After a weekend of praising the mythical "Donnie Stevenson" for their offensive turnaround in Philly, the Mets faced a new challenge upon Monday’s arrival at Busch Stadium.
They couldn’t let this four-game series against the Cardinals become a Donnie Fiasco (to borrow from the Johnny Depp-driven mob flick).
Say this much for the Mets: They don’t lack confidence, despite a virtual zero return on the $341-million investment in Francisco Lindor and two big pieces, J.D. Davis and Brandon Nimmo, absent from Monday’s starting lineup due to injuries for a second straight game. Shortly after manager Luis Rojas was finished speaking, the team placed Davis on the 10-day IL with a sprained left hand.
Crediting the aforementioned Mr. Stevenson — unlisted in the team’s media guide — as the mysterious spark for their attitude adjustment at the plate was an amusing side note to a wild two-game winning streak over the inept Phillies. It might have been better if hitting coach Chili Davis was the headliner instead, but whatever works. If the Mets needed to lean on "Diesel Donnie," as Pete Alonso referred to him after Sunday’s 8-7 victory at Citizens Bank Park, his arcane powers apparently worked like a charm.
But can the Mets make that shtick stick? With Sunday night’s season-high 17-hit attack, they batted .325 (25-for-77) and a remarkable .429 (9-for-21) with runners in scoring position. That was very out of character for a club that still is second-to last overall (.207) in the RISP category and only a few days earlier, against the Red Sox, had put up some of their worst at-bats of the season.
You also have to factor in the Phillies’ defense for gifting them a number of second-chance opportunities, as well as not even paying attention to Jonathan Villar as he circled the bases to score the tying run in the eighth inning Sunday night. But the Mets were resourceful enough to capitalize on those embarrassing gaffes, and a win is a win. There can be a psychological benefit to finally grabbing something tangible for those efforts, and that’s what the Mets needed to help springboard them against a higher-quality opponent like the Cardinals.
"I think guys are starting to find things that they felt before," Rojas said before Monday night’s series opener. "That’s when they started simplifying things."
Rojas went on to say how he spoke with the hitters recently about a noticeable downshift in aggressiveness at the plate — "getting off their approach" is how the manager explained it. In that sense, Rojas believed they had become "too much result-oriented" rather than just letting it fly, a bit of advice that Alonso and Michael Conforto hinted came from Donnie Diesel in Philly. Either way, the Mets needed a pair of late comebacks to eventually topple the Phillies, so the message didn’t resonate from the jump.
"We’re a tough team," Alonso said after Sunday’s win. "We’re a really tough team. Win or lose, we’re not going to make it easy. We’re relentless. And we finish games."
Regarding Sunday’s eighth-inning rally, if Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado had decided to serve his three-game suspension immediately, he never gets into that game and his inability to throw a pitch within two feet of the strike zone maybe doesn’t alter the outcome as it did. But Alonso still had to deliver that bases-clearing double, and you can’t underestimate the boost such a clutch hit can provide — perhaps even into the next series.
"I don’t know if that’s a season-defining game," Alonso said, "but it’s definitely a momentum-shifter."
There is only one way to find out the legitimacy of such a statement, and that began with Monday’s game against the Cardinals. On the plus side, Conforto appears to have broken free of his sluggish start, and put together a two-weeks stretch that is expanding to more than merely a small sample size. He’s hitting .327 (16-for-49) with five doubles, two homers and a .951 OPS over that period (compared to a slash of .120/.313/.160 in his first seven games).
While Conforto’s rebound was expected to kick in eventually, Lindor is long, long overdue, even if it is just early May. Lindor entered Monday in an 0-for-17 slide and wasn’t even hitting his weight (.171) after starting all 22 of the Mets’ games. But that didn’t prevent Rojas from keeping Lindor in the No. 2 spot for the series opener, some primo real estate for a player that is ostensibly the worst hitter on the roster at the moment. When Rojas was asked if he considered dropping down Lindor, he replied, "Not yet."
"You’ve got to trust that his bat is going to come along," Rojas said. "I’m pretty set right now with him batting there."
Maybe someone should ask Donnie what he thinks.