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Mets’ ace up their sleeve? Jason Vargas

Lefty stays hot by beating Yanks in Subway Series nightcap
@AnthonyDiComo
June 11, 2019

NEW YORK -- When asked earlier this week what’s been different during Jason Vargas’ recent run of success, Mets manager Mickey Callaway bristled at the question. “You mean the six innings that he started off with?” Callaway quipped, referring to a season-opening rocky stretch that, all told, lasted 6 1/3

NEW YORK -- When asked earlier this week what’s been different during Jason Vargas’ recent run of success, Mets manager Mickey Callaway bristled at the question.

“You mean the six innings that he started off with?” Callaway quipped, referring to a season-opening rocky stretch that, all told, lasted 6 1/3 innings.

Box score

Callaway’s point was clear: few gave Vargas much of a chance, despite his recent history containing far more promising starts than poor ones. Perhaps they should have. In holding the Yankees to three runs over six innings Tuesday during a 10-4 Mets win in Game 2 of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, Vargas contributed his third consecutive quality outing. He has averaged more than seven innings per start during that stretch, with a 1.64 ERA. Longer term, Vargas has produced a 3.76 ERA over 105 1/3 innings since the 2018 All-Star break.

“He’s been pitching his heart out,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said. “You can’t really ask much more from that guy. He’s dealt, simple as that.”

If those numbers don’t pop off the page, they should given how contrary they run to Vargas’ reputation. As recently as mid-April, many were calling for the veteran’s rotation spot, urging general manager Brodie Van Wagenen to replace him with free agent Dallas Keuchel. The Mets never showed much interest in that, giving Vargas a public vote of confidence and largely ignoring Keuchel, who went to the Braves.

Now, Vargas is rewarding their faith.

After the Mets staked the left-hander to a six-run lead on Alonso’s three-run homer in the first inning and a trio of RBI singles off James Paxton in the third, Vargas cracked only a little. He allowed the first four Yankees to reach base in the bottom of the third, and the first three of those to score. Vargas then retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced to help the Mets salvage a doubleheader split; they lost Game 1, 12-5.

“It was huge,” Callaway said. “It’s kind of what we’ve done all year. Sometimes, we’ll get slapped in the face early in a game and then we come back at the end. This is who this team is.”

This is also the Vargas the Mets thought they had acquired when they signed him to a two-year, $16-million contract before the 2018 season to stabilize their rotation. Over the first half of that season, Vargas battled injuries and an inconsistent schedule, holding an 8.60 ERA at the All-Star break. That he managed to find a groove down the stretch, going 5-1 with a 2.62 ERA over his final eight starts, gave the Mets reason to believe in him heading into 2019.

It also gave Van Wagenen reason to eschew rotation upgrades over the winter, focusing his efforts instead on infield and bullpen depth. The Mets added a few minor rotation pieces, but no one they expected to supplant Vargas for any significant period of time.

That left them in a lurch when, three weeks into the season, Vargas held a 14.21 ERA -- the roughly six-inning stretch that Callaway referenced. So they were relieved when Vargas began his solid run, which includes a 2.20 ERA since the Mets cast their vote of confidence in him.

“This is who we signed,” Callaway said. “This is who we wanted.”

This is who Vargas is at his best. Tuesday, he again relied heavily on his changeup, throwing it nearly half the time, mostly down and away to right-handed hitters. It is that pitch, delivered in the high 70s, that allows his high-80s fastball to sneak up on hitters -- even elite hitters, such as those Vargas faced recently in New York and Los Angeles. He called this recent stretch an example of “working effectively, I guess,” which seems as apt a description as any. If there’s a secret as to what’s changed, Vargas isn’t revealing it.

Still, Vargas never doubted that this run of success would come -- nor did the Mets' officials who signed him.

“A rough six-and-a-third to start this year, and then he’s been lights-out,” Callaway said. “This is who he is. This is who we signed. It’s just good to see. You want your fifth starter out there doing what he’s doing.”

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.