After an epic eighth inning bullpen meltdown against the Washington Nationals, the fans and media began the process of second guessing Mets manager Mickey Callaway. With that the central question was why Callaway went to Seth Lugo instead of allowing Jacob deGrom to face Howie Kendrick, who deGrom has completely dominated both that night and over the course of his career.
As we know, Lugo did the inexcuable and walked Kendrick on four pitches. This led to Jerry Blevins, AJ Ramos, and Jeurys Familia not getting the job done. With the exception of Blevins, there were ensuing questions about how each reliever was used in that inning.
These questions are interesting for debate, but they are missing the larger issue here. In his brief managerial career, Callaway has ridden the bullpen too hard for this team to have sustained success over the course of a 162 game schedule.
There are a number of caveats many people will cite. There have been a number of off days. The Mets pitchers aren’t going deep enough into games thereby forcing Callaway’s hand. The bullpen can’t possibly be overworked because they have pitched just the 17th more innings in the majors.
Here are some other key stats to consider. There are 15 pitchers in baseball who have made double digit appearances this season. The Mets have three of those pitchers with Familia, Ramos, and Blevins. By the way, they were also the three pitchers who failed to get the job done that fateful eighth inning.
By the way, the Mets are the only team to have three relievers make double digit appearances, and that number will grow to four when Robert Gsellman, who has scuffled a bit of late, makes his next appearance.
We tend to over-focus just on the number of appearances, innings, and pitches relievers throw. Them getting up to warm up also counts. It is part of the fatigue which can set in for a reliever.
At this point, we can not be definitively sure any of the Mets relievers are gassed even with the recent drop-off. Really, that can be explained by regression to the mean or just a fluke small sample size.
Here’s what we do know. For most of this season, Callaway has had a bullpen with an extra arm in it. Despite that, the Mets have had to make roster moves on two separate occasions to get a fresh arm into the bullpen. First, it was Corey Oswalt for a day. Now, it’s Gerson Bautista for who knows how long?
The answer to that one may just be up until he gets gassed and the Mets need to go back to the minors to pull up Hansel Robles or Jacob Rhame again. Maybe this time, it’s Tyler Bashlor who comes up to the majors straight from Double-A.
Point is, the way Callaway is using this bullpen is having an effect, and it is causing the Mets to need to dip into their minor league depth to get fresh arms into this bullpen. Maybe this was the plan all along, and that plan is buttressed by Sandy Alderson’s moves at the trade deadline last year. Probably not.
Whatever the case, the Mets are going to have to figure something out because this cannot continue for 162 games.
In the top of the first, the Nationals quickly loaded the bases against Zack Wheeler with one out. This is normally where Wheeler would implode, and based off of what happened last night, you’d think this was a spot where the Nationals would jump right out and put up a crooked number on the board.
Instead, Wheeler induced Moises Sierra to hit into the inning ending 6-4-3 double play.
What this told us about the Mets was this was not a completed deflated team. They still had fight in them despite last night’s horrendous loss. So, yes the fight was there. The question was if the execution would be there to pull out a win.
As far as the Nationals were concerned the theme of the nights would be soft hits. They’d use them to set up a Bryce Harper sacrifice fly in the third, and they’d use them to score two runs off Wheeler in the fourth to give the Nationals a 3-0 lead.
By that time, you were left wondering if the Mets had a rally in them. They would in the bottom of the fifth with a leadoff single from Wheeler of all people.
Wheeler quickly found himself on third after an Amed Rosario double, which might have been a triple had Wheeler not been ahead of him on the basepaths. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with a sacrifice fly. With Michael Taylor overthrowing the cutoff man, Rosario moved to third allowing him to score on the subsequent Yoenis Cespedes RBI groundout.
That pulled the Mets to within 3-2. The Mets would have their chances to take the lead, but they couldn’t get out of their own way.
In the sixth, the Mets had runners at the corners after back-to-back one out singles from Juan Lagares and Tomas Nido. For reasons that defy all logic, Mickey Callaway decided to pinch hit Jose Reyes instead of using Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Adrian Gonzalez, or even the newly called-up reliever Gerson Bautista. If you thought Callaway had a rough night last night, he showed he learned nothing.
Reyes struck out in an ugly at-bat against Gio Gonzalez, and Rosario followed with a weak pop out in foul territory to end the inning.
In the seventh, runners were once again on the corners with one out. This time it was due to a Wilmer Flores and Cespedes single. They’d be stranded when Todd Frazier had an ugly strikeout, and Jay Bruce got rung up on a pitch on what the umpire believed was the inside corner. Bruce disagreed.
