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Mets manager Luis Rojas might be undervaluing Dominic Smith ... but not for long

Mets' Dominic Smith (2) rounds the bases after

Mets' Dominic Smith (2) rounds the bases after hitting a two-run homer against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Philadelphia. Credit: AP/Laurence Kesterson

PHILADELPHIA — As soon as Dominic Smith destroyed a neck-high fastball for a two-run homer that helped spur Tuesday’s 8-4 victory over the Phillies, one couldn’t help but think back to the Mets’ curious decision to keep him on the bench the previous night.

Not only was Smith absent from the starting lineup against Phillies lefthander Matt Moore, manager Luis Rojas declined to use him as a pinch hitter for Kevin Pillar with the bases loaded in the fourth inning after righty reliever Brandon Kintzler entered for that particular at-bat.

It was almost as if the Baseball Gods were giving Rojas a second chance to make good on his whiff of sitting the Mets’ offensive MVP of a year ago. The opportunity was teed up for the manager. Stick in Dom, maybe a 2-0 lead turns into a 6-0 developing rout, and the bullpen holds on.

Alas, none of that happened. If a dangerous lefty bat like Smith couldn’t be used in that spot — with Albert Almora Jr. available as a defensive replacement for the later innings — then what was Rojas thinking? Later, after the 5-3 debacle of a loss, Rojas explained it was "too early" in a National League game to be burning through players like that.

 

Instead, the Mets went down quietly without ever using Smith, which ultimately backfired on Rojas. The guy with the .993 OPS last year never got a swing on Opening Day when nearly half the offense was provided by deGrom himself.

The following night, Smith was where he should be, hitting fifth between Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis, and starting in leftfield. It didn’t take him very long to make Rojas regret his decisions from only 24 hours earlier. Smith whiffed in his first at-bat against Chase Anderson, but in the fourth inning, he jumped on a first-pitch fastball that was well above the strike zone to give the Mets a 2-0 lead.

"That moment was extremely invigorating for us," Alonso said.

How high was that 93-mph heater? Only one player homered off a higher pitch in 2020 — the Mets’ suspended second baseman Robinson Cano — and it was the third-highest ever to result in a home run to a Mets player since pitch tracking became a thing in 2008 (according to MLB stat guru Sarah Langs).

""When I simplify things, and just try to put the barrel on the ball, good things happen," Smith said. "It was an educated guess. I made the right decision."

We’re not privy to the binders of analytical info Rojas has dropped on his desk each day, but we know this much. After witnessing what Smith is capable of doing, and sizing up the alternatives, he deserves to be in the everyday lineup, unless maybe a lefthander much nastier than Moore is on the mound and Dom could use a blow. After Smith didn’t get to play Monday, Rojas seemed almost relieved after he put the Mets in front to stay the following night.

"He’s a guy that’s always ready when he gets his chance," Rojas said.

On Opening Day, the Mets basically outsmarted themselves when it came to Smith. They signed Kevin Pillar to a one-year, $5-million deal as a platoon option for the outfield and a superior glove to Brandon Nimmo in center. So lo and behold, with the lefty Moore going in the season’s first game, Rojas — surely in a collaborative effort with the front office — inserted Pillar in the leadoff spot.

Did sliding Nimmo over to left give the Mets a better defensive outfield alignment? No doubt. But they’re coming off a breakthrough season from Dom and he deserved the shot to start Opening Day.

Pillar definitely helped out Jacob deGrom with his range in the expansive, oddly shaped centerfield lawn at Citizens Bank Park. He also started an 8-5-3 relay to cut down Rhys Hoskins trying to stretch for a triple in the first inning.

Those positives stuck with Rojas after the opening loss and the manager made it sound like we could see Pillar on a semi-regular basis against certain lefties. But that’s sending a mixed message to Smith, as well as the teammates who embraced him during the turbulent 2020 season. Smith has worked hard to make himself a serviceable leftfielder and the Mets have come to accept Dom out there.

The best-case scenario, of course, was the universal DH for this season, but it became a casualty of the sport’s labor strife. Few teams needed the return of the DH more than the Mets, who currently have their top defensive first baseman relegated to playing leftfield and could have used the flexibility to shuffle Smith and Alonso as they saw fit.

Both homered Tuesday night, with Alonso’s two-run blast in the ninth providing some much-appreciated breathing room. The Mets have to like their chances when those two go deep, even with this white-knuckle bullpen. But Smith can’t do damage from the bench, so Rojas needs to learn from Monday’s opening mistake.

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