VIERA, Fla. - A year ago, the Mets already had taken care of the whole eighth-inning question with the 12-player, three-team trade that netted them J.J. Putz the previous December. Who better to set up Francisco Rodriguez than a converted All-Star closer, right?
That brilliant offseason strategy lasted about two months until Putz's elbow locked up. He eventually needed surgery June 9 to remove bone fragments from the joint and never pitched for the Mets again.
To this day, manager Jerry Manuel still is looking for an eighth-inning pitcher. His search for a shut-down type remains wide open after another round of auditions among Ryota Igarashi, Jenrry Mejia and Bobby Parnell in yesterday's 7-5 loss to the Nationals.
"I still see it as something that we eventually have to identify," Manuel said. "That we haven't done yet at this point. That's something that however many games we have left, we're going to try to find what we think is the best going into the season in that role."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Omar Minaya signed the hard-throwing Igarashi to a two-year, $3-million contract Dec. 16 as a candidate for that role. Only 12 days later, Minaya signed Kelvim Escobar, giving him a one-year deal worth $1.25 million, as a potential setup man.
But now, less than two weeks before Opening Day, the Mets are scrambling to fill that void again. Escobar is out indefinitely because of shoulder issues - he might try to throw for the first time next Monday - and the results of yesterday's audition at windy Space Coast Stadium were inconclusive.
Igarashi, coming off two impressive outings, nearly imploded in the seventh. The Japanese rookie chose to tinker with his delivery in order to get his forkball to "drop more" and it worked too well. Twice, Igarashi threw forkballs, or splitters, that bounced in front of the plate.
The first three Nationals reached base - a double, single and walk - before the pitcher, Craig Stammen, mercifully handed him an out with a sacrifice bunt. Igarashi followed that with a four-pitch walk before getting Mike Morse to ground into a double play.
After the second walk, the entire infield converged on the mound, along with pitching coach Dan Warthen, and catcher Henry Blanco put his arm on Igarashi's shoulder. The pep talk seemed to work, even though Igarashi's understanding of English is limited.
With Manuel planning to bring him back on consecutive days, the timing could not be better. "I want to throw as soon as possible," Igarashi said through an interpreter.
Parnell, the only returnee, also looked a little ragged. Frank Catalanotto pulled back a potential homer in leftfield, but the Nationals ripped Parnell for a double and single.
Mejia, the candidate who has been the most dominant, also is the one Manuel says he will not use in that eighth-inning role. Manuel wants to protect him because of his age (20) and inexperience.
Mejia did not have any strikeouts Monday. But after a walk put runners at first and second, he got out of the jam with a double-play grounder.
"That's big, especially if you have a history of command issues," Manuel said.
Though all three candidates have overpowering fastballs and can pitch in the mid-90s, Manuel insists that is not the biggest factor in selecting a setup man.
"In our ballpark, it's got to be command," Manuel said. "You cannot defend the walk.''