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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets implode after owner Steve Cohen delivers message that he demands excellence

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Citi Field on Feb. 10. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

PHILADELPHIA

And you thought waiting four days to see the Mets play was torture. That was nothing compared to the pain experienced Monday night when they finally took the field at Citizens Bank Park.

I take that back. The first six innings were brilliant, another virtuoso performance by Jacob deGrom, who instantly made himself the Cy Young Award favorite again by striking out seven and keeping the Phillies scoreless. Not only that, but deGrom chipped in with a pair of hits, including an RBI single that gave the Mets a 2-0 lead.

The remainder of the night was an all-too-familiar story, one that even Steve Cohen, for all his billions, couldn’t fix in his five-month ownership of the team.

 

Cohen truly may be the owner you imagined. Or dreamed about, the kind that spends $341 million on a player, as he just did with Francisco Lindor.

But the ghosts of bullpens past that have haunted the Mets for seemingly forever showed up again Monday night when two new relievers — Trevor May and Aaron Loup — flushed deGrom’s gem during a hideous eighth-inning collapse in a 5-3 loss to the Phillies.

"It’s not what we wanted," manager Luis Rojas said. "I think we saw more positives than negatives, even though we lost the game."

Cohen spent $15.5 million on May in the offseason and was rewarded with two singles and a walk that loaded the bases.

"Jake shouldn’t have to do everything himself," May said. "That’s not what teams are."

Next up was Loup — the relatively cheap former Ray — and his second pitch as a Met drilled Bryce Harper in the leg, forcing in the first run. J.T. Realmuto’s tying single hurt, but the real catastrophe occurred when Alex Bohm slapped a hard grounder at Luis Guillorme.

That should have been an easy out somewhere for Guillorme, the defensive whiz who replaced J.D. Davis specifically for that. But Guillorme flung it wide of the plate, two more runs scored, and Didi Gregorius made it 5-2 with a sacrifice fly.

Cohen set an extremely high bar for everyone coming into this season, and only deGrom was up to the task on Opening Night. The Mets just didn’t let him do it for long enough, pulling him after 77 pitches. Afterward, Rojas explained that deGrom hadn’t made a start in 10 days — mostly because of the Nationals’ COVID-19 issues — and added that the six innings, along with running the bases, was all they could ask from him in his first time out.

Being conservative with deGrom was understandable. But he looked superhuman, right through the sixth inning, when he was still throwing 100 mph.

Overall, deGrom fired 11 pitches in triple-digits Monday night and flipped the script midway through against the Phillies, throwing nearly all fastballs early and then going heavy with sliders in the back half.

Bottom line: the Mets didn’t want to push it with their most precious resource. DeGrom agreed.

"Long season," he said. "Talking to them, we felt like it was the right decision."

Earlier Monday, Cohen stopped short of predicting a World Series during his Zoom conference with the media. But he does view this group as a playoff squad and mentioned that once a team gets to October, "anything can happen, right?"

Sure. But does Cohen strike anyone as a guy who’s satisfied with second place? Cohen’s predecessor, Fred Wilpon, became so weary of being asked for his prediction every year that he famously said his goal was for "meaningful games in September."

It wasn’t long after that when Wilpon decided he was done with his preseason state of the team address. Mediocrity is a tough sell.

Thanks to Cohen, the Mets are out of that business. The skeptics had their doubts during the offseason after Sandy Alderson kept whiffing on the top free agents, most notably George Springer and Trevor Bauer. What good was having a mega-billionaire owner if he didn’t spend like one? Some even dared to mention the Wilpons in the same sentence. But that all changed with the Lindor deal, when Cohen put his stamp on the franchise with the record-breaking contract.

"I told you I’m all in," Cohen said Monday, "and this should leave no doubt."

Nothing delivers that message quite like a boatload of cash, and nobody knows that better than someone like Cohen, who paid $2.42 billion for the Mets in November. He’s relatively new to the whole baseball ops thing — having previously been just a minority owner of the Mets — but he brings an air of accountability that the rest of the franchise has to live up to.

"I can’t hit the ball, I’m not pitching, so it’s ultimately up to the players," Cohen said. "You can lay down all sorts of plans, you can acquire players, you can promote players, but ultimately it’s up to them to play."

Cohen’s fortune couldn’t save his team from Monday night’s disaster. Money can’t buy happiness, and that was never more apparent than Opening Night for the Mets.

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