In the eighth, it was a two out rally that sputtered out after a Conforto walk and Rosario single. Brandon Kintzler would completely overmatch Cabrera to strike him out for the final out of the inning.
While the Mets were failing to cash in on rallies going 0-9 with RISP, the Nationals were tacking on runs to give themselves some breathing room. They’d push a run across in the seventh and eighth, both against Robert Gsellman expanding their lead to 5-2.
The run in the eighth was a little troubling. Michael Taylor singled and stole second. On the stolen base, Nido’s throw was there by Rosario whiffed on the tag. Later in the inning, Pedro Severino hit the ball directly to the drawn in Rosario, who froze thereby allowing Taylor to score easily.
In the end, the Mets lost this game not because they didn’t have fight after last night’s loss. No, they lost it because they didn’t execute against a Nationals team they breathed new life into. As a result, the Mets have now lost their first series of the year and are now looking to prevent getting swept.
Game Notes: Bautista made his MLB debut in the ninth walking one, allowing a hit, and striking out on in a scoreless inning.
Look, it was bound to happen. The revamped and praised bullpen was finally going to have a meltdown. Mickey Callaway was going to have a game leaving fans scratching their heads a bit leading up to him getting criticized. The fact it came against the Nationals was tough. The fact it was a blown 6-1 lead was tougher. The combination of the two left a really sour taste in your mouth despite the Mets 12-3 start.
In that eighth inning, the Mets would use five pitchers who allowed six runs on five hits, three walks, and a hit batter. Two of those walks were bases loaded walks. With the exception of Jacob deGrom, each and every pitcher who appeared that inning has some explaining to do.
Naturally, when you have a complete bullpen meltdown like that, much like we saw cause the 2008 Mets collapse, there are going to be some questions about how Callaway handled the inning. Let’s take a look.
Questionable Decision No. 1 – Lifting deGrom
At the time Callaway lifted deGrom, the Mets had a 6-1 lead in the top of the eighth. A Michael Taylor strikeout was book-ended by a pair of singles by Moises Sierra and Trea Turner. At that point, deGrom had thrown 103 pitches, and he was about to go to the Nationals lineup a fourth time.
Before moving on, some key stats should be considered. In his career, batters hit .277/.300/.447 when facing deGrom for a fourth time. However, that stat should be mitigated by the batter Howie Kendrick.
For his career, Kendrick is hitting .087 with no walks or extra base hits against deGrom. Last night, Kendrick was 0-3 with three strikeouts against deGrom.
By removing deGrom, Callaway opened himself up to second guessing. That second guessing grew louder when Seth Lugo, who had been excellent this year, walked Kendrick on four straight pitches.
Question Decision No. 2 – Using Lugo for One Batter
As noted above, with Harper on deck and Blevins warming, whoever you brought into the game to face Kendrick was only going to be in for one batter, so why Lugo?
There is a time to experiment with your bullpen guys to give them a different taste of different moments, but a game against the Nationals just isn’t that moment. Not when there was something brewing that caused you to go out there and bring in a reliever to nip a potential rally in the bud.
Since you are bringing Blevins into the game to face Harper anyway, you could have used him to pitch to Kendrick. After all, Kendrick is just 1-8 off Blevins. Even if Kendrick hits an unlikely homer, you are still up 6-4 at that point, and you have Blevins to face Harper.
Instead, Lugo was put in an unfamiliar situation, and he struggled. That doesn’t excuse Lugo’s performance in the least. He should have gone out there and recorded the out, or at least forced Kendrick to put the ball in play. Really, this at-bat was a seminal moment as this is where the rally really began to build momentum and begin to spiral out of control.
Questionable Decision No. 3 – Using Ramos
Iseemed odd Callaway would go to AJ Ramos over getting Jeurys Familia into the game at that spot. Heading into this season, Callaway spoke about getting his best relievers into the biggest spots of the game regardless of whether there was a save situation or not. That’s not what happened.
Instead of using Familia to nip the rally in the bud and let Ramos start a clean ninth, Callaway took a page out of Terry Collins book and saved his closer. He also used Ramos, who has allowed 24.5% of inherited runners to score in his career. Now, to be fair, Callaway may have wanted to shy away from Familia who has had a fairly high workload this season. Still, you have to wonder why Ramos there.
