NEW YORK — About the time Alfonso Márquez reached behind Joe Musgrove’s right ear, searching for something that could explain why the New York Mets looked completely incapable of saving their season against him Sunday night, reality set in at Citi Field.
“I think we just got flat-out beat,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said, echoing the message permeating through a calm home clubhouse Sunday night. Musgrove, who umps decided had not been using any banned substances, was better, going seven scoreless innings and allowing just one hit with his team’s season in his hands.
Over and over, the Padres did what the Mets could not. They found a way. They found a way to get to the Mets’ elite starters, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, a way to push Sunday’s starter, Chris Bassitt, from the game after three runs in four innings, a way to extend their lead against much-heralded closer Edwin Díaz in the anticlimax of what became a six-run deficit in the eighth.
“This is a kick in the balls,” Scherzer said. “You sacrifice everything in your life to be able to go out there, push through every injury. Guys are playing through injuries. You make so many sacrifices, all the training that you do for these moments, to get to the postseason. It doesn’t work out. It’s the worst day of the year.”
These Mets were better this year than last, better — at least in terms of wins — than any Mets team since they won it all in 1986. But they were not better than the NL East champion Atlanta Braves over 162 games. And they were not better than the Padres for three games when it counted this weekend.
Throwing financial resources and star power at a major league roster is not always a fast or foolproof way to build a World Series winner. The Padres, perhaps more than anyone, could have told the Mets that. This is their first playoff series win in a full season since 1998 but the latest in more than a half-decade of rosters bolstered by blockbuster deals that led to quick spikes in hype but not long postseason runs.
And these Mets were not exciting because they were the best team from top to bottom. They were exciting because they were better than before, because new ownership promised big spending and Manager Buck Showalter promised steady dugout leadership. They were exciting because their homegrown core of Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil finally got to play in October.
They were exciting because pairing Scherzer with deGrom gave them a duo so formidable it stirred memories of Koufax and Drysdale. In a short series, what were the chances that anyone could beat both? In a seven-game series, what team had a chance if those two pitched four games between them?
But duos such as these always look unbeatable on paper. Scherzer, of course, paired with Stephen Strasburg in Washington for six-plus years and won just one World Series title. Clayton Kershaw and Scherzer paired for the Dodgers last year, and they could not win the NL pennant. And of course, neither Scherzer nor deGrom could take the mound for the Mets on Sunday night.
Instead, that job belonged to Bassitt, who made almost as many starts this season (30) as deGrom and Scherzer did combined (34) as he pitched to a 3.42 ERA. Bassitt came to New York from Oakland, and he admitted that pitching in the New York spotlight tested him. The 33-year-old said he thought he passed that test, that he had learned he could handle the booing and the pressure and the questions. He had not yet pitched a winner-take-all game with the Mets’ season in his hands. By allowing three runs in four innings, he didn’t exactly collapse. Much like the Mets down the stretch, as the Braves chased them down for the division title, as more complete teams hit their stride, Bassitt simply was not good enough.
Musgrove, the hometown kid, was better. He retired the first 12 Mets he faced. By the sixth inning, he had thrown fewer than 60 pitches, meaning the Mets, who prided themselves on working counts all season, were nowhere near driving him from the game.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor said guys in the dugout thought something about Musgrove looked different. Alonso said the decision to question Musgrove was Showalter’s alone. In some ways, the check confirmed the one thing everyone in the stadium seemed to know, the one thing Showalter would never say publicly: The Mets did not know what to do.
Eargate. pic.twitter.com/xqaclYMjbA— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 10, 2022
“I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets,” Showalter explained afterward, referencing spin rate and other data the team has access to in the dugout. “If it makes me look however it makes me look or whatever, I’m going to do it every time and live with the consequences. ... I felt like that was best for us right now. There’s some pretty obvious reasons why it was necessary.”
Musgrove said later he knew the umpires wouldn’t find anything. The Mets may not find clear answers this offseason, either. They planned to be better, and they were. They won 101 games, tied for third most in the majors. They led the NL East for most of the season. They forged an identity as a scrappy offense. They watched Lindor reverse a brutal first year in Queens and endear himself to a once-skeptical fan base.
“We created a culture here that’s going to be one of the best ones in the game coming up. I’m truly excited for what is going to come. This is a step forward. This is a step in the right direction,” Lindor said. “I appreciate ownership, the front office and the coaching staff because they are moving us in the right direction.”
But they did not advance past the first round of the playoffs. They did not win the championship that billionaire owner Steve Cohen has made clear he covets. Bassitt, deGrom and Nimmo will be free agents when the World Series ends. A whole new set of questions will need answering this offseason, and the answers probably won’t be found anywhere but within.