There are many reasons why the Mets completed one-third of the season on a surprisingly long list of most disappointing teams in the majors.
Through Memorial Day Weekend, they were a .500 mediocrity on a $400 million-plus payroll (projected luxury tax included) because of too little power on offense, too little depth in the bullpen and too many injury list designations.
So it would be faulty to exclusively blame a fame-filled, expensive rotation that was underachieving. But it was hard to ignore how one short start after another was exposing an undermanned bullpen and burdening an underachieving offense. The Mets began a series against the Phillies on Tuesday at Citi Field with an NL-low 13 starts of at least six innings.
But here was the thing — the Mets were 13-0 when they did get such an outing. And then Kodai Senga delivered the best start by a Met this season to make it 14-0. He aggressively attacked with a precise fastball to open counts, especially early in the game, and then flummoxed the Bryce Harper-less Phillie lineup with his ghost forkball.
In seven innings, his only base runner came via a Kody Clemens one-out single in the third inning. Senga struck out nine, finishing off six with the forkball. Pitching as he has all season with extra rest, the righty did not look like a beleaguered marathoner in his final inning. Instead, he went up the ladder to strike out Nick Castellanos with a 98 mph fastball for the second out of the seventh and then wrecked Kyle Schwarber with the fork.
Before the game, in emphasizing how important it was for the Met rotation to right itself in order to get the team to win 15 out of 20 and gain a more comfortable playoff foothold, Max Scherzer had said that “starting pitching is the backbone of your team.” To that end, Senga provided the support for the Mets to play with a crispness too often absent in 2023.
They were excellent on defense, never more so than when Brandon Nimmo robbed Castellanos of what would have been a fourth-inning homer. Francisco Lindor homered, the surging Eduardo Escobar provided a key insurance run with a two-out RBI single in the eighth and positioned by Senga to do the jobs the Mets envisioned, Adam Ottavino and David Robertson each pitched a scoreless inning.
The Mets won 2-0. If such things matter so soon after Memorial Day, the Mets climbed back over .500 (28-27) and into a tie for the final wild-card spot. More vitally, Senga provided fastball, forkballs and faith that there is a pathway for the Mets to play better than they have to this point. And that starts at the start.
Because, to this point, despite having the two highest-paid per-annum players ever in Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the rotation has too frequently been the start of something bad. The Mets’ rotation began Tuesday with the second-worst Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs). There are few worse pitching sins than free passes and long balls, and Met starters had the highest walk rate and the fifth-highest homer per nine inning rate.
Scherzer and Verlander have, to date, taken at least a step back in health and performance. Tylor Megill and David Peterson have not come close to taking a step forward. Carlos Carrasco has hardly pitched, Jose Quintana has not pitched at all and Senga had battled control issues and had yet to be asked to pitch on a fifth day.
But then he walked none Tuesday. Threw 100 pitches. Dominated a Phillie lineup full of big names, but so far in 2023, small deeds. And the Mets are contemplating whether to bring Senga back on normal rest Saturday versus the Blue Jays.
“I believe in the track record of our guys,” Ottavino said. “[Verlander] is a few months removed from winning a Cy Young and seems healthy now, so I think it is a matter of time until he is rolling. Max same deal. [Carrasco], we are starting to see signs. We are going to get [Quintana] back [perhaps in the second half]. Senga has shown flashes. This is not a total disaster. We have not gotten rolling the way those guys can and probably will; I’d be surprised if they don’t.”
It is the pathway. The Braves are surviving without two key starters, Max Fried and Kyle Wright. The Phillie trio of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez, who pitched to a 3.24 ERA in 87 starts last year was at 4.54 in 25 starts in 2023 before Suarez — in his fourth outing since returning from the injured list — was very good against the Mets (two runs in 6 ²/₃ innings). But he was outperformed by Senga.
The Mets got a too-rare lengthy, strong start and stayed perfect when that does happen. They need more. From Senga. From Scherzer and Verlander. From Quintana when he eventually returns.
They need that to have a ghost of a chance to be the team they were designed to be.