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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Early injuries hurting Mets' playoff chances

Robinson Cano of the Mets is congratulated by

Robinson Cano of the Mets is congratulated by Amed Rosario after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against the Braves at SunTrust Field on July 31 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images/Scott Cunningham

The Mets continue to have a problem with players disappearing.

On Sunday, it was Yoenis Cespedes, who went from AWOL to opt-out in the span of about eight innings.

With the next round of vanishing acts, however, the issue wasn’t tracking people down. The Mets knew where Robinson Cano, Jeff McNeil and Amed Rosario spent Tuesday afternoon.

And that was what worried them.

Because any time a Met winds up in an MRI tube, they usually come out stamped for the injured list, and the team went 1-for-3 Tuesday when Cano was put on the shelf indefinitely with a Grade 2 left adductor strain.

Cano being 37, it’s an injury that could cost up to a month to fully heal, though team officials were cautiously optimistic it would be less. During this 60-game season, either timeline is a big chunk of the remaining seven weeks, and that’s a huge blow considering Cano was hitting .412 (14-for-34) with a 1.020 OPS.

Before Tuesday’s game, manager Luis Rojas was basically treading water in trying to answer questions about the injuries. His media briefing was at 3:30 and the Mets didn’t release a lineup until 6:25 -- more than three hours later than usual, which was the time spent sorting out their medical report.

McNeil was diagnosed with a low-grade right intercostal strain, after being scratched Monday due to back stiffness from BP. Only Rosario was tagged with the same ailment from the previous night -- the left quad tightness that forced his exit in the fifth inning of Monday’s 7-2 win over the Braves.

So for those keeping score at home, that’s four Mets removed from the Opening Day lineup in the span of three days, including three-quarters of the starting infield, and the team’s two most dangerous hitters through the first 11 games. Rojas repeatedly “knocked on wood” during Tuesday’s pregame chat, hoping for the best. Instead, the Mets got smacked in the face with a two-by-four.

“This game is full of adversity,” Rojas said. “What we’ve got to have is the ability to recover and keep moving. And I know we have that.”

Two weeks ago, in this space, I questioned the wisdom of slotting Cano third when the Mets had better, younger options to hit higher in the order. Cano already got a late start to summer camp -- missing eight straight days for reasons he declined to say -- and then looked sluggish at the plate.

Little did I know that Cano evidently was saving himself for the regular season, when he barely made an out. Cano had two more hits Monday and three RBIs before removing himself in the fifth inning. Could the eight-time All-Star have kept up this same pace for another 45 games or so?

Probably not, based on what we saw from him last season, when Cano was limited to 107 games with a recurring quad injury and hamstring strain. Those nagging pains surely contributed to Cano hitting a career-low .256 with a .736 OPS that was his lowest since 2008, and now he has a groin condition to deal with.

Cano still has three years left beyond this on his current deal, and so far, the first two seasons in Flushing have not been encouraging from a health standpoint. Maybe he rebounds from this setback to power the Mets for a September stretch run, but they could have really used this version of Cano now in trying to dig out from a 4-7 hole.

The Mets also can’t afford to have McNeil and Rosario sitting out for too much longer, either. But there’s a fine line to walk here. Push McNeil too soon because of the short season and that intercostal strain -- a critical part of a hitter’s anatomy -- never allows him to be the same offensive threat. The ahead-of-schedule shine of Andres Gimenez can help alleviate any sting from Rosario’s absence, but that injury doesn’t sound too severe anyway.

For all the depth the Mets supposedly had for this season, it’s fading quickly. Marcus Stroman, the expected No. 2 starter, hasn’t thrown a pitch yet in his walk year. Key relievers Robert Gsellman and Brad Brach remain in limbo. But Cano landing on the IL, with McNeil and Rosario now on pause, starts putting even more pressure on a lineup that already was stressing out.

“We have to go out there with the rest of the guys and try to do our job,” Wilson Ramos said. “That’s all we can control. We have to keep fighting.”

It’s a low bar for the playoffs this year. The Mets only need to be one of the eight best teams in the National League. But losing games and players at the same rate is not the formula to get there.

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