The Mets flew to Chicago last weekend sporting a winning record and a first-place standing, feeling confident that things would continue to trend upward for them. They departed on the wrong end of a three-game sweep, with Jason Heyward’s walk-off single giving the Cubs a 4-3 win in Thursday’s series finale.
“Getting swept feels like eating a [expletive] sandwich, to be honest with you,” first baseman Pete Alonso said, summing the team’s reframed mood.
Manager Luis Rojas referred to the Mets’ first two losses at Wrigley Field as “erratic games” that featured significant offensive and defensive issues. Thursday was different. Thursday, the Mets spent most of the evening either tied or within one run of the Cubs, which created an array of decisions for Rojas to navigate.
These were the three most important in a game full of tactical intrigue:
1) Picking the right pinch-hitter
Because Rojas had kept both J.D. Davis (three errors in two games) and Jeff McNeil (3-for-20 slump) out of the starting lineup, he found himself with an unusual number of prolific options on his bench. The first time the Mets needed a sub, Rojas went with Brandon Nimmo, who also didn’t start due to a bout of right hip soreness. Nimmo struck out to strand a pair.
Rojas’ decision was more difficult in the seventh, when the pitcher’s spot came up with a man on first and one out. Although right-hander Ryan Tepera was on the mound, Rojas chose to defy classic platoon theory and turn to Davis, a righty hitter, instead of the lefty McNeil. Rojas liked the matchup with Davis, who entered the game sporting an identical career batting average (.271) against right- and left-handed pitchers. He also believed Davis’ power bat gave the Mets a better chance to score Jonathan Villar from first. And Rojas wanted to save the more contact-oriented McNeil for a late-game opportunity against relievers Dan Winkler or Craig Kimbrel, who feature fastballs with higher spin rates than Tepera’s.
The move worked exactly as planned; Davis drove a game-tying double off the top of the ivy-covered fence in center, and the Mets entered the later innings with a chance to win.
“The matchup at the time of J.D., we liked it, knowing it could be an RBI situation,” Rojas said. “And he got it for us.”
2) The bullpen end game
Of course, the Mets still needed to hold the Cubs scoreless, which proved difficult when Jake Marisnick opened the bottom of the eighth with a triple off reliever Aaron Loup. Due to Major League Baseball’s three-batter rule, Loup had to face the next two hitters, and he did well to retire them on a popup and a strikeout. That brought righty-swinging catcher Willson Contreras to the plate, and Rojas out of the Mets’ dugout.
In came Miguel Castro, who whiffed Contreras to end the threat.
Given that Castro needed just six pitches to escape the inning, the Mets could have brought him back out for the ninth. But Castro had thrown 18 pitches the night before, which -- despite a full week of rest preceding that outing -- was enough for Rojas to make another change.
“We talked about it before the game -- he was either going to go an inning, or he was going to come in a situation like that, close an inning like that for us,” Rojas said, “but not go back down and up.”
After Edwin Díaz pitched a scoreless ninth to send the game to extras, the Mets had little choice but to entrust him with the 10th as well. It was nonetheless a risk; Díaz had recorded more than three outs in a game just four times over his first two seasons in New York. On top of that, he has historically been less effective with men on base in his career.
Opposing hitters vs. Díaz:
…with the bases empty: .188/.274/.324
…with men on base: .223/.300/.366
…with a man on second and no outs: .313/.353/.375
The latter situation is what Díaz faced with an automatic runner on second. He immediately hit Matt Duffy with a pitch to put two men on, before David Bote moved both into scoring position via a sacrifice bunt.
That left Rojas with one last decision.
3) To walk or not to walk
With men on second and third and one out, Rojas could either intentionally walk Eric Sogard, setting up a bases-loaded situation for Heyward, or he could ask Díaz -- the Mets’ foremost strikeout pitcher, and that includes Jacob deGrom -- to try to fan Sogard. Following a brief mound debate, the Mets opted to walk Sogard, basing that decision off the infielder’s contact approach (just a 13.5 percent career strikeout rate). The Mets feared Sogard putting the ball in play and the Cubs’ speedy runner on third, Javier Báez, breaking for home plate on contact.
“You know that's the most likely baseball play right there,” Heyward said. “Load the bases. Give yourself an opportunity to get a forceout.”
But the move backfired when Heyward guided his walk-off single into right field, sending the Mets home on an unhappy flight.
“It’s a tough series, for sure,” Alonso said. “The Cubs played extremely well, and we didn’t play up to our full potential. They’re a really good squad over there. They’re a great and talented opponent, and they beat us. We had opportunities for sure. We just need to take this as a learning experience, and apply those lessons, and get better.”