Jeff McNeil #6 of the Mets walks off the field after...

Jeff McNeil #6 of the Mets walks off the field after making the final out in the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on April 7, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies defeated the Mets 8-2.  Credit: Getty Images/Mitchell Leff

PHILADELPHIA -- The day after proudly saving the victorious game ball to bring home to Flushing for new owner Steve Cohen, the Mets should have flung the one from Wednesday’s series finale into the Delaware River. Or onto the Jersey Turnpike.

And then hope Cohen still lets them back into Citi Field.

OK, so maybe that’s a little extreme. It’s only one series loss to a divisional rival. Still got 159 games to go, right?

But let’s be honest. The Mets didn’t really build on all that winter excitement during their three-day stay in Philly, a deflating visit filled with puzzling managerial decisions, shoddy bullpen performances and surprising offensive lapses capped by Wednesday’s 8-2 loss.

"I don’t think any of us are too worried about what happened here," said Michael Conforto, who stranded nine of the 14 runners the Mets left on base. "But we’re well aware that we didn’t play very well top to bottom . . . We have a lot of talent, which is a great thing. But we’ve got to execute."

At least J.D. Davis appears to have avoided a broken hand, so it could have been much worse, big-picture wise.

Wednesday’s defeat felt like it was over incredibly fast and yet still took seemingly forever to finish (3:35 officially). David Peterson fought to stick around for four innings despite getting throttled in a 38-pitch first for four runs, including homers by Rhys Hoskins and Alex Bohm. He settled down enough to keep the Mets hanging around into the fifth, until a Bryce Harper drag bunt (yes, you read that correctly) knocked him out with two runners on.


That’s when manager Luis Rojas called on spring training star Jacob Barnes to handle J.T. Realmuto, now forever known as the catcher the Mets passed on to give James McCann a $40 million contract. Just because it was that kind of series, Barnes’ first pitch as a Met was a 96-mph fastball that split the middle of the plate and Realmuto crushed it into the rightfield seats for a game-busting, three-run blast.

At that moment, Realmuto’s five-year, $115.5 million deal seemed like it was worth every penny to the Phillies, for the psychological damage alone to their NL East pals. Meanwhile, the Mets’ $341 million man Francisco Lindor had a relatively quiet opening series, going 3-for-14, and Michael Conforto — the next big free-agent-in-waiting — stranded nine Wednesday, including striking out with the bases loaded to end the fourth inning. Overall, the Mets went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

"It’s something that you don’t expect to happen," Rojas said afterward regarding his team’s lack of productivity in those situations. "But it happens in this game."

Rojas — or whoever upstairs is lending an analytical hand with the lineups — made his second baffling decision of the first three games Wednesday by sitting Jeff McNeil in favor of Jonathan Villar. The furor over benching Dominic Smith on Opening Night had barely faded, helped by his two-run homer in Tuesday’s 8-4 victory, and here was Rojas doubling down with a whole new thing to rip him about.

When the Mets’ lineup for the series finale was posted without McNeil, it begged the obvious question: What was wrong with him? When Rojas answered he was fine, that made us think something was off with the manager instead.

"Everything’s well with McNeil," Rojas said on his pregame Zoom call. "We’re just giving a chance to Jonathan Villar to get in there and have a start and play some second for us. Everything is good with McNeil."

But if Rojas so badly wanted Villar in there, why not play him at third base instead of Luis Guillorme, who was the replacement for the injured Davis? Wouldn’t that be easier?

McNeil smoked a couple of balls on Opening Night, and barreled up a 109-mph shot to the left-center cutout that was caught in front of the 387-foot sign. On any other night, without a howling April wind, that’s easily a home run and there’s no mention of McNeil grinding (if Rojas is even thinking that).

What else can we suspect? If McNeil is truly healthy, as Rojas led us to believe, the move was a head-scratcher, especially with Phillies ace Aaron Nola on the mound. Early on, when the outcome was still in question, Villar stranded three runners, including two in scoring position, with a groundout and K. The whiff in the third inning was particularly rough. With runners at the corners, Villar went down on four pitches, including three wild hacks at high fastballs.

Villar wasn’t the only Met to come up short when it counted Wednesday. We only single him out because of Rojas’ questionable strategy. And Villar did smack a two-out triple that caromed high off the centerfield wall in the seventh inning — the Mets just needed one of those a few innings earlier.

But that’s sort of how it’s felt for the Mets ever since their opening weekend series against the Nats was postponed — always trying to play catchup. At least for the two losses at Citizen Bank Park, where the Phillies mostly outplayed them in ever aspect and sent them home with a somewhat tarnished souvenir.

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