When Seth Lugo entered the game in the eighth inning of Saturday’s win over the Washington Nationals, the Mets held an 8-4 lead. However, the bases were loaded due to some bad luck, bad fielding, and good hitting. Lugo induced a one pitch fly out.
The Mets went on to have a three-run top of the ninth, with run scoring hits from Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith. When the bottom of the ninth began, the Mets had a seven run lead to work with, and Lugo came back out to close out the game.
Things did not go as planned for Lugo: he walked Andrew Stevenson to start the inning, and then was hurt by an botched double play from Amed Rosario and Robinson Cano, leading to two men on base with no one out. After an Adam Eaton strikeout, Trea Turner then walked, loading the bases, before Lugo hit Anthony Rendon to push in a run. Juan Soto struck out for the second out of the inning, but Ryan Zimmerman then doubled, clearing the bases. That was it for Lugo, and Edwin Diaz came in for the one-pitch save.
While this one appearance will, no doubt, be a minor footnote at the end of the season, there are a number of decisions that went into this appearance that were flawed, at best, and irresponsible at worst. This is the exact definition of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but let’s look at just why this was problematic.
It is hard to quibble with the situation that led to Lugo’s initial usage in the bottom of the eighth. The Mets needed an out, and Lugo is one of the more trusted arms in the bullpen, and was very effective against lefties last season. His curveball is one of the more effective pitches on the team, and the Mets already had an up and down day. They needed to get out of the inning, and so Mickey Callaway brought in a trusted reliever to do so. This is fine.
What was less fine is what happened next. Lugo was sitting on the bench for twenty minutes while the Mets expanded their lead. That’s a long time for any pitcher, but especially for one who warmed up and then threw literally one in-game pitch. At this point in the game, a victory should more or less be in the bag: up by 7, bottom of the ninth. Pulling Lugo, to have him available for Sunday’s game, makes a lot of sense here, especially as it is a start against another high quality starter in Patrick Corbin, so it’s likely to be a low-scoring affair for the Mets. In close games, you want your best pitchers available, something not likely if Lugo threw too many pitches on Saturday.
The Mets had plenty of bullpen arms available at this point as well. Robert Gsellman had been up a couple of times already, and only Justin Wilson and Jeurys Familia had been used already. A seven run lead is the perfect time to give one of the less proven arms a shot, as there’s lots of cushion for error.
So starting the inning was already a suspect move. Lugo’s walk to Andrew Stevenson was a close one that went to a full count, and shouldn’t have been much cause for panic. That’s especially true because Lugo got exactly what he wanted when he got a ground ball from Robles. It was going to be close, but looked like a potential double play ball off the bat, before Rosario bobbled it, taking away the second out, and the Cano dropped the ball at second, taking away the first out.
If Lugo got two outs on 12 pitches, he could still potentially pitch on Sunday, but now he’s at 13 pitches and no outs, and it is here that the Mets should have begun to seriously consider pulling him. Lugo got Eaton on three straight pitches, and so looked like he may be able to get through the inning, but we’re inching closer to ‘done for tomorrow’ territory. But once Lugo walked Turner on eight pitches, he should’ve been pulled.
There’s conventional wisdom that you want to give pitchers a chance to get out of their own jams, and that’s fine and dandy on most days. But at this point, Lugo looked gassed, and the game was potentially getting out of hand. His defense messed up behind him, and he could have left the game without giving up a run, knowing it should be two outs and one on (at worst), instead of bases loaded with no outs. Lugo could’ve hit the showers with very little fault on his shoulders.
Instead, he hits Rendon, forcing in a run. He ran the count full to Soto, continuing his high pitch count, before getting him to strike out. This is another optimal time to pull Lugo; he battled, gave up just one run, and struck out one of the best young players in the game. This is the proverbial high note you want him to go out on because, at this point, you’ve definitely lost him for Sunday, but should have him available for Monday’s series opener in Miami.
Instead, seven more pitches were added to his tally after a good at-bat from Zimmerman that led to three runs scoring. Now, Lugo is questionable for Monday (as stated on the radio broadcast of Sunday’s game), he’s given up four runs, and is leaving the game having gone from a laugher to a save situation. 41 pitches, eight batters faced, two walks, a hit by pitch, an error behind him, and one very big hit.
Sunday’s game ended with Justin Wilson working a second inning before giving up a walk-off home run to Trea Turner. If Lugo was rested, he may have started the ninth for the Mets, and who knows what the result would have been. Not only did Callaway’s decision to keep Lugo in the game jeopardize Saturday’s win, it also limited his options on Sunday, and potentially damaged his pitcher’s confidence.
Again, this will likely be a footnote at the end of the season; hell, it’s a footnote at the end of the series. But in a season where the Mets are going to be in a dogfight to make the playoffs, these types of decisions matter and, you’d hope, that Mickey Callaway, now with a new bench coach and in his second year as manager, would try not to burn out his arms in relatively meaningless appearances.
If the Mets are to have a good season, their pieces must be utilized in optimal situations. Callaway did not do that on Saturday, and it has already made an impact on this very young season.