John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Marcus Stroman has talked a lot about how much he loves the big stage of New York, the pennant-race pressure, even describing himself as a "savage" on the mound. But until he delivers a big-game performance for the Mets, all that talk is meaningless.
Tuesday night offered him the perfect opportunity, his new team desperately needing Stroman to be a stopper in a must-win series against the Cubs, after they were swept by the Braves, yet he was so-so at best in a 5-2 loss at Citi Field.
Worst of all, he couldn't keep the ball in the ballpark.
That's not supposed to happen to a guy who is a ground-ball machine when he's on top of his game, but Stroman gave up two-run home runs to Addison Russell and Javy Baez in the fifth and sixth innings, respectively, sealing his fate.
All in all, he wasn't terrible, and if the Mets had made any noise with the bats, other than Pete Alonso's team-record 42nd home run, against Yu Darvish you could have made the old argument that he kept his team in the game.
But let's be honest, Stroman has been underwhelming in his five starts since the Mets made the trade to get him from the Blue Jays.
It wasn't all that noticeable until now, as they had won his first four starts mostly due to scoring 28 runs in those games, but suddenly you can't help but notice his 4.91 ERA, which includes surrendering five home runs.
If he were merely replacing Jason Vargas as the No. 5 starter he has been serviceable, but Stroman is supposed to be a lot more than that.
He did pitch to a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts for the Blue Jays this season, after all, and the Mets gave up two of their best pitching prospects to get him at the trade deadline in a move that nobody saw coming.
Before the game even Mickey Callaway more or less admitted he expected to see more from his new pitcher, saying, "I don't think we've seen his best yet."
Afterward Callaway did his best to talk up Stroman's outing, saying, "It was really just two pitches" that cost him.
Yes, but they were each in difference-making situations, with runners at second, and that's when big-game pitchers are often at their best.
Stroman admitted as much, saying, "It's about being better when I need to be better, in those key moments. They put good swings on bad pitches."
Darvish, meanwhile, got lucky early, getting a couple of line-drive outs in the second inning after Michael Conforto's leadoff triple, but otherwise he was "ace-like," as Alonso said afterward.
Darvish's only costly mistake was an above-the-belt fastball that Alonso crushed to right-center in the fourth, giving the Mets a 1-0 lead and sending the Citi Field crowd into a frenzy as his 42nd home run passed Todd Hundley and Carlos Beltran for the Mets' single-season home run record.
At that moment, with the ballpark alive with noise, it felt as if the Mets were rekindling their second half surge. Turned out it was the exception to this four-game losing streak in which the Mets have stopped hitting, falling three games behind these Cubs for the second wild-card spot and suddenly putting themselves in a must-win position the next two nights.
Indeed, while Stroman's start was disappointing, the more alarming big-picture storyline is how cold the Mets have gone with the bats, scoring nine runs during this four-game losing streak, four of them the direct result of Alonso home runs.
Even Jeff McNeil looked overmatched against Darvish, so frustrated after failing to deliver a run from third base in the fifth inning that he slammed his bat to the ground, shattering it so loudly that you could hear the noise way up in the press box.
As such, you wonder if Callaway (or Brodie Van Wagenen) will make lineup changes. In an effort to get lefthanded bats in there against Darvish, he elected to sit Juan Lagares rather than Todd Frazier, saying he chose "infield defense over outfield defense" in deference to Stroman's ground-ball tendencies.
The flaw in such logic, however, is that McNeil is as good defensively at third base as Frazier, while Lagares is significantly better in center field than Conforto. That flawed logic cost the Mets when Conforto misjudged Victor Caratini's double in the fifth, one batter before Russell put the Cubs ahead 2-1 with his home run.
Afterward Callaway defended his decision, but said it could change day to day, so let's just say it won't be a surprise if Lagares is back in center on Wednesday with Noah Syndergaard on the mound.
Second-guessing aside, however, the Mets weren't going to win on Tuesday night without a big-game start from Stroman to match Darvish, the kind he's all but promised to deliver.
As a matter of fact, he was still making such promises at his locker after the game, calling his 4.91 ERA as a Met "a small sample," while vowing, "I know who I am. I'll get in a groove and dominate."
At this point, probably better that he does it first, then talks about it.