Vargas opens eyes with fresh start this spring

Veteran lefty fans three and yields just three hits in four strong innings

March 11th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Had the Mets acquired a veteran starting pitcher this winter, there's little question at whose expense the move would have come. For the first four months of last season, Jason Vargas was the Mets' weakest rotation link, unable to enhance the momentum of the team's other starters.

That the Mets kept their starting five intact anyway represented a vote of confidence in Vargas, who has done his best to vindicate it against Grapefruit League competition. Vargas has not given up a run since allowing a homer to the first batter he faced this spring. Through three starts, he's pacing Mets starters by a wide margin with a 1.08 ERA.

"I probably put more stock into having good, competitive innings, more than anything," Vargas said. "I try not to put a ton of stock into the results, but the results are good. You can't deny that."

What Vargas has done, at least temporarily, is quiet concerns that have surrounded him for nearly a year. Last spring, Vargas made only three starts, taking a comebacker off his right hand and missing his first few rotation turns due to a broken bone. When he returned, he struggled, giving up nine runs in his first outing and lugging an 8.75 ERA into mid-August.

It did not help that Vargas' season remained disjointed through the All-Star break. Due in part to the left-hander's struggles, the Mets skipped him in the rotation multiple times and even started him on short rest once. Vargas missed additional time due to a right calf strain in June and July, robbing him of consistent chances to turn around his season.

Not until August did Vargas rebound, going 5-1 with a 2.62 ERA over his final eight starts -- perhaps not enough to erase the sting of what came before, but certainly sufficient to dull it.

"I've said this since the beginning of last year: Even when I struggled, [manager] Mickey [Callaway] was behind me, [pitching coach] Dave [Eiland] was behind me, the front office never got down on me, never threw me under the bus and never made it seem as if I wasn't going to be in a situation to try and work my way out of what was going on," Vargas said. "So to have that vote of confidence and have them stick behind me and voice that in the media, it gives you tons of good thoughts to lean on."

Such confidence continued into Florida, where Vargas on Monday delivered four more shutout innings in a 6-3 loss to the Astros. The left-hander's spring performance is not entirely why talk has quieted regarding the Mets' interest in Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez or other free-agent starters; that's due more to general manager Brodie Van Wagenen's hints that the Mets are done shopping. Still, what Vargas has achieved is comforting to a Mets team once again reliant on him.

"I think he needed it for himself," Callaway said. "For him to come out and pitch the way he has -- he's executing every pitch it seems like that he needs to execute, and he's been facing some really good hitters. I'm really pleased with the way he's throwing the ball."