There was more than meets the eye to Rafael Montero’s performance in Sunday’s 7-1 loss to the Phillies at Citi Field. It went on his record as another loss, and it wasn’t a quality start, but it absolutely was a step forward for the 26-year-old righthander.
Montero had a bad inning — the Phillies’ four-run second — but went a season-best 6 1⁄3 innings and didn’t give up another run. He gave the Mets a chance to win, coming out of a 4-1 game after allowing a one-out hit on his 104th pitch.
Montero didn’t — as has been his habit in other starts — let the game get out of hand or start nibbling on the corners and begin issuing walks. He struck out six and didn’t issue a free pass until he walked two in the sixth.
“He had a bad inning. Even in that inning, he threw strikes . . . but he kept attacking the zone,” manager Terry Collins said. “After that, he kept us in the game. He kept us right there. All we had to do was get a couple runs and we’re back in it.”
There is one other big positive to take away from his performance: By pitching into the seventh, he preserved the Mets’ most trusted relievers for the big series against the first-place Nationals that begins Monday night in Washington.
“It’s a good thing he went deep,” catcher Rene Rivera said.
Since returning from Triple-A Las Vegas on June 14, Montero (1-5) has had greater faith in his pitching. He has not been afraid to challenge hitters in the strike zone and has been stronger mentally, Collins said. In two starts and two relief appearances, he is 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 18 2⁄3 innings.
“I’ve got a little bit more confidence,” Montero said through a translator. “I’m pitching more down the middle. Before, I used to kind of chase the corners. Now I’m a little more confident and getting better results.”
He also got through the opposing lineup the third time without giving up a run. When he lasted that long in previous starts, the hitters tagged him to the tune of a 1.181 OPS.
All these things could be crucial because the Mets might have to count on Montero. With the spate of injuries that have decimated the starting rotation, the notion that Zack Wheeler might get close to an innings limit in his first season back after Tommy John surgery and a bullpen that has been used a lot, he could fill important roles.
The reduction in walks since his return might be the biggest indication that Montero is ready to do that. Before that, Collins couldn’t trust him to limit damage.
“His main concern last year and early this year was that he was walking people,” Rivera said. “Lately he’s not. He’s attacking the strike zone, attacking the hitters, and he’s not afraid to do it.”
“The one thing we saw when he was struggling was that he shied away from the strike zone,” Collins said. “I trust him because he’s throwing strikes.”