If you had never heard of Chicago Cubs’ starting pitcher Javier Assad before Monday night, you were not alone.
Based on some of the swings they were taking off him, it looked like the Mets might not have known much about him either. Assad helped the Cubs defeat the Mets 5-2, throwing six innings while masterfully limiting hard contact. Making just his fourth career start in the big leagues, the 25-year-old out of Tijuana, Mexico pitched like a man trying to make a case to be in next year’s starting rotation. He used a low-voltage cutter (average velocity: 88.7 miles per hour) to get a surprising amount of whiffs, also keeping the pitch consistently on the edges of the plate to stay off the Mets’ barrels and drive them into fits of frustration.
“Really good cutter,” said Buck Showalter, who asserted that Assad’s night was more about what he did than it was about what the Mets didn’t do. “That was the pitch for him tonight. It’s almost like a small slider, it had more depth than most cutters do.”
In many ways, this game was every contending team’s nightmare. The Mets are miles and miles better than the Cubs, but the Cubs also have very little to play for beyond pride and auditions. In addition to playing with house money, the Cubs also had the element of surprise on their side. Facing a young, unproven pitcher they had never seen before, the Mets couldn’t crack Assad’s code.
“We just couldn’t cash in on a lot of the opportunities that we had,” Showalter sighed. “That was frustrating.”
There’s an argument to be made — even though Assad is an MLB neophyte and those are often prone to embarrassing themselves — that hitters would rather face a proven commodity at this point of the season. Knowing what a pitcher throws, having extensive tape on their stuff and having some previous at-bats against them can lead to a more comfortable experience than facing someone who was in Double-A for most of the season. That newness surely helped Assad on Monday, leading several Mets to presumably wish a ten-year veteran had been on the hill instead.
The Cubs got a good look at a veteran pitcher and they had no problems beating up on him. Chris Bassitt picked a tough day to turn in a dud. He was sent to the showers after just 3.2 disappointing innings, breaking a streak of 14 consecutive starts that lasted at least six. Bassitt was visited by two of a pitcher’s least favorite things: walks and home runs. The right-hander served up two of each, the long balls coming from Rafael Ortega and Zach McKinstry, neither of whom owned a career slugging percentage above .375 prior to their dingers.
It was an abject disaster for Bassitt, a pitcher who prides himself on going deep into games and has stated multiple times that he understands his role to be predicated on eating innings. Getting a mere 11 outs is suboptimal, but even more so is the fact that the Cubs took 33 swings off him and only missed twice. The man who is usually so good at deception lost that skill on Monday night, leaving the Mets with a 5-0 deficit when he was removed.
“I just wasn’t hitting spots,” Bassitt assessed. “They made me pay for not hitting spots.”
Tommy Hunter swooped in after Bassitt to make sure things didn’t get out of hand and Mychal Givens came in later with his most impressive outing as a Met. If five strikeouts in two innings wasn’t enough, including a seventh inning where he was one pitch away from an immaculate inning, Givens also pinch ran for Daniel Vogelbach in the bottom of the eighth but never got a chance to rev his engine. The pair of ex-Oriole relievers from Showalter’s days in Baltimore were helped out by Trevor May, who had a scoreless inning between them.
Showalter would have gladly traded that bullpen dominance for a good performance from his starter, though. Bassitt, extremely uncharacteristically, did not give his guys a very good chance to win. Paired with the hitters getting ambushed by Assad, the Mets kicked off their homestand with an ugly loss. A homestand, mind you, against two teams (Chicago and Pittsburgh) that began Monday a combined 60 games under .500. This loss also sunk the Mets to 6-5 in September. If that doesn’t serve as a bit of a wakeup call, losing again on Tuesday surely would.
The Mets are in the strange position of knowing that they’ll be a playoff team, knowing that they’ll most likely finish the year with one of the five best records in the league and simultaneously grappling with the fact that they’re playing some of their worst baseball of the season.
“I’m not trying to make this a bigger deal than it is,” Bassitt reasoned. “I mean, it’s just a bad start. Obviously, this entire game is on me.”
They don’t have the urgency of, say, an American League Central team that has to win their division to qualify for the playoffs. But maybe they should, as whatever mental space they’ve been occupying this month has led to performances that, at present, look like they will get the Mets quickly bounced from the postseason.