he just needs to be in the lineup, period. With three more doubles Sunday, Smith leads the NL with 15, is fourth in RBIs and at game’s end, his 1.043 OPS was the same as the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr.

“I don’t really pay attention to the stats,” Smith said. “We have a task at hand every day and that’s to win a ballgame”

The Mets, as a whole, seem to have the right personalities to buy into that mantra. Since Yoenis Cespedes’ departure, anyway. And Alonso certainly is not a guy to make waves. He’s plowed through a bit of a sophomore slump this season, but blasted two more homers Sunday from the DH spot, a promising indication that he can make the adjustments to produce in what can be a challenging role.

“Ultimately, I want to be out on the field,” Alonso said. “But wherever I can make an impact, wherever I can help the team, that’s what I’m going to try my best at.”

Juggling players like this is among the hardest things for a manager, and Rojas is a rookie himself, despite his lengthy minor-league resume. It helps that he already has relationships with many of these guys, but this is not a plan that either Rosario or Alonso feels great about. They do have to realize it’s necessary, however. And Rojas is going to need a sit-down with Wilson Ramos very soon — if hasn’t done so already — now that the deadline-acquired Robinson Chirinos is on board.

We’ll find out if the Mets came to their senses in time to salvage this playoff run. Now that Jeff McNeil is rounding into form — he smacked his first homer Sunday — and Alonso is providing more consistent power by going deep for the fourth time in as many games, October no longer feels as unreachable as it previously did.

Maybe a few of these bold moves were overdue. But they weren’t too late. Not yet.

New York Sports