Mets thrust rookie into relief spotlight to help secure series win

Núñez rewards Mendoza's faith with shutdown effort in high-leverage opportunity vs. Nats

June 5th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- David Peterson had already recorded perhaps the trickiest out of the game in the seventh inning on Tuesday night, when Mets manager Carlos Mendoza, unwilling to give the Nationals the platoon advantage with the potential tying run at the plate, looked to his bullpen.

In normal times, this spot -- three-run game, two outs, two runners on base, longtime Mets nuisance Lane Thomas batting -- would have been a job for Adam Ottavino, or perhaps Reed Garrett, or maybe even Edwin Díaz. But these are not normal times.

Díaz will be on the injured list for another week. Ottavino has routinely struggled since the start of May. Garrett has been comparably shaky. Why not try something new?

So Mendoza instead turned to rookie in what was almost certainly the highest-leverage spot of the 27-year-old’s fledgling Major League career. Núñez responded by striking out Thomas to strand two runners, then pitching a scoreless eighth as well en route to a 6-3 Mets win at Nationals Park.

“In that moment,” Núñez said through an interpreter, “I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to beat you.’”

It worked. Harrison Bader hit a two-run homer, Starling Marte added a two-run triple and Alonso clubbed his longest home run of the season (446 feet), as New York won the first two in this three-game set.

But the Mets have had plenty of recent nights in which they’ve put up runs and received a solid starting pitching effort only to watch it all evaporate in the later innings. They could ill afford to lose another game that way.

Enter Núñez, a longtime farmhand less than two months removed from his Major League debut. Núñez proved solid earlier this season, remained excellent in the Minors after the Mets returned him to Triple-A, and has been plenty intriguing since the club recalled him late last month.

For Mendoza, it was enough.

When Peterson put three of the first four Nationals hitters on base in the seventh, Mendoza decided to give him one more batter, allowing Peterson to retire left-handed hitter CJ Abrams on a popup. Then, the skipper jogged out of the dugout to remove his starter in favor of Núñez.

Unfazed by the added leverage, Núñez greeted Thomas with consecutive sliders before going into attack mode, elevating three straight fastballs. After Thomas swung through a 95 mph heater at the upper limit of the zone, Núñez came right back with an even firmer pitch several inches above it. Thomas swung and missed once more.

“Obviously, he was pretty nasty there,” Mendoza said.

For the Mets, Núñez is the literal next man up, entering Mendoza’s circle of trust at a time when the manager will take all the fresh faces he can. With Díaz injured, Drew Smith only recently returned from his own IL stint, and Ottavino, Garrett and Jake Diekman all proving inconsistent, the Mets entered Tuesday’s play with the most bullpen losses in the Majors over the past month.

Outside of Núñez, Triple-A Syracuse was mostly bereft of answers. So the Mets not only called on the rookie, but almost immediately began thrusting him into high-leverage situations.

“I appreciate the trust that he’s put into me at this point,” Núñez said. “It kind of puts you in the position where you’re not thinking that much, and you’re just going out there to try to help the team out as much as you possibly can.”

In that way and others, Mendoza and president of baseball operations David Stearns have demonstrated their willingness to adapt on the fly.

When Brett Baty proved unable to hit his way out of an early-season slump, the Mets demoted him, handed the third-base job to Mark Vientos, and called up Jose Iglesias to replace Baty. When Jeff McNeil slipped deeper into his own funk at the plate, Mendoza became proactive in starting Iglesias over him at second base.

Now, it’s the bullpen that’s seeing some changes. And while Núñez won’t be this flawless for the remainder of the season, Mendoza’s willingness to freelance offers hope that he can continue pulling the proper levers when needed.

“Just looking for ways to continue to win not only baseball games here, but in different areas,” Mendoza said. “Just giving different guys opportunities and creating an atmosphere where, hey, competition is real. And here we are.”