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New York Mets prepare to battle Miami Marlins for Wild Card position

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The Fish have risen as surprise contenders for one of the National League's postseason bids.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the season, most Mets fans imagined their team fighting it out with the Washington Nationals for the National League East crown. The Marlins were lurking as a dark horse Wild Card contender, but they weren't considered to be as ready for contention as the Mets and their incredible pitching staff. Sure, Miami had some high-ceiling stars like Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, but the front office was a mess, Marcell Ozuna was coming off a disastrous campaign, and the team had little pitching depth.

Fast forward to the present day, and Miami has a one-game lead over the Mets in the loss column. Since starting the season on a 5-11 skid, the Marlins have gone 47-32, a record that trails only those of the Cubs and San Francisco over that time span. Meanwhile, the Mets have played .500 baseball since starting the campaign 13-7. It's an arbitrary starting point, but it goes to show you which team has been superior for the past three months.

Marlins offense

Fernandez might still be the star of the team, but Miami owes most of its success in 2016 to a deep and talented lineup. J.T. Realmuto, Martin Prado, and Christian Yelich all do a great job of getting on base at the top of the order, while Stanton and Marcell Ozuna provide the muscle with 37 home runs between them. The offense would be even more dangerous if it included Justin Bour, but the underrated first baseman has been out since early in the month with a sprained ankle. Instead, Chris Johnson has been getting the starts at first base, and his .641 OPS is a significant downgrade from what Bour was providing.

Perhaps Ichiro Suzuki can play some first base? With so many studs in the outfield, it's tough for manager Don Mattingly to find playing time for the wily veteran, but he seems to produce every time he's given the opportunity. After notching a pair of hits in Thursday's win over Philadelphia, Ichiro needs just two more to reach 3,000 in his major league career.

Just in case you think Miami could be due to fade down the stretch, remember that Dee Gordon is almost done serving an 80-game suspension that he earned by testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The speedy second baseman recently had to exit a minor league tune-up game due to cramps, but he is still on track to return to the big leagues before the end of July.

Mets offense

With the Mets unlikely to acquire an impact bat at the trade deadline, it's up to Terry Collins to squeeze the most out of what has proven to be an inconsistent offense. There's not much that a skipper can do to help score runs once the lineup has been set, but setting that lineup can be an issue when you've got as many options at your disposal as Collins does.

Just look at what has become of the third base situation. Jose Reyes has been the everyday leadoff man since he was acquired, and while it's been cool to see him hit three home runs with a .511 slugging percentage, Reyes is also failing to get on base very often. If the veteran infielder doesn't improve on that .269 on-base percentage, Collins is going to be pressured by the media and perhaps the front office to give more playing time to Wilmer Flores, who is hitting .260/.318/.475 and has hit home runs in his two most recent starts.

Kelly Johnson is another potential third baseman who has been riding the pine a lot since Reyes got picked up. He went 4-for-4 to take advantage of some rare playing time on Wednesday and his now hitting .339/.409/.559 with three home runs in 59 at-bats since New York traded for him. So is Reyes getting preferential treatment because he used to be a really good player? It sure looks that way.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Marlins Probable Starter
July 22, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Logan Verrett Adam Conley
July 23, 2016 7:10 PM WPIX Jacob deGrom Jose Fernandez
July 24, 2016 1:10 PM WPIX Steven Matz Jose Urena
Adam Conley

Important stats: 104.2 IP, 103 K, 43 BB, 10 HR, 3.61 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 1.29 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (91 mph), slider (85 mph), changeup (82 mph)

If there's one thing that's going to derail the Marlins in their quest for the postseason, it's starting pitching depth. That's why the club is looking to acquire someone like Andrew Cashner or Michael Pineda ahead of the trade deadline. Helping matters from the inside is Conley, the talented young left-hander who is the closest thing Miami has to a No. 2 starter. Back on April 13 he dominated the Mets with six scoreless frames and nine strikeouts, but he has struggled to finish the sixth inning in other matchups due to his high strikeout and walk totals.

