ATLANTA -- Given a chance to rethink his decision, Mets manager Mickey Callaway stood firm. Callaway had removed his starter, Steven Matz, from Wednesday’s game at SunTrust Park after 79 pitches, at a point when Matz had retired 14 consecutive batters. The manager subsequently watched Seth Lugo implode for five runs in a 6-4 loss to the Braves.
Callaway, who has endured significant criticism for his bullpen usage at various points this season, did not waver.
“I’ll make that move 100 times out of 100,” he said. “That’s the right move, in my mind.”
Outside Callaway’s office, the Mets’ clubhouse was eerily silent as players showered and dressed. The loss was the team’s third in a row, smashing the good vibes the Mets had generated with their recent run of 15 wins in 16 games. It took only two nights for the Braves to reestablish both their superiority and their momentum in the NL East.
Perhaps a different decision would have yielded a different result. Trailing all game, the Mets took their first lead in the seventh when Matz -- batting for himself, because Callaway intended to leave him in the game at that point -- singled, Amed Rosario followed suit, and J.D. Davis drove both of them home with a go-ahead hit. Only at that point did Lugo begin warming. When Matz returned to the dugout, pitching coach Phil Regan told him that Lugo would enter the game if he could ready himself in time.
Lugo did, despite throwing only a few warm-up pitches. And so Matz’s night came to an end after an Ender Inciarte RBI double and 14 consecutive outs.
“I felt pretty good, but ultimately, Lugo’s been really good all year,” Matz said. “That was the manager’s call.”
“We had the best reliever in baseball sitting down there,” added Callaway.
Lugo actually entered the night with the 29th-best ERA among Major League pitchers with at least 50 innings, but he had retired 32 of the last 33 batters he had faced dating to mid-July. That trend came screeching to a halt as the Braves, following a leadoff walk, got to Lugo with a string of bloop hits and ground-ball singles. Of the five hits Lugo allowed, only one had an exit velocity above 90 mph.
“I was just unlucky,” Lugo said. “I thought I made a bunch of good pitches. They didn’t really hit anything hard.”
Entering the inning, Callaway’s plan was to use Lugo for the seventh and eighth, then some combination of Edwin Díaz and Justin Wilson in the ninth. That is notable because it implies Callaway preferred to use Diaz, who owns a 5.60 ERA and recently earned a demotion from the Mets’ full-time closer’s role, over Matz, who allowed two hits and a walk in one of his best starts of the season.
“You get Lugo in there, you hope for two zeroes, you have a chance to extend the lead -- you don’t know what the situation’s going to be two innings away from then,” Callaway said. “You also have Wilson down there ready to go. I felt like we could get it done with those three guys with three innings left, and we didn’t.”
Add it to the list of times Callaway has absorbed criticism for his bullpen decisions. Earlier this season, the manager took heat for the organization’s rules regarding Diaz’s usage, which Callaway later altered. He has defended his moves on multiple occasions both this year and last. Wednesday was the latest example in a game -- like every game, at this point in the season -- of utmost importance to the Mets.
The team did construct a rally of its own, scoring twice in the ninth, but Michael Conforto struck out against former teammate Jerry Blevins to strand the bases loaded in the ninth. As the crowd roared, the Mets filtered back into their pin-drop-quiet clubhouse, where Callaway was left to defend his decision.
“You have to put it aside,” Callaway said. “We’ve done this before. We’ve put some tough times aside. ... We’re still in a good spot. It’s not in the end of the world.”