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Despite Kodai Senga’s dominance, Mets — like Phillies — have timely questions to answer

NEW YORK — As the Mets and Phillies squared off for the first time this season, each ballclub would swear that their best baseball is in front of them. Or so they hope. 

Recent history has shown that an average team can get hot at the right time and go deep in the postseason. But that’s not actually a plan, and a given club’s patience while on such a course is unpredictable. The Phillies and Mets were built to be consistent, yet they’ve been anything but through two months. In fact, both teams have rattled off five-game winning streaks in May, only to immediately follow them with losing streaks and reverting to frustratingly .500 ball. 

A little urgency from either NL East counterpart certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Kodai Senga, the Mets’ five-year, $75 million offseason signing from Japan, is showing he can meet the moment — when he’s pitching at home. His 1.20 ERA at Citi Field is the third-lowest in MLB among starters with at least 20 innings pitched at home. If he can bring that performance to the road, too, the Mets may have just found another ace. 

Thanks to Senga, New York took a positive step forward Tuesday with a 2-0 win over Philadelphia, punctuated by the right-hander’s nine strikeouts scattered across seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball. Senga fanned eight of the nine different hitters he faced at least once, while Bryce Harper curiously never came off the bench. (The rookie now has 70 strikeouts through his first 10 appearances, which trails only Dwight Gooden (84) and Nolan Ryan (74) in franchise history.) 

That the Mets were able to lock down a win after Senga’s deep start wasn’t actually a surprise. New York is 14-0 this season when its starter goes at least six innings and 5-0 when he goes at least seven. 

Those marks, however, hide an underlying issue manifested by Edwin Díaz‘s (likely season-long) injury. When the starters go deep, the Mets’ bullpen is still equipped to handle the final two or three innings. But any more responsibility on the relievers’ shoulders, and the situation gets sticky. 

Buck Showalter often muses about how good he had it last year, when he could give the ball to Díaz for the ninth inning, sometimes even in the eighth, and be at complete ease in the dugout, knowing a New York win was just minutes away. The Mets’ grizzled manager said he now understands how the Yankees felt all those years with Mariano Rivera locking down save after save for them. 

But that ease, that complete confidence in the Mets bullpen, is missing this season once Showalter is forced to use any more than his two trusted relievers, Adam Ottavino and David Robertson. The bullpen’s 4.29 ERA is 20th in the league because guys like Jeff Brigham, Dominic Leone, Stephen Nogosek and Tommy Hunter are being used in high-leverage spots. No offense to those arms, but they shouldn’t have been placed in those pressure-packed positions in the first place. 

“Anytime that we can get our starters to go deeper, we’re in a good spot,” said Brandon Nimmo, who robbed Nick Castellanos of a home run in the fourth inning. “That’s the way our team is made up. Obviously when you’re giving the ball to less people, there’s less chances that someone is off that night. When Kodai is able to do what he did tonight, I like our chances to win.” 

Mets general manager Billy Eppler can’t really afford to wait until the Aug. 1 trade deadline to secure another relief arm and perhaps another starting pitcher if the club is going to string wins together and catch up to the seemingly uncatchable Braves (32-23). Atlanta, a thorn in New York’s side, also recently admitted it expects better of itself, and that’s coming from a team that’s been in first place for all but one day of the season.

The Phillies (25-29), at least, have reason to postpone any panic given their slow start last season that ended with their first World Series appearance in 13 years. The Mets (28-27) can also choose not to worry because they can point to what the Phillies did last year — and the Braves before that, and the Nationals before that — as inspiration for their average start to the season. 

But as they come out of baseball’s Memorial Day checkpoint, both have deficiencies worth keeping an eye on. 

A large portion of the Mets’ dispiriting play can be directed at their starting pitching, a veteran unit led by Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander that has been unable to pitch deep into games. 

Mets starters entered Tuesday sporting a 5.13 ERA, otherwise good for 25th in MLB. Scherzer is showing flashes of vintage Scherzer, while Verlander, the AL’s reigning Cy Young winner at age 40, seems to still be figuring things out with his new team in Flushing. The absences haven’t helped. Jose Quintana was supposed to be New York’s No. 3 starter, but won’t make his 2023 debut until July at the earliest after undergoing surgery in March. 

“Those important innings after we score, can we put a zero up there? After [the starter] comes out of the game, can we put a zero up there?” Showalter said. “That’s where all the momentum or morale can change in a game if you’re not able to do those two things. When you take a starter out of the game, the first out after that is usually one of the keys to the game.”

Francisco Lindor knocks solo home run to give Mets early lead over Phillies

The Phillies have seen encouraging signs from their relief corps, but they still flew into New York this week uncomfortably in fourth place in the tough NL East, thanks in part to an underperforming offense.

Shortstop Trea Turner, their flashy offseason pickup, is struggling and then some to begin his Philly career. After a strong offensive performance for Team USA in this year’s World Baseball Classic, Turner’s bat has all but disappeared from the lineup. The 29-year-old Silver Slugger has a 78 wRC+ and 83 OPS+ through one-third of the season. Phillies manager Rob Thomson has continued to leave Turner in the two-hole, hoping against all hope that any day now Turner will find success but ultimately providing a constant reminder of his struggles. (He went 0-for-3 against the Mets in Tuesday’s series opener.)

If the Phillies are hoping to turn the page from their latest loss and begin to reestablish their late-season 2022 magic, Citi Field isn’t where they’d choose to do it. The Mets have been under the Phillies’ skin dating back to last season, when Philly went 5-14 with a minus-37 run differential against the Amazins, and 82-61 with a plus-99 run differential against all other teams. 

These types of NL East battles are why the Braves are thus far unsatisfied with their division lead. Even an Atlanta organization that won the World Series in 2021 knows the margins are thin, as long as the Mets and Phillies are relatively breathing down its neck.

All of which begs the question: Is it only about to be June, or is it already about to be June? The long baseball season can get late fast.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for three-and-a-half seasons as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. She never misses a Rafael Nadal match, no matter what country or time zone he’s playing in. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar. 

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