Five scoreless innings. Eighty-six pitches.
Thank you and good night, Jason Vargas.
Mickey Callaway wasn’t going to get greedy Monday with Vargas, who a week ago was removed from the rotation with a 13.86 ERA. In the Mets’ daily media notes, the team had the audacity — or the good humor — to mention that Vargas’ last time out was a simulated game May 15 at Citi Field.
C’mon guys. That shouldn’t qualify. Pitching to your own teammates, surrounded by an empty stadium, is a trumped-up practice. Vargas was in the shop, getting a tune-up, because the Mets didn’t trust him in a game that counted. Monday’s did, however, and Vargas struck out seven in the Mets’ 2-0 victory, a five-and-fly special that he didn’t credit to any special adjustments.
“The biggest difference,” Vargas said, “was not giving up multiple runs each inning.”
At least Vargas’ dry wit remained intact through the earlier poundings, and he chalked up those problems to the occasional turbulence during a long season. Stuff happens. Hopefully not to the guy you just gave $16 million to for the next two years, but it is what it is. Heading into Monday’s game against the Marlins — the latest in a continuous series of tests for Vargas — the Mets set the bar pretty low.
During the pregame briefing with Mickey Callway, the manager was asked about the importance of Vargas getting through the first inning unscathed. Sounds silly, right? But Vargas had a 27.00 ERA in the first inning alone — opponents were ripping him at .a 579 clip (11-for-19) — so the concern was not exactly unfounded.
Enter the stripped-down Marlins, one of the worst offensive teams in the majors, ranked dead-last with a .645 OPS and 27th overall with a .230 batting average. Thanks to new CEO Derek Jeter, most of the dangerous pieces were sold off during the winter — with the exception of slugging catcher J.T. Realmuto.
If Vargas was going to pull out of this early funk, this had to be the night. There would be no more excuses, and few reasons to keep him in the rotation if the Marlins tattooed him like all the others. This time, Vargas seized the opportunity.
He set down the first nine Marlins in order, working quickly, spotting his high-80s fastball on both sides of the plate, mixing in the changeup and curve. It wasn’t until Martin Prado golfed a full-count changeup for a single leading off the fourth that Vargas surrendered his first hit, but he promptly retired the next four straight.
“He had great command,” catcher Devin Mesoraco said. “He was hitting all his spots.”
Once the fifth inning arrived, however, you could see that Callaway was riding out this night with one foot on the top step of the dugout. Vargas opened with a strikeout of Justin Bour, but when the next two Marlins reached on a walk and single, pitching coach Dave Eiland appeared on the mound so quickly it was like he teleported there.
Not only that, but Paul Sewald already was up in the bullpen, so the dashboard warning light for Vargas had flickered on. With the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead, Callaway wasn’t going to let him flush it. Maybe the only thing that kept him in the game at that point was the bottom of the order due up, and once Eiland left, Vargas struck out Lewis Brinson swinging on a changeup then dispatched Elieser Hernandez, the Marlins’ pitcher, by freezing him with a 72-mph looping curve.
That was the Marlins’ only threat against Vargas, and at 86 pitches, Callaway was content for it to be the last. In his previous four starts, however, Vargas never made it past 80 pitches — or beyond the fifth inning, for that matter — and the manager had to be leery of letting him face the top of the Marlins’ lineup for a third time.
Instead, Callaway used three relievers to clear the sixth inning and five overall to stretch the Mets’ winning streak to four games. The pitching staff has a 1.50 ERA over that span, with the starters now with a 2.35 ERA. Finally, Vargas can count himself among the positives.
“That’s the reason we signed him,” Callaway said. “We need him to do that.”
A successful, if modest contribution. But it sure beats the alternative.