Mets stellar on defense but fall to Marlins on Garrett Cooper walk-off bomb

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MIAMI — The Mets were on their toes defensively, their starting pitcher hurled a quartet of solid innings, and they seemed on their way to coming out on top in another close one against the Marlins.

Garrett Cooper thought otherwise. The Marlins outfielder stayed hot against the Amazin’s and crushed a walk-off two-run home run off Drew Smith in the ninth inning to send the Mets packing with a 3-1 loss on Saturday night. After the game Smith said he knew when the ball came out of his hand that he missed his spot to Cooper.

“Just left it middle,” Smith said. “He’s a good hitter. He knew what he was supposed to do with it.”

Cooper’s walk-off shot arrived just moments after Johneshwy Fargas, playing in his fifth major-league game, made a jaw-dropping diving catch in center field to take extra bases away from Jesus Aguilar. Fargas tracked the ball to right-center, dove to his left and made a snow-cone catch for the first out of the ninth inning. Smith shouted expletives from the mound, fired up about the rookie’s play, while the Mets dugout went bananas.

“Fargas, man. That was unbelievable,” Smith said. “It was a great catch. Big moment. I was hoping I could get out of it, and his catch would go a long way, but it didn’t happen like that.”

When most of the Mets rotation was healthy to start the season and the club enjoyed well-placed off days, they were able to use a combination of four starters in Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker and David Peterson to get by. That soon changed, when the off days decreased and deGrom and Walker hit the injured list.

They entered Saturday with 16 straight games to play with only three off days until the All-Star break. In that long stretch of games, the Mets have plenty of question marks sprinkled throughout their remaining schedule — at least until deGrom and Walker return and Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco are cleared to join the rotation.

The Mets, with their recent barrage of bullpen games wearing out the relief corps, negated one of those question marks and selected Joey Lucchesi to start Saturday against the Marlins. It seemed like a shaky choice initially, since Lucchesi departed his most recent outing in Tampa after giving up four earned runs in 1.2 innings, bloating his season ERA to 9.19.

But Mets manager Luis Rojas defended the club’s choice before first pitch on Saturday, expressing what he needed from Lucchesi in Miami: length. Hours later, Rojas made a questionable decision to pull his starter out after just four innings, despite the Mets’ aforementioned rotation dilemma and regardless of how well Lucchesi was pitching.

Lucchesi came out firing. He retired his first seven consecutive batters and faced the minimum through four innings, only allowing a single to Magneuris Sierra. His lone baserunner was promptly erased on a double-play ball to end the frame. The southpaw struck out eight over 43 pitches.

“I was just thinking too much, not being myself,” Lucchesi said of his previous rocky outings. “I just had to simplify it.”

He seemed primed to give the Mets the length they were so craving, and Lucchesi admitted he was surprised he came out after four innings.

“Honestly I did feel like I could go a few more,” Lucchesi said. “I only had like 43 pitches and I was feeling good.”

Rojas said his decision to pull Lucchesi derived from a fixed plan to give him four up-downs, or innings, to prevent him from overextending himself. Lucchesi’s longest outing of the season, before Saturday, was 3.1 innings on May 8. His highest pitch count of the season was 63 pitches on May 3.

“It could’ve been four-five [innings],” Rojas said. “We talked about potentially going 55 pitches if we could. But we still wanted to see the up-downs. He didn’t have any stress or anything. He pitched really good.

“It was more preventative with him not getting the work as a starter.”

Despite the manager’s curious decision, if Lucchesi can build on his four scoreless innings his next time out, it will be a boon to the Mets. Lucchesi said he spoke to Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, and others about altering his mental approach to the game. He said: “I know I’m a great pitcher. I’m going to keep building off this and show New York what I’m made of.”

The Mets (21-18) will wrap up their nine-game, three-city road trip in Sunday afternoon’s rubber match, with their starter still to be determined. It’s possible lefty Jordan Yamamoto will take the hill for the first time since his Mets debut in St. Louis earlier this month.