NEW YORK – The Mets looked so beat-up and depleted when the Cubs got to New York on Thursday for their big rematch in Queens that when somebody mentioned the rotten timing of facing the team with the best record in baseball, Mets staff scrambled to remove sharp objects from manager Terry Collins’ reach.
“We don’t need any more depression around here,” Collins said.
Then they actually played the game.
And nine innings later, the team with the sparkly record and a world of media and odds-makers fawning at its feet all season was quickly reminded who the defending National League champion is – and what the back end of a playoff-caliber bullpen looks like – in a 4-3 loss to the Mets to open a four-game series.
“Getting beat’s one thing, but when you feel like you kind of gave one away or let one go, that was a different kind of loss,” said a visibly chapped John Lackey, who took a 3-1 lead one out deep into the seventh, before manager Joe Maddon “surprised” him by pulling him from the game (at 106 pitches).
Three batters, two relievers and one error later, the Mets had the lead, and the Cubs were a short walk from heading into the same silence, in the same clubhouse, they endured last October.
The significance of this one in relation to that series?
“None,” said Lackey, a two-time winner of World Series clinchers, who wasn’t on that Cubs team.
“It’s June. Who cares? Big-boy games are totally different.”
But big-boy games are hard to come by when you don’t take care of business in June, July or August against reeling teams that have lineups depleted by injuries and starters they send to the mound with potentially disabling bone spurs in their elbows (Steven Matz pitched 5 1/3 innings anyway).
When you don’t take care of business after getting enough starting pitching, hitting home runs, and taking leads into the late innings.
This was a Mets team that scored as many runs in that seventh inning as it had in its 30 previous innings combined.
“You never want to lose a game when you have the lead in that moment,” Maddon said. “All losses from here are tough to swallow, especially the close ones. But I can’t lament anything. That was the right spot for [reliever Joel] Peralta. Didn’t work.”
Maddon said a bunch of other consolation-prize stuff about right moves and the good experience kids like Willson Contreras and Javy Baez got through getting dominated by lights-out closer Jeurys Familia with the bases loaded in the ninth.
But there was no denying significance in Thursday’s outcome, regardless of how different these teams look and the time of year it is compared to October.
Peralta, the reverse-split right-hander Maddon has used on tough lefties since he joined the club less than a week ago, is only here because of the bullpen problems underscored by his own performance Thursday night – a walk to his first batter and RBI single to the only other one he would face.
By the time Pedro Strop took over and got a chopper that second baseman Javy Baez threw wide of third for the decisive, two-run play, a few things about where this Cubs team stands right now came into focus:
- Their bullpen can’t close out leads at a playoff-caliber level;
- Their trouble in one-run games (10-12) suggests not only a need to improve the bullpen but challenges (like most teams) hitting good pitching (which is lacking with several NL Central opponents) below-average production with men in scoring position (including 0-for-7 Thursday).
- And the Mets (17-10 in one-run games) might not go away that quietly this season, regardless of what their recent struggles have suggested – or what happens the next few days of this series.
Regardless of how much different anything looks for either team since October.
“We don’t really remember much that happened here last year,” said Kris Bryant, who regained a share of the National League home run lead with No. 22 in the first – and struck out with runners at second and third in the ninth. “We know the feeling of getting eliminated, getting swept, but I think we’re on to bigger and better things. And we’re ready for it.
“Different year, different players here, different attitude.”
And, maybe most important to them, three more months to take care of business until they get to the big-boy games.