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New York Mets face world champion Kansas City Royals again in two-game set

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The last time these two teams met at Citi Field, it didn't end well for New York.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

As hard as the Mets battle to escape the midseason malaise they've been experiencing since April ended, they keep on slipping closer to mediocrity. Last weekend's series with the Braves appeared to be an opportunity for the team to start a winning streak, but instead it stumbled and fell in all three games. On Friday, the Mets were befuddled by their former fringe prospect John Gant while Matt Harvey looked quite average against one of the worst offenses in baseball.

The next night, New York got out to an early lead but slowly allowed the Braves to come back before a baserunning blunder by Wilmer Flores in the bottom of the ninth sealed the deal in an improbable loss. The misery continued on Sunday when Julio Teheran completely dominated the Mets' offense with just one hit allowed in a complete game shutout.

Even if the Royals were still losing, it wouldn't be a great time to welcome the defending world champions to town. And losing is what Kansas City was doing for the first 10 days of June. During that span, they were swept in back-to-back road series in Cleveland and Baltimore. An eighth straight defeat in their first game against the White Sox dropped Ned Yost's team to 30-30 for the season.

Did the Royals make a desperate trade or shake up their roster by demoting a young player in order to turn things around? They didn't have to. Instead, they just started playing better on their own, because sometimes good teams play poorly. That doesn't mean front offices have to be so reactionary. 10 days after hitting the .500 mark, Kansas City is back in the thick of the postseason race thanks to eight wins in its last nine games.

Great pitching and defense lifted the champs to series victories over the White Sox and Cleveland before the depleted lineup came through and scored 32 runs in a four-game set with Detroit.

Yes, just like the Mets, Kansas City is missing key offensive players and is starting a couple of guys who probably don't belong in the majors, but the Royals have found a way to bounce back, just like the Mets hope to. One player who has helped keep the Kansas City offense on track despite disabled list trips for Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon is new second baseman Whit Merrifield. The leadoff man is hitting .333/.350/.483 since his May 18 debut. He's not walking as much as he did in the minor leagues, but you don't really need to with a .400 BABIP. That approach might not lead to long-term success, but the Royals as confident enough in Merrifield that they designated veteran keystone man Omar Infante for assignment last week.

Kansas City is hoping to get as much out of replacement rookies Chelsor Cuthbert and Brett Eibner as the club is getting out of Merrifield. Cutbert has been playing regularly in place of Moustakas since the third baseman went down in early May and is hitting .268/.303/.384, although his play has improved significantly since June started. The 23-year-old out of Nicaragua already has three three-hit games this month.

Meanwhile, Eibner is Kansas City's choice to fill in for Gordon, but he took a trip to the DL himself during the first two week of June. In just eight major league games played this year, Eiber has nine hits, five of which went for extra bases.

If the rookies are able to step up their game, it will take some pressure off of struggling veterans Kendrys Morales and Alcides Escobar. Although Morales was a surprisingly important piece to last year's championship puzzle, in 2016 he's hitting just .226/.295/.370 thanks to a bump in strikeout rate and a drop in BABIP and power. Escobar, on the other hand, has always been known more for his speed and defense, but he's hitting especially poorly this year with a ghastly .558 OPS. That would be an issue even if the Royals were hiding him in the back of the lineup, but of course Yost is batting Escobar second so he can get as many at-bats as possible.

It's a good thing, then, that Eric Hosmer is having perhaps his best ever season with 12 home runs and a .374 on-base percentage. The former first-round draft pick has always been great at limiting strikeouts, but the kind of power that would make him a superstar has been elusive. This might finally be the year that sees him break the 20-home-run seal.

Also on pace to set a career high in home runs is veteran catcher Salvador Perez. Unlike Hosmer, Perez's 12 home runs are paired with a pretty dramatic increase in strikeout rate, but the change is paying off so far thanks to a .356 BABIP. Of course, even if Perez did nothing with the bat, he'd still be invaluable thanks to he skills behind the plate. The fact that he's hitting .307/.338/.547 makes him one of the more well-rounded players in the American League.

