WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.
The day after watching the Nationals chew up Steven Matz in his own backyard, the Mets made the executive decision to shield both Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard from any further spring training exposure to their NL East rival.
Matz teed up four home runs Friday, an unsettling display that had more to do with the beach balls he was throwing than any familiarity with his pitching repertoire. But when it comes to the Grapefruit League, better to be safe than sorry, so rescheduling deGrom and Syndergaard for minor-league starts Monday on the back fields felt like a no-brainer.
Why give any more free looks this close to Opening Day? And for those wondering if the Mets were being too overprotective, or maybe overthinking, the fact that Nationals 20-year-old wonderboy Juan Soto — last year’s runner-up for Rookie of the Year — was disappointed instantly made the decision worthwhile.
“It’s good to see them,” Soto said Sunday after the Nats beat the Mets, 10-5. “Then you get an idea for when the season starts.”
Instead, Soto had to settle for homering off deGrom’s replacement, Hector Santiago, and later hitting doubles off Ryan O’Rourke and Tyler Bashlor (Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia stayed back in Port St. Lucie with deGrom, too).
Soto is a hitting prodigy and can do damage against anyone, but at least he won’t have any fresh info to go on less than two weeks before the games count.
The Nationals chose a different approach with Stephen Strasburg, who took the mound Sunday as planned at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Strasburg will oppose Syndergaard in the second game of that D.C. series, but he wasn’t worried about facing the Mets in what amounted to his dress rehearsal for the regular season. Did he consider going the minor-league route, like deGrom and Syndergaard?
“No,” Strasburg said. “I’m the longest-tenured pitcher in the NL East, so it’s like, what’s another start against the Mets? I think it just comes down to execution for me, and I think that’s the same thing for everybody.”
We get Strasburg’s point. He’s 30, with nine years in the league, so he figures he’s not going to surprise people anymore. But is he right to believe that? The Mets used a lineup Sunday that will very closely resemble the one Strasburg will see March 30. Seven of those hitters are virtual locks — Pete Alonso or Dom Smith will be at first base — and a few had very limited experience against Strasburg.
Robinson Cano, who had been 0-for-3 against him, drew a walk and poked a two-strike single. Michael Conforto, who was 3-for-18 with two homers, went deep again off Strasburg, a two-run shot in the fourth inning. If confidence at the plate helps, those are beneficial moments to be stored away in the memory bank.
“We saw him earlier in spring and today, so we got a good idea of just seeing his pitches, seeing his movement, seeing what he likes to do in certain situations,” said Conforto, who has homered on consecutive days. “It could be different come Opening Day . . . But yeah, it’s definitely good to see him when we know we got him the second game.”
For Alonso, those three at-bats against Strasburg allowed him to take a few mental notes. Same goes for Smith (career 1-for-2), Amed Rosario (1-for-2) and Jeff McNeil, who didn’t face him in the majors last season. Alonso whiffed twice against Strasburg, then flied out to center.
“He got me out on some pretty quality pitches,” said Alonso, who homered off Henderson Alvarez in his next at-bat. “Seeing high-quality talent like that, high-quality guys like that, is just going to make me better.”
Alonso explained that was the philosophy behind wanting to step up against deGrom early in camp, when everyone else looked at him as if he were nuts. Why not start at the top with the Cy Young winner? And if hitters believe these head-to-head battles work to their advantage, then pitchers should do anything in their power to limit them in March.
As for who was more right, the Mets or Strasburg, maybe we’ll get the answer later this month.