Seth Lugo’s return to the rotation was, without hyperbole, perfect.
He retired all nine Marlins he faced across three innings in the Mets’ 3-0 loss Tuesday night. Then manager Luis Rojas pulled him, even though he had thrown only 39 pitches — short of Rojas’ pregame estimate of a 50- or 60-pitch maximum.
Why did Lugo come out? Turns out, it was either the pitch count or an innings threshold. Rojas said because Lugo had three “ups” — baseball slang for when a pitcher starts throwing again after sitting, also known as innings — he and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner determined that was enough stress for one game.
“That’s why he didn’t go back out,” Rojas said.
Lugo was fine with that.
“My understanding was two or three innings, no more than 50 pitches,” Lugo said. “Me and Luis talked about it a little bit in the dugout. I felt like I could (keep pitching). But under the circumstances, I understand why it was a good time to pull me. I don’t disagree with that. Safety first. I think that was a good call.”
The game changed as soon as Lugo exited. In the fourth, Jared Hughes allowed three of his first four batters to reach. Brian Anderson’s double into the leftfield corner scored two runs.
Lugo is being stretched out to stay in the rotation after spending the past two years — 26 months to the day, actually — working exclusively as a reliever. Before Tuesday, his season highs were two innings and 30 pitches.
But still, Lugo hadn’t allowed a baserunner and struck out five. Only one Miami hitter managed to get the ball to the outfield. Was it tempting to leave him in?
“Yes, yes, of course,” Rojas said. “The way he was throwing the ball, his tempo, rhythm, everything was really good. Him and (rookie catcher Ali Sanchez) synced really well through those three innings.
“You almost want Seth to keep going. But it’s his first time starting a game, stretching him out. It’s part of the plan.”
Lugo’s successful outing came about a week after Mets decision-makers surprised him with their desire to make him a starter again — something he has wanted ever since the Mets put him in the bullpen, but never so much that he would make a public stink about it. He became one of the best bullpen arms in baseball, too, posting a 2.68 ERA in 2018-19.
“It caught me by surprise,” Lugo said of his role change. “But when they asked me to do something — that’s part of the job of playing baseball. You do what your coach tells you.
He was supposed to pitch Thursday, but that game was postponed because of the Mets’ positive coronavirus tests. When he finally got the ball for the second game of a doubleheader, he was a bit anxious — even if it didn’t show in the results.
“There were some nerves in there, especially with the buildup,” Lugo said. “I just reminded myself each pitch to execute the pitch and focus on location. That kept me going and kept me under control.”