For the fortunate crowd of 36,236 at Citi Field, or the SNY audience lucky enough to be watching at home, Tuesday was a special night, a chance to catch a glimpse of what the 2023 Mets are supposed to look like.
It hasn’t happened anywhere enough this season. But in this 2-0 victory over the I-95 rival Phillies, it was on full display, from Kodai Senga’s ghost fork sorcery to Brandon Nimmo’s wall-crawling catch to Francisco Lindor’s rainbow homer into the leftfield seats.
This was the blueprint. This was the sort of late May evening that owner Steve Cohen had in mind as the payroll snowballed to $375 million over the winter. Maybe more than a couple of runs, sure. It wasn’t much in the way of breathing room. But all the better for the bullpen combo of Adam Ottavino and David Robertson to nail down the dramatic finish.
Senga was masterful, every bit the ace the Mets imagined in signing him to a five-year, $75 million deal. He allowed only one single, which the No. 8 hitter Kody Clemens poked off the end of his bat with one out in the third inning. The 96-mph four-seamer was down and away, not even in the strike zone, and resulted in the Phillies only baserunner.
The swing was emblematic of the Phillies’ desperation all night. Senga struck out nine — six on whiffs from the ghost fork — and got 22 swings-and-misses over his seven innings. Hopefully, for the Mets’ sake, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander were taking notes.
“It was fun watching him execute, keep big-league hitters guessing, trying to figure out whether he was going to throw inside, whether he was going to throw away, whether he was going to bounce the split-finger, um, the fork,” Lindor said, smiling. “The ghost I guess. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s fun to watch him attack, attack, attack, attack — get ahead in the counts and win counts.”
Seeing how Senga’s performance resonated throughout the team’s play, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mets are 14-0 when a starter goes seven innings this season. The shocking part is how few outings they’ve enjoyed like that, not only with Senga on board, but two future Hall of Famers with three Cy Young trophies apiece.
For most of these past two months, the Mets’ $128 million rotation has been in shambles, either due to injuries, lackluster performance or even Scherzer’s 10-game sticky-stuff suspension. With that crippling lack of consistency, it’s no wonder the Mets only moved to one game over .500 (28-27) with Tuesday’s victory.
Senga showed how easy life can be with a starter posting zeroes — or at least give the other Mets a chance to shine rather than constantly trying to pick up another damaged starting pitcher. Nimmo was one of them, as his spectacular leaping catch to rob Nick Castellanos in the fourth inning kept the game scoreless before Lindor delivered his fourth homer in the last eight games. Nimmo got to the wall in left-centerfield and snatched the ball off the top of the orange border, pumping his fist with primal scream once he landed back on the turf.
“Luckily I was able to time that up and get it right before it hit those metal bars and bounces all over the place,” Nimmo said. “I was really glad I was able to help Kodai. He did so well today we didn’t get many chances to help him out.”
Senga certainly appreciated it. He wrapped his arms around his head in suspense as he watched Nimmo make the soaring grab, fearing the worst.
“Obviously it was an amazing catch,” Senga said through an interpreter. “Not only me, but I think the rest of the pitching staff too were saved by Nimmo’s defense a lot of the times. I really appreciate him being in centerfield.”
Nimmo himself would later be robbed by Castellano’s own sliding grab of his sinking liner, which denied the Mets two more insurance runs in the seventh. But by then, Eduardo Escobar -- making one of his cameo starts at third Tuesday — had already punched an RBI single over second base with a nifty piece of two-out hitting.
From there, the Mets wrapped one of their cleanest Ws during this occasionally-ugly season with solid bullpen work and more stellar defense, the latter coming when things got dicey in the eighth. Ottavino’s leadoff walk to J.T. Realmuto had the crowd on edge when he bolted for second, but Francisco Alvarez’s quick throw and Jeff McNeil’s acrobatic lunging tag cut him down — after a successful challenge authored by replay guru Harrison Friedland. Great teamwork all-around.
“When you can get there, and you can make runs matter, and you can put zeroes up there ... that’s where all the momentum and morale can change in a game,” manager Buck Showalter said.
Or a season, if the Mets can do it enough. Because as special as Senga was Tuesday night, that was the 2023 blueprint for this team. The Mets are hoping to do a better job following it in the months ahead.