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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Reeling Mets hardly looking like a first-place team

The Mets' James McCann tases his bat as

The Mets' James McCann tases his bat as he flies out during the second inning against the Marlins on Thursday in Miami. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

Guess it’s too late for the Mets to be sellers, huh?

Too bad, because that’s exactly what this spiraling team looks like, a week removed from last Friday’s trade deadline. As for the Marlins, they sold off their entire Opening Day outfield and two closer-quality relievers to contenders, then still embarrassed the Mets by winning three out of four, including Thursday’s 4-2 finale in Miami.

Of course, things got considerably worse after the game. That’s when the Phillies -- down to their final out Thursday -- scored four runs in the ninth for a 7-6 win and a sweep of the Nationals -- another everything-must-go seller -- that moved them within a half-game of the Mets, who have had sole possession of first place since May 9.

I don’t doubt that the Mets are trying hard, or doing their homework, or really, really want to win. But we’ve finally arrived at the point where it’s fair to wonder if they’re actually capable of taking the NL East, something that most people believed was a foregone conclusion six weeks ago (back when Jacob deGrom was more than a September dream).

And this is not just because of Thursday’s ugly afternoon, when the Mets went 1-for-6 with the bases loaded, left them full in three different innings, and stranded 15 runners overall. Javy Baez, the glitzy deadline acquisition, went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts, the day after "El Mago" worked his basepath wizardry to key the Mets’ lone series victory.

All of that was tough to watch, even if we should be used to the Mets’ bewildering offensive futility by now. More troubling, however, is the Mets’ body of work over the past seven weeks. Since going a season-high 10 games over .500 (35-25) on June 16, they’re on a 21-27 plunge, and their five-game lead has been whittled down to a half-game.

Now it’s look-in-the-mirror time for the Mets. They can’t excuse poor performance as a speed bump on the express lane to October. No more, "We’re in first place, so eventually we’ll figure it out." They’re teetering on the edge. Either the downward trends get reversed or the Mets keep sinking. The Phillies probably can’t wait to see them Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.

"It’s another opportunity to show up with the intent and the attitude to win every single game that we step on the field," Michael Conforto said. "We can all see where we stand. It’s always a big series against Philly. It’s always going to be a dogfight any time we’re playing anybody in our division."

Unfortunately, "intent" and "attitude" alone aren’t worth much. Conforto’s frustration was clearly evident during his postgame Zoom session, and knowing the outfielder’s even-keel nature, he must have been boiling on the inside. For all the Mets’ issues, Conforto has been among the most glaring, again dropping below the Mendoza Line (.199) with a .329 slugging percentage that ranks him 78th among outfielders with at least 250 plate appearances.

 

But this isn’t just a Conforto problem. After Thursday’s meltdown, the Mets are hitting .215 (20-for-93) with the bases loaded this season, which ranks 24th overall. By comparison, Cleveland (.365) leads MLB in those situations, which are supposed to be the friendliest of hitter-friendly scenarios. Instead, they’re infuriating the Mets, and manager Luis Rojas emphasized the importance of his players shaking off Thursday’s defeat rather than letting it snowball into something larger.

"I don’t blame anyone for just feeling it a little bit," Rojas said. "But we’ve got to turn the page. We’ve got to get ready for the Phillies."

Rojas described his Mets as a "fun group" and pledged to "call somebody out" if they carried Miami’s mental baggage with them to the visitors' clubhouse at The Bank. The manager’s team meeting before Wednesday’s game -- "nothing rah-rah, just getting connected as the family we are," he said then -- didn’t stick in yielding a grand total of one win.

But the Mets are way beyond the meeting stage. Either they’re good enough or they’re not, and we’ll get that answer this weekend in Philadelphia. Having personally witnessed two of this franchise’s biggest collapses, both to the Phillies’ benefit -- including the evaporation of a seven-game lead (over 17 games) in 2007 -- there is a common thread.

Those Mets’ teams had the "intent" and "attitude" to win, too. But when it counted most, they just couldn’t. Fortunately for the 2021 Mets, they still have time to sell us something different.

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