Out of anyone in the Mets bullpen, Ramos has the highest walk rate with a scary 4.9 BB/9 for his career. That included his walking six batters in the 6.1 innings he had pitched entering last night’s game. Bringing Ramos into this game into a powder keg of a situation could potentially light a fuse and blow the game.
It started out well with Ramos over powering Ryan Zimmerman to get the second out, and the Nationals sent up Matt Reynolds to the plate. Right here was why the Mets should have never lost this game. It’s also why using a walk prone Ramos is dangerous.
Reynolds, who is a career .224/.294/.393 hitter with an 8.1% walk rate, walked on four straight pitches to make it 6-4.
Questionable Decision No. 4 – Double Switching Flores into the Game
When Callaway brought Familia into the game, he obviously had the intention of using him for the four out save. With the pitcher’s spot due up second in the bottom of the inning, Callaway understandably double switched him into the game.
What is interesting is Juan Lagares had made the last out of the bottom of the seventh. By the book, you swap him out. Being smarter than that, Callaway didn’t do that instead opting to keep his best fielder in the game in a crucial spot. Instead, he went back and pulled Adrian Gonzalez.
Now, Gonzalez isn’t the four Gold Glove Gonzalez anymore. In 92.1 innings this season, he has a -1 DRS and 0.1 UZR. It’s a small sample size, but it is in line with what he’s been the past few seasons. His dimished skill and range were prevalent when Harper had hit an RBI single earlier that inning between him and Asdrubal Cabrera. That was more on Cabrera’s range, but it did speak to the limited range on the right side of the Mets infield.
Now, Flores arguably has more range than Gonzalez with a 0.2 UZR at first this year and a 2.3 UZR over the past three seasons. However, he’s not yet good enough to consider using him for defense late in games at any position. In fact, he also has a -1 DRS at first this year but in just 45.2 innings. Flores’ poor defense and relative inexperience MIGHT have been at play when Wilmer Difo hit a single by him. Whether Gonzalez gets to that or not, we’ll never know.
Another important point here is with Flores being double switched into the game, you do not get to deploy him against a left-handed pitcher. Instead, you have to use him against a right-handed one. Flores has improved against right-handed pitching, but not to the point where he’s your first option over Yoenis Cespedes or Jay Bruce.
As an aside, what would have been so wrong if Familia batted? If he immediately gets out of the inning, you have a two run lead. Let him go up there and take his strikeout, and you have your optimal defense for the eighth and ninth innings. Instead, you weakened your infield defense with a power sinker pitcher, and you didn’t try to get a platoon advantage with Flores coming off the bench.
Questionable Decision No. 5 – No Gsellman At All
Arguably, Robert Gsellman has either been the Mets best or second best reliever this season. In a pressure filled spot, you would think you would’ve found a spot for him, especially at a time when you were looking to get a ground ball double play to get out of the inning. Instead, Callaway decided to go with Ramos and an obviously fatigued Familia.
When you have a complete meltdown like the Mets had, there is little a manager can do but pray. Really, Callaway is getting second guessed because the Mets lost a game where they had a five run lead with one out in the eighth inning. You should never lose those games.
Lugo can’t walk Kendrick on four pitches. Blevins has to get Harper out in that situation. Ramos can’t walk and hit batters. Familia needs to dig just a little deeper and not hit a batter or walk in the go-ahead run.
Also, someone needed to make a play. Two balls where hit between the first and second baseman. Cabrera couldn’t make a play on either. Certainly, you could argue an infielder with even average range gets to the Harper single. Cabrera would then exacerbate his inability to make a play in the field by getting bizarrely aggressive on the base paths getting thrown out at third with one out in the ninth inning. That was inexcusable.
Really, this game was your typical Callaway game. When it comes to his bullpen, he’s going to be a little more aggressive than most in what is typically his attempt to put his players in the best position to succeed. In his first 15 games, it seems he’d rather put players in a position to succeed than leave them out there and let them make a play.
Until last night, that made Callaway look like a genius. Last night? Well, it made him look like a meddling over-manager. Ultimately, that’s the way it goes with not just managing, but managing in New York.
Whatever the case, after that brutal loss, we are really going to find out something about both Callaway and this Mets team. Do they get off the mat and show the Nationals they’re the better team? Do they come out shell-shocked and lose this game?
Right now, we don’t know, but we are soon going to find out just how special both this team and this manager is and can be.
