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Subway Series: Mets’ Rafael Montero pitches six solid innings in opener

Mets starter Rafael Montero delivers a pitch against

Mets starter Rafael Montero delivers a pitch against the Yankees during the first inning at Yankee Stadium on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom arrived in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse together in May 2014. Both had just been summoned to the big leagues for the first time, though it was clear who was the main attraction.

Though deGrom had been flown to New York, he made the journey only as a contingency. He was not placed on the roster immediately. Montero was slotted into the rotation right away and made his big-league debut later that week at Citi Field against the Yankees.

Their paths soon diverged. For the less-heralded deGrom, that promotion proved to be the beginning of a rapid ascent. For Montero, it was merely the beginning of a rocky road marked mostly by unmet potential.

But Montero has taken steps forward in 2017, and in the Mets’ 4-2 loss to the Yankees on Monday night, he delivered perhaps his best start of the season. He allowed two runs, walked two and struck out six in six innings, leaving with the score tied at 2. “I hope it’s a big step going forward,” manager Terry Collins said.

The Mets, in evaluation mode, hope to learn what to make of Montero, who has shuttled back and forth from the minors since 2014. Long hindered by a tendency to nibble, he looked unfazed in tough spots against the Yankees and seemed generally unafraid to challenge hitters. He even threw inside, which Collins regarded as a promising sign. “I threw the sinker a lot tonight and I think I had really good results with that,” Montero said through a translator.

Montero threw only 43 pitches in the first three innings but needed 31 pitches to escape a bases-loaded jam in the fourth.

After Aaron Hicks singled with one out, Montero issued consecutive walks, pitching around the dangerous Aaron Judge before losing a battle to Didi Gregorius. That brought up Gary Sanchez, who golfed what would have been ball four just deep enough to leftfield for Hicks to tag up and beat Yoenis Cespedes’ off-line throw home. Montero then got Chase Headley to fly out, preserving the Mets’ 2-1 lead. “I think at first, I was trying to throw the ball towards the corners,” he said. “Once I quit doing that and kind of threw it in the middle, what needed to happen happened.”

Montero stranded a runner at third in the fifth to escape with no damage, but Judge led off the sixth by swatting a fastball for a tying solo homer. Montero tried a 96-mph fastball to the outer edge that leaked back over the plate, allowing the 6-7, 282-pound Judge to muscle it over the right-centerfield wall.

Montero quickly retired the next three hitters and was done for the night. In 10 starts this season, it was only the fourth time he’d logged at least six innings. The two runs allowed were the second-fewest he’d given up in a start this season.

With that, Montero wrapped up his latest bid to remain a part of the Mets’ plans moving forward, which seemed like a given upon his arrival three years ago.

DeGrom, who will pitch Tuesday night against the Yankees, is viewed differently now.

“We always talk and we have for a long time: When you’re the No. 1 guy, you step up,” Collins said. “And Jake deGrom has done that all season. This stage, he’s used to this stage. He’s pitched in big games in the playoffs, pitched in huge games in the World Series, pitched in the All-Star Game. If there’s one guy you feel comfortable with on this stage, it would be him.”

New York Sports