The Los Angeles Dodgers arrive at Citi Field on Friday to start the second half of the baseball season. The visit is the first test in a crucial 15-game run for the Mets that will take the team to the Aug. 1 trading deadline — and determine its future.

The season began with sky-high expectations, but what now? Can the Mets make up enough ground to get the green light from the team’s owner, Steven A. Cohen, to make a push for the playoffs? Or will the choices be all white flags and explanations?

Buy? Sell?

“It’s on us if we want to keep this thing afloat,” Max Scherzer, the veteran right-handed starting pitcher, said in San Diego before the Mets scattered for the All-Star break.

“Don’t let the Metropolitans get hot,” outfielder Tommy Pham playfully warned before leaving the Mets’ 6-2 loss to the Padres on Sunday in the first inning with a sore right groin.

Attempting to discern exactly what the Mets are, or can be, in 2023 remains an exercise in imagination, if not in suspended disbelief.

Are they the team that found its stride and won six games in a row through last Friday?

Or are they the team that closed the season’s first half — technically, 90 games are down with 72 remaining — with a two-game losing streak to the Padres?

“The mathematics worked OK on the road trip,” Manager Buck Showalter said of the Mets, who won four of the six games at Arizona and San Diego. “But some of the math is working against us.”

At 42-48, the Mets are fourth in the National League East, closer to last-place Washington than to first-place Atlanta. The Braves had the M.L.B.’s largest divisional lead at the break: They were eight and a half games ahead of Miami (and 18½ ahead of the Mets). In each of baseball’s five other divisions, the lead is two games or less.

With that in mind, the Mets heard Cohen loud and clear when he said in June during the most recent homestand that he was a “patient guy,” that he did not plan on firing anybody (at least, not until after the season) and that if the team’s play did not improve by the trade deadline, “I’m not adding.”

“One thing we’ve got to do is just go out there and play good baseball so that the people above us look at this team and believe that they can win and go try to get an extra piece that pushes us across and try and win the whole thing,” Scherzer said. “But it’s up to us to go out there and play well. We’ve got to play good baseball.”

He added, “We can play with anybody in the league.”

There is a time to say that, and there is a time to do it. The saying part has been extended longer than anybody with the Mets cares to admit. Time is short for the doing part. The Mets’ payroll, roughly $348 million, may prove unforgiving. The payroll of the terrific Baltimore Orioles ($68 million) would fit snugly into the chasm between those of the Mets and the Yankees, who have the game’s second-highest payroll at an estimated $279 million.

“He’s educated in what’s happening,” shortstop Francisco Lindor said of Cohen, adding: “You respect that, you appreciate that, and you continue to work as hard as you can day in and day out. And when the time comes, let them deal with whatever they’ve got to deal with. But we do understand that when you don’t play well, people lose jobs.”

Lindor paused, then said: “We have a great group here. And the better we play, the longer we stay together.”

The Mets won 101 games a year ago and lost the division title on the season’s final weekend when Atlanta swept them to win a tiebreaker.

After 90 games last summer, the Mets were 56-34 and led the N.L. East by two and a half games. Most of the key pieces are back. They added the ace Justin Verlander. Francisco Alvarez, a rookie catcher, has been a productive addition. Yet they are 14 games worse than they were in 2022.

Where did all the magic go? What happened to the timely hitting? The dominant pitching? The trustworthy defense?

“Usually, when you have veteran teams, you’re consistent,” said Scherzer, who went into the break with an 8-3 record and a 4.31 E.R.A. “And we haven’t been consistent. I think everybody’s kind of got a hand in that. We’ve all been up and down as individuals and therefore collectively.”

Verlander, who is 3-4 with a 3.60 E.R.A., missed the first month of the season with a back injury. Scherzer was suspended for 10 games for violating baseball’s rules against using foreign substances on the ball. First baseman Pete Alonso missed eight games with a bruised wrist. While he has 26 home runs, his on-base plus slugging percentage is down some 50 points from 2022.

“Winning is a habit and, also, losing is a habit,” Alonso said.

The losing habit hit the Mets hard in June. They went 7-19 to exacerbate their current play-from-behind predicament.

“There’s always doubt, for sure,” Alonso said about fighting through the June malaise. “There’s always inner doubt. But also, at the same time, with the doubt, there’s always self-belief. It’s a balancing act.”

The doubt, he said, was not in his teammates “because I know these guys work tirelessly.” He added: “And I know that the talent in this room is through the ceiling. So it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”

But Atlanta is threatening to run away with the division. At the All-Star break, the Mets were seven games out of the third and final wild-card slot and needed to hop over Chicago, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and San Francisco to get there. The math is becoming increasingly difficult, as Showalter noted.

The Mets are 16-37 when their opponents score first. They are 4-36 when they trail after six innings, 1-38 when they trail after seven and 3-43 when they trail after eight. Losing Edwin Díaz for the season to a knee injury sustained at the World Baseball Classic hurt, but having the game’s best closer wouldn’t change those numbers.

“You are what your record is, right?” Scherzer said.

But there were moments out West on the trip leading into the break that suggested the habit of winning was within reach. Carlos Carrasco (eight shutout innings) produced his finest start of the season in Arizona last Thursday as the Mets handed an excellent Diamondbacks team its first shutout loss of the season.

Kodai Senga (7-5, 3.31) was named as an N.L. All-Star. Alvarez hit four homers in the six games, including a game-tying, ninth-inning shot at Arizona that led to a Mets comeback victory. Lindor had a five-hit game in the desert after having to be hydrated by an IV the day before.

“I think me and him and a lot of us in here are cut from the same cloth,” Alonso said of Lindor. “We’re in it every single day, and we’re in it together. And that’s one of the reasons why I feel like we’re going to do something special in the second half.”

In the Dodgers series, the Mets have Verlander slotted to start Friday and Scherzer for Sunday. They’ve got Senga penciled in for Saturday.

Things being in pencil is a theme for the Mets.

“Everything fluctuates day to day,” Showalter said. “This don’t mean that and that don’t mean this. We all try to predict the future. It’s when everything changes, that’s the emotional challenge.”

Lindor said: “It’s been an uphill fight, and it seems like right now the road got flatter. It’s going to go uphill at some point, and the important thing is we keep climbing.”


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