David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Red Sox had the tying run only 90 feet away. The Citi Field crowd was pushing a decibel level that rivaled the 737s flying overhead. And standing in the middle of all this noisy, hectic drama Sunday afternoon was Jeurys Familia, whose every pitch now is bigger than the one before it.
Plenty of relievers have crumbled in similar circumstances. Maybe they don't have the head for it. Or the stomach. So that group gets positioned near the front of the bullpen, when there's still time to recover. A mistake isn't necessarily fatal.
But that's not Familia. And with the Mets facing the prospect of getting swept by the Red Sox, his task Sunday seemed more critical than at any other point this season -- if only because it was the here and now.
Lately, we've been caught up in the future with the Mets: the innings limits, skipping people in the rotation, the possible roster for the playoffs. None of that matters, however, without the Mets first nailing down the wins in hand, and a bulk of that responsibility falls to Familia, their first-time closer with only five months of experience.
With two on in the ninth inning, Mookie Betts had the chance to be a hero with one swing. The Mets already had coughed up a pair of leads, which made this 5-4 edge feel even more vulnerable. But after missing with a first-pitch fastball, Familia got the count to 1-and-2, then rifled a 100-mph heater past the flailing Betts to seal his 35th save.
By doing so, Familia helped trim the magic number to 28 with 32 games left. He also got the Red Sox's attention.
"The Mets, with that pitching staff, they're not too far away from walking into the money," David Ortiz said. "Familia, man, blowing a splitter at 95 miles per hour? Are you crazy? Nobody is going to hit that. Then 100 miles per hour? They got it."
Ah, yes. Familia's splitter, as Ortiz noted, is almost unfair when combined with the triple-digit four-seamer, the bat-rattling sinker and the nasty slider.
Familia hasn't been perfect this season with five blown saves, including three straight, his last July 30. But he's done an impressive job moving on from those personal setbacks, and that resilience is what gives the Mets faith he'll be solid during the stretch drive and into October.
"When he came back from that period where he didn't throw very good, and bounced right back, I think he can handle it," Terry Collins said. "I think he's a tough kid mentally and I think he's going to be fine in that role."
This remains uncharted territory for Familia, who after Sunday's completed trade for Addison Reed now is third on the Mets in career saves.
Reed, who was pitching in a setup role for the Diamondbacks, has 104 on his resume, including 40 two seasons ago for the Cubs. Tyler Clippard owns 53 saves and has pitched in stressful Septembers, along with six games of playoff experience with the Nationals.
But if you didn't get a look at the back of Familia's baseball card, it would be easy to mistake him for a more established closer. He doesn't recklessly throw heat or need to rely on only two pitches.Not only has Familia added the splitter, he uses it, in every situation, which makes him a more polished, versatile weapon -- with the steely mindset to match."It seems that the learning curve for him has been really quick," Clippard said. "It's not like he's going out there with 99, 100, throwing sinker, sinker, sinker. He's pitching. Guys can't just sit dead-red [on the fastball]. He's got a real good feel for pitching, as well as great stuff."
And as the Mets get deeper into the schedule, Familia seems comfortable with the increasing pressure.
Since that last blown save, he's fired 16 scoreless innings, with 19 strikeouts and two walks in that span. Opponents hit .154 against him during that stretch before Sunday.
"Right now, I have a lot of confidence," Familia said.
For the Mets, the timing couldn't be any better.