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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Lack of bullpen depth ultimately doomed Mets' playoff push

Mets manager Mickey Callaway in the dugout before

Mets manager Mickey Callaway in the dugout before a game against the Marlins at Citi Field on Monday. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Of all the scenarios that would haunt the Mets during this final week of the regular season, the possibility of finishing within two games of the Nationals in the wild-card race might be the most difficult to stomach.

Only that could amplify the painful regret of the Mets’ humiliating Sept. 3 defeat in D.C., where they blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning by failing to get three outs in the defining loss of a season undone by their relief corps.

In this year of bullpen horrors, that night stands as a microcosm of them all -- the flawed decision-making process, the general ineptitude and finally the disastrous implosion by the team’s deposed closer, Edwin Diaz. One loss over the course of 162 games shouldn’t be the scale-tipper, but you can easily make the case here, based on the historic failure, and the opponent.

As for the playoffs, well, the Marlins pretty much stomped on those fading dreams Monday, with the assist going to the Mets’ bullpen in the 8-4 loss that trimmed their elimination number to two (Fangraphs slashed their odds to 0.3 percent).  

The capper was Brad Brach’s failure to beat Harold Ramirez to first base on a flip from Pete Alonso on a play that was overturned by the Marlins’ challenge -- and cost the Mets two runs in the seventh inning. 

“That hurt,” Brach said. “I made the pitch, but I had to get the out.”

It’s been a familiar refrain from the Mets’ bullpen this season. Getting outs was not something they were very good at. But there’s only so much you can expect down the stretch from a contending team -- and yes, they were for a while -- with only two reliable relief pitchers.

Even Seth Lugo, under very protective usage guidelines, can’t be perfect every time he takes the mound. And in the span of six days, with the Mets’ playoff hopes fraying, Lugo couldn’t hold back the Dodgers and Reds in a pair of losses.

On Aug. 22, after a three-game sweep of the Indians at Citi, the Mets were 67-60, only 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot, and had a 51.4 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs. But over the next 28 games, they went 14-14, as Mickey Callaway was left with only Lugo (1.13 ERA in that span) and Justin Wilson (3.09) to call on.

Two relievers alone can’t keep any team afloat, and when a playoff spot is determined by a slim margin, that’s a wide enough crack to eventually doom the whole operation. Jeurys Famila, the $30-million arm, had a 6.75 ERA over that same critical period, while the vanishing Diaz was at 7.88.

“I think in the second half, Seth and Justin have known that 'hey, if we have a lead, I’m probably going to pitch tonight if I’m available',” Callaway said before Monday’s game. “Other than that, it’s been trying to figure out who can get through the inning and give us a chance.”

Occasionally, Brach had chipped in. But Callaway singling out Lugo and Wilson was hardly an exaggeration. There’s been no one else. And if you go back further, long before the Mets’ second-half resurgence, the 2019 season was sabotaged by a pair of relief pitchers, Diaz and Familia.

That’s hard to do. If both had been merely adequate this year, rather than abysmal, it’s probably worth a four or five game swing, and maybe a playoff berth. Instead, they combined to become a poison pill for the Mets’ bullpen, which in the first half had an MLB-worst 21 blown saves and a 5.63 ERA that ranked 28th overall.

Callaway’s bullpen management has frequently come under fire in his second-year, and rightfully so. But in his defense, the Mets’ relief corps has been an unstable mess, outside of Lugo -- rarely able to go back-to-back days --- and Wilson, who missed nearly two months due to left elbow soreness. During a season in which the Mets’ vaunted rotation actually stayed healthy, with the top five (including the Jason Vargas/Marcus Stroman combo) each making at least 28 starts, the bullpen was pathetic in its supporting role.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got to have guys that can perform,” Callaway said. “ You have to keep running guys out there and see if they can get the job done. It’s been something that’s been a tough challenge, but I’m glad guys have stepped up in the second half and given us a chance.”

Let’s rephrase that. Two guys. And gave the Mets a chance. It all feels past tense now.

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