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Nobody Sits, Nobody Hits

The most delightful aspect of the 2021 Mets to date that hasn’t involved Jacob deGrom pitching and hitting has been the emergence of the self-anointed Bench Mob [1], the aggregation of heretofore part-timers who’ve produced plentifully when called on, which has also plentifully. Riding to our injury-riddled rescue in the grand tradition of Bambi’s Bandits [2], Hondo’s Commandoes and Randolph’s Randos [3] have been brothers from an off-brand rhyming dictionary Jonathan Villar [4] and Kevin Pillar [5]; Jose Peraza [6], who almost rhymes with Mike Piazza; perennial backup catcher Tomás Nido [7]; and backup to the backup catcher Patrick Mazeika [8], who has yet to catch anything but the recurring congratulations of grateful teammates. That they’ve filled in admirably as they have with their sticks, mitts and moxie has made them collectively embraceable. That they have a nickname for themselves makes them collectively adorable.

That they have to play as much as they do is probably a problem.

We get goosed when we see Pillar coming alive in center, Villar working wonders at third, Peraza taking care of second, Nido putting down fingers behind the plate with strikes to follow and Mazeika being Mazeika, which is definitely a thing. Throw in a hearty if virtual pat on the back for Jake Hager [9], who’s suddenly a two-game major league veteran after ten years of beating the bushes. It’s not an OT goal in the first game of the first round of Stanley Cup playoffs (Go Isles! [10]) or Kevin Durant completing an Endy Chavez-style sequence of events with an off-the-glass dunk you can’t believe you just witnessed (Go Nets! [11]), but it’s something that rewards your constant fandom. Your bench guys forging an identity as they contribute defensively and offensively to victory or at least viability is part of what makes a baseball season worth living.

Seeing too much of them is what makes a baseball fan nervous. Because once the Bench Mob drifts from its natural habitat, that bench they kept heated grows cold, icy and empty.

On Sunday from St. Pete, we saw the bench of the Mets stripped nearly to its splinters. Almost everybody we think of as a reserve had a reservation in the field. Those who weren’t shown to their positions to start the game were ushered into the lineup moments after pitches began being served. Hager was upgraded from just happy to be here to right fielder. Mazeika, late-innings secret weapon deluxe, was now the leadoff hitter. Good for them. No, great for them, individually. Nobody raised a kid with ballplaying aspirations to set his sights on sitting and watching.

But somebody on a roster of 26 does need to sit and watch, and by the bottom of the first at Tropicana Field, Nido, who’s sat and watched more than his share of games from the bench since September of 2017, was the only Met available to fill that crucial for the role for the next eight innings. Hager was in right because Michael Conforto couldn’t be, having had his right hamstring tighten as he ran to first in the top of the inning. This was two batters after Jeff McNeil, who left a game earlier in the week due to “body cramps,” had his left hamstring tighten after beating out an infield hit. Together, Conforto and McNeil couldn’t have competed effectively in a three-legged race.

And the Mets, it turned out, couldn’t compete effectively against the Rays. The regulars whose hammies are presumed sound — James McCann, Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Dom Smith — didn’t hit at all. Neither did the Bench Mobsters who have been upgraded to semi-regular status. The only Met who joined McNeil in the hit column was his replacement, Mazeika. McNeil is usually a second baseman and we hear Mazeika is a catcher, so what kind of versatility was at work?

The devil’s own — the designated hitter. Luis Rojas thought he’d ease McNeil, whose recent crampiness and sundry achiness kept him sidelined Saturday, back into action by using him as a DH, same as he’d done Friday. Until this series and its concomitant sweep, the DH had reverted to bad Met dream status, as if 2020 hadn’t really happened. “It was so weird. There were cardboard cutouts in the stands, we never played the Central or West, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha constituted two-fifths of the rotation, and they wouldn’t let deGrom come to bat.”

Sunday the nightmare returned for one of its sadly scheduled Interleague cameos. The Mets have been coerced into using a DH in American League parks since 1997, lacking the intestinal fortitude to withstand the peer pressure of their hosts deploying an extra hitter. The Rays always have a DH. The Mets kinda had to, too, so they used McNeil. They got a base hit and a tight hamstring for their troubles. Once Jeff gingerly stepped away, Patrick stepped into his one-dimensional shoes. He made the best of it, swatting a bases-empty home run for his first big league hit of any kind. Being Patrick Mazeika, it was his fourth RBI because, as we’ve learned, Patrick Mazeika doesn’t need any stinking base hits in order to drive runs in.

