When Seth Lugo finished a successful audition for a spot in the Mets’ rotation Thursday, the relievers began theirs to keep him in the bullpen.
After Lugo threw four scoreless innings in the Mets’ 5-1 loss to the Cubs, five relievers combined to allow five runs in five innings. They collectively underscored the difficulty of the Mets’ imminent decision: Should they make Lugo a starter again to try to strengthen the rotation or keep him in the bullpen because he has been so good there?
Lugo has a clear preference. “It was nice out there tonight,” he said. “I’ve always been a starter. I’m more comfortable starting games.”
For a night, Lugo made stretching him out look awfully tempting. He allowed three hits — only one of them well struck — did not allow a walk and struck out three. He topped out at 60 pitches but was pulled after four innings, manager Mickey Callaway’s predetermined ceiling for him in his first start of the year.
Lugo the starter looked a lot like Lugo the reliever. He threw first-pitch strikes to 10 of 15 batters and averaged 15 pitches per inning. His ERA dropped to 2.21. “He was really good,” Callaway said. “Mixed his pitches well. He did a really good job pitching to the scouting report. Good changeup, good breaking ball. Elevated when he needed to with the fastball. Pitched in off the plate. He did a really good job.”
Callaway said Thursday afternoon that he wanted Lugo to use the same aggressive mindset as a starter that he adopted in the bullpen. “You either go after guys or you don’t,” he said. “That’s the thing that I’ve stressed to starters the most over my career as a coach. You have to close every inning. You have to go out there and give them your best stuff every inning.”
Lugo’s role has been malleable all year. He began spring training as a starter but got looks in relief. He was named the fifth starter out of camp, but when a postponed game removed the need for a fifth starter, he was available in relief — initially for only a couple of days. He was good in that role and stuck.
Noah Syndergaard’s finger injury this week reopened a rotation spot, and for at least this turn, Lugo got the nod. Callaway said the Mets could make a decision Friday if Steven Matz (strained left middle finger) remains on course to start Sunday.
That leaves them with picking Lugo or Jason Vargas — whose five scoreless innings Wednesday lowered his ERA to 8.53 — to stay in the starting five. “[Lugo] can definitely start,” Callaway said. “[But] for us in an ideal world, he’s still in the bullpen, helping our bullpen, and some other guys are in the rotation.”
Lugo sounded like a man readying for another start after feeling his legs tire Thursday.
“The next few days, really focus on some endurance stuff and try to get used to throwing that much in an outing,” he said.
The Mets’ relievers Thursday didn’t inspire confidence. Hansel Robles (two-run homer by Ben Zobrist), Jerry Blevins (RBI single by lefthanded hitter Kyle Schwarber), Buddy Baumann (four of six batters reached) and Gerson Bautista (Willson Contreras sacrifice fly) allowed the Cubs to score.
Righthander Scott Copeland, making his Mets debut and first major-league appearance since 2015, tossed 1 1⁄3 shutout innings. He struck out Javier Baez to end the seventh, escaping Baumann’s bases-loaded jam. “We pitched everybody tonight that was available, basically,” Callaway said. “I thought they did a good job keeping us in the game, and we made their closer [Brandon Morrow] get in there.”
Facing the first of three lefthanded starters in the four-game series, the Mets managed four hits. Cubs starter Jose Quintana allowed three hits and two walks in six innings. Brandon Nimmo went 2-for-4 with a double and a career-high sixth homer. The rest of the Mets went 2-for-26.