NEW YORK — A year ago, the New York Mets had an eventful first homestand after the All-Star break.
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw nearly threw a perfect game against the Mets, who called up their top prospect, made three trades and vaulted into first place in the National League East.
New York will hope its first homestand of this year after the All-Star break will be filled with wins. The Mets kick off the home portion of the second-half schedule Monday with the opener of a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The homestand will begin a year and one day after Michael Conforto was called up and trades for Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson were completed. It also starts three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the Wilmer Flores-for-Carlos Gomez trade that fell through, setting up the dramatic acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes three days later.
Conforto, Johnson, Cespedes and Flores are still with the third-place Mets, who are 52-45 and five games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East. New York also is a half-game behind the Miami Marlins for the second NL wild card.
The Mets would have been farther back, but they took two of three in Miami and ended an eight-game road trip by getting a 3-0 victory, highlighted by Steven Matz retiring Giancarlo Stanton with two on for the final out of the fifth inning.
"This was crunch time for us," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "We couldn’t lose any more ground. We have to hang in there until we start to get healthy or we start to really get it clicking offensively. This was a good series for us to win."
Cespedes had an RBI single Sunday, and he has five hits in 20 at-bats in six games since returning from a quadriceps injury. He is batting .299 with 21 home runs and 56 RBIs, but the quad ailment means he can’t move well enough to play center field and can play only left field.
Conforto was used in center field for the first time Sunday. He is 5-for-11 in five games since returning from Triple-A Las Vegas after a massive slump earned him a demotion.
Trade rumors are swirling around the Mets. Among the reports: The New York Daily News wrote that the Mets are among the teams trying to acquire Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, with a possible offer being catcher Travis d’Arnaud and a prospect.
While d’Arnaud may become expendable, Noah Syndergaard is not.
Syndergaard was acquired with d’Arnaud from the Toronto Blue Jays following the 2012 season in the R.A. Dickey deal and has emerged as the Mets’ ace. He will pitch the series opener against the Cardinals on Monday, only his second outing in 17 days surrounding the All-Star break.
Syndergaard (9-4, 2.43 ERA) experienced arm fatigue July 8 against Washington, and the Mets pushed him back to the fifth game after the break to give him more time off. His fastball velocity reached 100 mph Tuesday, when he allowed an unearned run in 5 2/3 innings during a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs.
"I felt really comfortable starting the game," he said. "I was just trying to nibble on the corners a little bit and not getting the balls over and missing my spots — not by much — just a little bit. … (But) I felt pretty crisp in terms of mechanics out there."
The right-hander is 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA at home this season and 12-4 with a 2.39 ERA in 23 appearances at home with 167 strikeouts and 16 walks.
In his only career outing against the Cardinals, Syndergaard pitched seven innings of two-run ball in a 3-2 loss July 17, 2015, at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis (52-46) will play 20 of its next 26 games on the road, and it starts this stretch a game behind the Marlins in the wild-card chase and 7 1/2 behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. The Cardinals will start the trip without third baseman Jhonny Peralta, second baseman/third baseman Matt Carpenter and first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss but could end it with the trio back in the lineup.
"Any way you look at it, it certainly strengthens your club," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.
The Cardinals won six of their first eight games after the break, but following a 16-inning win Friday, they were outscored 16-8 in consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
St. Louis used its bullpen for 20 2/3 innings in the weekend series, and so it will look for distance Monday from starter Carlos Martinez (9-6, 2.83 ERA). Martinez allowed two runs and four hits in seven innings Wednesday against the San Diego Padres and is 3-1 with a 1.52 ERA in his last seven starts.
Martinez has provided St. Louis with distance by pitching into the seventh during 10 of his 18 starts. He did so in his last start after getting a bloody nose in the second inning.
"It actually really helped me stay focused after the fact," Martinez said through an interpreter. "I was trying to stay in the game and (keep) my mind in the game where it should be."
Martinez is 1-1 with a 0.57 ERA in five career appearances (two starts) against the Mets. He was the losing pitcher when the teams played 19 innings July 19, 2015, in St. Louis, and he allowed four hits in 6 1/3 innings during a 9-0 win at New York on May 20, 2015.