The Mets are nearly cooked for the year

Jul 14, 2023; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (1) reacts after a called third strike during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field.
Jul 14, 2023; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (1) reacts after a called third strike during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Good luck finding many people outside the clubhouse at Citi Field who expect the Mets to get back into the playoff race.

The fans — who booed in the general direction of Justin Verlander, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Francisco Alvarez, Drew Smith during a flat 6-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday — seem to know what they are watching.

The folks in power, the ones who will soon determine whether to begin a sell-off that in April would have been hard to imagine, are under no illusions, either. It’s getting awfully late, and trade discussions are accelerating. Would any responsible baseball operations department add to what they have been watching for most of the year?

No, Mets brass has not yet made a final decision on whether to buy, sell or stand pat at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. But it’s nearly time to orient the 2023 season toward the future. A solid run of at-bats for Mark Vientos in August and September. Ronny Mauricio at second base and Jeff McNeil, if he is still here, in left field.

Tommy Pham, Mark Canha, David Robertson and other veterans helping contending teams — and maybe Max Scherzer and Verlander too.

This expensive, talented team is nearly cooked, and it is so confusing: Really, why are they playing so poorly?

On Friday, it was more of the same. Verlander walked six batters in five innings, including the seventh, eighth and ninth-place hitters in the fifth, all of whom came around to score.

Thinking that he might have been tired, as nearly any 40-year-old pitcher would be, I asked if he knew why he lost command in that spot.

“It’s a great question,” Verlander said, in a tone that might or might not have meant that he believed it was a great question. “If I knew the answer to it right away, I think I would have fixed it.”

Boy, do those two sentences sum up the 2023 Mets. What is wrong with this team? Great question. If anyone knew exactly how to answer, maybe the season wouldn’t be descending into this deep of a hole.

Same goes for the offense. How exactly does a lineup this accomplished give away an entire night’s worth of at-bats? Brandon Nimmo doubled to begin the bottom of the first inning, and the team did not have another hit all night.

Buck Showalter rightly noted that Dodgers starter Julio Urias, a star in this sport, had four effective pitches working. I asked what he thought of his own team’s approach, and the quality of the at-bats.

“That’s something that privately … ” the manager began, before trailing off. “Certainly we have seen these guys perform well against good pitchers. “And we’re always going to, publicly, obviously, give him credit. And it’s a lot of things to defend on both sides of the plate. I’ve seen our guys make some adjustments. He didn’t get into many patterns.”

The key words in that quote were “privately” and “publicly.”

As a matter of principle, Showalter will never criticize his players in a postgame news conference. He sees and hears external toxicity all around the Mets, and refuses to contribute to it. He believes that his job is to set a steady, supportive tone — never too high, never too low.

But there are few people on this planet who can decode more layers of detail in a baseball game than Showalter, few who see the game as clearly. It’s hard to imagine that from his perch at the dugout railing, he sees a ballclub about to play crisp, clean games or live up to its payroll and expectations. He has to know what he’s looking at — even better than we do.

It wasn’t all ugly. Showalter was also looking at Lindor in the field in the eighth inning. With the Mets trailing 5-0, the shortstop ranged deep to his right to pick up a ball that should have rolled into left field. He fired it to second for a force out.

Because there had been a runner on third, the score by the end of the play was 6-0 Dodgers. Lindor turned to the outfielders and clapped his hand into his glove, exhorting his teammates to maintain their energy and focus.

Lindor’s leadership was admirable, but it wasn’t powerful enough to wake up the team.

It seemed, in fact, that he was merely cheering into the void, begging for the resurrection of a nearly lost cause.