Well, isn’t this just the Mets luck? On a day when Mets fans and the entire organization all were celebrating the Five Aces finally making one turn through the rotation, pitching would be the story of the game. The story wasn’t Zack Wheeler, who had the best start by a Mets pitcher this season. No, initially the story would be Marlins rookie Jarlin Garcia would no-hit the Mets through the first six innings of the game.
In his Major League debut, Garcia stared down the entire Mets lineup, and he didn’t allow anything except two ill-timed sixth inning walks and Todd Frazier reaching on an error. Even the walks didn’t hurt him as Jay Bruce would get thrown out trying to steal third.
Naturally, when you have a no-hitter going, you know you are out-pitching the opposing pitcher. What was surprising was it was not by much.
After making one start in Triple-A to hone his mechanics, Wheeler was great tonight. He would become the first Mets pitcher to pitch into the seventh inning. The knock on Wheeler was always his walking too many people and not being able to put batters away. Tonight, he struck out seven while only walking one.
While Garcia allowed no hits, Wheeler would allow just two. Unfortuantely, one of those was a Miguel Rojas home run.
With the Mets getting no-hit until Frazier had a single off of Marlins reliever Drew Steckenrider, you would think the Mets lost this game. Yeah, that wasn’t happening to the 9-1 Mets.
Before the game, it was announced Travis d’Arnaud needed to go on the disabled list with a torn UCL. Naturally, this meant Kevin Plawecki would get plunked on his catching hand by a 100 MPH from Marlins reliever Tayron Guerrero.
Plawecki stayed in the game, and Michael Conforto, who did not start against the left-handed Garcia, came on to pinch hit for Juan Lagares. The Marlins countered with LOOGY Chris O’Grady. It didn’t matter as Conforto his a double to the right field corner.
That set up runners on second and third with one out. Instead of going with the hitless switch hitting Jose Reyes to pinch hit for Wheeler, Mickey Callaway went with Adrian Gonzalez. Callaway’s faith in Gonzalez was rewarded with him delivering a go-ahead two RBI single.
When Starlin Castro couldn’t corral an Asdrubal Cabrera pop up in shallow right field, Junichi Tazawa would be brought on to neutralize Wilmer Flores. It didn’t work with Flores delivering an RBI ground rule double. Frazier would follow with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1 Mets.
To punctuate the win, Robert Gsellman struck out the side in the eighth. He has now struck out 12 of the 27 batters he has faced this season.
Really, this was a game the Mets were dead in the water. They were unable to get a hit because of great Marlins pitching and defense. All that ended in an epic eighth inning rally. Really, that’s how great things are going for the 10-1 Mets right now. Even when getting no-hit and having no catchers left from their Opening Day roster, they come back and give Wheeler the victory.
Game Notes: While Plawecki stayed in to run the bases after the HBP, he would be lifted when his turn in the order came back up. Tomas Nido, who was called up to take d’Arnaud’s spot on the roster, pinch hit for Plawecki and hit into an inning ending double play. Reyes remains hitless.
If you look at the Mets first eight games of the season, Mickey Callaway has already been tested twice. The first test came in the first five games of the season against the Cardinals and the Phillies.
In those five games, Callaway had to show everyone he wasn’t Gabe Kapler or Aaron Boone. Put another way, he had to show us and his team he knew what he was doing. He showed that mettle which has escaped both Kapler and Boone thus far in his putting his team in their best position to win a game. More than that, he capably sat Brandon Nimmo after a big game and played Juan Lagares by justifying it to the media and his team rather than simply pointing to numbers. Yes, Callaway used the numbers to inform his decision, but he handled his situation capably with no griping from the fans or team.
The next test came much earlier for Callaway than it comes for most managers. That test was whether he had the ability to manage in a big series.
We can argue whether an April series is ever truly a big series. What we cannot argue is Callaway managed it like it was one, and his team responded in kind sweeping the Nationals and announcing this was a team to beat in the National League East.
Part of managing this like a big series was riding his bullpen arms hard. Jeurys Familia pitched 1.2 innings for the save, and he has pitched six innings over his first five appearances. Robert Gsellman pitched two games in the series, and he has made two two inning appearances over a four day span.
Seth Lugo was given the heaviest workload. Two days after pitching two innings, he was used for an inning to close out an 8-2 game. Three days later, he’s pitching three innings and picking up the win in a 12 inning game.
When it is a big series, and when you have short starts from both Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, you can certainly understand why Callaway rode his top guns the way he did. The Mets had a chance to make a statement in that series, and they did.
