Fittingly, the Mets were in Florida. Because by the third inning, they were offering a Grapefruit League road lineup, the kind that annoys an opponent that feels you didn’t bring the required number of starters.
This was not spite. This was the best the Mets could offer due to two more injuries incurred on the first two grounders struck in what became a 7-1 loss to the Rays. On one of the most mundane acts in the sport — running to first — the Mets went from depleted to hamstrung. Literally. They were down to one bench player, backup catcher Tomas Nido, by the third inning. It is all the more troubling because the Mets weren’t exactly scoring even before their current team photo took on even more of a Syracuse Mets hue.
Deep breath for perspective. The Mets continue to hang onto first place even after being swept in three games at Tropicana Field. They certainly are not alone heath-wise in a sport bedeviled by injury, particularly within the NL East.
But it is troubling the number of reinjuries or setbacks the team has endured, including Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, J.D. Davis, Brandon Nimmo and now Jeff McNeil. There also are a growing number of the more preventable soft tissue injuries, including Carrasco, Luis Guillorme, perhaps deGrom, and now hamstring maladies for McNeil and Conforto. McNeil, in stating he was ready to play prior to Sunday’s game, mentioned he let himself get dehydrated and that might have led to the cramping that has beset him before Sunday.
“There have been casualties piling up,” Luis Rojas said. “That is real. But the trust [with the medical and training staff, and protocols] is real here.”
It all can be bad breaks, reflections of the strangeness of ramping up after a 60-game season or perhaps playing on the terrible surface at The Trop for a few days.
But without Carrasco and recently deGrom, the Mets have used Joey Lucchesi or an opener six times. They are 2-4 in those games — and they will be using an emergency starter or an opener Tuesday in Atlanta.
They already were into the Syracuse roster before McNeil and Conforto hurt their hamstrings running to first. Both are due for MRI exams on Monday before the Mets announce how they will proceed. But McNeil likened what he is experiencing to the low-grade hamstring injuries that twice sent him to the injured list in 2019 — and Rojas sounded as if he thought Conforto’s injury was more severe.
And it is not as if the Mets still have Jarred Kelenic sitting in the minors ready to debut for them. Their last two healthy 40-man roster players who can be summoned are Deivy Grullon and Khalil Lee. Grullon is a catcher, and with Patrick Mazeika on the team, the Mets already have three of those. Lee, who was up for three days last week without playing, barely has Triple-A experience. The non-40 man roster/non-catchers with the most MLB experience at Triple-A are Brandon Drury and Mason Williams.
Even with depth pieces such as Mazeika, Kevin Pillar, Jonathan Villar and Jose Peraza offering big moments, the Mets began Sunday averaging 3.6 runs per game, third worst in the majors. They then managed just two hits against Tampa Bay’s factory of arms — the infield single to open the game on which McNeil was injured and a homer by his DH replacement, Mazeika. The Mets went hitless in eight at-bats with men on base.
The Mets are 17-5 when they get to even three runs this season (only San Diego, at 21-4, was better). They are now 1-11, however, when they don’t. The Mets have been salvaged by their pitching. But on Sunday Marcus Stroman conceded, “I just didn’t have it.” He had allowed just three homers and four extra-base hits in his first seven starts and 40 ¹/₃ innings. He yielded three homers and five runs in a nine-batter period bridging the fourth to sixth innings. That was going to doom the Mets with their non-DH players going 0-or-25 with a walk.
Now, with Conforto and McNeil possibly joining Davis and Nimmo on the IL, the Mets need their two most expensive buys of the offseason, Francisco Lindor (.190 batting average/.582 OPS) and James McCann (.200/.494), to offer consistently better at-bats and carry the team some. They could use Dominic Smith — especially with the lefty bats of Conforto, McNeil and Nimmo out — to generate power for the team with the second fewest homers in the majors.
Rojas praised his team’s depth, but said of the Mets’ current situation: “It’s adversity at its best; let’s call it that. We have some of our best hitters down now.”
And the Grapefruit League ended more than six weeks ago.