Under intense scrutiny, Vargas shows command

April 24th, 2019

NEW YORK -- As if needed any additional scrutiny entering his fifth start of an uneven season, Gio Gonzalez provided it earlier Wednesday, half a country away. In allowing Gonzalez to sign with the Brewers for a mere $2 million guaranteed, the Mets made it abundantly clear that they will ride or die with Vargas at the back of their rotation.

The Mets could have signed Gonzalez themselves, but only by luring him with a guaranteed rotation spot -- Vargas’ spot. Statistically, it would have been easy to justify. Vargas posted a 9.58 ERA over his first four outings, not pitching beyond five innings in any of them. When he allowed four runs in one-third of an inning on April 13 in Atlanta, manager Mickey Callaway demonstrated an uncharacteristically short leash in removing his starter.

Yet as they sat this week to crunch the numbers, Mets officials deduced that Gonzalez, whom the Yankees recently released, was not a sure upgrade over Vargas. Throughout a long offseason and into the spring, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and his cabinet espoused the virtues of Vargas -- a former All-Star who, as recently as 2017, was an 18-game winner. On Wednesday, with the news of Gonzalez’s signing fresh, Vargas needed to pitch well enough to justify that faith.

He at least moved firmly in the proper direction. Delivering 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball in a 6-0 loss to the Phillies, Vargas kept the Mets in a game that remained close until Philadelphia rallied for three runs in the eighth. He demonstrated command of six pitches, even striking out Bryce Harper twice.

“I’m sure every team will take five good innings from a fifth starter every night,” Callaway said. “Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. It’s the fifth spot. And you know what? If the rest of your pitchers are pitching like they’re capable of, that is more than enough out of your fifth slot.”

The Mets’ primary issue was not Vargas, but an offense that did little against Phillies starter Vince Velasquez. In the first inning, the Mets stranded the bases loaded. In the third, they left two men in scoring position. From that point on, their rallies were few and far between, allowing the Phillies to avoid a series sweep.

That was hardly the fault of Vargas, whose primary disappointment was not pitching deeper into the game. It’s a shortcoming that didn’t bother Mets officials nearly as much.

“He was great,” Callaway said. “I think that he’s starting to feel some confidence, build that confidence that we saw at the end of last year.”

Vargas went 5-1 with a 2.62 ERA over his final eight starts of 2018, rebounding from a four-and-a-half-month slump that saw him hold an 8.75 ERA as late as Aug. 13. Injuries played a role, as did the same type of disjointed schedule -- skipped starts, shuffled rotation turns -- that affected him this April.

That’s now in the past. And as long as Vargas continues delivering five solid innings every fifth game, it will remain in the past. So will talk of Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel or any other available pitcher who might entice the Mets.

They’re committed to Vargas and, particularly after Wednesday’s outing, they’re secure in that decision.

“It’s definitely nice to pitch on a more regular basis than not,” Vargas said. “I’ve definitely had some more success these last couple times out in making the pitches that we want. It’s definitely moving in that direction.”

Rhame blames himself

Reliever , who irked the Phillies when he threw a ball over Rhys Hoskins’ head on Tuesday, was the victim of Hoskins’ revenge almost exactly 24 hours later. Facing the first baseman in a four-run game, Rhame served up a two-run homer. Hoskins -- who intimated late on Tuesday that he believed the hit-by-pitch was intentional -- celebrated animatedly when the ball went out, then took a Statcast-record 34.2 seconds to round the bases.

Asked about the trot, various Mets said they were unperturbed. That included Rhame, who bemoaned only the pitch location.

“He got me,” Rhame said. “If I make a better pitch, he doesn’t get to run the bases.”

Error of his ways

In what is becoming a troubling trend for the middle infield, shortstop committed two errors on Wednesday to give him seven in his last six games. Neither he nor Callaway believes it is anything more than a slump from which Rosario will soon emerge.

“I’m fine,” Rosario said through an interpreter. “I have my head up. I’m staying positive. I’m coming here and giving 100 percent every day.”