As a player ostensibly still fighting for a spot on the Mets’ 26-man roster, Jacob Barnes was never going to say no to another chance to prove himself. So when Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner approached Barnes about serving as an opener for Saturday’s Grapefruit League game against the Astros, Barnes was immediately intrigued.
“Obviously, everyone’s going to say yes to an opportunity,” the veteran reliever said. “The goal is to get out there and actually feel that and prepare for it. So now that I’ve just done it, I’m very comfortable with it. And I thought I would be.”
On this day, the strategy worked exactly as the Mets intended in an 8-3 win. Facing three of Houston’s best hitters in the first inning, Barnes set them down in order with a pair of strikeouts. Bulk reliever Joey Lucchesi took it from there, delivering 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball with four strikeouts in what manager Luis Rojas called “a good first test.”
“It’s definitely something that’s trending in the game,” Barnes said, “so you kind of have to get used to it.”
When Lucchesi was asked about the strategy last week, he offered some wariness, given his lifelong history as a starter. But after a chat with Hefner, Lucchesi accepted the assignment. His only adjustment involved pushing back his pregame routine about 20 minutes.
“I just took it as a start -- told myself, ‘Stay locked in, I’ve got work to do,’” Lucchesi said. “I actually felt really great today, so I didn’t mind it, I guess.”
For Barnes, the most difficult part was getting used to a new pregame warmup routine. Rather than beginning long toss a half hour before the game, as many starting pitchers do, Barnes tried to mimic a relief scenario, warming up relatively quickly and going straight to the mound. If he serves as an opener again in the regular season, he plans to condense that routine even further.
There’s a decent chance the Mets will use Barnes in that fashion now that he has all but cemented his spot on their 26-man roster. Although the Mets haven’t made that decision official, Barnes is already on the 40-man roster and out of Minor League options. He’s also been near-perfect since a hiccup in his first spring outing, delivering five shutout innings with seven strikeouts and no walks.
Barnes, however, isn’t the only pitcher the Mets may consider using as an opener. Other options range from lefty Aaron Loup to hard-throwing right-hander Miguel Castro. On Sunday, Mike Montgomery will start for the Mets; he’s been stretching out as a true starting pitcher this spring, but he is more likely to make the team in a relief capacity. As such, he could serve as an opener capable of throwing multiple innings in advance of a bulk reliever like Lucchesi.
“We’ve obviously seen it over the past couple years,” Barnes said of the strategy. “We’re always kind of curious as bullpen guys because we’re so used to such little notice. So, when it started becoming a thing, the guys who hadn’t done it before were always kind of curious and wanted to try it out, just to kind of see that experience.”
Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso brought some thunder to the Mets’ victory, hitting back-to-back homers in the eighth inning. Smith clubbed a solo shot earlier in the game, giving both players four home runs on the spring. (Not to be outdone, shortstop Francisco Lindor finished 3-for-3 with three RBIs and a stolen base.)
The performance was a testament to the Mets’ offensive depth; Alonso and Smith are penciled in as the Mets’ fourth and fifth hitters, with perennial batting title contender Jeff McNeil slotted behind them.
“If we’re all locked in and focused, we can do damage and we can compete with any lineup in baseball,” Smith said.
From the trainer’s room
Reliever Arodys Vizcaíno (right elbow soreness) threw a bullpen session earlier his week and could appear in a Grapefruit League game before camp breaks on Monday. But there may not be enough time for Vizcaíno to prove his readiness for the Opening Day roster. There definitely won’t be enough for Drew Smith (right shoulder soreness), who has yet to throw off the slope of a mound. He’ll likely join the Mets at some point later this season.
Infielder Jonathan Villar is also sidelined due to a mild groin injury. The Mets hope to have Villar back as soon as Monday, meaning his roster spot is not currently in jeopardy.