The final installment of the 2023 subway series — lowercase, alas — began with a nifty bit of symmetry on Wednesday night in the Bronx. Brandon Nimmo, the Mets’ $162 million center fielder, faced Carlos Rodón, the Yankees’ $162 million left-hander. They fought to a draw — a full count, then a foul — before Nimmo struck out on high heat.
That number, 162, has resonance in Major League Baseball, whose teams play 162 games each season. It would seem that the two biggest spenders in the sport would win a healthy majority, yet after the Yankees’ 3-1 victory, the city’s teams were nearly even: a collective 101 wins and 102 losses.
The Mets are the more confounding underachiever, more likely to ship away veteran talent than to add it before Tuesday’s trading deadline. They are generally shaky in the field, but otherwise do nothing exceptionally well or badly. They erupted for nine runs at Yankee Stadium in Tuesday’s victory, then managed just four hits a night later.
“We are not in the best spot right now,” the Mets’ Jeff McNeil conceded on Wednesday night. “So we need to play good baseball and do it quick.”
Before starting a series with the Washington Nationals on Thursday, the Mets trailed 10 teams in the National League — the three division leaders and seven others hoping for one of three wild-card spots. At 47-54, they have probably run out of time.
The Yankees, though, could hardly revel in their victory. They are six games over .500, at 54-48, but still in last place in the American League East. Up next is a three-game weekend series in Baltimore against the upstart Orioles, the A.L.’s best team.
“This stretch down the road — end of July, August — it kind of starts to turn a little bit,” said the Yankees’ Harrison Bader, who had three hits on Wednesday.
“Maybe the swing breaks down a little bit, maybe you’re a little tired, whatever it is. The whole point is: it’s a decision from here on out — it’s a decision to come to the field with a winning mentality, it’s a decision the night before to get your rest, to stay up on your work. All these things, it’s just a mental decision.”
Better talent, of course, would help those decisions yield better results. And while the Mets cannot count on a savior to show up, the Yankees can: Aaron Judge seems poised to rejoin the lineup for the first time since June 3, when he crashed through the right field wall for a catch at Dodger Stadium and tore a ligament in his right big toe.
Judge returned to New York on Wednesday night after playing two simulated games in Tampa, Fla. Manager Aaron Boone has been careful not to specify a timeline for Judge, but teammates are eager to see him return, perhaps as early as Friday at Camden Yards.
“I think we’re getting the big guy back,” said Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees’ utility player. “We’re really excited; his presence when he’s here, even when he’s not even playing, it’s huge. To have him in the lineup, it’s going to be a good feeling.”
The Yankees have gone 19-23 since Judge’s injury. They held a playoff spot then but now stand fifth in the wild-card race; Tampa Bay, Houston and Toronto would have the three spots, with Boston just ahead of the Yankees.
Without Judge, the Yankees have been very ordinary — like their neighbors from Queens — and last weekend’s sweep of the woeful Kansas City Royals was their only series victory in seven tries this month. Boone would not tie their plight to Judge’s absence.
“Look, I don’t think it’s black and white, either,” he said. “I think part of it was we had some guys go through some struggles. You can say that’s because Aaron wasn’t in there, which certainly could be a factor. But I wouldn’t say that’s all of it. We’ve had our share of struggles and I don’t think that’s all correlated.”
Rodón, for one, had lost his first three starts as a Yankee, with a 7.36 E.R.A. He missed more than three months with a forearm strain, a troubling sign for a pitcher who has never worked 180 innings in a season, even while starring for the Chicago White Sox and the San Francisco Giants.
But Wednesday was more like it: after fanning Nimmo with a 96 mile-an-hour fastball in the first, Rodón used his other elite pitch — the slider — to strike out Mark Vientos. He allowed four hits, three walks and a run before Boone called for Michael King for the last out of the sixth. Wandy Peralta, Tommy Kahnle and Clay Holmes followed with a scoreless inning apiece.
“It’s easy to hand the ball over to those guys,” Rodón said. “They’ll shut it down quick.”
Relievers are notoriously unpredictable, but it is worth noting that the Astros had the best bullpen E.R.A. in the majors last season and went on to win the World Series. The Yankees have the best bullpen E.R.A. this season, at 3.20, which could make them a force if they reach the playoffs.
For that to happen, so much has to go right. Rodón, Luis Severino and Domingo Germán must be more consistent in the rotation, the offense must prove it can handle top pitching staffs — and, maybe above all, Judge’s toe must cooperate.
“His timeline is his timeline,” Bader said. “I’ve had some foot stuff, and it’s no joke.”
The season has been no laugher, on either side of town.
Matt Martell contributed reporting.