PHILADELPHIA — We still don’t know the meaning of the missives. When Steven Cohen visits his stumbling Mets in the road clubhouse on a Sunday morning — and tweets about it — is that an act of support, or a sign of panic? When he tweets on Friday that the Mets will start hitting, but instead they look feeble all weekend, will there be repercussions?
In his first season as the Mets’ owner, Cohen has gotten precisely what he paid for with his $2.475 billion: a team that can whip your emotions from hopeful to confounded, often at a breakneck pace. After a punchless weekend against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, the Mets have tumbled to third place in the National League East.
Philadelphia completed a three-game sweep on Sunday with a 3-0 victory spearheaded by the former Mets starter Zack Wheeler, who spun a two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and only one walk. The Mets began August with a four-game division lead, but now stand two and a half games behind the first-place Phillies and a half-game behind Atlanta.
“This is a special group,” Mets Manager Luis Rojas said. “We’re not going to stop saying that, ever, as much of a struggle as we run into. I think we’re doing really good; we’re pitching, we’re playing defense. The one thing that we’re missing right now is our offense.”
Rojas is trying hard to stay positive, a noble ambition. But he sounded like a realtor trying to sell a house with hardwood floors and sturdy walls but no roof. Every winning team needs an offense, like every viable house needs a roof. It’s not time to condemn the Mets, but it is hard to buy what they’re selling.
Cohen may be getting antsy. On Tuesday, he tweeted, “We have to get our act together soon,” during a loss to the last-place Miami Marlins. Coincidence or not, Rojas called a team meeting before the next game. The Mets won that night but have lost all four games since, scoring two, two, three and zero runs, a typical sequence for this lineup.
Only one N.L. team averages fewer runs than the Mets: the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are 30 games under .500 at 41-71. The Mets are still a game over, at 56-55, mainly because their pitching keeps them competitive.
But their ace, Jacob deGrom, will not pitch this month because of inflammation in his right forearm; their $341 million shortstop, Francisco Lindor, is not close to returning from a right oblique strain; and their new shortstop, Javier Baez, left Sunday’s game with left hip tightness.
The Mets’ primary power source, first baseman Pete Alonso, is healthy but slumping: 2 for 28 with a solo homer in August. He insisted he was not frustrated.
“Yeah, I haven’t gotten a hit in a week, but I’ve been on base a ton, I’ve hit countless hard balls right at defenders,” said Alonso, who was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and a long flyout on Sunday.
“It’s one of those things where I don’t feel lost. I feel extremely confident. I have an excellent plan and I’m executing my plan. Sometimes in baseball and in life, you can execute a plan and it still not pan out.”
Alonso, who has drawn eight walks in eight games this month, said Cohen had an encouraging message on Sunday morning.
“He’s like, ‘Onward and upward,’ that was pretty much the only thing he said,” Alonso said. “He was extremely positive and he said he’s extremely proud of how we’ve played, the heart we show every day, and not just how we handle ourselves individually but how we handle ourselves as a team. The process and what we’re doing in here is really special.”
While Alonso extolled that process — and remember, the Mets already replaced their hitting coaches in May — Rojas has said repeatedly that the team has struggled with the fundamental task of hitting a fastball.
“Once again, we are swinging through fastballs and we’re late on fastballs,” Rojas said. “We keep saying it; I’ve been saying it for almost a week now. We’ve just got to be ready to hit the fastball and go from there.”
On Sunday, the Mets got a leadoff double from Brandon Nimmo, then made 22 outs in a row before a one-out walk in the eighth. Nimmo singled with one out in the ninth, but otherwise Wheeler was flawless, and a painful reminder of a miscalculation by the pre-Cohen Mets.
Wheeler spent seven seasons with the Mets, including two recovering from Tommy John surgery. He came back strong and hit free agency after the 2019 season, when the Phillies made a five-year, $118 million bet that his best years were still ahead of him.
That investment could tilt the division in the Phillies’ favor. With deGrom sidelined, Wheeler may now be the leading candidate for the N.L. Cy Young Award. He is 10-6 with a 2.42 E.R.A. and leads the majors in strikeouts (181) and innings pitched (156).
Before Wheeler, the last Phillies pitcher to retire at least 22 batters in a row was the Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in his 2010 perfect game. That was fitting, because the Phillies retired Halladay’s No. 34 in a pregame ceremony on Sunday.
Wheeler said he tried to pitch like Halladay, and with power, precision and efficiency, he did. He is now the first Phillies pitcher to throw at least three complete games in a season since Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels did it in 2011.
“I wanted to finish that game,” Wheeler said. “With the fans as crazy as they were and as loud as they were, it gave me that extra little bit that I needed to get through that.”
The Mets will play before their own fans on Tuesday for the first time since Aug. 1, when they were comfortably leading the East. That seems like a long time ago now, and on Friday, after three games with the Washington Nationals, the Mets begin a stretch of 10 in a row against the imposing Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
All evidence to the contrary, Alonso insisted, the fans should have no reason to worry.
“Mets fans: believe in us — and don’t just believe, know,” Alonso said, adding later, “Just smile and know that we got this.”
The Mets’ most important fan, the one who owns the team, is probably not smiling. If the free fall continues, you have to wonder when and how he will react.