Mysterious Cespedes has suddenly vanished when Mets need him most

Yoenis Cespedes helped spur the Mets to the playoffs, but he has cooled off in October. New York's championship hopes depend largely on whether he can heat up again.
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Reporters crowded around losing pitcher Jacob deGrom in the Mets’ clubhouse after their 7–1 loss to the Royals in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday. Moments later, team captain David Wright was ready to speak, and part of the media pack broke off to gather around him and then, later, catcher Travis d’Arnaud. In the middle of all the activity, leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the man who was the nightly center of attention for the Mets just a few weeks ago, sat silent and expressionless at a table next to shortstop Wilmer Flores, eating a bowl of Cheerios.

He went almost unnoticed, which was somehow appropriate, because he has been almost invisible in New York's batting order lately. After a scorching six-week hot streak when he joined the team in a July 31 trade from the Tigers—think Daniel Murphy’s playoff run, only longer—Cespedes has gone quiet at the worst possible time for the Mets. He had two home runs in the NL Division Series against the Dodgers, but he has only one other extra-base hit in the postseason, and in the World Series, he is 1-for-10 with three strikeouts. Unlike the Royals, who almost never swing and miss (much less go down on strikes), Cespedes has been a human fan, with more strikeouts (14) than hits (10) in his 45 postseason plate appearances.

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"It’s not just him,” manager Terry Collins said after Game 2, when the Royals’ Johnny Cueto shut the Mets down with a complete game two-hitter. “There are a few guys who haven’t been doing what they’re capable of with the bat. He’s important, obviously. [Cespedes] can carry a team when he’s hot. But you can’t lay it all on just one guy.”

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True, but Murphy’s postseason heroics notwithstanding, Cespedes is the one guy most capable of making the team's offense lethal again. Just as he escaped attention in the clubhouse after Game 2, his postseason struggles have somehow been obscured, first by Murphy’s seven homers in nine games against the Dodgers and Cubs, and now by New York’s more noticeable pitching issues against Kansas City. The first priority seems to be determining whether the Royals have won the first two games because they are contact-hitting maestros or because the Mets’ young starting pitchers are finally running out of gas. Cespedes’s lack of production is further down the club's fix-it list.

But if New York is going to win at least two out of the next three games at Citi Field and send the Series back to Kansas City, it will need more than just strong performances on the mound from Noah Syndergaard in Game 3 and Steven Matz in Game 4. The Mets will also have to re-discover their offense, which has never been stronger than when Cespedes was a middle-of-the-order monster in August. He hit 17 homers in his 57 regular-season games after the trade; Collins compared him to Barry Bonds; observers debated whether he deserved MVP consideration despite his brief National League stay; and New York fans were in love. They urged the front office to pay whatever it will take to keep Cespedes, who will be a free agent five days after the World Series ends, in a Mets uniform beyond this season.

But their passion has cooled, and not just because Cespedes isn’t hitting. The Cuban native is a hard player to read, partly due to the language barrier, partly because of his implacable expression, and partly because some of his recent behavior has caused observers to scratch their heads.

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Cespedes had to leave the NLCS clincher against the Cubs early because of a mysteriously injured left shoulder, after which it was discovered that he had played 18 holes of golf the morning of the game. He later revealed that he played golf before almost every game, which didn’t exactly make matters better. Cespedes and the Mets say that the golf had nothing to do with the injury, and they’ve floated the possibility that he hurt himself doing pushups, but the truth is, the cause of the injury is still unconfirmed, and the whole thing is just … odd. The pre-game golf raised questions about his level of commitment, but his reaction afterward—he said if he shoulder didn’t heal in time for the World Series he would “cut it off and get a new one"—made it appear that he was all in.

During player introductions before Game 1 against Kansas City, Cespedes didn’t come out when his name was called, reportedly because he was in the restroom. That might have seemed like an amusing glitch if he hadn’t gone out and immediately botched Alcides Escobar’s fly ball on the first pitch, turning a catchable ball into an inside-the-park home run. It was an example of how he can look effortless one moment and careless the next.

So what to make of Cespedes? Is he a multi-talented star who can take over a game with his bat, his legs, his glove or his arm? Is he a supremely talented athlete who sometimes loses mental focus? Is he a powerful slugger capable of turning any pitch in any location into an extra-base hit? Is he a free-swinger who chases too many pitches out of the strike zone? The answer seems to be: all of the above.

The cold spell seems to have made it all but certain that the penurious Mets front office won’t get into the bidding for Cespedes’s future services. Instead, they are just hoping to squeeze one more power surge from the player who earned the nickname La Potencia ("The Power") in his home country. “We’ve got to get him going,” said Collins, who tends to use that phrase whenever one of his players is going through an unproductive stretch. Cespedes will almost certainly get going—to another team—soon enough. But he has the power to extend the Mets’ stay in this World Series.