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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With a playoff spot in reach, the Mets control their destiny

Jacob deGrom struck out a season-high 13 batters in Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh. He and three relievers combined for 20 strikeouts in nine innings.

By Jesús Jiménez

Atop the National League East with a record of 94-55, the New York Mets are closing in on a playoff spot. With 14 games left in the regular season, the only real question left is whether they will enter the postseason with a division title — and possibly a first-round bye — or a wild-card spot.

In a tradition as old as the franchise, the Mets gave their fans reason to believe that their grip on the division was in jeopardy last week by way of a sweep at home by the rebuilding Chicago Cubs — the first time the Mets had been swept in a three-game series this season. Those doubts faded quickly, however, when the Mets woke up and completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning the series finale Sunday 7-3.

“It’s really hard to beat a major league team four times,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Every team is a little weary of this time of year — mentally, emotionally, physically — you got to keep going, keep going, knowing there’s a pot of gold down the road.”

In some ways, Sunday’s win, which was followed by a 7-2 road victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday, was emblematic of what it takes to make a deep run in the playoffs. A solid — but short — outing from a starter, quality innings from the bullpen, a productive offense, aggressiveness on the base paths and late-inning theatrics.

Striking out 20 batters without allowing a walk helped as well.

After giving up a leadoff double to shortstop Oneil Cruz in the first, Jacob deGrom set the tone for the day quickly by striking out the next three batters he faced. He lacked some efficiency, and allowed a three-run homer to Cruz in the sixth that ended his day. But he still came away with a season-high 13 strikeouts.

That kept up as the game went along. Seth Lugo was the first out of the bullpen, striking out one in the sixth. Joely Rodríguez struck out five over two innings, and Trevor May closed things out with one in the ninth. That made the Mets the ninth team in major league history to strike out 20 in a nine-inning game.

Showalter said he was more proud of his pitchers for not giving up any walks than he was for the huge number of strikeouts.

“That’s hard to do in today’s game when people are chasing walks in a lot of cases,” Showalter said.

Despite the power pitching, the game was tied 3-3 in the eighth inning when the Mets found a rally thanks to a newcomer. Catcher Tomás Nido singled and was removed for a pinch-runner, Terrance Gore. After three pickoff attempts from Pirates reliever Manny Bañuelos, Gore stole second, then advanced to third after a throwing error by catcher Jason Delay. Brandon Nimmo singled to bring in Gore and give the Mets a 4-3 lead.

The Mets added three more insurance runs, but Gore made his presence known, and was credited by Showalter after the game for being “a student of baserunning.”

Gore, a pinch-running specialist who was called up from Class AAA this month, said he would often study video for an hour before a game to have an advantage on the base paths.

“I take a lot of pride in it,” Gore said. “I try to make it my perfection and just take pride in what I do.”

In Milwaukee for a three-game series against the Brewers, the Mets could clinch the playoffs as soon as early this week. But the Atlanta Braves, who swept the Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend, have stayed right behind the Mets, trailing by one game in the NL East going into Tuesday.

The Mets will finish out the regular season mostly on the road, with only five remaining games at home. Their most crucial series, in fact, will come in Atlanta, starting Sept. 30, and that three-game set could effectively decide the division. Thanks to baseball’s new playoff format, the team that finishes on top might skip the wild-card round, as the top two division winners in each league advance directly to a division series.

Showalter said his players are hungry and ready to clinch a spot in the playoffs, but that nothing is decided yet.

“You earn everything in this game, and our guys continue to earn it daily,” he said.

Helping matters is Max Scherzer, who did not allow a hit through six innings while striking out nine Brewers on Monday night. He had been placed on the 15-day injured list earlier this month after he exited a start with left-side fatigue.

After the game Sunday, Scherzer was relaxed in the Mets clubhouse, as were the rest of the Mets, with some playing billiards and others, including deGrom, table tennis.

In between games, deGrom told reporters that the sweep against Pittsburgh was “big for us,” especially after being swept against Chicago. But he said the team never lost faith.

“I wouldn’t say there’s been a big mood shift,” deGrom said. “This group does a good job of coming in the same way every day, and the goal is to win baseball games.”

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