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Mets happy to escape with walk-off victory in opener vs Phillies, but there are concerns

Jonathan Villar #1 of the Mets celebrates his

Jonathan Villar #1 of the Mets celebrates his eighth inning game winning base hit against the Philadelphia Phillies with teammate Francisco Lindor #12 in the first game of a double header at Citi Field on Tuesday, Apr. 13, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Two walk-off wins in three games. Both requiring extra innings. Stretched over six days. The Mets may not play all that much, but when they do lately, it’s been interesting.

For Thursday’s Citi Field opener, they used Michael Conforto’s strategically-placed elbow. On Tuesday, in Game 1 of a doubleheader, they relied -- in part -- on a loophole in the extra-inning rule, deploying a double-switch for the top of the eighth inning to make sure that Francisco Lindor was the ghost runner on second.

Lindor got to replace the pitcher’s spot in the lineup as the previous last out, and wound up scoring the tying run on Pete Alonso’s base hit. Jonathan Villar later followed with a bases-loaded, full-count single to deliver the Mets’ 4-3 victory and turn the infield grass into a blue-and-orange mosh pit.

"I like the rule," manager Luis Rojas said afterward.

 

No wonder. Thanks to the ghost runner, Alonso -- who snapped an 0-for-12 skid himself -- had the first RISP hit all day for the Mets, who entered Game 1 batting .146 (6-for-41) in those situations. Only the Cubs (.104) were worse.

With half of the Mets’ first 10 games postponed because of COVID-19 or rain, it was difficult to know what to expect when the sun finally appeared for Tuesday’s doubleheader. But when we last left Rojas & Co., they were all too predictable, putting up a zero Saturday to waste another masterpiece by Jacob deGrom (14 Ks).

The only bright spot at the start -- aside from the weather clearing -- was Rojas getting the lineup right. With Michael Conforto looking lost at the plate, he actually had been dropped to sixth since Sunday. Problem was, the Mets had the next two games washed away, so the new lineup didn’t make its debut until Tuesday against the Phillies.

Maybe Conforto is feeling the pressure of a walk year. Maybe not. Either way, the Mets can’t afford for him to be a non-factor in the No. 3 spot, which is why Dominic Smith has now taken over that responsibility. And unlike Conforto, come through. So far, the weight of Conforto’s pending free agency is dragging the Mets down, too.

"I told him, you’re a good ballplayer," Lindor said before Tuesday’s Game 1. "He’s gonna put the numbers up. If he continues to stay healthy, the numbers will be there for sure. He’s going to get paid at some point."

 

Eventually, somebody else will provide some offense other than Smith and the on-base machine, Brandon Nimmo. But they might want to show up soon. The two combined to give the Mets a 2-0 lead in the first inning, with Nimmo doing what he does in drawing a walk and Smith sending a Chase Anderson fastball over the rightfield wall for his second homer.

You’d have to think the Mets will figure it out. On paper, this is a lineup that shouldn’t be malfunctioning to this degree. Perhaps the sputtering first two weeks has something to do with it. As Lindor said before Tuesday’s game, it feels like they never left spring training, with the intermittent playing time messing up their regular-season routines.

"It's different," Lindor said pregame. "But nothing we can't handle. We can’t make an excuse. We just got to start winning games."

Conforto’s funk is the most troubling aspect of it all. Not only was he retired on a pair of weak grounders in his first two at-bats, extending his hitless streak to 0-for-14, the Phillies flat-out bullied him with two outs in the sixth inning.

Reliever Jose Alvarado opened with a 100-mph fastball that whizzed by Conforto’s head, not missing him by much. And if that was accidental, the next pitch seemed too much of a coincidence, another tight 100-mph fastball that struck Conforto on the back of his right hand.

J.D. Davis already is on the injured list after getting nailed in a similar spot last week in Philadelphia, but Conforto seemed lucky it was more of a glancing blow. Still, he was clearly upset on his way to first base and the Mets’ dugout was all over Alvarado, assailing him for his head-hunting behavior.

Rather than ignore the verbal assault, Alvarado motioned for the Mets to pipe down, yelling over something to their bench as well. Maybe if this was last weekend, against the Marlins, you could understand such targeting as Conforto won Thursday’s game by sticking his elbow into the strike zone for the walk-off hit-by-pitch.

But it was hard to explain Alvarado twice going up around Conforto’s head in such dangerous fashion. Was it an attempt to further intimidate Conforto early in this series? We’ll see how that pans out. For the Mets, they were just happy to get the Game 1 victory and worry about the rest later.

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