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With Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco, and Seth Lugo all dealing on the mend recovering from a variety of injuries, the Mets have nearly as much pitching talent on their injured list as they do in their depth chart. Completing a turn through the rotation means getting creative with the arms they have and stealing outs to win games.
With spring training winding down, the Mets took their first stab at an unconventional but increasingly popular strategy on Saturday. They started the game with short reliever Jacob Barnes, and followed with leading rotation candidate Joey Lucchesi in relief against a tough Astros lineup. Though trendy, the so-called “opener” strategy is controversial because pitchers deployed by their teams with the plan are harmed by MLB’s inefficient arbitration system that pays starters for wins and innings, and relievers for saves.
But, most importantly for the Mets, it worked. The Barnes-Lucchesi tandem kept a tough Astros lineup scoreless through the first five frames, winning a comfortable 8-3 ballgame. Dom Smith stroked two home runs, while Pete Alonso mashed a two-run blast in the seventh to pad their lead. Excellent work, but expected from two of their best bats. Quieting one of the best offenses with a by Frankensteining a fifth starter was the story of the game.
“That went really well,” gushed Luis Rojas of the pairing. The Mets manager liked Barnes’ reasonably efficient (16 pitches) and highly effective (two strikeouts, no runs) outing.
Barnes has K’d eight batters — including Astros stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman in his Saturday assignment — over his last five spring innings without allowing a run. He’s established himself as a clear favorite to make the Opening Day roster.
“If you have the ability to do that and maybe be available the next day that’s pretty good. If you have the ability to go two innings, that’s pretty good,” said Rojas. “Just a lot of good things happened today with Barnes and Lucchesi. Good first test.”
Lucchesi earned high marks, pitching 4.2 innings and allowing just one home run, an Alex Bregman solo shot in the sixth. “I’m really happy where my body’s at. I’m throwing a little bit harder and I’m hoping that over time, even harder.”
Barnes had only made one start in the big leagues in an emergency situation with the Brewers, so he discussed some of the adjustments he had to make.
“It was a little different as far as trying to time up everything. Normally in the ‘pen...they’re like, ‘Hey, you got a batter or two.’ So having a little more free time was a little bit of adjustment,” said Barnes. He responded by trying to prepare himself like he was performing in a typical relief role.
“I tried to take it as much like coming out of the bullpen. I even finished up in the bullpen and went straight from there to the mound, just try to keep it somewhat normal.”
Both Barnes and Lucchesi have been successful in the big leagues; both were acquired by the Mets as depth moves for a reason.
Once a standout in the Brewers relief-pitching machine, Barnes was signed on a minor league deal after posting a 6.75 ERA over his last 50 innings split between three teams. Lucchesi was a viable starter from 2018-2019, throwing a 4.19 ERA across 56 starts, but struggled in brief spurts with the Padres during the shortened pandemic season. He spent most of 2020 at the team’s alternate site before getting dealt to the Mets in a three-way trade that netted them Pirates right-hander Joe Musgrove.
Lucchesi admitted having mixed feelings about being traded after his outing. “I was kind of on the fence when it happened,” said the southpaw, now in his fourth season in the bigs. “All I’d ever known was the Padres.”
But Lucchesi, unsurprisingly, says he’s on board with pitching in whatever capacity the Mets need. Good for the Mets, because they’re going to need all hands on deck with to survive their thinned out pitching depth in the season’s early months.
“That’s in the past, man,” said Lucchesi. “I’m all about the Mets. I’m all about helping this team compete for a championship. I’m bought in on the Mets.
“I’m here to go to war with these guys.”
VILLAR BANGED UP
Utility man Jonathan Villar is nursing a groin injury, Luis Rojas revealed on Saturday.
According to Rojas, Villar “felt a little something” in his groin while performing infield drills last week, which has sidelined him since Monday’s spring game against the Astros. The Mets manager described Villar’s as injury “day to day,” and added it was something he was “not really” concerned about. Rojas doesn’t expect him to hit the injured list.
Villar struggled during the abbreviated 2020 season while playing with the Marlins and Blue Jays, hitting .232 with just two home runs in 52 games before hitting free agency.
However, Villar clubbed 24 home runs and stole 40 bases in 2019 for the Orioles. The 29-year-old also has experience at nearly every defensive position except first base, catcher and right field, making him a potentially useful option to relieve the Mets’ stars.
The Mets signed Villar to a one-year, $3.55 million deal in February.