Rick Porcello tends not to walk batters. His low-90s sinkers result in relatively few strikeouts, but plenty of balls in play. In an era that has seen pitchers across baseball routinely accomplish the opposite, Porcello is a throwback.
Knowing this, the Mets tend to give more than a cursory thought to the defense behind Porcello, but there’s generally only so much they can do. For years, the Mets have been, statistically, one of baseball’s worst defensive teams, which is what made Wednesday night so noteworthy. Putting a strong defensive alignment behind Porcello out of necessity, the Mets made play after play in a 3-1 win over the Nats at Nationals Park.
Porcello, in turn, gave the Mets seven solid innings to earn his first win as a Met and the 150th of his career.
“When you’re throwing like that, three pitches or less inducing contact, typically the defense, they’re going to be on their toes,” manager Luis Rojas said. “They know the ball is going to be put in play quickly.”
Coming off two poor starts to begin his Mets career, Porcello seemed in danger of more of the same when he allowed a pair of doubles in a three-batter span in the first. But he escaped that inning by making the night’s first fine defensive play himself, gloving a sharp liner back to the mound.
So began the Mets’ defensive opus. In the fourth inning, Juan Soto attempted to advance from first to third on an Asdrúbal Cabrera single. Fielding the ball, Michael Conforto fired it 87 mph in time to catch Soto, with shortstop Andrés Giménez applying a slick tag for the second out of the inning.
Then J.D. Davis -- forced back to his natural position of third base, with infielders Robinson Canó, Amed Rosario and Jeff McNeil all nursing injuries -- made perhaps the play of the game. Diving to his right to snare an Eric Thames grounder, Davis turned and, on one knee, fired to first base for the out to end the fourth.
“Rick was pounding the strike zone, getting early contact,” Davis said. “It was easier for us to stay engaged and to play solid defense behind him.”
Given that sort of boost, Porcello breezed through seven innings on just 81 pitches. From there, Seth Lugo engineered a six-out save, taking advantage of some fine defensive play himself when Luis Guillorme threw a strike across his body to cut down Trea Turner on a ball up the middle to end the eighth.
“I guess there’s a little bit of momentum there,” Porcello said. “You’re getting some ground balls, guys are making great plays and things are working. You kind of keep that pace going. You force them to put it in play. … It’s a great feeling. And when you’re getting those results, you kind of get into that rhythm of, ‘Why change?’”
Ultimately, the Mets will have little choice but to alter their defensive alignments going forward, once Canó, Rosario and McNeil return. Having such strong hitters on the bench does not benefit the Mets in the long run, though on Wednesday, it allowed them to feature different skill sets than usual. Billy Hamilton, for example, made his first start since joining the Mets, showing off the glove that has made him one of baseball’s top defensive center fielders for most of the last decade. His presence also allowed Rojas to shift Brandon Nimmo to left field, where he is a better defender than in center.
On the infield, Giménez started again at shortstop, where he spent years carving out his reputation as one of the game’s premium defensive prospects. Davis started at third instead of left field and even Guillorme, a seldom-used backup who was once considered one of the finest defenders in the entire organization, was able to make a rare appearance at second base.
It all meshed for the Mets, who, for one night, looked nothing like the team that ranked 28th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved last season. The Mets relied on Dominic Smith’s two-RBI game and a Guillorme RBI single to back Porcello offensively, and on all nine defenders to do the rest.
It’s not the type of alignment the Mets will feature often this season, but it is the type of defensive play they intend to replicate as much as possible when Porcello pitches.
“What a great defensive game we played, from Conforto’s throw to the plays that J.D. made to the plays that Giménez is making,” Rojas said. “Behind Rick, a guy that’s going to induce a lot of contact, that was a big key tonight.”