The Dodgers have baseball’s best record, the NL West in their back pocket and the sport’s deepest talent pool.
But on nights like Wednesday, the Mets feature a weapon that even L.A. can’t match. They have Jacob deGrom.
There’s only one deGrom, who when healthy is the most lethal pitcher on the planet. And if the two-time Cy Young winner remains intact through October, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll beat Max Scherzer’s record $43.3-million salary when deGrom opts out of his current contract at season’s end.
As long as deGrom stays in the game, the Mets can look invincible. The problem is what to do when he leaves.
That’s the Achilles' heel of every deGrom start. When you routinely throw 100-mph fastballs, with inhuman sliders that max out in the mid-90s, the physical demands exact a serious toll. Factor in deGrom’s lengthy medical history, along with this year’s four-month absence due to a stress reaction in his shoulder blade, and the health concerns follow him to the mound every turn.
Is the Mets’ bullpen capable of protecting deGrom’s brilliance? Whether it’s down the stretch during the coming weeks for the NL East race, or deep into October, the Mets will be toeing the line with deGrom, trying to determine just how far they can push him.
And once manager Buck Showalter is forced to retrieve him, the Mets must hope the bridge to Edwin Diaz is strong enough to get to the trumpets (at least at Citi). Through deGrom’s first five starts, he’s completed six innings in three of those and pitched two outs deep into the seventh on Aug. 18. No matter how dominant deGrom has been to that point, somebody other than Diaz is likely going to be walking through the bullpen door, and the Mets don’t feel quite as bulletproof then.
The relief corps stands as one of the most worrisome aspects of this Mets’ title chase, and their modest efforts to fortify the bullpen at the Aug. 2 trade deadline did nothing to alleviate that anxiety. Since the deadline, the Mets’ pen has been among the worst in baseball -- despite having a Cy Young-quality closer in Diaz -- ranking 19th in the majors in ERA (4.08), 22nd in WHIP (1.42) and 25th in opponents batting average (.263).
How far is that statistically from the best? The Guardians’ bullpen is No. 1 in ERA (1.81) while the Dodgers own MLB”s top spots in both WHIP (0.87) and OBA (.161).
Fortunately for the Mets, it really hasn’t sabotaged their second half, other than Joely Rodriguez -- the lefthanded weak link -- kicking away what was a winnable game in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers. They still had a three-game lead over the Braves when they sent deGrom to the mound Wednesday. And the smaller the schedule shrinks, the easier it gets to navigate with the finish line that much closer.
“I do think once you get to September, you get a little boost of second wind, if you will,” Adam Ottavino said. “Just because you’re not as much in the dog days anymore. You know that the big time is coming and you’re kind of in it, so that’s certainly true.”
Ottavino has been one of the high-leverage pillars of the bullpen, with a 1.07 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and a .189 opponents batting average (44 Ks/42.IP) over his last 41 appearances. His set-up partner Seth Lugo has overcome a shaky start to the season to pitch more like the effective version of years past, with a 1.53 ERA in his last 17 games (19 Ks/17.2 IP).
So that’s two fairly reliable bullpen arms. And if the Mets need longer assistance, Trevor Williams has been solid in middle relief, with a 24-inning scoreless streak entering Wednesday. Beyond that, it’s a roulette wheel for Showalter. Trevor May is prone to the occasional implosion and Mychal Givens -- GM Billy Eppler’s lone bullpen trade at the deadline -- isn’t the high-leverage boost anyone had in mind. Givens threw two scoreless innings Tuesday night against the Dodgers, and hasn’t surrendered a run in his last six appearances, but he doesn’t belong in Buck’s circle of trust just yet.
The Mets still are figuring out how they’ll use lefty David Peterson and rehabbing Tylor Megill in the bullpen going forward. Otherwise, the relievers share Showalter’s concern in preserving Diaz as much as possible as the games continue to get bigger by keeping him stowed away safely until the ninth.
“I just think it’s a big burden to carry if everybody expects you to be perfect every time you pitch,” Ottavino said. “Granted, he’s been amazing this year -- the best I’ve seen. But in the playoffs, you never now what’s going to happen. And I just know from experience, you can get really worn down pitching every game in the playoffs -- especially if you’re throwing more than you’’re used to ... Hopefully we don’t have to make it that difficult on him.”
Having a deGrom, or Max Scherzer, is always an advantage for the Mets. But capitalizing on those starts is another challenge entirely.