Excellent starting pitching is at the heart of the Mets' encouraging 14-11 start, but the 6-4 homestand that just ended revealed another promising spring bud on the verge of blossoming -- catcher Travis d'Arnaud. After starting the season 0-for-16, d'Arnaud showed signs he can handle major-league pitching in the batter's box as well as he does behind the plate.
For the season, d'Arnaud is hitting only .219 with one home run and four RBIs, but in his past seven games, he went 8-for-22 (.364) with two RBIs and had three multi-hit games. Throw in the game-saving tag he made in the ninth inning of Wednesday's 3-2 win over the Cardinals, and there's reason to believe d'Arnaud is on track to fulfill the organization's high hopes when he was acquired in December 2012 from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade.
"He's come here with huge expectations, which is tough for any young player," manager Terry Collins said. "And it's been a limited sample because he's been hurt the last couple years. But what he's showing us right now are all the skills you've heard about.
"We've seen the power. We've seen the arm strength. He's done a tremendous job with our pitching staff. After a tough start, he's hitting right now. He's a good baserunner. He's got everything all the scouts mentioned, and now we're starting to see it . . . He's the real deal."
It's a sign of the 25-year-old d'Arnaud's maturity that he didn't allow his hitting struggles to interfere with his handling of the pitching staff. "I treat it as two nine-inning games, nine innings offensively and nine innings defensively," said d'Arnaud, whose work with hitting coach Dave Hudgens is starting to pay off.
Collins told d'Arnaud early on not to worry about his hitting because the Mets were committed to playing him. "He has the ability to go the other way with the ball," the manager said. "He's not a one-dimensional guy. Even though people say he's going to hit home runs, he'll take a single in certain situations. Most of his RBIs have come with a two-out base hit."
When it comes to the success of the Mets' starters, d'Arnaud insists it's all their doing. But the pitchers are impressed with d'Arnaud's ability to communicate and call games and also with his knack for expanding the strike zone.
"They have a hot-zone chart, where you see red inside and outside of the strike-zone box, and he gets a lot of them called strikes," said Zack Wheeler, who became friends with d'Arnaud at Triple-A Las Vegas and now is his roommate. "It's definitely an advantage to us. It makes us a little bit more comfortable that we can expand our zone."
Reliever Scott Rice agreed: "For me, I throw a lot of sinkers. Therefore, my ball is low in the zone, and he's one of the best I've ever seen at being able to keep that ball up and getting me some of those low strikes. He's a very good receiver."
D'Arnaud's mentor was Sal Fasano, who managed him in Double-A and now is the Blue Jays' roving catching instructor. "It's an art," d'Arnaud said of the ability to frame pitches. "Sal Fasano taught me all his tricks and everything he learned up here. I was just a sponge and just learned everything from him."
That includes the cerebral part of the game in terms of handling the pitching staff. When d'Arnaud was called up last August, Rice was impressed that the catcher recalled perfectly how the lefthander liked to attack hitters when they were in the minors together.
"I get to play the thinking game of baseball, play the back-and-forth game with the hitter and try to get hitters out," d'Arnaud said. "I try to get hitters thinking too much in the box. It's a lot of fun for me."
D'Arnaud's athleticism was on display when he made the game-saving tag against the Cardinals, and that play only increased his growing respect in the clubhouse. "I think he can be one of the best for years to come," Rice said. "Obviously, he's a huge prospect, but he never has had that air about him. He's always had that great work ethic, and he comes in every day trying to get better."