Now, the Mets are not sneaking up on anyone. We know they’re good, and the rest of baseball knows it now too. The question is how does Callaway handle it.
Does he continue to ask his top relievers to keep going to the well, or do we start to see more innings from Paul Sewald (likely to be demoted when Zack Wheeler is activated), or Jacob Rhame, who made a statement of his own closing out Sunday’s win? Really, how does this Mets team respond to success?
Do they continue looking like a team having fun grinding the salt and pepper shakers? Are they going to be alright with splitting playing time or staying on the bench for stretches?
We don’t know the answer to those questions yet. However, we do see Callaway is the type of manager who can deftly handle these and all questions this team is going to face. Hopefully, we will see Callaway pass this third test with flying colors like he did with the first two tests.
All night long, it appeared Mickey Callaway was content to play with fire. Tonight, he went too long with both Matt Harvey and Robert Gsellman, and it burned the Mets. The question was whether it was going to cost the Mets the game.
Heading into the bottom of the fifth, the Mets had a 4-2 lead with both teams scoring runs off of big homers. The Nationals came in the first when Bryce Harper, who once literally could not hit Harvey, hit a monster two run homer.
In the third, Tanner Roark completely lost the strike zone issuing three straight two out walks. By the time he straightened himself out and threw a strike, Adrian Gonzalez wiould hit it for a grand slam giving the Mets a 4-2 lead:
— Today in MLB (@TodayintheMLB) April 9, 2018
The Nationals got a run back in the fourth against a laboring Harvey. Harvey would allow an RBI double to Pedro Severino, and he had his chance to get out of the inning quickly with a Roark comebacker. Harvey couldn’t make the play, but he would eventually get through the inning without allowing another run. Part of the reason why was Anthony Rendon just missed a grand slam off the bat.
In the top of the fifth, Asdrubal Cabrera got a run back with a solo shot giving the Mets a 5-3 lead.
Surprisingly with Harper leading off the fifth, Callaway stuck with Harvey. Well, Harper walked, and Matt Adams walked putting Harvey in immediate trouble. For a split second, it seemed like Harvey would get out of it unscathed when Howie Kendrick hit into the 6-6-3 double play. However, Trea Turner would deliver the RBI single to pull the Nationals within 5-4.
What is interesting is how things would be similar in the seventh inning.
After pitching a scoreless sixth, Callaway sent Gsellman out for a second inning even with Harper set to lead off the inning. Gsellman wanted not part of him and issued a four pitch walk which set the inning off on the wrong foot.
Soon, it was runners on first and second with two outs, and it looked like the Mets were going to possibly get out of the inning. Certainly, it seemed that way when a crossed up Todd Frazier was still able to get Harper out at third. However, this time it was Michael Taylor delivering the key two out RBI single to tie the game at 5-5.
With that, a couple of questionable Callaway decisions helped turn this game into a dogfight and a battle of the bullpens.
The Mets bullpen, Seth Lugo specifically, came up huge in the ninth inning. Harper led off the ninth because Anthony Rendon was picked off by Jerry Blevins. This also meant Blevins was getting pulled from the game because his spot in the order was due up.
Like the rest of the Mets staff, and frankly, MLB, Lugo didn’t want Harper, and he walked him. After throwing away a pickoff attempt and an Adams fly out to center, Harper was on third. In response, Callaway ordered the bases loaded putting the hands directly in Lugo’s hands. He responded with back-to-back strikeouts of Taylor and Severino to send the game into extra innings.
— New York Mets (@Mets) April 9, 2018
While Lugo was out there pitching great over three innings, the Nationals Sammy Solis was mowing down the Mets. Over his two innings of work, he struck out five Mets. With the way Solis was pitching, the turning point of this game was Brandon Kintzler coming into the game because the Mets have tattoed him in the first two games of this series.
It started again with a Juan Lagares bloop single to start the 12th inning. He moved to second on a Amed Rosario sacrifice bunt. The Nationals then walked Conforto to bring up Cespedes in a big spot. Cespedes would deliver with the game winning RBI single to give the Mets a 6-5 lead.
With the 6-5 lead, Callaway turned to Jacob Rhame. This was presumably because Jeurys Familia has been worked hard to start the year. After retiring two straight, he allowed a Wilmer Difo double before getting Adam Eaton out to end the game.
It’s amazing. The Mets went into Washington on a high after beating up on presumably lesser competition. Now, they are 7-1 after sweeping the Nationals in their home ballpark. Better yet, the Nationals had a chance in each game in this series, but the Mets just beat them because maybe, just maybe, the Mets are in fact the better team.
