Note to Mets: NL goes through California

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It’s one thing to watch highlights, to read the standings, to hear the chatter.

It’s something else to digest firsthand that, while you rule your neighborhood, you’ve got much to do before taking over your town.

The National League clearly goes through the state of California. And Fernando Tatis Jr. might just be the sheriff of the whole operation.

The Mets’ first visit to Pacific Coast time since 2019 resulted in a 4-3 loss to Tatis and the Padres Thursday night at Petco Park, and as the final score indicated, the NL East leaders hardly embarrassed themselves, putting the tying and lead runs on base in the ninth inning before San Diego closer Mark Melancon ended the game on a Kevin Pillar double play.

Nevertheless, the talent gap between these two clubs can be reflected in the record gap, and then there’s the sobering reality that, while the Mets top their division comfortably at 27-22, the impressive Padres, 35-23, trail the surprising Giants (35-21) and are just edging the defending champion Dodgers (33-23) in the ultra-competitive NL West. There’s some major competition out in those parts.

“They’re very talented,” Luis Rojas said of the Padres, and then the Mets’ manager pointed out that neither Eric Hosmer nor Tommy Pham played: “They’re missing a couple of guys in their lineup, too, and they’re still talented.”

Fernando Tatis Jr. is congratulated by teammates after belting a two run homer in the third inning of the Mets' 4-3 loss to the Padres.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is congratulated by teammates after belting a two run homer in the third inning of the Mets’ 4-3 loss to the Padres.
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It’s hard to envision an October scenario in which the Mets wouldn’t need to upend at least one, and quite possibly two, of these Golden State dynamos. A quirk of their schedule enabled them to play the NL West’s two punching bags, the Rockies and Diamondbacks, a total of 13 times, during which they went 10-3, before engaging with the elite group. So Thursday night served as a de facto graduation to the next level.

And again: They held their own. Rojas faced many tough managerial calls in this one, and I didn’t think he whiffed on any of them, given the fatigue level of his bullpen and that Jonathan Villar (right hamstring) wasn’t available. Maybe a different move would have proven the difference. But these Padres are really tough, and Tatis Jr. is a force of nature.

The shortstop put the home team on the scoreboard first with his two-run, third-inning homer off Mets starter Taijuan Walker, Mets fill-in center fielder Mason Williams leaping over the wall and grasping the ball, only to see it pop out of his glove, over the wall. Then, in the fifth inning, Tatis legged out an infield single, moved onto second and third and hustled home on a Walker wild pitch.

“There’s maybe a handful of guys who would take that chance, and less that would be safe,” Walker said of Tatis bolting home. “Them getting that extra run won them the game today.”’

“He’s got weapons to beat you in different areas of the game, and we saw a couple of them,” Rojas said.

The Mets, meanwhile, got on the board with James Mccann’s two-run homer in the sixth and Billy McKinney’s eighth-inning triple (whether McKinney, held by third-base coach Gary DiSarcina, could’ve made it all the way home served as one of many postgame topics). The San Diego pitching staff, however, held the Mets hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position.

The Mets will face the Padres six more times, the Dodgers seven times and the Giants six times. If the dynamic of the NL East doesn’t alter, the Mets might be able to stumble through these 20 games (scattered throughout the schedule) and still win their division.

In October, though, there very likely will be no hopscotching these Western powers. If they want to make Cohen’s maiden voyage truly special, the odds say they must outlast these ball clubs far more imposing than the ones they witness closer to home and one player who might just be the best in the game. It won’t be easy. Yet it wouldn’t be impossible, either.

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