Mets meet Pirates during important stretch

Mike Lupica

By Mike Lupica

It was Tommy John who once said this to me, when he was past 40 and still pitching in the big leagues: “When you’re young and you’re in a slump, you’re in a slump. When you’re old and you’re in a slump, you’re old.”

You can use a variation of that now with the Mets. When you’re in the kind of September slump they’re in, against non-contending teams, it’s more than a slump. It’s September, when everything gets bigger, especially when you’re trying to hold off the defending champs and win a division and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The Mets have now lost five straight home games. They are now 6-7 in September. But that record has been compiled against four teams — the Nationals, Pirates, Marlins, Cubs — who are a combined 122 games out of first place in the NL East and the NL Central. It’s kind of a lot. The Cubs just swept the Mets in a three-game series, and at Citi Field — the first time the Mets have been swept across what has been a terrific, and almost exclusively, first-place season for them in the East.

The Mets actually won two series on the road during this stretch, against the Pirates and Marlins, but nobody remembers that now because of what just happened against the Cubs, who jumped the Mets for six runs in the top of the first in Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss after starter David Peterson walked three of the six batters he faced before being pulled.

Before this stretch of games began, and everyone was still talking about how soft the schedule looked, Buck Showalter talked about what trap late-season games could be against non-contenders and said, “I swear I’d rather be playing the Dodgers.” That was before the Nationals beat the Mets twice at Citi Field, and before what the Cubs just did to them.

The good news is that the Mets are still in first place, a half-game ahead of the Braves. They were in first place for five straight months until the Braves briefly passed them last week. The Mets stayed in first place for now, because the Braves just lost two of three to the Giants in San Francisco.

Now the Mets get four games at home against the Pirates. It was back at the end of May, and into the first week of June, that the Pirates swept the Dodgers — currently knocking on the door for another 100-victory season and now 20 1/2 games ahead of the Padres in the NL West — and did that to Dave Roberts’ team at Dodger Stadium. That started a streak when the powerhouse Dodgers team went 4-9 over its next 13 games, concluding that stretch by getting swept again by the Giants in San Francisco.

But that was June. This is September, and the lights are way, way brighter and the noise is much louder, and a 6-7 record suddenly is being treated like something much worse for Showalter’s Mets with 18 games to go, including three against the Braves in Atlanta.

“It’s there for us,” Showalter said on Wednesday. It is the same message he’s been presenting to his team, even in better times than this, for weeks. “It’s still there for us. We control it. That would be frustrating if we didn’t. It’s the old thing that we’ve been talking about all year. It’s called, ‘Play better.’”

The perception is that the Mets are in some kind of freefall, because of the records they’ve faced and because they haven’t rolled the teams they’ve faced in September the way they were expected to — maybe by everybody except the manager. But the reality is that the most meaningful losses are the last three against the Cubs, because it looked as if the Mets didn’t just get swept, but they got smacked in the face for the first time all season.

Chris Bassitt pitched his worst game in a while. Showalter sent the great Jacob deGrom to the mound for the second game of the series and watched the game change when the Cubs turned a couple of bunts — one a safety squeeze — into a couple of big runs, ultimately making them stand up in a 4-1 victory. Then came last night. The Mets didn’t just get swept, they got swept in September.

The Mets are suddenly playing baseball for less than their best at a very bad time. But guess what? The kind of September ball they’ve played? The Yankees played this way for nearly two full months after the All-Star break, and didn’t seem to turn things around until they got two straight wins over the Rays at Yankee Stadium last weekend, and now have gotten two more against the Red Sox at Fenway. All that after their lead over the Rays had dropped to two games in the loss column.

And even with this four-game win streak for the Yankees, their record since the break remains at 23-28.

“It’s challenging finishing off a good season,” Showalter has said.

The Mets are finding out, in real time, underneath all the light and noise. Suddenly, the biggest series of the year for them is the one right now against the last-place Pirates. It’s September.

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