NEW YORK -- With each pitch that Edwin Díaz threw on Saturday night, the Mets grew more self-assured that there would be a Sunday. Pound-for-pound, Díaz is their best pitcher, capable of striking out batters at a rate largely unseen in the history of baseball. The more outs that manager Buck Showalter could entrust to Díaz, the fewer he would have to ask from anyone else.
But even Díaz is a human being with limits, which is what made his usage in the Mets’ 7-3 win over the Padres in National League Wild Card Series Game 2 so notable. When Díaz entered to the pulsing beat of “Narco” in the seventh -- yes, the seventh -- inning at Citi Field, the Mets were nursing a one-run lead. When he took the mound to begin the eighth, approximately three-quarters of an hour had passed and the Mets were holding a five-run advantage.
Díaz ultimately gave the Mets the kind of security they craved in their bid to force a winner-take-all Game 3 Sunday night in Queens -- the kind of security Showalter had eschewed during his previous playoff experience in 2016, when he never used closer Zack Britton in an infamous Wild Card Game loss for the Orioles in Toronto. But at what cost did that safety come? His usage of Díaz on Saturday created a question as to whether the closer might be available in full force in Game 3, should the Mets need him.
Díaz, for his part, quieted such concerns with a simple acknowledgement of the October stakes.
“I will feel great, because I feel great every time,” Díaz said. “If they need me for more than three outs, I will be ready, because we’ve got to win tomorrow.”
First, the Mets had to get through Saturday -- a prospect made more difficult when it became apparent that Jacob deGrom was not at his most dominant best. In a performance evocative of his 2015 NL Division Series Game 5 win, deGrom willed his way through six innings as Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso supported him with solo homers. It was not until the bottom of the seventh that the Mets broke the game open, scoring four times during a nine-batter rally.
In the interim, Showalter needed to thread the managerial needle of winning Game 2 without putting his team in too difficult of a position for Game 3. That meant using Díaz in an impactful way, which in Showalter’s eyes meant making sure he faced Trent Grisham -- San Diego’s No. 8 hitter who had gone deep twice in 12 innings. It did not necessarily mean Díaz returning for the eighth once the Mets built a five-run lead, but Showalter had no interest in taking chances.
During that seventh-inning rally, Díaz threw off an indoor mound that Showalter had requested be installed in the Citi Field batting cages before the season. Then Díaz came back out and retired two more batters, reaching 28 total pitches before his manager came to retrieve him.
Asked if he considered removing Díaz after the seventh, Showalter replied: “It crossed my mind.” He concluded his thought with the obvious explanation: “We had to get this one under our belt.”
“Playoffs, bases loaded, two outs, tying run up?” Lugo said. “That’s the little-kid scenario. … I don’t think I was thinking.”
Showalter was, because it’s his job to think. The Mets, he knows, will not exactly limp into Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 3, but they won’t be at full strength for it, either. It’s possible Díaz could be mildly fettered, perhaps even a bit less effective than usual. Ottavino may be completely unavailable.
Then again, perhaps none of that will prove true. Perhaps every Mets reliever will be ready. When asked if he would be prepared to pitch, Lugo, who has never appeared in three consecutive games in his career, smiled and replied: “Oh, yeah. You can’t say no now.”
“Look, it’s winner-take-all tomorrow,” added Padres manager Bob Melvin, who knows a thing or two about playoff baseball. “I think they’ll probably extend their guys even though they pitched some today as well.”