Are the Mets Ready for the Stretch Drive?

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Callaway: “Anybody Can Contribute”

By Joe Rini

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The first six games of the current homestand encapsulated the hopes and fears of fans. The first three featured the Mets sweeping the red-hot AL Central leading Cleveland Indians but the more familiar nemesis from Atlanta, the NL East first place Braves, spoiled the Mets weekend plans of catching up in the wildcard race by sweeping the Amazins. Whereas, the Indians series featured the Mets late-season penchant for late game comebacks, the Braves series included an excruciating 14-inning loss on Friday, sloppy play on Saturday, and the tying and winning runs left on base in the ninth inning on Sunday.

Unfortunately for the Mets, the slumbering lumber continued when they dropped the opener to a crucial series with the Cubs 5-2 on Tuesday. Pete Alonso hit a franchise record 42nd home run on Tuesday but he’s been the lone spark on offense lately. With a month to go in the season, the Mets will hope the bats are taking a brief nap and not a hibernation.

Despite the late-night loss to the Braves on Friday, the Mets seemed in good spirits when I attended Saturday’s game at Citi Field. Prior to the game, I brought up his role as a late-season call-up to the 2002 World Champion California Angels and asked manager Mickey Callaway how he imparts that experience to his current group of young players.

Looking back, Callaway said, “Anybody can contribute. We had a lot of people getting called up later in that season that contributed,” specifically citing how Francisco (“KRod”) Rodriguez “punched out” 13 guys in five innings and then become a postseason hero.

Speaking of his own team, Callaway said everyone understands that, “Even though you are still in Triple-A today, doesn’t mean you can’t help us do something special.” He cited recent Mets call-up Paul Sewald and said, “He’s come up and thrown some great innings and he might play a huge role in where we want to get to so everyone going to contribute… with good teams, that’s what happens. Someone steps up and gets the job done.”

During Saturday’s late afternoon pregame drills, I caught up with reliever Seth Lugo outside the Mets dugout. Having pitched two innings two nights in a row, Lugo said he was too sore to pitch on Saturday but overall felt great physically for the stretch drive.

Considering the late night extra inning pitcher’s duel from the previous night, I asked how he felt about the minor league experimentation with having extra innings start with a runner on second and he shook his head and laughed, “Don’t they like baseball?” As for the experimentation of having balls and strikes called electronically instead of by the homeplate umpire, he said it would make his life as a pitcher easier because an automated system would probably call curveballs that drop over homeplate strikes whereas currently they’re called balls because the catcher typically catches them in the dirt.

Noting the long baseball season, Lugo said the team never thought it was out of the race. He enjoys working with pitching coach Phil Regan, someone he worked with in minor leagues. Lugo mentioned enjoying the competitiveness of trying to set up hitters, taking note of each game’s situation and each hitter’s tendencies, something Regan has helped him with since they started working together in 2014. In that sense, he said, the game hasn’t really changed despite the explosion of homeruns this season.

The pregame activities also included JD Davis greeting Little Leaguers from Utah, Brodie Van Wagenan on the field, and Robinson Cano taking fielding and batting practice despite his hamstring injury.

I asked Van Wagenan about the team’s off-season acquisition of Davis and the Mets GM said it was the product of the team’s pro scouting and analytical research team working together to identify Davis as a trade target. Van Wagenen cited Davis’ success in the minor leagues and his knowledge of the strike zone among his attributes when the Mets traded for him, and was happy to see him succeed given how hard a worker he is.

Speaking of player acquisitions, Van Wagenen said despite the success of the Davis trade, player transactions are an “imperfect science.” I asked Van Wagenen about Cano who was starting to hit at the time of his injury, and the GM said he still believes in Cano, calling him a “champion teammate.” As Cano finished his pregame drills, he told me he felt good and wants to be back on the field, but for the moment, is happy cheering on his teammates during this second half run.