NEW YORK — Justin Verlander, in his Citi Field debut as a Met, was supposed to turn his new team’s luck around.
The three-time Cy Young winner was supposed to set the tone for the club’s six-game homestand with something resembling a quality start. He was supposed to be the bright light in an otherwise dull stretch of games that have offered little hope and even less excitement.
Particularly with a starting rotation that has struggled to find its footing, Verlander’s outing to open a measuring-stick series against the MLB-best Rays on Tuesday was important. Nobody understands — and accepts — that pressure more than Verlander.
“I was hoping that today I could be a catalyst, go out and have a great start against a good team and help us win,” Verlander later said. “I hold myself to a high standard. I expect to pitch well. I expect to lift the rotation up when they need it. I take a lot of pride in that. I work my ass off for that.”
As Verlander warmed up to his usual anthem, Eminem’s “Till I Collapse,” the stadium was more than halfway full and there was a buzz in the air that hadn’t accompanied this team in quite some time. That buzz, however small, lasted all of two-plus innings before it collapsed.
The 40-year-old workhorse wilily escaped traffic in the first two frames and appeared on the verge of doing so again in the third. Then he hung a curveball to Isaac Paredes, who smashed it —incidentally right above the “Justworks” ad in left field — for a three-run home run.
“I didn’t make good enough pitches,” said Verlander, who added there was something off about his mechanics. “I need to be better.”
These days, three runs is usually enough to put the Mets‘ unpredictable offense in an irreversible hole. They entered Tuesday having gone five games and 52 innings without a home run. Truly, Verlander probably had to be damn near unhittable in his home debut to give New York’s struggling lineup a chance to win the game. But the bleeding didn’t stop there.
Verlander allowed another run in the fourth inning, this time on a Harold Ramírez RBI single. Then came the dagger, and this one hurt the most: In the fifth, with his velocity slightly dropping, the veteran ace coughed up his second home run of the night to Paredes, a two-run shot off the left-field foul pole that put the Amazins in a six-run crater. Once he induced a couple of ground balls to end that unfortunate fifth inning, Verlander got his first true New York treatment.
And apparently no one, not even a future Hall of Famer and reigning American League Cy Young winner like Verlander, can escape whatever curse is plaguing the club right now. New York's shiny offseason signing was charged with six earned runs on eight hits across five innings and 96 pitches by the time his outing was over.
"I understand the fans are frustrated. We're frustrated too," Verlander said. "Everybody's frustrated. We expect to be better. I expect to be better. I think this entire organization expects to be better."
Verlander, who signed a two-year, $86.6 million contract with the Mets this past offseason to lead the rotation alongside co-ace and former Detroit Tigers teammate Max Scherzer, was candid about his expectations for the team. His words, however bitter and harsh they sounded, rang of a legitimate leader in a clubhouse that needed it.
"If I'm honest," Verlander said, "I thought we'd come out of the shoot a little better than this. But at the same time, baseball is a long season. I don't want to give all the clichés here, but in the past few years you've seen a lot of teams struggle out of the gates, find it, click and find a way into the World Series. You look at the Nationals. You look at the Phillies last year. There's teams that they click at the right time and find their mojo and go from there.
"I think we're past the point of waiting for that to happen. I think we need to make it happen. We have the guys in here to do that. I look around this locker room and I know everybody's working their tails off. Nobody's just complacent. Everybody's doing everything they possibly can. Hopefully it clicks."
The Mets are 7-9 at home this year. Fans expecting to come to the ballpark for a carbon-copy of last year's results — their 54 home wins in 2022 were the highest total at Citi Field in franchise history — can probably put that wishful thinking to rest. Likewise, this current product looks incapable of earning 80 victories, let alone last year's 101.
New York did manage to end its five-game homeless streak Tuesday, as rookie Brett Baty belted a solo shot to center field in the fifth inning, followed by blasts by Pete Alonso and Eduardo Escobar. But the late rally fell short. As Verlander noted, "When we've pitched, we haven't hit. When we've hit, we haven't pitched."
The Mets can’t seem to find consistency, and in a tough NL East division headed by the Braves and still featuring the reigning league champion Phillies, rough patches are tougher to come back from.
“It sucks,” said Brandon Nimmo of the Mets, who have lost 10 of their past 12 games to the Rays, including five straight. “The only way I know to get out of it is for everybody to keep trying to work on what they can. Work on your weaknesses. Don’t lose your strengths. Find out how you can be productive to the team and eventually it clicks together.”
The Mets flopped during the stretch of schedule that was supposed to be the easy. In 13 consecutive games against teams with a sub-.500 record, including basement-dwelling outfits like the Tigers, Reds, Nationals, and Rockies, the Mets went 4-9. Those two weeks were supposed to be when the Mets fattened up their record before hosting Tampa Bay and Philly this month. And yet, because of the funk this club is in, it doesn’t much matter whether there’s a pushover or a playoff contender in the visiting dugout. Another mediocre outing on the mound ultimately produced an 8-5 loss Tuesday.
New York starting pitchers have tossed 207.2 innings this year, the fourth-fewest innings in the majors. That group has surrendered the fifth-most home runs (39) and issued the second-most walks (103). With just more than a quarter of the season behind them, Mets starters are 14-18 with a 5.46 ERA. Verlander and Scherzer have combined for only nine starts thus far, but their 4.83 ERA is only slightly better.
“People come out here and want to see the Mets win and they get frustrated just like we do and they care just like we do,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said.
Just about everything about the Mets seems broken right now, even their gigantic jumbotron. In the top of the sixth inning, a massive Rays’ logo covered the entire screen while Mets reliever Dominic Leone tried to pitch. The screen glitch caused a stoppage in play. The already incensed crowd booed the jumbotron, too. Moments later, Rays center fielder Jose Siri homered.
It was just that kind of night — it’s been just that kind of season — in Flushing.
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.