Mets' 'arm care' looms over vital seesaw loss

September 15th, 2021

NEW YORK -- In a must-win game Tuesday night at Citi Field, Mets manager Luis Rojas removed his best healthy starter, Marcus Stroman, after six innings and 89 pitches, despite the fact that his spot in the batting order wasn’t due up until the bottom of the seventh. Rojas then took out Aaron Loup following a perfect, seven-pitch inning; Trevor May after a two-batter, 13-pitch effort; and Edwin Díaz after a clean ninth on 13 pitches of his own.

To be clear, these were organizational decisions, based on conversations amongst Rojas, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and the pitchers themselves, with front office and performance-staff blueprints also part of the equation. But the upshot was this: Had Rojas extended any of those pitchers beyond their usual roles in what has become win-or-start-packing-suitcases time for the Mets, then Jake Reed -- a rookie who entered the night with 9 1/3 career innings and had just been activated from a four-week stay on the injured list -- might never have entered the game.

As it was, Reed gave up three runs in the 11th to send the Mets to a 7-6 loss to the Cardinals -- a dramatic blow to their remaining postseason chances on a night that saw the Braves, Reds, Padres and Phillies all lose. With a win, the Mets could have gained a game on all five teams they are chasing between the National League East and NL Wild Card races combined. Instead, they lost ground to the Cardinals while deferring to “arm care,” as their manager termed it.

“I can’t ask any more from the guys,” Rojas said. “Right now, it would be unfair. I can’t put them in a situation where it would compromise anything else -- their stuff, their health. You might run a guy out there, he might not be the same pitcher you’re asking the guy to be as well. There’s just a lot of things that come into it. Ideally, the manager wants to pitch everyone every day, but there are some other things that come into play.”

In a vacuum, each of Rojas’ decisions came complete with its own list of logical reasons. Combined, they put undue pressure on the softest parts of New York’s bullpen.

The chain reaction began with Stroman, who recovered from a difficult fourth inning to give the Mets a quality start. As he came off the field following a strikeout of Dylan Carlson in the sixth, Stroman untucked his shirt, which frequently signifies he is done for the night. Rojas all but confirmed as much later, when he indicated that he never asked Stroman if he wanted to pitch the seventh. Stroman, in turn, did not ask for the ball.

“That’s just the decision that was made in the game,” Stroman said. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the outcome.”

Neither Stroman nor Rojas would reveal whose decision it was, with the manager defining it as a collaborative effort amongst himself, Stroman and Hefner. What’s clear is that Stroman did not push to remain in the game, and no one in management pushed him, either.

“I’m just saying you don’t know how the game’s going to play out at all,” Stroman said, referencing the fact that he leads the Majors with 31 starts after choosing not to pitch last season due to pandemic concerns. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, if he would have stayed in, we would have won the game.’ You can’t nitpick like that. It’s impossible. I could have gone out in the seventh and given up three homers. You know what I mean?”

Similar decisions were made after Loup’s successful inning in the seventh, May’s performance in the eighth, Díaz’s strong outing in the ninth and even Heath Hembree’s excellence in the 10th. On each occasion, the Mets remained conservative, while also declining to use Seth Lugo because he had pitched in back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday. (Rojas clarified that Lugo is not dealing with an injury; he simply needed rest.)

The result was Reed -- a pitcher whom the Mets activated earlier in the day following four weeks spent nursing a forearm strain -- taking a loss in the 11th.

“I always want to keep the pitcher going, especially when they’re throwing really good and the stuff is really good,” Rojas said. “But the conversation is collaborative.”

Even so, all final decisions rest with the manager, whose choices on this night resulted in a painful loss. The Mets certainly had their chances for things to play out differently: Javier Báez hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth, flipping the script after Tyler O’Neill’s go-ahead, two-run shot off Jeurys Familia in the eighth. New York even rallied for two of its own in the 11th, but by that point, the damage was done.

“Pretty frustrated,” Stroman said. “Obviously, we work extremely hard and our goal is to make the playoffs and go deeper. Yeah, definitely not happy at all.”