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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

This upcoming 18-game stretch will tell us all about the Mets

Mets shortstop Amed Rosario forces out Cardinals catcher

Mets shortstop Amed Rosario forces out Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at second base during the seventh inning at Citi Field on Thursday. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Anxious for a verdict on this Mets’ season?

Circle July 1 on the calendar.

Until then, you’ll just have to be patient. By that date, the Mets will have completed a grueling stretch - 18 games in 18 days - that began with Thursday’s series opener against the Cardinals at Citi Field.

What’s more, there are no layups, no gimmes. On paper, the softest opponent during this entire period is St. Louis, a .500 team (33-33) that still has a deadly lineup featuring perennial MVP candidates Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, along with the ever-dangerous duo of Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna.

From here, the schedule gets far more treacherous, with an 11-game trip through Atlanta, Chicago (Cubs) and Philadelphia, followed by a Braves’ visit to Flushing on the back end. Those are all serious contenders, something we can’t yet say about the Mets, who have been stuck in the one step forward, two steps back mode since Opening Day.

They can’t really punch above their weight class, either. Heading into Thursday, the Mets were just 12-19 against teams at .500 or better. Those are the clubs on the schedule until July 1.

The last time the Mets embarked on such a trip it nearly cost Callaway his job. That was a streak of 19 consecutive games, beginning on May 14, and they went 8-11 despite having bowling pins like the Nats, Marlins and Tigers on their dance card.

If the Mets truly intend to stick around the NL East race, this is the time to prove it, and they’ll have to slow down the streaking Braves to do so. Callaway loves to talk about how nobody is running away with the division, as an alibi for his own team’s sub-par play. But the defending NL East champs are threatening to do just that, winning seven straight to leapfrog the Phillies into first place while also signing Dallas Keuchel last week to bolster their rotation.

What have the Mets done? Aside from yo-yoing Robinson Cano back and forth on the IL, and paying Jed Lowrie’s rehab rent in Port St. Lucie, mostly they’ve been staying afloat by beating so-so teams at Citi Field, where they’ve bucked the trend of years past with a 19-11 mark at home.

And if the Mets have any hope of creeping much above .500 in the coming weeks, they’ll need to continue riding the rotation hard -- and protect their weak-underbelly bullpen as much as possible. It’s not a complicated formula, and any observer can see that Callaway is already pushing his starters to compensate. Without any days off for the remainder of June, it’s the Mets’ only path to salvation.

Since May 11, the Mets’ rotation ranks fourth in the NL with a 3.94 ERA, as compared to the bullpen’s 5.60 ERA, which is 13th in the NL and 28th overall. Before Thursday, the Mets’ starters had totaled 381 innings, sixth-most in the majors, with Noah Syndergaard eighth (89.0) and Zack Wheeler ninth (88 2/3). If you shrink the list to include a max of 14 starts, they jump to fifth and sixth, respectively.

Another measure to illustrate Callaway going full-throttle with the starters? The Mets have three of the top 11 starters when it comes to pitches thrown per game: Wheeler is fifth (104), Jacob deGrom is seventh (102.3) and Sydnergaard is 11th (101.3).

“The starters will get the job done, and consistently go out there for six, seven innings,” Callaway said before Thursday’s game. “That would be something that would be helpful in an 18-game stretch.”

Other than pounding teams into submission -- not exactly their signature -- reducing the bullpen’s number of outs is the Mets’ dream scenario. Callaway only trusts three of his relievers, and Seth Lugo can’t go on back-to-back days, which is a problem during 18 consecutive games. Obviously the Mets are a far better team with an available Lugo, who has a 1.26 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 20 appearances since April 7.

On the Mets’ West Coast trip, they kicked away two winnable games because of a woeful Jeurys Familia and an overworked Robert Gsellman. If Familia can ever be trusted in high-leverage spots again, and Justin Wilson returns from the IL in the near future, the odds improve somewhat on Callaway navigating his way through the late innings.

The Mets’ best bet? Shorten those as much as possible, and maybe they’ll still be alive come July.

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