Again, the Mets led in a crucial game in this final stretch of the season.
And again, last night in a near-empty Dolphins Stadium against the humble Florida Marlins, the Mets blew it.
The story was remarkably similar to the recent run of bad form against the Phillies and Nationals, with their defense and pitching letting them down at crucial times, leading to an extra-inning, 8-7 loss. The Mets have now lost 6 of their last 7 games and, almost unthinkably, their lead over Philadelphia in the division is a mere 1.5 games.
It has all the hallmarks of a spectacular collapse. But here’s the thing: the Mets are probably going to make it.
This is not to suggest that there is some magic power in a lead of a certain size. Rather, it is simply a question of an underdog needing too much to go their way to overcome that deficit.
Let’s start with the historical precedent. The Mets held a 7-game lead on September 12, with 17 games remaining. No team in major league history has ever lost such a large lead with such little time remaining.
That is not to say teams haven’t come close. Take last year’s world champions, for example. The St. Louis Cardinals held a 7-game lead with just 12 games left in the season. Eight losses in a row later (including four in a row to the second-place Astros), the lead over Houston was 1.5 games. After their ninth defeat in 10 games, the lead stood at 0.5 games.
But the Cardinals rallied, took two of three from Milwaukee while Houston lost two of three at Atlanta, and anyone who followed the Mets last year knows the rest.
The 2000 Yankees, up 7.5 on Boston with 16 to play, subsequently lost 6 in a row to see their lead shrink to 4.5. They won two games to stem the tide, then lost their last seven in a row. Those Yankees took the division by 2.5 games and went on to October glory as well.
In the case of the Mets and the Phillies, starting pitching is the first area in which the Phils, already behind the Mets in the standings, also trail them in day-to-day talent. On Thursday night, the Phillies overcame this handicap (and six runs allowed by starter Kyle Lohse) to defeat the Nationals, while the Mets saw Tom Glavine give up more than three earned runs in a start for just the third time since the All Star Break.
But overcoming large deficits (or allowing opposing teams to do so) is rare, regardless of bullpen strength. For instance, Washington twice overcame 4-run deficits on the Mets Monday and Tuesday. The last time they’d performed such a feat? 1999, when they were known as the Montreal Expos. They’d faced countless bad bullpens since then. It wasn’t that the Mets pen is so terrible—in fact, assuming Billy Wagner returns tomorrow as expected, their front three is solid.
The Mets starters over the next three days are Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and John Maine. Their ERAs are 1.69, 3.43 and 4.04. Their opponents, the Marlins, will pitch Scott Olsen, Byung-Hyun Kim and Chris Seddon. Their ERAs are 6.06, 6.06 and 8.44. While Perez and Maine have been inconsistent, all three Marlins starters possess a higher ERA than the Mets’ blundering Guillermo Mota. This is a blatant mismatch.
The Phillies, meanwhile, start Adam Eaton, Kyle Kendrick and Cole Hamels. Their ERAs are 6.36, 4.05 and 3.59—but the third figure, Hamels, pitched for the first time in a month following injury, and lasted only three innings, allowing three runs. What resemblance he has to the All Star pitcher of the first half is far more questionable than Maine or Perez—he simply may not be healthy enough to pitch. The Nationals, meanwhile, throw Shawn Hill, Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan. Hill’s ERA is at 3.01, Redding’s at 3.73, Hanrahan at 6.45. At the very least, the Washington has the starters to keep them in the game—actually holding the advantage in the first two.
But even if the Phillies do win all of their games against the Nats, the status quo won’t be enough—they also need the Mets to squander a weekend against three pitchers with 6+ ERAs.
Should the bullpens come into play, Florida’s relievers hold a season ERA mark over 4. The Mets, despite all their struggles, are nearly a half-run better than the Phillies. And Washington, oddly, is at 3.71—fourth in the National League.
Of course, Washington is a losing team because of a terrible offense—the Phillies are challenging for the NL East because theirs is the best in the league. The point is that a similar gap in talent exists between New York and Florida, and break-even isn’t enough for the Phils, though it is the likeliest result at the end of the weekend.
Should New York and Philadelphia stay as they are by the end of the weekend, the Mets would lead by 1.5 (two in the loss column) with seven games left, the Phillies with six. But at that point, Washington heads to Shea, while the Phillies host the Braves, who have won five in a row and trail the Phillies by just three games.
Not only do the Mets miss Hill and Redding, they first face Matt Chico, who they roughed up for 5 runs in 5 1.3 innings during their only win in this week’s thre-game series in Washington. The Phillies face Chuck James, Buddy Carlyle and earn a Thursday date with Tim Hudson, who is coming off a complete-game victory, and holds a 16-8, 3.33 ERA mark for the season.
The Mets then play a make-up game against a Cardinals team that is 2-13 in its last 15, and which lost Thursday to the Astros, 18-1. They finish with three against the Marlins at Shea Stadium. The Phillies finish by hosting the Nationals.
Going on recent form, the Mets aren’t going to make this easy. But they’re playing terrible baseball teams, will be sending out good starting pitchers against them, and will likely score plenty of runs. Just a 5-5 record the rest of the way under those conditions will force the Phillies, facing some bad teams as well as a good and hot Braves club, to post a 6-3 record just to force a tie, and 7-2 to win the division outright.
The Mets still can determine how much margin of error the Phillies have, and even a mediocre showing by New York will leave Philadelphia with very little. There is a reason that most division leaders going through September swoons hang on, and it isn’t leadership, clutch hitting or mystique. It’s a simple question of math.