The Mets must really like Mickey Callaway, because they keep finding ways to make their rookie manager look good.
Or in some cases, less bad.
Six outs away from a humiliating sweep at the hands of the Nationals — at Citi Field no less — with another questionable decision to put on Callaway’s ledger, the Mets rallied for nine runs in the eighth inning Wednesday night for an 11-5 win, and the go-ahead double was provided by their fourth pinch-hitter of the game, Juan Lagares.
Just when it looked like Callaway would have to wear his unorthodox — and ultimately fruitless — move to pull Steven Matz for a pinch hitter in the fourth inning, the Mets bailed him out by bashing three Nats relievers in the eighth. Callaway even had Lagares at the ready to bat for A.J. Ramos with two outs and he delivered a two-run double that stayed inside the rightfield line by roughly two feet. Yoenis Cespedes later iced it with a grand slam.
“The players in that clubhouse are never going to give up,” Callaway said after the Mets snapped the season’s first losing streak to improve to 13-4. “We’ll blow some games here and there, but they’re never going to stop.”
As much as we can debate the wisdom of Callaway’s early decisions during the first three weeks of his young managerial career, there’s one indisputable trademark of these Mets — and it’s the most important. This team is playing winning baseball under Callaway, and the Mets don’t roll over. Callaway will get better at the whole in-game strategy thing. For now, he definitely seems to have the Mets steered in the right direction, even if he creates his own speed-bumps now and again.
“It’s the personality of this team,” Michael Conforto said. “We fight to the end.”
Good thing for Callaway, who isn’t shy about calling the occasional head-scratcher. That continued Wednesday night in the fourth inning, when the Mets were in the process of cutting the deficit to 3-2 and Matz — fresh off retiring 10 straight — was waiting in the on-deck circle to hit. Once Jose Lobaton knocked in the second run with a fielder’s choice grounder, however, Matz was summoned back to the dugout and Brandon Nimmo was sent up in his place.
Matz was clearly upset, and didn’t mind showing his displeasure. He slammed his bat into the rack and stared blankly from the bench. It was highly unusual to pull a starter in that spot, after just 74 pitches, especially when Matz finally caught stride, whiffing five during that streak of 10 straight outs.
“I was surprised,” Matz said.
To make matters worse, the Mets still came up empty. Nimmo got hit by a pitch to load the bases, but Amed Rosario bounced into a rally-killing double play. Not only were the Mets still down, but now Callaway had to get through five innings with his bullpen, which felt like a dice roll after watching four of his best relievers cough up a 6-1 lead in the same inning during Monday night’s debacle.
“It was very hard,” Callaway said. “I thought it was necessary at the time, just the way our bats were going. It was necessary to get that pinch hitter in there.”
Handling in-game strategy is more difficult than it looks from a bar stool or living-room recliner, and even the most experienced managers screw up from time to time. Only 17 games into the season, we know this much about Callaway: he’s not afraid to make the bold move. Before this series finale, he was interrogated again about the doomed decision to use Jose Reyes as a pinch hitter in the previous night’s loss, a questionable tactic that stranded runners at the corners with the Mets trailing 3-2 at the time.
Callaway cited his faith in a veteran player like Reyes, choosing to believe that he’d come through in a pivotal spot, as long as he’s given enough opportunities. In Callaway’s defense, perhaps he thought Reyes was due after being hitless (0-for-16) for the season. Alas, he struck out.
But that’s mostly forgotten now. As long as the Mets keep winning, Callaway can easily brush off the criticism, and he walked away Wednesday night with another “W” to polish for his growing collection.