MIAMI -- As the 2015 Mets steamed toward the postseason, it seemed their pitching grew stronger by the week. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, each carrying ace credentials, were in top form heading into October. Something clicked for Noah Syndergaard, a midseason callup, late in the year. Another rookie, Steven Matz, grew healthier as the Mets entered postseason play.
Things could hardly be less similar this autumn, with Harvey, deGrom and Matz all done for the season. Their surgeries ensure that regardless of how the Mets handle Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon -- and there's plenty of potential shuffling still to come -- they will proceed into October with two unheralded rookies in their rotation.
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It's not an ideal scenario. But considering how well Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have pitched, it's no longer something the Mets fear.
"They've gotten us through two months of no Harvey, no deGrom, no Matz," manager Terry Collins said. "They've gotten us to this point."
Gsellman, a 13th-round pick in the 2011 Draft whose two-seam fastball has allowed him to coax ground balls at an elite rate, has been responsible for some of the Mets' best starting-pitching performances in September -- including seven shutout innings last weekend against the Phillies. If Gsellman had enough innings to qualify, his 54.4-percent ground-ball rate would rank as one of the six best in the Majors.
Then there is Lugo, a 34th-rounder whose active five-game winning streak has dropped his ERA to 2.67. Though he held a 6.50 ERA in 21 appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas, Lugo attributes much of that to the desert's difficult pitching environment. His Major League success backs up that hypothesis.
"This kid has come here and done nothing but saved us," Collins said. "He and Robert and some of those guys in the bullpen, several guys have come up here and bought right into what's going on. They got caught up in trying to pull up on their end of the rope and they've done a tremendous job."
The question is for how long the Mets' rookies can sustain this performance. For the first time in their lives, Lugo and Gsellman are pitching deep into September, both recently eclipsing their career highs in innings. Now, the Mets are asking them to pitch into October. In addition to starting crucial games down the stretch, Lugo and Gsellman will constitute half of the Mets' National League Division Series rotation if they advance that far.
Though neither pitcher knows quite what to expect from their body, they both can draw on their recent experiences. Physically, Lugo says, a lengthy bullpen assignment in July kept him stronger than expected for the stretch run. Emotionally, his experience pitching in the 2013 Minor League playoffs prepared him for what's coming.
"I expect a lot of adrenaline, so that helps," Lugo said. "Playoff time is fun. The more fun you're having, it makes it that much easier to play."
Perhaps "easy" is the wrong word; the young Mets know this will be a career-defining challenge. But they also believe it's a challenge they can handle, which is critical for a Mets team fresh out of other options.
"They've pitched so well," Collins said. "And they've pitched well enough that, look, you've got to have confidence. You get there, anybody can win. Somebody's got to step up and pitch good. Why can't it be our guys?"