Game Notes: Opposing base stealers are a perfect 11/11 against d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki.
As we head into the 2018 season, we have seen some of these Mets prospects for a few years now, and we have made some assumptions about these players. Some of those assumptions are right on the money, and some of them, not so much. There may be some facts when brought to life which may surprise many of us. With that in mind, here are some facts about the Mets minor leagues which are sure to surprise you.
No. 1 Sandy’s First Draft Produced 11 Major Leaguers
When Sandy Alderson was entasked with rebuilding the Mets farm system, he and his staff went right to work with the 2011 draft. That draft was quite effective with the Mets producing 11 Major Leaguers from that draft.
1st Round: Brandon Nimmo & Michael Fulmer
2nd Round: Cory Mazzoni
3rd Round: Logan Verrett
4th Round: Jack Leathersich
8th Round: Daniel Muno
13th Round: Robert Gsellman
15th Round: Phillip Evans
21st Round: John Gant
34th Round: Seth Lugo
35th Round: Chasen Bradford
Almost as incredible, between trades and play on the field, nine of those players either played for a Mets team that made the postseason or were traded for a player who contributed to a Mets team that made the postseason.
No. 2 Vientos Same Age As Kranepool Was When Kranepool Debuted in the Majors
Last year, Mets second round pick Mark Vientos was the youngest player drafted at 17 years old. Amazingly, this is the same age Mets Hall of Famer Ed Kranepool was when he made his MLB debut. As a matter of fact, Kranepool was just a little more than four months older in his MLB debut than Vientos was when he made his debut in professional baseball playing in the Gulf Coast League.
No. 3 Alonso Only Player to Homer off Smith Prior to the Trade Deadline
When the New York Mets traded Lucas Duda to the Tampa Bay Rays for right-handed relief prospect Drew Smith, the one stat which immediately jumped off his Baseball Reference page was the fact he had allowed just one home run all season. The person who hit that home run was his future teammate Peter Alonso. On the home run, Smith would tell MMN’s Mathew Brownstein, Alonso “brings it up probably once a week (laughs). But that’s just part of it.”
No. 4 Nimmo Drew More Walks Than Rosario in Triple-A
Last year with all of the injuries, it seemed as if Nimmo spent most if not all of his 2017 season in the majors. To a certain extent that is true with him playing just 42 games in Triple-A. That was actually 52 fewer games than Amed Rosario had in Triple-A last year. Overall, Rosario would have 227 more plate appearances for the 51s than Nimmo would have. And yet, despite all of that, Nimmo would draw 10 more walks than Rosario did in Triple-A.
No. 5 DeFrancesco’s First MLB Win Came Against the Mets
In the offseason, the Mets hired the Houston Astros Triple-A Manager Tony DeFrancesco. DeFrancesco had been a manager in the Astros organization since 2011, and during that time, he did get a 41 game opportunity to manage the Major League club after the team fired Brad Mills. After beginning his managerial career losing five straight, his Astros came to New York to face the Mets. With the Suffern, New York native’s family in the stands, his Astros team won the game 3-1.
This might have been the Nationals home opener, but this game certainly had the feel of an Opening Day to the season. You had a great pitching matchup with Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. More than that, as a fan, there was a great sense of anticipation for the matchup. Not just because of the pitching matchup. Not just because of the eagerness to see how the Mets matchup against the Nationals.
No, the biggest headline of this day was Michael Conforto making his 2018 debut.
Given the poor run of luck with significant injuries and the ensuing recoveries, you would expect Mets fans to have trepidation. David Wright and Matt Harvey are Exhibit A and Exhibit B for that. And yet, for some reason, the Mets fans seemed to have nothing but excitement to see their future superstar return to the Mets ahead of schedule.
Mickey Callaway put him in the lineup as the leadoff hitter and as the center fielder.
It wasn’t the greatest of starts for Conforto, who said he wanted to start today because he wanted Strasburg. He struck out in his first at-bat against Strasburg on three pitches. In the bottom of the first, Adam Eaton hit the first pitch over his head for a lead off double. With Anthony Rendon following with a single on a ball Jay Bruce would bobble, it was quickly 1-o Nationals.
Things would get better for Conforto and deGrom.
Bruce would atone for his error by nearly hitting one out against Strasburg. Two quick outs later followed by a Kevin Plawecki walk, the Mets had runners at the corners with surprise starter Jose Reyes at the plate. The Mets didn’t need Reyes to deliver here because Strasburg would balk trying to pick off Plawecki leading to Bruce scoring.
