At the beginning of spring training, when manager Terry Collins and members of the New York Mets’ front office were going over the schedule, one matchup stood out:
A three-game Subway Series in late September.
“One of the things we said is, ‘Je-sus! We hope that thing is not going to be both teams fighting for something,’ ” Collins said Wednesday. “And sure enough, it is.”
A Yankees-Mets matchup always excites fans in New York City. But when the teams take the field tonight in Queens this late in the regular season for the first time, a whole lot more than bragging rights will be at stake in the most meaningful games they’ve played against each other since the all-New York World Series in 2000.
The Mets are closing in on their first playoff appearance in nine years, sitting atop the NL East by 8 games over Washington with 16 to play going into Thursday night’s action. A fan base frustrated by September collapses in 2007 and ’08, the Madoff financial scandal and six straight losing seasons has been rejuvenated by a cadre of young aces and a “Cespedes for the rest of us,” as Jerry Seinfeld tweeted about the arrival of slugger Yoenis Cespedes.
The Yankees lead the AL wild-card race and trail first-place Toronto by 3 1⁄2 games in the AL East with 17 remaining. They missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and home attendance will likely be the lowest it’s been in 15 years.
“It means everything,” Alex Rodriguez said in St. Petersburg, Florida. “New York’s the capital of the baseball world, and to have both teams playing so well, it’s an especially important series, probably more so for us than for them.”
A series that in June or July turns friends — and even families — against one another will rise to new levels of hype and hyperbole.
“I think that the entertainment value is more for the fans and the city,” Mets captain David Wright said. “As players you try to treat it like another game, and it’s difficult to do that because of the energy the fans try to bring.”
Back in April, the Yankees won two of three in the first Subway Series this year in the Bronx. But the lineups will look much different when Long Island-raised rookie Steven Matz throws the first pitch tonight for the Mets.
Here’s a look at the main factors that could determine the outcome this weekend:
REVAMPED OFFENSE: The Mets have been on a tear since acquiring Cespedes at the July 31 trade deadline, going 30-13 beginning Aug. 1. The Cuban star has put himself in the NL MVP conversation with 17 homers and 42 RBIs in only 183 at-bats with the Mets. Wright, who missed the first series with an injury, has nine multihit games in 18 appearances since coming off the disabled list.
MISSING PIECES: The Yankees have been slowed by the loss of first baseman Mark Teixeira, who was leading the team with 31 homers before breaking his leg on Aug. 17. A-Rod played only a handful of early games in the field this season, and with no designated hitter available in the National League ballpark, manager Joe Girardi has no plans to use his No. 3 hitter — and current home run and RBI leader — except as a pinch hitter.
YOUNG ARMS: The Mets have been hoarding elite young pitchers since former general manager Omar Minaya drafted Matz in 2009 and then Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom a year later. Current GM Sandy Alderson traded 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey for Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud. Matz, Syndergaard and Harvey are scheduled to face the Bronx Bombers this weekend. Matz will be making his fifth big league start, Syndergaard his 22nd. Harvey might be held to five or six innings to limit his season workload. “I think it’s going to be beneficial for some of our young players to understand the focus and the concentration you’ve got to have to play under those circumstances,” Collins said. “If we do get in the postseason, they’re going to face it again.”
ON THE MOUND: The Yankees are without one of their best starters, Nathan Eovaldi, who is sidelined with elbow inflammation. Tanaka has been stellar lately but Michael Pineda has been inconsistent since returning from a month on the DL. But the biggest question mark is CC Sabathia, who is 4-9 with a 4.93 ERA. He did have his best start of the season Monday, tossing 62⁄3 scoreless innings at Tampa Bay.
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