Mets opponent: Logan Verrett is the main reason why the Mets are also trying to acquire some starting pitching depth, but he held his own with a quality start in Philadelphia last weekend. If another performance or two like that is in his future, the backup plan could hold onto his role until the end of the regular season, but Miami will prove to be a stiffer test than his last outing. Still, in one start and one relief appearance against the Marlins this season, Verrett has thrown eight scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and two walks.

Jose Fernandez

Important stats: 113.2 IP, 168 K, 33 BB, 8 HR, 2.53 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 1.01 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (95 mph), curveball (83 mph), changeup (88 mph)

Fernandez's outstanding stuff was on full display during his most recent outing when he struck out 14 batters in a 3-2 win over Philadelphia. At least the lowly Phillies were able to score off of the 23-year-old right-hander. That's something that the Mets failed to do when they struck out 14 times in seven innings against Fernandez on June 5. Now appearing fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that shortened his 2014 and 2015 campaigns, Fernandez is striking out 13 batters per nine innings, so performances like these aren't even that far outside the ordinary.

Mets opponent: Jacob deGrom has been wonderful for the Mets since late May, but last Sunday he outdid himself with a complete game shutout against the Phillies. No, it's not very hard to throw up scoreless frames against Philadelphia. But also, deGrom is New York's most consistent and awesome pitcher right now despite being the third or fourth most popular guy amongst fans. Maybe the guy will finally start getting some love with a victory over Fernandez and the Fish.

Jose Urena

Important stats: 26.0 IP, 17 K, 11 BB, 3 HR, 6.23 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 1.58 WHIP

Favorite pitches: two-seam fastball (95 mph), four-seam fastball (96 mph), changeup (89 mph), slider (86 mph)

Urena was called up recently because the Marlins finally decided that Justin Nicolino might be getting in the way of the team making the postseason. Back in May, Urena gave up seven total runs in two straight appearances out of the bullpen to prompt a demotion to the minors, but now he's back in the big leagues as a starter. Somewhat surprisingly, his first start went pretty darn well, as he got a ton of ground balls and only allowed one run in five-and-two-thirds innings in Philadelphia.

Mets opponent: Steven Matz gave up four runs in only five innings on Monday in Chicago, with three of those tallies coming on a home run by Anthony Rizzo. With Bour on the disabled list, the Marlins don't have a big left-handed slugger like Rizzo on their roster, but Matz will have his hands full in Marlins Park with the likes of right-handed batters Stanton and Ozuna.

Bullpens

Jeurys Familia just barely kept his saves streak alive on Tuesday night when he escaped a bases-loaded jam with nobody out in the ninth inning. With 49 straight saves and a bid to the All-Star Game under his belt, Familia has to be considered one of the top closers in baseball, but his stats make him look a little more pedestrian. Most alarming is the fact that he has walked more than three batters per nine innings this year while striking out just fewer than nine. Those aren't the mark of an elite pitcher, and anecdotally fans can probably recall a game or two in which the Familia has struggled with his control.

One of those times was on Tuesday, when he walked the first two batters of the ninth inning. However, Familia's greatest asset is what helped him escape the predicament: his incredible ground ball rate. At 64 percent this year, that ground ball rate has helped Familia get out of tight spots and avoid punishment when there are runners on base. He's allowed zero home runs thanks to the constant worm-burners.

Miami has its own All-Star closer who has struggled with his control in 2016. That would be A.J. Ramos, who has 52 strikeout and 21 walks in just 40 innings. Unlike Familia, Ramos is a fly-ball pitcher who relies more on the cavernous interior of Marlins Park to keep his home run total down than a lack of balls in the air. The strategy is working so far, as Ramos has allowed just one home run all season long. He's also improving in the walks department with seven strikeouts to go with zero free passes in his last four outings.

With the back of the bullpen somewhat secure, Miami is currently trying to bolster its squad of middle relievers. The team already acquired Fernando Rodney from San Diego last month, and now it seems to be interested in a left-handed specialist. Mike Dunn has been holding down the fort for the Marlins against left-handed sluggers for years now, but a second reliable lefty in the bullpen will give Mattingly some more versatility in his decision making.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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