It was hard to see all this coming. In trying to defend their 2015 pennant last season, the Mets admirably claimed the top National League wild-card spot despite a merciless string of injuries. The Yankees traded veterans and made a stronger commitment to youth than they had in decades.
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The Mets were the team of today, the Yankees the team of tomorrow. It was a convenient story line rooted in the expectations of the teams’ front offices — but, of course, there was room for surprises.
What if, for example, the Mets just kept getting injured? What if their offense became the worst version of itself, helpless to do anything but hit home runs? And what if the Yankees’ veteran position players started strong while the younger ones thrived? What if the shaky rotation was sturdy enough to keep the dominant bullpen fresh?
We know the early answers to those questions — and the most surprising, clearly, is the strength of the Yankees’ pitching. The team’s 2.90 E.R.A. was the lowest in the majors at the start of play on Friday, as was the .214 opponents’ average. The Yankees’ bullpen had thrown just 53 ⅔ innings, the fewest in the majors, because the starters had been so productive.
“It’s not going to be like that every night, but that’s what you need to have a winning team,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “You have to have a good starting rotation, because everything falls in line when that happens. You get consistent, good outings from your starters, your bullpen’s going to be fresh, and usually if they’re going that deep in games, they’re pitching well, too. So it goes hand in hand.”
Even with catcher Gary Sanchez on the disabled list — and shortstop Didi Gregorius just now making his return — the Yankees had the majors’ best run differential, at plus-35, before Friday. They could not have counted on Chase Headley and Aaron Hicks hitting well above .300, but they had more serious doubts about the rotation.
Yet Masahiro Tanaka, C. C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery have made all their starts and almost always given the Yankees a chance to win. Sabathia, who had knee surgery last winter, had a 2.70 E.R.A. before facing the Orioles on Friday, following Tanaka’s shutout in Boston the night before.
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“I wasn’t worried; I felt the talent was there,” Manager Joe Girardi said, explaining his level of concern in spring training. “I think it was difficult trying to figure out who the fourth and fifth starters were going to be. I wasn’t worried about Tanaka; he had a great spring, and he was the one who started off the slowest, so that makes no sense. C. C., I liked where he was considering he was coming off a procedure, and by the end I felt pretty good about him.”
Pineda struggled in his final exhibition start, Girardi added, and it took nearly the full length of spring training to decide on Severino and Montgomery. Severino had gone 0-8 with a ghastly 8.50 E.R.A. as a starter last season, and Montgomery had never pitched in the majors.
Montgomery has gotten by — despite a .306 opponents’ average — but Severino has been a revelation. He has 33 strikeouts with just four walks, and opponents have hit .175 against him.
“It’s command of his fastball,” Girardi said. “I think his slider has had more depth and has been more consistent at times. I think it ran into somewhat of a cutter last year; he was kind of throwing through it. And his changeup has improved. Those are the three differences for him.”
The most electrifying young pitcher in New York this month is still the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who has 30 strikeouts and no walks while allowing no home runs. But Syndergaard was scratched from Thursday’s start with a biceps injury, and he has also dealt with blister and fingernail problems.
Deep down, the Mets must be exhausted by the constant, almost chronic drumbeat of injuries — minor and major — that stalk their roster. Now Yoenis Cespedes, the most dynamic hitter in town, is on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain, just in time for the weekend visit to Washington.
Because this is baseball — where nobody really knows anything — the Mets will probably surge in May and the Yankees will fade. But for now, anyway, the Yankees are stealing the Mets’ moment.