PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even now, Jeurys Familia considers Jenrry Mejia a friend. The two Dominicans grew up together in the Mets' organization, first playing together as 18-year-olds in Port St. Lucie. But in recent years, their paths have diverged.
Mejia broke into the Major Leagues at 20 years old, a blazing star, before injuries began derailing his career. Over the past 10 months, MLB thrice suspended him for positive performance-enhancing drug tests, culminating in last week's lifetime ban.
Familia did not crack the Majors until two years later, and even then only briefly at first. He entered last season as a setup man to Mejia, taking over the closer's role after his friend received his initial suspension. Now, Familia enters camp as the bullpen's best and most important pitcher -- though he also enters for the first time without Mejia at his side.
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"Everybody knows what happened," said Familia, one of many early reporters to camp. "It's tough for me because he's my friend, and he's still my friend. I don't know what he thinks. But everybody knows when you do something wrong, you've got to pay for it. That's all."
Familia has not spoken to Mejia since he received his last suspension, preferring to give his friend some "space." Familia also knows the best way to help the Mets overcome Mejia's suspension is to improve his own game, rather than focus on things he can't control. Though the Mets spent plenty of money on relievers Antonio Bastardo, Addison Reed and Jerry Blevins this offseason, Familia remains the bullpen's unquestioned anchor.
"It's no different for me because I will be doing the same thing I do every year, trying to get better and better," Mejia said. "I know I have the position of closer, but in my mind, I'm just trying right now to get ready and we'll see what happens."
If it seems unlikely that Familia can improve upon the 1.85 ERA he posted last season, converting 43 of his 48 save opportunities, that's because he already ranks among the game's elite closers. But Familia was a borderline All-Star when he added an upper-90s split-fingered fastball to his repertoire last July, seeing immediate dividends from the pitch. Further growth is always possible.
Then there is the matter of postseason play. While defensive lapses played a significant role in Familia's World Series struggles, the fact remains that he blew saves in three of the Mets' four losses on the game's biggest stage.
Familia insists he views that experience only as a positive.
"It was good for everybody playing in the World Series," he said. "I know we didn't win, but everybody came this year with a different mind. Everybody knows how to play in the World Series, to be in games with that kind of pressure. I think this year, we'll be better."