Just as the pundits would have predicted before the season began, the Mets and the Padres opened a series against each other to close the first half of the season as two of the hottest teams in baseball.
A sweep in Arizona lifted the Mets to a fifth straight win, matching their season high. As the finale of the summer three days before the All-Star break arrived on Friday, the Mets’ winning streak was tied with surging Cincinnati for the best in the majors.
The Padres, after Thursday’s off day, sprinted into the weekend after sweeping the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game sweep. As Yu Darvish lined up against Justin Verlander for an intriguing start to a weekend of baseball in San Diego — Friday’s crowd of 42,712 was the Padres’ 37th sellout this season — both teams were swinging with abandon and rolling in momentum.
“They’re just another team in our way,” Pete Alonso, the Mets’ lone All-Star this season, said coolly Friday as the series opened.
And the Padres proved to be just that on the first night of a three-game series, with the Mets winning, 7-5, in 10 innings, extending their winning streak to six games. It’s now the longest in the majors — Cincinnati lost in Milwaukee on Friday — and it’s the second-longest streak to start the month of July in club history, after a 10-0 start in 1991.
“We’ve got to go on a streak,” Verlander said after Friday’s win. “Some games are like these from yesterday and some games are like these from today — some things go your way.
“It seems like a lot of things haven’t gone our way so it’s nice to see”
The high-stakes tension to keep a season from slipping away was evident in Ha-Seong Kim’s reaction when he was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple with one out in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game. Angry at his mistake, he kicked a water cooler in the dugout, injured his big right toe and the priests listed his status as day-to-day. His absence would be a blow: Kim has hit before and is one of San Diego’s best players. With 4 wins above replacement, by Baseball Reference’s formula, he is ranked second in the National League among position players behind Ronald Acuña Jr. of Atlanta, and he leads all major leaguers in defensive WAR.
In many ways, the start of the series felt as if the teams were picking up where they left off last October, when deafening noise, kaleidoscopic colors and tense tension were the hallmarks of a memorable three-game wild-card series in which the Padres. swept the Mets at Citi Field.
The futures of both teams seemed limitless at the time.
Well, maybe not so much.
Instead, these star-studded teams with outrageous payrolls and outsized expectations remain mirror images of each other, all right. But the images are distorted as if by a fun house mirror.
Despite their recent hot streaks, the Mets and the Padres have very little to show for more than half a billion in combined payrolls for the 2023 season. The Mets’ total payroll is estimated at more than $340 million, according to Spotrac, while the Padres are on the hook for more than $240 million. For all that cash, each team entered the weekend at 41-46, which was 6.5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the National League’s third wild card spot.
The Mets’ desperation to fix their season was epitomized by shortstop Francisco Lindor during the sweep of Arizona. He was so sick that he almost had to miss Wednesday’s game, and he only returned after receiving intravenous fluids for dehydration. He then went 5 for 5 with two triples and a home run as the Mets whipped the first-place Diamondbacks, 9-0, on Thursday.
Goodbye, virus; hello, optimism?
“We’ll make something out of it,” Lindor promised after the game. “Now the question becomes how deep are we going to go.”
The priests’ own desperation was evident the night before. They bounced back from a 1-5 run through Pittsburgh and Cincinnati that manager Bob Melvin called a “miserable trip.” With two wins against the Angels, they had a chance to complete their first series sweep of the season. San Diego’s All-Star closer Josh Hader worked Monday and Tuesday and hasn’t thrown in three straight days since 2021. Susceptible to overuse after his years in Milwaukee, he declined a chance to do it in San Francisco last month.
Yet with the Padres leading 5-3 in the ninth inning on Wednesday, here came Hader.
“He has a sense of where we are as a team,” Melvin explained later. “So he wanted the ball tonight in a save situation.”
“It was the right situation and I was able to make it happen,” Hader said Friday. “It is necessary to make sure that you are healthy. In the long run, if I can’t supply the team later because of injury, then it’s no use.”
Although the Padres’ rotation led the NL with 39 quality starts through Thursday, they entered the series with the Mets with a rather modest goal of extending their modest winning streak into what would be a season-high four straight wins.
Stringing together wins was difficult thanks to their .219 batting average with runners in scoring position, which was the worst in the majors entering Friday’s game. A team with sluggers like Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Xander Bogaerts and Fernando Tatis Jr. looked at awful clubs like Oakland (29th, .229), Kansas City (28th, .233) and Detroit (27th, .236).
The Padres’ .194 batting average in “late/close” situations – defined by Baseball Reference as “any flat appearance of the seventh inning in which the batting team is either in a tie game, ahead by one run or has the potential tying run on deck” — was ranked 29th in the majors through Thursday.
Not surprisingly, based on those numbers, the Padres were 1-36 when trailing after seven innings. The Heart Children, they are not.
Still searching for a combination that clicks, San Diego parted ways with struggling designated hitter Nelson Cruz on Tuesday, designating him for assignment. There was no reason to have him and Matt Carpenter both as veterans on the bench to pinch-hit, even if one hits righty and the other lefty.
It wasn’t the type of move expected from a team that sprinted all the way to the NL Championship Series last October before losing to Philadelphia. And it showed how much the Padres would need to change if they wanted to get back into contention.
“We have to come out every day and play like it’s our last,” Bogaerts said.
The Mets and the Padres have been such enigmas this summer that each team’s owner delivered what amounted to a mini State of the Union address within four days of each other.
On June 28 at Citi Field, Steven A. Cohen offered public support for Manager Buck Showalter and General Manager Billy Eppler. He reiterated that he still plans to hire a president of baseball operations. The game’s worst-kept secret, of course, is that David Stearns, the Brewers’ former president, will likely fill that role after his contract with Milwaukee expires.
On July 1, in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Padres owner Peter Seidler showed support for AJ Preller, the team’s president of baseball operations, who is under contract through 2026. Like Cohen, Seidler said he appreciated “stability.” He added: “I am for excellence. And to me AJ is excellence.”
Speaking Friday, Machado, like Seidler, opted for the optimistic, long view.
“It makes everything more special when you’re struggling,” Machado said. “You look back, like, I went through all of this and, hell, look how positive things turned out.”
Now, what are arguably the game’s two most disappointing teams have what could be their last chance to stave off the gloom, extending the small glimpses of sunlight they caught in the early days of July. The trade deadline looms on August 1st, and Eppler and Preller must soon decide whether to be buyers or sellers.
After going 7-19 in June, the Mets hammered 17 hits and collected 32 total bases Thursday night. The Mets played a crappy, round series against a vaguely good team. Manager Buck Showalter said Arizona is as athletic as anyone the Mets have faced this year.
During their six-game winning streak, Mets starting pitching has compiled a 1.80 ERA Carlos Carrasco pitched his best game of the season Thursday, and Verlander and Max Scherzer are working together in the rotation after detours including injuries and, for Scherzer, a 10-game suspension for a violation of the league’s prohibition of the use of foreign substances on baseball.
Although Verlander faltered through parts of his start in San Diego, surrendering two earned runs and walking three in six innings, he has now worked six or more innings in seven of 12 starts this season.
“Every day is its own entity and we just want to be able to build off of solid performances,” said Alonso, who took early batting practice on his first day in San Diego in preparation for Monday’s Home Run Derby in Seattle. “You can’t think too much into the future. You just want to focus on winning today.”