Key hits in sixth, defense get Mets past Pirates
Lagares, Tejada big on both sides in new hitting coach's first game
NEW YORK -- Four hours before Tuesday's game against the Pirates, new Mets hitting coach Lamar Johnson stood in an indoor batting cage, watching his players hit. In his first day on the job, Johnson was in the earliest stages of observing his new pupils, analyzing their swings and, ultimately, making adjustments.
The final part of that plan will unfold in time, as Johnson grows more comfortable in his role. He may not change much; a longtime organizational employee, Johnson admitted that his philosophies are not much different than those of his predecessor. But results are what the Mets are after, and they at least received some later that night in a 4-2 win over the Pirates.
"We've got talent here," Johnson said. "Basically what we have to do is just get it going."
For a Mets team that averaged 3.9 runs per game under previous hitting coach Dave Hudgens, Tuesday's offensive output seemed perfectly reasonable. Nobody expected things to change right away, and the Mets owed their win more to pitching and defense -- Jon Niese, Juan Lagares and Ruben Tejada all contributed heavily in those areas -- than anything they did at the plate.
But the Mets already knew they could pitch and they knew they could field. Offense is the one thing they have not received much of this season, making Johnson's role going forward all the more vital.
In his first day on the job, the new hitting coach did see plenty of positive signs. Abandoning their recent trend of leaving small armies on base, the Mets came through with several key hits -- most notably back-to-back RBI knocks from Lagares and Daniel Murphy in the sixth to break a 2-2 tie. Lagares also contributed a run-scoring double in the fourth inning off Pirates starter Edinson Volquez, and Bobby Abreu added a two-out RBI single in the third.
"We've played well, we just haven't scored runs," manager Terry Collins said. "We just haven't driven in the big runs. So to have a game like tonight where we got some big hits off guys, I thought was important."
Niese pitched relatively well, holding the Pirates to two runs over 5 2/3 innings, but he did not stick around long enough to earn the win. After the left-hander walked the bases loaded in the sixth, Starling Marte chased him with a two-out, two-run single, tying the game. Niese then watched from the dugout as Vic Black walked the first batter he faced to load the bases again, before escaping further damage by striking out pinch-hitter Ike Davis.
"I can't walk guys," Niese said. "I've got to challenge them. It's not like I was trying to throw balls, but they put together three at-bats."
Black worked around another walk in the seventh, before Jenrry Mejia recorded the final six outs for the save.
It was not the crispest game the Mets have played this season, but it did have its highlights. In the first inning, Lagares robbed Andrew McCutchen of extra bases with a leaping catch on a fly ball to the warning track. In the third, McCutchen returned the favor by diving to grab Lagares' shot to center.
"They kind of traded them, didn't they?" Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm sure after their center fielder robbed our center fielder, our center fielder thought fair play would be to pay him back."
For the Mets, strong defense kept coming. In the fifth, Tejada made a strong play on Neil Walker's ground ball to short to prevent a one-out hit. In the eighth, Tejada started a key double play to help Mejia out of trouble. And in the ninth, Curtis Granderson made a fine running grab of Jose Tabata's fly ball to right.
None of that had anything to do with Johnson. In reality, little that the Mets do this season will be a reflection on the new hitting coach, whose role is to shepherd the Mets' offense -- not recreate it from the ground up. When the Mets dismissed Hudgens after Monday's loss, Collins called it "change for the sake of change," and that may well be accurate.
The only change the Mets are looking for is winning. Tuesday, at least, marked one step in that direction.