One big difference between the Royals and Mets is Kansas City's reliance on defense. At least when a player like Escobar isn't hitting well, he can help the team in the field, but the Mets depend mostly on their pitching staff to prevent runs. With all the team's offensive struggles recently, New York fans need to remember that their team wasn't built to be an offensive powerhouse. Just scoring more than the other team will suffice, and the other team still isn't scoring very much with the way the Mets' starting staff is working.

It's exciting to hear about rumors linking the Mets to their former star shortstop Jose Reyes or to Cuban sensation Yuliesky Gurriel, but the big move that New York needs to return to the postseason was probably already made. We just need Yoenis Cespedes, Neil Walker, and Michael Conforto to start hitting more consistently.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Royals Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
June 21, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Ian Kennedy Noah Syndergaard
June 22, 2016 1:10 PM SNY, MLBN Danny Duffy Bartolo Colon

Ian Kennedy

Important stats: 77.2 IP, 72 K, 27 BB, 16 HR, 4.17 ERA, 5.27 FIP, 1.24 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (92 mph), changeup (84 mph), curveball (77 mph)

The former Yankees prospect has always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher, but I'm not sure he's ever gone through a stretch like this before. Kennedy has given up eight home runs in his last three starts and is now on pace to allow 38 long balls this season. This seems like an ideal scenario for the Mets, who we know are unable to score without hitting the ball out of the park.

Mets opponent: As New York's ace, Noah Syndergaard will be relied on to put an end to the losing streak on Tuesday night. If momentum really is all about the next day's starting pitcher, then the Mets should be feeling extremely confident heading into this game. In his last outing, Syndergaard dominated Pittsburgh with 11 strikeouts, zero walks, and one run allowed while falling just short of his first career complete game. Back in April against these Royals, Thor was equally as dominant over six scoreless frames.

Danny Duffy

Important stats: 54.0 IP, 63 K, 12 BB, 9 HR, 3.17 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 1.07 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (96 mph), two-seam fastball (95 mph), curveball (85 mph), changeup (86 mph)

After starting the season in the bullpen, Duffy was stretched out and moved to the rotation towards the end of May to compensate for a shoulder injury incurred by Kris Medlen. The southpaw from southern California has done a great job so far, particularly two starts ago in Chicago when he pitched six scoreless innings against the White Sox with 10 strikeouts and three walks. Duffy has struggled with control during his early career, but this year he's only walking two batters per nine innings.

Mets opponent: Like Syndergaard, Bartolo Colon was both impressive and victorious during his latest outing against Pittsburgh. On Thursday night, Big Sexy struck out eight batters, which was as much as he had in his four previous starts combined. He also allowed just two runs in seven-and-two-thirds innings to continue one of those dominant Colon stretches in which he makes pitching to major league batters look remarkably easy.

Bullpens

If you're been paying attention to the Royals at all during the last two years, you know that one of the team's main strengths is its outstanding relief pitchers. Even given the volatility of relievers in today's game, not much has changed for Kansas City in 2016. The team still has four bullpen arms who would make pretty good closers if given the chance. Actual closer Wade Davis has seen his strikeout rate drop this year, but he still seems more than fine with a 1.03 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. Workhorse Kelvin Herrera might be more impressive with his 40 strikeouts and six walks in a whopping 33.2 innings. That workload is shared by veteran right-hander Joakim Soria, who is now in his second stint with the Royals and pitching like he never left.

As bad as the weekend was for the Mets' hitters, it might have been worse for the relief pitching. On Saturday night, the bullpen lost the lead thanks to a home run given up by Jim Henderson, who has now allowed a run in three of his last four appearances. The same can be said for Addison Reed, who has been so excellent for most of the season but gave up the go-ahead run that same night. On Sunday afternoon, the bullpen's struggles were less important but still frustrating, as both Hansel Robles and Antonio Bastardo gave up runs. At least Robles managed to pitch two innings without walking anyone, but either way the Mets are running out of reliable options at the end of games.

Prediction: banana split

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