Eaton and Rendon would strike back in the third to give the Nationals the lead again. Eaton walked, and he would score on a Rendon double. From that point forward, it was all Mets.
Yoenis Cespedes lead off the fourth with a game tying home run. As if it wasn’t exciting enough to see Cespedes tying up the game, the Mets would rally in the fifth.
Plawecki led things off with a leadoff single, and he moved to second on a Reyes ground out. After a deGrom strikeout, that meant it was up to Conforto to try to break the tie. Up until this point in the game, he struck out on three pitches, and he hit into a double play. Things did not look great in this at-bat as Strasburg quickly went up 1-2 on him. Then, Conforto showed us just how healthy he is:
This Conforto kids pretty good. pic.twitter.com/wqbhd5CJwK
— John Flanigan (@jflan816) April 5, 2018
His opposite field home run showed us not just the return of his all field power, but also his great approach at the plate. In our “Yes, Virginia” moment, we now knew Conforto was alright.
Now, with a 4-2 lead, this put the game in deGrom’s hands. With his entering the game with an all-time best 1.98 ERA in day games and his being 2-1 with a 2.95 ERA and 0.983 WHIP in Nationals Park, it looked like it would be smooth sailing for the Mets.
However, this is the Mets and nothing is ever easy. The Nationals quickly loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth. This wasn’t helped by deGrom uncharacteristically issuing back-to-back walks to Rendon and Bryce Harper. With deGrom being the ace that he is, he bore down.
It’s still early in the season, and there are 155 games left to be played, but this may prove to be a seminal moment of the 2018 season because after that we didn’t see the Nationals who tortured the Mets in 2014 and 2016. No, this started to feel like the 2015 season with the Nationals falling apart when pushed by the Mets.
The ungluing happened in the seventh inning.
Turner was ejected for arguing with the home plate umpire, and Brandon Kintzler just didn’t have it.
After the Reyes pop out, Brandon Nimmo pinch hit for deGrom, and he nearly hit one out. Conforto walked. After a borderline strike was called to strike out Asdrubal Cabrera, Cespedes and Bruce would get the benefit of the doubt on close pitches. Both batters would have 3-2 counts. Cespedes walked, and Bruce hit a grand slam giving the Mets an 8-2 lead.
— MLB (@MLB) April 5, 2018
Jerry Blevins and Robert Gsellman would combine to pitch a perfect seventh. Hansel Robles navigated through a one out Rendon double while striking out the side. One his strikeout victims was Harper who is now 1-4 with three strikeouts off Robles. Seth Lugo would bring it home to preserve the 8-2 win.
Overall, the Mets got a big home run from Cespedes. They had an injured player come back and provide a huge home run. One of the Mets aces outpitched one of the Nationals aces. The Nationals had a key player suffer an injury and another one lose their cool. The Nationals bullpen melted down while the Mets bullpen was much better than expected.
If I didn’t know any better, I would swear this was August 2015.
Game Notes: deGrom became the first Met this season to have a quality start. His final line was 6.0 inning, four hits, two runs, one earned, three walks, and five strikeouts. After the sixth inning, Eaton left the game with an injury. He was off to a hot start after tearing his ACL.
Last year when Michael Conforto crumpled down to the ground in pain after a checked swing, it was every bit as much of a gut punch as when Matt Harvey‘s magical 2013 season came to an end because he needed Tommy John surgery. The Mets future and hopes for another World Series was right there. The bright spot in another wise lost and dismal season dimmed.
When you look up torn posterior capsule, you really feared the worst. You feared the worst because of what you learned about the injury, but also because this is the Mets. Things rarely break right for them on the injury front.
As Conforto rehabbed, it seemed as if the timetables for his return kept getting shorter and shorter. With him and the Mets reporting to Spring Training, the May 1st target date seemed a bit aggressive. After all, it was just two years ago when the Mets had given Zack Wheeler and early return date from his own Tommy John surgery only to see that date continuously pushed further back and back until the point Bartolo Colon was solidly entrenched as a starter, and the Mets were calling up Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman to help save their season.
Despite the trepidation many may have had, Conforto continued to get closer and closer to returning. Away from the lights, he played in minor league intrasquad games where he not only homered twice, but he did it off left-handed pitching. One of those left-handed pitchers included last year’s first round draft pick David Peterson.
