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Mets' once-comfortable lead vanishes late

@AnthonyDiComo
August 1, 2020

Entering this season, the Mets’ most significant hopes for a better fate in 2020 resided with their bullpen. Over the winter, the front office brought in Dellin Betances to supplement a back-end mix that already included Edwin Díaz, Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson. Optimism was so high that

Entering this season, the Mets’ most significant hopes for a better fate in 2020 resided with their bullpen. Over the winter, the front office brought in Dellin Betances to supplement a back-end mix that already included Edwin Díaz, Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson. Optimism was so high that their general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, said the Mets had the potential for “one of the best bullpens in baseball.”

And yet through eight games, much of what could go wrong already has. Outside of Familia and Drew Smith, who have generally looked strong, the Mets have not enjoyed the bullpen of their offseason dreams. They’ve worked Wilson as hard as any reliever in baseball, perhaps to his detriment. They spent much of Friday discussing how to proceed with Díaz, who has not come close to shaking his issues from last summer.

Now, Betances and Lugo have joined the fray. The former battled both his fastball velocity and control in allowing four runs Friday in Atlanta, while the latter served up the game-breaking hit to former teammate Travis d’Arnaud in an 11-10 loss to the Braves.

Box score

“We know we’re better than that,” manager Luis Rojas said.

Rojas added that “this is a really good bullpen,” though the Mets, who finished 25th in reliever ERA last season, have yet to show it. In allowing seven runs at Truist Park, the Mets’ bullpen spiked its ERA to 6.82 through eight games -- second worst in the Major Leagues.

Blaming a single pitcher would be unfair, because issues have taken roots nearly everywhere. The trouble on Friday began with starting pitcher Rick Porcello, who quipped that his four-plus-inning outing was an improvement over his first one because he “made it out of the second.” Porcello did not, however, do so unscathed; not only did he walk the leadoff man in both the fourth and fifth innings, but J.D. Davis compounded the latter mistake by dropping a popup to shallow left field.

Moments later, the bullpen gates swung open and the carousel began. The first man up, Paul Sewald, allowed both of Porcello’s inherited runners to score (plus one of his own). Chasen Shreve gave up another run in his two innings, but the Mets -- thanks to their finest offensive output of the season, which included a Davis two-run homer, solo shots from Amed Rosario and Robinson Canó, and a six-run rally in the fifth -- were at least able to give the ball to their back-end relievers with a four-run lead.

That’s when things began spiraling. Betances, whose fastball velocity has been a concern since Spring Training, averaged a season-worst 93 mph on his heater after entering in the eighth. Worse, he struggled to throw strikes, walking two of the five batters he faced and allowing hits to two others.

“That haunted us,” Rojas said of the walks.

Having seen enough, Rojas turned to Lugo, who likely would have been in line for a five-out save due to Díaz’s issues. He never made it that far. Easily the Mets’ most reliable reliever last season, Lugo walked the first batter he faced, induced a popup for the second out of the inning, then faced d’Arnaud with the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

Lugo’s 1-0 pitch to d’Arnaud was a fastball on the outer half of the plate, but home-plate umpire Mark Wegner called it a ball. Upset, Lugo decided to alter his plan of attacking d’Arnaud with hard stuff, turning instead to his slider on a 2-0 pitch. The catcher was ready for it, shooting it into the right-center-field gap for a go-ahead, bases-clearing double that he called a “fun” way to harrow his former team.

“I definitely thought it was a strike, but I had a game plan and I got away from it that next pitch,” Lugo said. “It’s kind of unacceptable to let something like that get in your head and affect the next pitch. I’ve got to do a better job of staying focused.”

Call it focus, call it emotion, call it velocity or execution. All have been issues for Mets relievers, who understand how critical their success is to the team at large. Particularly in a shortened season, with starting pitchers not fully stretched out and the Mets’ rotation depth at issue, the Mets’ relief corps has become more important than ever.

If they don’t fix things in a hurry, it may rapidly become too late.

“We have to just be real about the situation, and what’s going on out on the field,” Rojas said. “Our guys have incredible repertoires. If we can keep them mixing pitches and doing what they do, I know we can navigate through lineups. … We’re definitely better than that.”

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