NEW YORK -- David Peterson’s first strikeout pitch of Wednesday evening soared from one end of the strike zone to the other, so flummoxing Rhys Hoskins that the slugger, who had punished Peterson in their previous meeting, didn’t even wait for the umpire’s call to start walking back to the dugout.
Peterson’s second strikeout pitch dove away from Bryce Harper’s bat, looking like it might arc toward his swing path until it wound up being not even close. His third was a 94 mph fastball, stuck like a tack on the top edge of the zone. It was that sort of pattern all night for Peterson, who matched his career high with 10 strikeouts in a 5-1 win over the Phillies at Citi Field.
If this is who Peterson can be with any sort of regularity, the Mets have far less reason to worry about their rotation this summer.
“I felt good tonight,” Peterson said. “I really did. I felt like I did my job.”
A week after allowing a career-high six runs to the Phillies, including four in the first inning, Peterson recovered with the finest start of his young career. Striking out six of the first nine batters he faced, he did not allow a hit until Jean Segura’s one-out solo homer in the fifth. By that time, the Mets were already leading thanks to a Dominic Smith RBI single and a Pete Alonso run-scoring double play, both off their former teammate Zack Wheeler. (Three more runs would come home later, highlighted by catcher James McCann’s first Mets homer.)
For Peterson, two pitches in particular impressed. His fastball, which he struggled to keep above 90 mph at times in the Minor Leagues, hit a career-high 95.3 mph as he spotted it frequently at the top of the zone. His slider, which has become the left-hander’s primary off-speed pitch, either hit the zone or generated swings and misses outside of it 80 percent of the time.
Peterson credited the difference to a mechanical tweak he made between starts, keeping his front side “strong” and on a line toward home plate. That gave him better command of both his fastball and slider, as well as a sinker and changeup that he mixed in on occasion. The repertoire helped Peterson not only to generate eight swings and misses, but also a quartet of called third strikes -- what he called “positive feedback” from All-Star-caliber hitters like Hoskins and Harper, who had combined for five hits against him just last week.
“That’s his poise again,” manager Luis Rojas said. “This kid has shown that ever since the first time I met him. He wanted the ball. He wanted to come in and pitch. … I think this kid doesn’t get in his head. He just goes and corrects what he needs to correct, and he goes after it. So, you’ve got to give the kudos to him.”
About the only disappointment for Peterson came when Rojas removed him after six innings and 80 pitches -- a move that the manager chalked up to late-game matchups, but which hinted at the Mets’ desire to tread cautiously with their former first-round Draft pick. Peterson threw just 49 2/3 innings last year and has never accumulated more than 129 in a professional season; as such, the Mets won’t give him unlimited rope in 2021.
Their strategy speaks to the importance of Peterson in the rotation not just now, in April, while he fills in for injured starter Carlos Carrasco, but later in the summer as well. The Mets entered this year with plenty of confidence in Jacob deGrom, Carrasco and Marcus Stroman as their top three starters. They had high hopes for Taijuan Walker, who has pitched well in two starts, and also for Peterson. But with such a small sample size on which to evaluate him, Mets officials couldn’t be sure.
Slowly, that sample is both growing and trending in a positive way. If Peterson can pitch like a mid-rotation starter, it gives the Mets additional comfort as they wait for Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard to return. And it offers them heaps of long-term security as well, with Syndergaard and Stroman set to become free agents after this season.
But those are discussions for another day. In the here and now, Peterson’s first win gave the Mets three victories in a row, matching their longest streak of last season. His performance also lowered New York’s rotation ERA to 2.43, which ranked fourth in the National League at game’s end -- 22 spots higher than that group finished last season.
“Everyone’s throwing the ball extremely well,” McCann said. “Guys like deGrom, he’s deGrom -- he’s kind of set himself up to be who he is. But the way Stro’s throwing the ball, Walker, Petey, it’s been a lot of fun to see. Anytime you have a rotation that’s throwing the ball the way they are and giving our offense a chance, that’s all you can ask for.”