New York Mets facing toughest test yet with visit to Dodger Stadium
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The New York Mets arrived in Los Angeles after averaging more than eight runs per day over a dominant homestand.
Their first night at Dodger Stadium, they were scoreless for the first time this season. If their four-game series against the class of the National League is a test, they failed the first part of it.
Which might be why they have declined to say that they view it as a test, to add any additional pressure beyond the inherent amount.
"I don’t get into the litmus test," manager Buck Showalter said before the series began. "That’s somebody else’s terminology. It’s a competitive situation every night."
Showalter said that shortly after acknowledging that the ways the Mets approached this series publicly and privately could be different. Internally, it only makes sense for players to measure themselves against the Dodgers, as outfielder Mark Canha acknowledged.
"That’s the way I’m going to approach it as an individual," he said. "They have a lot of good pitching over there. It’s a good measuring stick to see where I’m at personally and try to continue with doing what you’re doing, making sure everything’s firing on all cylinders."
As a first-year Met regularly meeting new opponents this season, Canha is accustomed to performing extensive pre-series video study. When he studied the Dodgers' bullpen, he found a variety of relievers offering new, individualized looks.
"When you play a team like this, you have to be a little more detailed," he said. "A little more disciplined when you go up there and take your at-bats. You can’t stray outside of what you’ve been doing, but it’s a good measuring point."
It could go two ways, Canha theorized. When facing a talented opponent, you could press early and render yourself an easier out. Or you could instill fear in them with a few smart decisions fueled by additional focus — and coax mistakes.
They have all faced favorites in their pasts, but beyond the injured Max Scherzer, few Mets players and staffers are deeply familiar with these Dodgers. The exception, first-base coach Wayne Kirby, spent 2020 and '21 in the same role with the Padres and observed the Dodgers’ dominance up close.
"After playing in their division, once you hear the Dodgers, everybody wants to beat them, and once you get so uptight you want to beat them, you lose focus on what you got to do," Kirby said. "That’s the way I perceive it."
The Mets have proven so far this season that they can maintain their focus and withstand temporary setbacks. Both Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are out due to injuries, and the team has continued to win two-thirds of its games.
The Mets have done it with a balanced offensive attack. No one of their hitters has dominated at a best-in-league pace, but nightly, they are trotting out a lineup full of competent players. Eight Mets have logged above-average OPS+ marks in 100 or more plate appearances this season. Their rival Phillies and Braves have six and five such players, respectively.
Even the Dodgers have only six. But they also have about the hottest hitter alive, Mookie Betts, and a cavalcade of All-Stars around him.
"We respect our opponent," New York shortstop Francisco Lindor said two hours before Thursday’s first pitch. "They’ve been the team in the National League for quite some time. They’re a good team, and we’re a good team. I already know we’re a good team."
Lindor spoke with a bandage covering his bloodied right middle finger, which he said he hurt while closing the sliding doors at the team’s five-star West Hollywood hotel. He missed the series opener, watching from the dugout bench while his teammates took batting and infield practice.
His hope was to return to the lineup Friday, to resume aiding in the Mets’ ascent toward the National League’s peak position. They believe they have succeeded by improving their focus on the details, as has been Showalter’s demand for all his teams. As Kirby, his longtime assistant, said, they demand replication of the fundamentals they emphasize in spring training.
Because of the circumstances, it took a little longer for that form to emerge this season. But it has of late.
"We’ve done a great job having good at-bats as an offense," Canha said. "Honestly, our defense has also gotten a lot better as the season’s gone on. In April, we weren’t as good defensively as we are now. The shortened spring threw you into a fire.
"But now we got our legs under us. We’re playing really good defense. We’re having those really good at-bats. We’re starting to develop our identity as a team."
Regardless of what they say, that identity is being tested this weekend at Dodger Stadium. But regardless of the outcome, there’s time yet to refine it before Scherzer and deGrom return.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previous covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, "How to Beat a Broken Game," came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.