As the Mets started the season we kept hearing that May 1st target date was getting pushed up not by days but by weeks. And here we are now with Conforto getting activated in advance of the Mets first series against the Nationals.
As luck would have it, he is going to be the first Met to step into the batter’s box against Stephen Strasburg.
Mets fans have quickly become enamored with Brandon Nimmo with his infectious personality, his smiling all the time, and with his ability to draw more walks than Da Vinci. However, Conforto is the Mets player you want up against Strasburg to set the tone for the game, the season series, and for the divisional battle between these two teams. That is, of course, assuming Conforto is 100%.
Trusting a Mets player is fully healthy and recovered from injury is really a feeling Mets fans have grown unaccustomed. Look no further than Harvey whose Tommy John turned to TOS and whose effectiveness and ceiling have fallen off a cliff.
So yes, at the moment, Mets fans should be excited yet cautiously optimistic about the return of Conforto. That first big swing and miss, that head first slide into a base, and that diving play in the outfield is going to take years off our lives. That feeling will subside over time and may emerge whenever it seems Conforto takes just that extra half second before getting off the ground or getting back in the batter’s box.
That’s the life of a Mets fan, and as Mets fans we should all take time to pray his shoulder is really 100%, and that he is about to become the superstar he was on the verge of becoming last year. Once we see he’s really good to go, we can then all cheer with the unbridled enthusiasm we had for him last year.
These are the types of games that have traditionally tripped up the Mets. Day games. Get away games. Games with a rain delay. All of those things combined have always seemed to get in the Mets way. Harkening back to 2015, these were all present in the fateful loss against the San Diego Padres which nearly derailed the Mets season. Those conditions were present today.
With rain waiting, the game had a delayed start until 2:45. Initially, all seemed well for the Mets.
Yoenis Cespedes hit a monster two run homer off Aaron Nola to give the Mets an early 2-0 lead. Noah Syndergaard would start the game striking out five Phillies over the first two innings. Then, all of a sudden, everything would come off the rails in a 36 pitch third inning for Syndergaard.
The odd thing for Syndergaard was even though he was in trouble he was so close to getting out of it. There were runners on first and second with one out after a Carlos Santana double. After a Nick Williams RBI groundout, Syndergaard was well in position to get out of a tough inning with the Mets still having a 2-1 lead.
Surprisingly, Syndergaard, who typically has excellent control, immediately went 3-0 against Rhys Hoskins. He battled back into the count in what was an eight pitch at-bat where he then couldn’t put Hoskins away. On the eighth pitch, he walked Hoskins. That walk proved important.
With Aaron Altherr down 1-2 in the count, Hoskins broke too early for second, and it looked like he was picked off. The ball went to second with Asdrubal Cabrera covering, and he walked back Hoskins while keeping an eye on Santana. After Cabrera flipped it to Adrian Gonzalez, Hoskins ran out of the baseline (not called), and Santana beat Gonzalez’s throw home.
The game was tied at 2-2. At that point, Syndergaard wasn’t going to be able to make it through five innings, and the Mets offense had just one hit after the Cespedes homer. This made this the type of game you’d expect the Mets of very recent vintage to blow.
However, Robert Gsellman came out of the bullpen and gave the Mets a lift. He was nearly as impressive as Seth Lugo was yesterday throwing two hitless innings while striking out three. Like Lugo, Gsellman gave the Mets a shot in the arm and a real chance to win.
That chance came in the sixth when Nola, who was infamously lifted by Gabe Kapler on Opening Day after 5.2 innings, walked Cabrera to start the sixth. After a Gonzalez lineout, Andrew Knapp error, and a Kevin Plawecki ground out, Wilmer Flores pinch hit for Gsellman and drew a walk. That’s where Amed Rosario, who has hit ninth in every game he has started on the young season, was in prime position to deliver the big hit.
Rosario did a nice job going the other way with the pitch, and he was able to line the ball over Williams, who was playing aggressively in in right field. The end result was a two run triple giving the Mets a 4-2 lead.
The Mets bullpen, who has had an incredibly strong start to the season, stepped up and shut the door.
And yes, it is April, which is way too early to focus on these things, but the Mets are now traveling to Washington a half game up in the division and with Jacob deGrom on the mound.
Game Notes: This game was broadcast only on Facebook with former Phillie John Kruk and former Met Cliff Floyd doing the color commentary. With Michael Conforto being activated from the disabled list, Phillip Evans was optioned down to Triple-A. He was 0-3 with a strikeout and a GIDP.