BY JOE RINI
The regular season and wild card “play-in” have wrapped up. The eight best teams will be playing for at least three more games.
Meanwhile in Mets-land the focus turns to 2015, after a 2014 that saw the progress of many players that figure to be part of any future success the Mets hope to have. The Rockland County Times had the chance to catch up with two players who overcame early season adversity, the Mets all-time saves leader, and even a slugger’s mom and dad on the last Saturday of the 2014 season at Citi Field.
Travis d’Arnaud was the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey deal in December 2012 and the opening day catcher in 2014 but he struggled at the plate and was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas in June with a .180 batting average.
Speaking of his demotion, d’Arnaud said, “It was humbling… but it gave me the drive” to get back to the major leagues. Rather than sulk while in Las Vegas, the 25-year-old California native realized it was his mental approach, not his hitting mechanics that needed work. “I was trying to do too much…trying to be someone I wasn’t.” Upon his return to the Mets a few weeks later, d’Arnaud proceeded to hit .272 and slug 10 homeruns.
d’Arnaud undergoes elbow surgery to remove bone spurs this week but expects to return to normal off-season activities in two-three weeks. As for next year, he said, “I have high expectations for myself” with specific offensive goals (I couldn’t coax them out of him, though). Catchers have the obvious added burden of handling the pitching staff, but d’Arnaud modestly downplayed his role, as he cited the importance of executing the game plans devised by pitching coach Dan Warthen and the importance of “knowing your pitchers…how to communicate” with them as individuals.
One of those pitchers is reliever Vic Black. The righthander was expected to break camp as the primary set-up man but after a poor spring training, rather than flying north with the Mets, a disappointed Black traveled west to Las Vegas.
Black said spring training is usually “rocky for me…especially with a new team.” Yet like his battery mate d’Arnaud, Black said, “I took my lumps…I was toughened by the experience…I am grateful for the experience.” Black pitched his way back to New York by the end of May and became a mainstay in the bullpen, praised by manager Terry Collins for his tenacity in big spots.
I asked Black about one of those big spots, a night when he extricated himself from a bases loaded, no outs jam against the Cubs in August. Kidding him, I mentioned how he had good-naturedly coached former Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin throw the ceremonial first pitch and then later that night he was facing the heart of the Cubs line-up with the bases loaded; how does a pitcher focus in those situations?
Black smiled and said, “I’ve gotten myself into more bases loaded and no out situations than I can remember” but he added having successfully done this before, he can draw on those past experiences and help himself today. Recalling that particular incident, Black said he used the Cubs “free swinging” tendencies to his advantage.
Mets Hall of Famer John Franco echoed this theme. Chatting with him about the rash of arm injuries by pitchers, the Brooklyn native didn’t claim to know the reason for the injuries but citing his own success as someone who didn’t rely on strikeouts to get guys out, Franco said, “If you learn how to pitch, you won’t have throw so hard.”
I also had the pleasure of chatting with the proud parents of Mets slugger Lucas Duda prior to Saturday’s game, a 2-1 Mets victory over Houston. Mrs. Duda used words like “speechless” and “savor” to describe the experience of seeing her son in the major leagues and his success this year. The Mets first baseman provided moments to savor for all Mets fans when he hit a walk-off, two run homerun on Saturday and clubbed his 30th homerun in his last at bat in Sunday’s finale.
The Mets ended the season in a tie for second place in the NL East, albeit with a record of 79-83. Having played well in September, the Mets enter the offseason with an optimistic air for 2015. Will 2015 see a return to the playoffs for the Amazins? Time will tell but as always, it’s been my privilege to cover the team and an honor to write about it for you, the readers. Be well.