Although it generated relatively little buzz, the Mets spent more than $10 million this winter to improve their bench. Too often in recent years, team officials attempted to build a cast of replacements on the cheap, leaving them scrambling when their starting position players became injured. Now with more money at their disposal, the Mets wanted to use a chunk of it to accumulate depth.
That is how Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar found themselves in the starting lineup for Game 2 of the Mets’ doubleheader at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. With Brandon Nimmo on the injured list and Francisco Lindor taking a game off because of a slump, Pillar, Villar, and backup catcher Tomás Nido all thrived, contributing multi-hit games in a 7-2 win over the Cardinals.
Nido and Villar both homered, while Pillar collected three total knocks in a doubleheader that the Mets split after dropping Game 1, 4-1.
“We call ourselves ‘The Bench Mob,’” said Nido, the longest-tenured member of New York’s reserve crew. “We’re always ready to go. No matter what, whenever our names are in the lineup, we’re always ready to go. No excuses.”
It was the type of win the Mets envisioned when they signed Pillar ($5 million guaranteed) and Villar ($3.55 million) this winter, making them the key pieces of a bench overhaul that also included Albert Almora Jr. ($1.25 million) and José Martínez ($1 million). Combining those veterans with incumbent role players Nido and Luis Guillorme allowed the Mets, for the first time since the mid- to late-aughts, to enter a season with their bench as a legitimate strength.
Early in the year, manager Luis Rojas struggled to find enough playing time for all of them, but the problem has become significantly easier to manage of late. An injury to Nimmo has allowed Pillar to start four consecutive games; he’s hit safely in all four, striking a double, an RBI single and a run-scoring fielder’s choice in doubleheader Game 2.
Villar has played a bit more regularly because of his versatility, which allows him to fill in three different infield positions. Although he’s batting just .235, Villar keeps finding other ways to impact the team, coming through with multiple clutch hits and even scoring from first base on an infield single last weekend in Philadelphia. He hit a solo homer in Game 2 on Wednesday, while Nido clubbed a two-run shot.
“I think those guys have stayed highly motivated [for] when they get the chance,” manager Luis Rojas said.
To stay on brand, a pitching staff missing Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Seth Lugo used six different arms to cobble together 21 outs against the Cardinals. Jordan Yamamoto, who learned that he was getting called up while walking his golden retriever in Syracuse on Tuesday afternoon, contributed eight of them to score his first win as a Met.
“My wife helped me pack my bags and drive to the airport right away,” Yamamoto said. “It was definitely a fun experience. I’ve never done it before, but it was definitely fun.”
All told, the performance was an antidote for everything that has plagued the Mets in recent weeks, allowing them at least temporarily to forget the ugliness of their first two losses in St. Louis -- not to mention the fallout of hitting coach Chili Davis’ dismissal. The Bench Mob enjoyed it. And the Mets believe there’s more to come, even while knowing this sort of thing can’t last forever.
At some point, their regulars will have to produce.
That hasn’t been a problem for New York’s two starters currently on the injured list, Nimmo and Davis, who have ranked among the club’s most productive offensive players when healthy. But it has been for Lindor and catcher James McCann, who have combined for six barreled balls over the first five weeks of the season, according to Statcast data.
Outside of Pete Alonso, who has been routinely excellent at the plate, no other Mets position player has proven consistent over that same stretch. So while it’s true that Pillar, Villar, Nido and others have given the lineup cover, the Mets will need Lindor, McCann, and most of their other regulars to produce if they want to be the type of team -- from top to bottom -- that they thought they built this winter.
Both Lindor and McCann will be back in the lineup for the series finale on Thursday. The Mets remain hopeful that both will find their strokes soon.
And in the interim?
“If they need me to play,” Villar said, “I’ll be there.”