What looked like a pair of underwhelming starts for most anyone else looked like a modicum of momentum for Jason Vargas.
In the Mets’ 6-0 loss Wednesday night, Vargas held the Phillies to one run in 4 2/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 7.20 from 9.58.
Philadelphia opened it up late against Robert Gsellman and Jacob Rhame and prevented a series sweep. A day after believing Rhame was trying to hit him when he threw up and in twice, Rhys Hoskins hit a two-run homer off Rhame in the ninth and took 34 seconds — the longest home run trot of the season — to round the bases.
Vargas allowed three hits and two walks and struck out four, including Bryce Harper swinging at an 87-mph fastball and looking at an 86-mph fastball in consecutive at-bats.
“He was great,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “He got the ball where he wanted to, he kept it underneath the zone when he needed to. He’s starting to feel some confidence, build that confidence to be the Jason Vargas we saw at the end of last year.”
Make that two decent outings, a relative term, in a row for Vargas. Last week in St. Louis, he allowed one run in four innings, giving him 8 2/3 innings and two runs against two teams expected to be good this season.
That leaves the Mets (13-11) with a question: Is five innings per start enough from someone in your rotation? Vargas has lasted that long once in four starts.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure every team will take five good innings from the fifth starter every night,” Callaway said. “Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. If the rest of your pitchers are pitching like they’re capable of, that is more than enough out of your fifth slot.”
Philly countered with Vince Velasquez, who scattered three hits and three walks in five innings.
Vargas ended the Mets’ streak of quality starts (at least six innings, three or fewer runs) at two. They have not had three straight yet this season.
Callaway lifted Vargas at 89 pitches as Hoskins, Philadelphia’s cleanup hitter, stepped to the plate for the third time. The effective but abbreviated outing left Vargas with mixed feelings.
“[Part of me wants to] do what I’ve been more accustomed to doing, as far as pitching deeper into games and being able to carry the pitch count a little bit further,” Vargas said. “But at the same time, where we’re at in those ballgames kind of dictated how it played out.”
One of the Mets’ primary potential Vargas alternatives became unavailable earlier Wednesday. Lefthander Gio Gonzalez — the former Nationals rotation mainstay who opted out of his minor-league Yankees contract recently — agreed to sign with the Brewers for a reported $2 million, plus up to $2 million in performance bonuses.
The Mets had some interest in Gonzalez, sources said, but Milwaukee offered what the Mets could not: a permanent place in the rotation and some familiarity after he spent the end of last season with the Brewers.
Further, a source added, the Mets didn’t view Gonzalez as a worthwhile upgrade over Vargas, which was their stance when they considered the possibility in February. The Mets also value flexibility — such as bouncing between the rotation and bullpen — in a potential addition, which Gonzalez doesn’t offer.
Dallas Keuchel remains a free agent, but out of the Mets’ price range. So, too, does reliever Craig Kimbrel. Keuchel would be an obvious upgrade from Vargas, and Kimbrel would allow the Mets to move, say, Seth Lugo to the rotation. But there have been no signs that the Mets have seriously considered either pitcher.
And so Vargas will remain in the Mets’ rotation.
“We definitely had some more success these last couple times out in making the pitches we want,” Vargas said. “It’s definitely moving in that direction.”