It was mentioned during the telecast that Mazeika became the first Met to notch a four-bagger for his initial safety since current pitching coach and erstwhile Matt Harvey staffmate [12] Jeremy Hefner did it nine years ago. I was at Citi Field for Hefner’s homer. I practically dropped my fork in amazement and appreciation (there was a buffet [13]). There’s nothing on Mrs. Payson’s green earth as invigorating as a pitcher homering. For Mazeika, I applauded, too, even if he prospered powerfully in a role I rue. Not counting 2020’s assault on National League sensibilities, 22 Mets have hit 43 home runs while serving as designated hitters. Among that crew, nobody else used a partial vacation day to register his first major league hit with a DH HR, though Chris Carter did connect for his first career dinger that way at OP@CY in 2010. Chris, in fact, blasted two Camden Yards goners while a designated sop to AL nonsense in that Mets-Orioles series, but the Animal [14] (speaking of endearing nicknames) already had a dozen MLB hits on his ledger by then.

Newest newcomer Hager didn’t homer, but he did record an assist from right field as Manuel Margot got greedy in the eighth after singling home the Rays’ fifth run. Not satisfied with merely affixing window dressing to the ultimate result, Margot — who has never made an out against the Mets otherwise — tried to stretch his latest hit into a double. Hager’s throw and Lindor’s tag were ruled to have beaten him to the bag. Replay was inconclusive, but we’ll take it. Same for Mazeika’s home run in a role a lifetime of lineup ebb and flow has conditioned us to eschew (yet one we’ll probably get omnipresent evil of the universal DH).

We’ve pretty much run out of Met highlights from the Spring Training lineup Rojas wound up fielding down the road from good old Al Lang. Marcus Stroman’s sinker wasn’t working, three Rays homers flew toward Tampa, and a 5-1 defeat [15] was all she wrote. With the Mets landing in Atlanta to attempt to defend their shaky first-place perch, we’re left to ponder a) the hamstrings of Conforto and McNeil and b) who is going to sit up and be counted behind those who’ve mobbed up the batting order on a daily basis. As if we don’t have enough injuries to ponder. For those who’ve lost count, the Mets injured list already encompasses:

• starting center fielder Brandon Nimmo;

• starting third baseman J.D. Davis;

• charter Bench Mobster Albert Almora, Jr., who donated his face to a wall against Baltimore last week;

• handiest among Met handymen (yet he’s missed all the Bench Mob spotlight) Luis Guillorme;

• sunshine of our life deGrom;

• heretofore crucial reliever Seth Lugo;

• markedly less crucial reliever (but we wish him no discomfort as he takes all the time he needs to heal) Dellin Betances;

• starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who we weren’t counting on right away considering he’s been out since what seems like the Obama administration;

• starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco, who we were counting on right away but got hurt in Spring Training;

• and spare outfielder Jose Martinez, who was also hurt in Spring Training and we weren’t really counting on, yet we can’t spare an outfielder at the moment, thus a Jose Martinez shoutout feels merited.

McNeil and Conforto are in MRI limbo. Dr. Rojas’s initial diagnosis was “hamstring issues are no joke,” and indeed, nobody’s as much tittering. Elsewhere in the land of the medical report, Lugo’s supposed to test his repaired right arm in Syracuse, where Davis will do the same with his bruised left hand. Nimmo had to halt his comeback trail because his finger wasn’t ready to point toward the sky without pain. DeGrom could be back as soon as Friday, which would either be not soon enough…or too soon if you maintain a creeping sense of doom regarding rushing the best pitcher in the world to the mound, even if Jake can’t go about being the best pitcher in the world when not in the mound. DeGrom not pitching leaves a void. DeGrom pitching immediately after a minimal IL stint raises anxieties. Can he be activated just to pinch-hit and maybe play short?

Playing short, alas, is what the Mets are doing too much. The Bench Mob has been splendid. The injured mob threatens to overwhelm them. What is an organization with more players on the IL than run the past two days to do? DFA a few of the 137 marginal relievers absorbing space on the 40-man roster? Scan the waiver wires for untapped potential? Call Syracuse information and ask the operator to check for listings under “utility”? These weren’t questions we thought we’d be asking. We thought we had depth by the mobful, yet it appears our depth is going to need even more depth, lest our season be prematurely deep-sixed.

UPDATE: McNeil and Conforto are both headed for the IL. The Mets will be bringing back Khalil Lee and promoting Johneshwy Fargas.