By Joe Rini
It took 15 games, but reality made its 2018 season debut for the Mets this week.
Amidst a cold April, the “how about those” Mets raced to a surprising red-hot franchise best 12-2 start to the 2018 season. However, on two cold autumn like evenings that only lacked falling leaves, the rival Washington Nationals took the first two games of a three game series against the Mets on April 16 & 17 at Citi Field by scores of 8-6 and 5-2.
Fueled by a much-improved bullpen and timely hitting, the Mets early season success has already included a nine game winning streak. However, with the Mets bullpen having allowed only 10 runs over the first 14 games, five Mets relief pitchers were unable to protect a 6-1 lead for Jacob deGrom (12 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings) on Monday night as the Nationals rallied for seven runs over the final two frames to take game one in New York after the Mets had swept the Nationals in Washington during the recent road trip.
Speaking after the game on Monday, Mickey Callaway spoke calmly of the most gut-wrenching loss of his young managerial career. “We just have to realize that it was one bad inning. We didn’t get the job done. We’ll learn from it and make sure it doesn’t throw us into some kind of tailspin, because we’re a really good team and we’ve been showing that.”
Since the Mets have relied heavily on their bullpen during the early going of the season, I asked Callaway at his pregame press conference on Monday if the team needed to get more innings out of their starters, in particular deGrom and Noah Syndergaard.
Callaway said having starters go deeper into games is vital to being a good team but he cited the effect the cold temperatures have had on the starters so far and how pitchers were throwing harder in the first games of spring training than they have had since the season opened. “The reason is the weather. You’re looser. You’re more comfortable…once it starts warming up, I think you’re going to see these guys where they need to be.”
One of the surprising contributors to the Mets early season success has been pitcher Robert Gsellman. After being a starter during his professional career, Gsellman has been effective out of the bullpen this season and we chatted before Monday’s game.
As we chatted in foul territory along the first base line, Gsellman emphasized the importance of “focus” in transitioning to a relief role. “Focus on getting the first batter out…pay attention to the starter’s pitch count” to get a sense of when he’ll be called upon. He said being a reliever, “Feels great…it’s been a fun adjustment,” and he cited the help he has received from veterans like Jerry Blevins and AJ Ramos in the bullpen. “All the veterans have my back…there’s a lot of good arms there.”
Since moving to the bullpen, Gsellman’s enjoyed the chance to pitch on any given day. He emphasized the need to keep his body and arm ready, especially through running and massage. Whether he starts or relieves, Gsellman said, “Pitching is pitching…try to get outs.”
As for pitching under a new coaching staff, Gsellman said it’s been good because all coaches bring something different to the table and different experiences that can have a positive effect on a pitcher.
Similar to outfielder Michael Conforto who thrived after his call-up in 2015 only to struggle in 2016, Gsellman helped carry the Mets a Wildcard berth as a rookie in late 2016 before faltering in his sophomore season. “2017 was a humbling experience,” he acknowledged, “But it makes you stronger.” If Gsellman can continue his early season success much like Conforto regained his form in 2017, it will go along way to assuring Monday night’s bullpen failure was a blip in a long season and not a trend.
After concluding the current six game homestand against the Nationals on Wednesday, the Mets will travel to three different time zones as they play 10 games in 11 days in Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Diego before returning to warmer temperatures (hopefully) at Citi Field on May 1.