PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — It would have been an easy day to take it easy, to go through the motions, and then enjoy the downtime of a rain-shortened day to break up spring training’s notorious monotony.
Orange and blue are the colors of summer in Queens, and on an ominous morning Wednesday, that brightness stood in stark contrast to the drab gray of the Florida sky. It was a fitting backdrop, with the Mets’ pitchers bunched together as if caught in a rush at the DMV, all hoping to finish their throwing sessions before the oncoming rain.
So one by one, they stepped to the rubber and engaged in a pastime as old as spring training itself. They let their imaginations roam, transforming a mundane act into something meaningful. Matt Harvey snarled as he reached back on every pitch. Zack Wheeler flipped breaking balls off a mound for the first time in camp. And Noah Syndergaard pumped fastballs, popping the catcher’s mitt and sending menacing sound waves off the metal surfaces surrounding the bullpen.
“Noah is Noah,” manager Terry Collins said later. “That won’t ever change. He’s a stinkin’ bull in a china shop. He’s going to go 100 percent.”
And so it went on a day that at first glance looked like one of baseball’s many archaic exercises, nothing more than busy work, something to fill the idle time between now and the start of exhibition games. Beneath the surface, it was much more.
The Mets worked on a set of bullpen mounds tucked to the side of Tradition Field. Six pitchers were throwing at once. The extremes were clear.
On one end was Syndergaard, unmistakable for his hulking frame, blond hair and a fastball that rips through the air. On the other was Jerry Blevins, the lefty whose average fastball last season (89 mph) was a full tick below Syndergaard’s slider (90 mph).
But Blevins, 33, has carved out a 10-year major-league career on guile. And for the lefty specialist, bullpen sessions represent more than just mindless throwing. “It’s all a mental struggle,” said Blevins, who muttered to himself as he blocked out the chaos around him.
In a real game, the mound is a solitary place. But in spring training, the chatter of coaches and the click of cameras are within earshot. It is yet another obstacle to overcome as Blevins attempts to take his mind elsewhere.
He has thrown a baseball since childhood, and the notion of this much repetition seems like overkill. But the years have taught him to challenge a common assumption.
“You try to repeat as much as you can what you’re doing,” Blevins said. “But after every offseason, your body’s a little bit different. So, you have to adapt.”
When Blevins underwent elbow surgery a few years back, he sensed small changes. Though he was healthy, his hand flexibility wasn’t the same. His warm-up routine had to be altered. He made the adaptations that the rest of the Mets pitchers may face as they move on from their own surgeries.
Said Blevins: “That’s what makes a difference between a two-seamer that dives and a two-seamer that gets flat.”
So Blevins fired fastballs and curveballs, slowing his breathing as he would during a game. Each pitch made a distinctive sound as it left his hand.
In the batter’s box, former first-rounder Brandon Nimmo stood, holding a bat with no intention to swing. His job looked boring. But as he tracked Blevins’ pitches, he played a game in his own mind.
Last September, when he was a call-up who pinch hit on occasion, Nimmo kept himself sharp by volunteering to stand in for pitchers during their throwing sessions. He arrived at the ballpark hours early, using it as a way to stay sharp. Months later, he still can rattle off scouting reports. He recalled the “heaviness” of Jeurys Familia’s fastball, the key to getting harmless groundouts. He remembered how Syndergaard’s slider and fastball are virtually indistinguishable out of his hand.
“One through five, good luck,” Nimmo said of the Mets’ rotation.
On this morning, Nimmo let his mind wander. He imagined runners on base. He picked up the spin on Blevins’ breaking pitches. Not once did he swing the bat. And soon, the team’s abbreviated workout was over. But by the end of it, Nimmo tracked more than 40 pitches, one day after seeing only five.
Said Nimmo: “Today was actually a really good day for me.”