The Mets Reach the Proving Ground - NBC New York

The Mets Reach the Proving Ground

The Nationals are first up on the Mets' list



    The Mets Reach the Proving Ground
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    A difficult stretch kicks off on Tuesday night.

    The sweep was not meant to be.

    After three days of giddy romping past the Cardinals, the Mets came back down to Earth a little bit in Monday afternoon's 5-4 loss that kept them from grabbing first place all by themselves.

    They'll be a half-game back of the Nationals when they kick off their series with them on Tuesday night, hardly a daunting margin but one that would look that much nicer if the Mets were the top team in the mix.

    The Nationals series is merely the start of a run that will tell us much of what we need to know about the Mets for this season. They will play 24 more games in June and three games with the Cubs will be the only ones that they play against teams (Yankees, Rays, Reds, Orioles, Yankees and Dodgers) that would be in the playoffs if the season ended right now.

    The Mets are a winning tiebreaker away from joining them in the ersatz premature postseason so it's not like the playing field is totally unbalanced during these games. Still, it's the most sustained stretch of play against top teams that the Mets have seen all season and that will make their results over the rest of the month very telling about how much of your summer should be spent buying into the Mets.

    Monday's game offered some reasons to resist. The Mets lost because of two issues -- defense and relief pitching -- that have bothered them all year.

    A 1-1 tie in the seventh was broken when Dillon Gee spiked a ball into the dirt instead of making a proper throw for a double play and saw it followed by an Omar Quintanilla botch-up at shortstop. The Mets retied the game at three in the bottom of the inning, but fell back behind when Jon Rauch, whose elbow is tender and that's not as heartwarming as it sounds, gave up a two-run homer to Allen Craig. 

    For a team that's already operating with a losing run differential, issues with defense and relief pitching are particularly worrisome. Preventing runs is going to be essential to any sustained Mets push and they aren't helping themselves out even a little bit on that front.

    The starting pitching has been much better than expected and the offense hasn't been terrible, but the assorted negative signs (defense, bullpen, Ike Davis, relying on Jason Bay's strong return from yet another injury, injury after injury to shortstops) remain threatening clouds on the horizon. Stepping up in class could bring those clouds closer to home before we even officially make it to summer.

    Or they could just remain on the outskirts of town the way they have all season. The Mets have dealt with all of those negatives thus far without seeing any seriously negative impact on their record, so it seems silly to just assume that the clock will strike midnight this month.

    The Mets have defied the doubters through the first third of the season. If they get through June looking as good as they look now, it will be much harder to find doubters as we turn to the second half.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.