By Deesha Thosar
FOX Sports MLB Writer
NEW YORK — A month from now, the Mets anticipate playing in their first National League Division Series since 2015. But to get there, their performance must be vastly different — and vastly superior — to what they displayed in Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Cubs.
The Mets’ offense set the tone as early as the first inning, when they loaded the bases against Chicago’s Javier Assad, a rookie right-hander who wound up troubling New York hitters all night. The top of the Mets’ lineup grinded out at-bats, sending six men to the plate in the opening frame.
But with two outs and the bases loaded, Mark Canha never took his bat off his shoulder. He struck out on four pitches, and the Mets failed to capitalize, ending their threat rather than giving right-hander Chris Bassitt early run support.
Bassitt, counter to his recent successful outings and his larger-season sample, turned in his second-shortest outing of the year. The veteran coughed up five earned runs in 3.2 innings before departing, head down and disposition disgruntled, for the showers. Bassitt’s rare rough start was a tough situation that became easy to imagine recurring just a few weeks from now, when the Mets are likely to be competing in the postseason.
If their veteran, typically reliable starter mucks it up on an October night, the Mets will want to respond and pick him up immediately, before the score gets out of hand. But if Monday was a test run of how things will unfold in the playoffs, Mets fans, trying optimism for a change, will need better reasons to look at the glass as half-full.
Assad pitched six innings of one-run ball in the fifth major-league start of his career. But this was no lights-out performance, as New York left 10 men on base and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, with no lost opportunity stinging more than the botched performance in the eighth.
Down 5-1 with six outs to spare, Jeff McNeil led off the inning with a hustling infield single, complete with a head-first slide into first base. Pete Alonso followed with a line-drive single to left field, and Daniel Vogelbach worked a four-pitch walk to load the bases with nobody out.
But Canha, who crushed his first career grand slam two nights prior in Miami, apparently left that mojo in South Florida. For the second time Monday, he struck out with the bases loaded. Then Eduardo Escobar, swinging a hot bat the past couple of weeks since coming off the injured list, popped out to shallow center.
Then Buck Showalter had a decision to make, one that could change the result of the game. With right fielder Tyler Naquin due up, the Mets manager had a couple of pinch-hit options on the bench. One was Mark Vientos, an exciting young rookie, called up this past weekend in Miami, who crushed lefties at a .330/.408/.732 clip in 68 games for Triple-A Syracuse this year. The other was Darin Ruf, a slumping veteran mired in an 0-for-16 skid and sporting one hit in his past 34 at-bats, for whom the Mets traded four players at last month’s deadline.
Showalter opted for the latter, and unfortunately for the Mets, what followed was predictable.
Vientos remained on the bench, and Ruf flew out to right field against Chicago southpaw Brandon Hughes, ending the Mets’ best chance to overcome the 59-82 Cubs. Mets fans who stuck around through the rain at Citi Field were incredulous, some frozen with their hands on their heads and others emphatically booing the outcome.
Afterward, Ruf was cagey, defiant and terse when explaining what went wrong in that eighth-inning at-bat. Who wouldn’t be ticked off — during a pennant race, no less — after the stretch he’s had?
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m just trying to have good at-bats, and sometimes you need a little luck.”
Still, it’s unfair to pin Monday’s loss completely on Ruf. The two batters before him also turned in unproductive at-bats. Vientos went unused as everyone was left to wonder what could’ve been. Bassitt struggled on an off-night.
Afterward, Showalter defended his decision to pinch-hit Ruf over Vientos by citing the veteran hitter’s track record. In his 10-year big-league career, Ruf has 39 home runs and an .897 OPS against lefties. But, in using Ruf, Showalter overlooked his recent history, which, since joining the Mets at the trade deadline, features a .137 batting average (7-for-51) and 15 strikeouts in 22 games.
“We keep waiting,” Showalter said. “We think that Darin’s been really good in that spot for his career. It hasn’t been there for him lately.”
The problem is this Mets offense could use a spark — particularly at designated hitter — after going 5-5 in 10 games against the Marlins, Nationals, Pirates and Cubs this month. All four of those teams are in the basement of their respective leagues; none of them is vying for a playoff spot. Before the All-Star break, the Mets had the worst OPS (.614) in the NL at DH, ranked third-worst in MLB.
Mets GM Billy Eppler acquired Vogelbach, Naquin and Ruf at the trade deadline aiming to improve the team’s efficiency at DH, but all three have been largely disappointing. Since those trades, the Mets’ designated hitters have posted a .587 OPS at the position, still the worst in the NL.
It’s not like the Mets lack urgency, even with their 100 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FanGraphs, with 20 games to go. Just look at McNeil’s head-first dive into first base to see how badly they want to win these games against lesser opponents. But it’s possible some hitters are, as Showalter put it, “trying to do too much,” which is leading to botched hitting approaches and disjointed results.
On Monday, it became much too easy to imagine those same situations unfolding in October. The Mets are counting on Jacob deGrom to lead the rotation, Max Scherzer to heal from his left-side irritation/fatigue and Bassitt to deliver like he has for most of the season. But hiccups happen, and when they do, it’s imperative that Mets hitters can pick up their pitching staff.
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And the thing is, the landscape in October will be much tougher — and way more competitive — than it was Monday. The Mets faced a sub-.500 team they were more than capable of thrashing on their best day. Getting beaten by Assad? Try facing the Braves’ Max Fried or Spencer Strider, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw or Tyler Anderson and the Astros’ Justin Verlander or Framber Valdez.
The Mets (89-53) still have the third-best record in baseball, they’re still in first place in the NL East, and their magic number to reach the playoffs for the first time in six years is eight. But they also still have the Braves (87-54) to fend off for the division title, and they still want that bye-week and a direct ticket to the NLDS, rather than playing a wild-card series.
Monday showed that the Mets cannot afford lapses or breaks. It’s going to take the best from every single player on their postseason roster to make a deep run.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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