The Mets got into double trouble early on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays — but not because of extra base hits.
Things started promising enough for the Mets, as Jeff McNeil returned to the lineup as designated hitter, promptly testing out his cramping legs by running out an infield single. Two batters later, however, the threat was erased when outfielder Michael Conforto grounded into an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play.
But that double play proved thrice as costly for the Mets.
Along with snuffing out an early scoring threat, Conforto pulled up limping on the Tropicana Field turf, grabbing the back of his right thigh. He limped off the field, then headed for the clubhouse for further examination.
The initial diagnosis was hamstring tightness — and two innings later, McNeil also exited the game with the same injury, but to his left leg, apparently aggravated during his first-inning dash. McNeil had missed the last three games due to what the team had described as cramping.
Losing the leadoff and number-three hitter early on in a game is a major blow to any major league lineup, but this was particularly brutal for the Mets — who were ultimately swept out of Tampa Bay with a 7-1 loss on May 16.
How long Conforto and McNeil would be out was not immediately known.
“I think it’s kind of carryover. I felt great yesterday running,” McNeil said. “It was probably the last five, 10 feet, it just kind of grabbed on me a little bit. It’s nothing bad, but it’s something that we’ve got to take a look at.”
The Mets’ sudden lack of bench depth was quickly exposed; they went into Sunday with just three players on the pine at the start of the game, and the “bench mob” of Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar now serving as lineup regulars with Brandon Nimmo and JD Davis still out and on the mend.
Rookie outfielder Jake Hager, the first Met to wear 86 on his uniform since the bat boys of that championship 1986 season, took Conforto’s place in right field — while Patrick Mazeika, the light-hitting catcher with a knack for hitting clutch fielder’s choices, took over for McNeil as DH.
By the third inning, catcher Tomás Nido was the last man sitting on the Mets bench.
The weakened lineup, and the prospect of being swept by the scrappy Rays, made Marcus Stroman’s start on Sunday all the more important. Much like the top of the first, things started out well before disaster struck.
After Stroman hurled 3 2/3 scoreless innings, the Rays got to him in the fourth when Met killer Manuel Margot launched a two-run home run to left field. Margot got the game-tying hit against the Mets on Friday night and went 1-5 with an RBI in the Rays’ win on Saturday.
The Rays poured it on in the fifth inning Sunday with a two-run bomb by shortstop Willy Adames, extending their lead to 4-0.
“I just really didn’t have it today,” Stroman said after the game. “Like I said, I just flush it and I worry about my next start — whether it be a good one or a bad one.”
Meanwhile, Rays starter Josh Fleming cruised against the beleaguered Mets offense on Sunday. After allowing the leadoff hit to the injured McNeil, the left-hander kept the Amazin’s off the bases for five scoreless innings, save for Villar reaching first on an error by Rays’ third baseman Joey Wendle back in the third.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, however, inexplicably pulled Fleming after throwing just 53 pitches against the hapless Mets lineup. Not long after, the Mets enjoyed their lone bright spot of the game.
Two outs into the top of the sixth, Mazeika launched a home run, a solo shot off Tampa reliever Diego Castillo. It was Mazeika’s first hit and first home run in the big leagues; he’s the first Met to complete that feat since Mike Jacobs did so back in 2005.
But what Mazieka gave the Mets, Stroman took away in the bottom of the frame — as he allowed a leadoff homer to Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe. Stroman allowed three home runs in a game for the first time since 2017; that also came against the Rays.
From there, the Rays bullpen kept the Mets lineup quiet for the remainder of the game. The lone sluggers in the Mets lineup — shortstop Francisco Lindor, first baseman Pete Alonso and left fielder Dom Smith — went a combined 0 for 10. Lindor’s batting average is down to .192.
The Rays tacked on two more in the bottom of the eighth off usual Mets closer Edwin Diaz, with Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi driving in Austin Meadows. Choi went 3 for 4 in his first game of the season. Margot then drove in Choi with a single.
After a disastrous weekend in Tampa Bay, the Mets look to right the ship Monday night in Atlanta for the start of a three-game set against the Braves.