Lugo excelling as starter, ready to go deeper

September 6th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Until Saturday, the Mets had gone 19 consecutive games without a win from a starting pitcher. Some of that was due to rotten luck or injuries. The streak started on the day Jacob deGrom was a late scratch due to neck stiffness. But most of it was due to the fact that, consistently, New York's starters weren’t pitching deep into games.

It had become a taxing enough trend for manager Luis Rojas to discuss it at length earlier this weekend, speaking about the importance of his starters lasting longer. But the Mets have at least found a partial solution:  is now stretched out as a starting pitcher -- and he may be the second-best one on the staff.

Lugo fired five effective innings Saturday in a 5-1 win over the Phillies at Citi Field, stretching out to 81 pitches in a process that should be complete within a week. In three starts since transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, Lugo owns a 1.54 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings.

“It’s a great position that he’s there and he’s fully stretched out,” Rojas said. “We were talking about his repertoire. We were praising it that he can … have a quality start like this one even though he didn’t have the command you desire him to have the whole time. He pitched today.”

Unlike in his last outing, Lugo did not appear to tire into the middle innings of this one. Instead, he struck out five of six batters at one point and retired the final five Phillies he faced, despite struggling at times with his control. After Rhys Hoskins clobbered a 97 mph fastball -- Lugo’s hardest pitch of the night -- over the fence for a first-inning homer, the right-hander settled into a groove, relying on a five-pitch mix with an emphasis on his high-spin curveball. (On his final pitch, Lugo took a comebacker off his pitching hand, but X-rays were negative and Lugo said it won’t affect him going forward.)

The Mets supported Lugo with run-scoring rallies each inning from the third through the sixth. Michael Conforto’s pair of opposite-field singles and Andrés Giménez’s two-RBI day paced the offense. It was enough for Lugo to pick up the victory, becoming the first Mets starter to do so since Aug. 13.

“We expect him to do that every single time he’s on the mound,” Giménez said through an interpreter.

In any context, what Lugo has accomplished since joining the rotation has been noteworthy. Within the context of the Mets’ rotation, it’s been critical. Take deGrom and Lugo out of the mix, and New York's other starters are a combined 5-11 with a 6.44 ERA.

Lugo’s contributions have been relatively limited because, after resisting moving him from the bullpen for more than two years, the Mets asked him during the middle of a season to stretch out as a starting pitcher -- a process that typically takes a full month of Spring Training games to complete. In his first outing, Lugo threw three perfect innings on 39 pitches. He followed that with a shakier start last time out, recording only two outs in the fourth while tossing 60 pitches. Then, on Saturday, he completed five innings on 81 pitches (50 strikes).

“His stuff plays,” Rojas said. “He features that fastball, four-seam, the sinker -- those are two plus pitches that he has. And then the curveball -- we all know the effectiveness of his curveball -- and then he commands those, too. Now he’s got a changeup. He’s got a slider. Those pitches play. His repertoire is going to help him despite not having the command that he desires at all times.”

Given how valuable Lugo was to the bullpen, serving as a closer, a long man and everything in between, the Mets’ decision to move him to the rotation was a gamble. The team tried something similar with Robert Gsellman, who could be headed back to the bullpen following an unsuccessful attempt to stretch out as a starter. But not Lugo, whose five-inning outing Saturday was, in his eyes, just the beginning.

“I think the biggest thing is to know what it takes for me to have success and to execute pitches and to have a game plan,” Lugo said. “I’ve been really focused on that in between starts, as far as what I want to do to a lineup and what I have to do physically, in between starts, to be able to execute pitches on a regular basis.”

Asked about continually pitching deep in games from here on out, Lugo grinned.

“My first thought is that sounds like fun,” he said. “That’s what I like doing, and I’m excited for it. I know the process of building up midseason. I’ve tried it in the past, and I’m really looking forward to getting a full-length start in.”