The seats at Citi Field were not all occupied when the Mets were called to the line as part of Thursday’s home-opener festivities. Those in the stands, though, voted for their favorites with considerable throaty enthusiasm as if the place were full.
Jacob deGrom was the decibel champion, followed by Pete Alonso.
That felt right. The fans marrying the best of last year with the hope of this season, excavating the optimism associated with a home opener.
But there has been nothing that has brought the Mets offense on the road to ruin quite like being at home, notably in 2018. Even with Alonso and Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos and a full season now of Jeff McNeil, the Mets’ lineup looked Thursday like something from the Adrian Gonzalez-Kevin Plawecki collection.
Perhaps losing 4-0 to the Nationals was about sleep deprivation or Stephen Strasburg or the vagaries of one game. As Michael Conforto said, “If we revisited this in the middle of the season and this continued to happen, that is a different conversation.”
Nevertheless, the offensive hex in the Citi looms over the Mets. They returned here 5-1, yet there was caution this year, mainly because of last year. The 2018 Mets opened 11-1 and closed in familiar despair. Central to the fade was a historically bad offense at home. No team scored fewer runs at home (barely more than three a game) and the Mets’ .215 batting average was the worst at home since the 1968 Yankees hit .210.
Studies showed run suppression has been an issue for years at Citi Field, particularly for the home team. No consolidated theories, though, explain it. Batters do not complain about the hitting background. The park is big, but not otherworldly cavernous. The wind is the most overt in the NL East, but this is not Candlestick Park or Wrigley Field.
To address the malaise, the Mets did not hire a curse-reversing shaman. They named Chili Davis as hitting coach and installed a philosophy to think more about using the whole field and locking into game situations to maximize runs.
And the Mets averaged more than six runs over the first six games, hitting .333 with an .883 OPS with men on base and .308 with an .852 OPS with runners in scoring position. That was at Washington and Miami. In Queens? They were 1-for-12 with men on base with six strikeouts and a double play, whiffing in all three at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“Let’s give a chance to see if our new approach, our new mentality will kind of change things,” Conforto said. “It is really tough to say anything on one game today. We have put up a lot of runs on the road. It was a great pitching performance by Strasburg today.”
Strasburg did not allow a hit through four innings, Noah Syndergaard through five, but Washington delivered a run in the second helped by two walks and a wild pitch. Strasburg was terrific, precise with his fastball; his change and curve a greater weapon as the game progressed. But he was done after 6 ²/₃ innings and it was still just 2-0. And Washington’s bullpen is like the person who gets too many face-lifts, looking worse and worse with each procedure.
The Nats keep trying to fix their pen and somehow the problems grow. The big addition this offseason was Trevor Rosenthal, who to date has appeared in three games, faced seven batters, retired none and has an infinite ERA. But even Washington’s pen could not enliven the Mets’ bats at home.
“That [offensive troubles at home] has been brought to my attention,” Davis said. “I would have to see more games here to say there is a different mentality here. Numbers are numbers. I don’t deny the numbers.”
Davis insisted this was about Strasburg and sleep. The Mets had a night game Wednesday in Miami and were further delayed leaving because a few of their players were being drug-tested. The charter landed about 2:30 a.m. Davis said everything felt “hurried” not only because there was a matinee Thursday, but also because of the pomp of a home opener and that it was a series opener, which brings meetings.
Davis said with all of that he should have recommended a greater use of small ball — bunts and perhaps moving runners — to counter dragging bodies and bats. Conforto, though, said everyone knew the schedule.
“We are grown men,” he said. “We are professionals.”
And then there is Strasburg, who owns the Mets at Citi Field (8-1, 2.14 ERA) like he is a Wilpon. So maybe it was just that — Strasburg and sleep. Or just one day.
But until proven otherwise we will wonder why the Mets offensive cannot get beyond its Citi limits.