As someone who has made billions in the hedge-fund industry, Steve Cohen obviously is a smart businessman, but when it comes to being the Mets’ owner, he’s still learning on the job. And Rule No. 1 for team meetings? Never, ever hold court in the clubhouse on the same day your squad is facing the other team’s ace.
With the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler smelling blood Sunday, going for the sweep against his former team, Cohen’s timing could not have been worse. Also, as a lifelong Mets fan familiar with Wheeler’s bitter exit from Flushing, Cohen probably should’ve known better.
Despite all that, roughly an hour before Wheeler’s first pitch, Cohen tweeted, "I just visited the players in the clubhouse. They are ready and in a good frame of mind for this game."
Thanks to Wheeler, it didn’t last.
After leadoff man Brandon Nimmo pulled Wheeler’s fifth pitch of the day for a double, the righthander retired 22 straight. The only other hit was Nimmo’s one-out single in the ninth as the Phillies’ ace sent the Mets back to New York in third place after a 3-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park.
For those curious as to what happens when one of the league’s best fastball pitchers squares off against a team that can’t hit fastballs, Wheeler provided the answer with a complete-game, 11-strikeout gem that took just 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Of his 108 pitches, 75 were fastballs — 55 four-seamers, 20 sinkers — and it seemed as if Wheeler was trying to stifle a grin when I asked him about the Mets’ publicly-stated vulnerability to his signature pitch.
"You try to be smart, you don’t want to get carried away," Wheeler said. "I came in with having a game plan of throwing more fastballs, no matter what team it was. It just happened to match up a little bit and the ball was flying really well for me today."
That’s an understatement. According to Statcast, Wheeler’s velocity was up across the board, with a fastball that maxed out at 100.3 mph and a 97.2 average that was 1.3 mph above his season mark. Wheeler couldn’t have thrown with more nasty intent if the Wilpons had been sitting behind home plate with Brodie Van Wagenen between them.
Van Wagenen, of course, was the former GM who famously gave the Mets credit for Wheeler turning "two good half-seasons" into his five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies. But Wheeler has been worth every penny, and his value continues to climb as a Cy Young Award favorite (10-6, 2.42 ERA) — especially with Jacob deGrom on the shelf indefinitely. Sticking it to the Mets with Sunday’s sweep was just a bonus.
"I’m not shocked the way he went out there and dominated," Bryce Harper said. "It was pure dominance. If Nimmo doesn’t get those two hits, we’re talking about something else. The way he went out there and battled, the way he put us on his back and made sure we won that game, he wasn’t coming out. He was going to finish that game."
It was the 15th time Wheeler has pitched at least seven innings (out of 23 starts), and that’s more than the Mets’ entire rotation combined. He barely seemed to break a sweat and was still throwing 98 in the ninth.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi called this Wheeler’s "best outing of the year," and given the stakes and the opponent, it wasn’t a coincidence. Retiring Roy Halladay’s No. 34 definitely brought some extra adrenaline for Wheeler, but nothing like shutting down his former club.
"I think I’ll always have that little chip on my shoulder," he said.
Facing Wheeler on Sunday was a worst-case scenario for the Mets, who already were 1-5 on the trip, had lost their 90-day streak atop the division Friday and had stranded 58 runners in the previous six games. Because they put only Nimmo in scoring position Sunday, their 0-for-3 in those situations (all in the first inning) dropped them to .153 (9-for-59) in the past week.
And what was Cohen’s message? "Onward and upward," according to Pete Alonso, whose own sad streak extended to 0-for-21.
Alonso is the most relentlessly upbeat among the Mets, but his Oakleys were a bit too rose-colored after Sunday’s humiliation. Luis Rojas essentially had called Sunday a must-win after losing the first two games, and the Mets — actually just one Met — responded with two hits.
So much for Cohen’s pep talk.
"He was extremely positive," Alonso said of the owner. "He’s extremely proud of how we’ve played, the heart we’ve shown every day."
Doesn’t sound like any Mets fans I know.