On Sunday afternoon, just as the Mets were folding in Flushing, it was a different story for their NL East rivals down at Truist Park.
That’s where Atlanta was doing what it’s done lately: playing the way the Mets used to during the first two months of this season. As Tomas Nido’s errant throw sailed into leftfield to allow the go-ahead run to score in the 10th inning for the Marlins, the defending world champs got a tying homer from Austin Riley, who later added the winning RBI single in the 12th for Atlanta’s 4-3 comeback win over the Nationals.
In the past five-plus weeks, the Mets and Atlanta have switched identities to some degree, swapping momentum in the process. Now, with a three-game series set to begin Monday night at Truist Park, Buck Showalter & Co. have to prevent the two from trading places atop the division.
And that’s a real threat now after the Mets’ 2-0 loss Sunday slashed their lead to 1 1/2 games, the lowest it’s been since April 16. Francisco Lindor, who learned earlier in the day that he’s not (yet) headed to the All-Star Game, stranded the tying runs in the 10th inning when he whiffed on three straight pitches after starting up 2-and-0 in the count (the first was a sell-out swing at a slider that easily would have been ball three).
“Whether it’s the first day of the year or tomorrow, it’s going to be a challenge,” Lindor said of this week’s trip to Atlanta. “They’re the World Series champs. In the offseason they got better. We played well against them last time up here; now we’ve got to get it done at their home.”
The timing is not great for the Mets, who have been trending in the wrong direction for a while. There’s no shame in being shut down by the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara, who trimmed his ERA to 1.73 with seven scoreless innings. Taijuan Walker (2.63 ERA) matched him, giving the Mets plenty of chances to scrape up a run or two against Miami’s vulnerable bullpen.
Instead, they managed only one hit after Alcantara’s exit and Luis Guillorme was responsible for three of their half-dozen off the Marlins’ ace.
Barely splitting a four-game series with Miami was hardly a perfect tuneup for protecting their NL East lead, but the mediocre weekend (aside from Keith Hernandez Day) was a snapshot of how middling the Mets have been recently.
Since June 1, when the Mets had a 10 1⁄2-game lead, they’re barely above .500 (18-16). When you compare that with Atlanta (28-8 over that same span, best in the NL), it’s not hard to see how that cushion evaporated so quickly.
But it’s more than just those records. The Mets got Max Scherzer back and specifically adjusted his turn to face Atlanta on Monday, but they won’t be at full strength for this pivotal trip. In the midst of Showalter telling four of his players Sunday morning of their All-Star selection — Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Edwin Diaz and Starling Marte — he also was putting a few on the shelf.
McNeil hopped a flight for paternity leave after Sunday’s loss and is unlikely to rejoin the team until later in the week for the Cubs series at Wrigley. Marte, in what was framed as good news, is day-to-day with a lingering groin issue. James McCann was put on the injured list with a strained left oblique, an injury that is expected to keep him out past the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
So to recap, the Mets are down a pair of All-Stars and their starting catcher for Monday’s series opener against an Atlanta team that doesn’t lose.
“That’s just the way it works,” Showalter said. “Very seldom do you have everything functioning. It’s the nature of what these guys do for a living.”
True. But this was the part of the season when the Mets were supposed to be getting whole again. First Scherzer, then Jacob deGrom, who remains on target to return later this month, would ride to the Mets’ rescue, help fortify a crumbling division lead and put the NL back on notice.
But the plan isn’t coming together fast enough. The Mets are clinging to first place by their fingernails, and now Atlanta has grabbed them by both feet. By late afternoon Sunday, the question wasn’t so much about how many players the Mets would be sending to Los Angeles for the All-Star Game as where the club could be standing at the break.
“We should have that many guys,” Alonso said. “We have an excellent team.”
The Mets currently have a first-place team. How much longer they will stay in first place rides on these next three days in Atlanta, which now just looks better.