The Mets never asked Jeurys Familia for more than three outs before the All-Star break last season.
That partly was due to former manager Terry Collins, now a special assistant (ahem) to general manager Sandy Alderson. Also, there was the undebatable matter of an arterial clot in Familia’s right shoulder, a scary condition that required surgery and knocked him out for 3 1⁄2 months.
Either way, Familia didn’t have to test any boundaries until he returned from rehab, and the fading Mets were in no position to exhaust him. The remainder of 2017, and into spring training this year, was all about restoring Familia to his elite-closer status.
Now that Familia’s there, a little more than a week into the season, new manager Mickey Callaway apparently has no concerns about pushing the envelope with him. Or, in his efforts to ride this early April momentum, maybe he believes he’ll pay up these debts to Familia a little later down the line.
We can understand why Callaway went to Familia for a five-out save Saturday — his first in two years — to nail down a 3-2 Mets victory, their second straight over the Nationals. With Anthony Swarzak out indefinitely because of an oblique strain, Callaway doesn’t have his full late-inning arsenal and the gap has to be bridged somehow.
Familia has been asked to do the heavy lifting, relief-wise, in the Mets’ 6-1 start. He’s already pitched in five games, racking up six scoreless innings and four saves. In the past eight days, Familia has gone beyond three outs twice, including a four-out save in a 6-2 win over the Cardinals on March 31.
This isn’t a superhuman workload, obviously. Callaway isn’t abusing Familia by any means. You just wonder if there is a toll to be paid eventually if this pace keeps up.
Here in April, with Familia feeling this strong, he isn’t worried about this being too much too early.
“As long as I’m healthy,” he said, “I don’t think so.”
Quite a disclaimer. The difference between a healthy player and one on the disabled list often depends on proper usage, and it’s not as if Familia is going to turn down the new manager if he is asked to pitch longer, or more often, than he might anticipate.
This shouldn’t be an issue yet. Not seven games deep. And Callaway seemed mindful of the need to give Familia a breather on the back end of his extended appearances.
With a 3-2 lead over the Mets’ top National League East rival Saturday, Callaway had little choice but to go pedal down with his bullpen, and especially Familia.
He got burned when Hansel Robles came back to Earth and teed up a go-ahead homer by Bryce Harper in the sixth inning. AJ Ramos was next and he pitched a perfect seventh.
By then, Callaway had his late-inning plan mapped out, and Familia was the third of three relievers he called on for the eighth. With one out and the tying run on second base — thanks to Jerry Blevins’ walk to Harper and a stolen base — Familia needed only nine pitches to get a pair of groundouts from Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick.
In the ninth, Familia needed only 12 pitches to retire the Nationals in order. Callaway had Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman at the ready as backup plans if Familia faltered, but he breezed through the assignment, much to Callaway’s relief.
“You don’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “You have to win the game today. If we have to win a game, we’re going to do it.”
Familia said that he prepared for this in spring training, so being asked for the extra outs was no big deal. It’s not something he’s accustomed to, however, in the first months of a season.
Last year, he didn’t pitch for more than an inning through 11 appearances, then went on the DL for the clot removal. In 2016, he recorded a five-out save on April 13 and didn’t have another multi-inning chance until June 24, a stretch of 33 appearances.
The closest Familia has ever come to doing what he’s done this year was 2015, his first season as the full-time closer. He earned a five-out save on May 1 and followed it with a six-out stint (he got the win) on May 26. That’s a sizable breather in between.
But he’s totally on board with Callaway’s bullpen management, and Familia also was fired up by shutting down the Nationals. “I think it was one of the biggest saves I’ve had in the last couple of years,” he said.
But the Mets have to keep in mind that they’ll need a lot more of them.