JUPITER, Fla. — No long hair, no nicknames. Not much of an identity, really. But the pitchers that occupy the Mets’ bullpen will get plenty of attention if they’re unable to finish what the team’s universally acclaimed rotation starts this season.
The wrong kind, that is.
Relievers are used to being put in high-leverage situations. It’s part of the job. The pressure that comes with following the Mets’ elite starters, however, is something few relief corps get saddled with.
Fortunately, the buck stops with Jeurys Familia. And the Mets’ closer, who had 43 saves last season — his first in that role — isn’t lacking in confidence. Despite Addison Reed pitching only 17 games for the Mets after the Aug. 30 trade from Arizona, and Antonio Bastardo having to justify his new two-year, $12-million deal, Familia stands by his brothers-in-arms.
“Right now, the most important thing is the rotation, everybody knows that,” Familia said. “But with the bullpen we have, when the year is over, and we finish as champions, everyone is going to know about the bullpen.”
Notice that Familia didn’t say “if” the Mets win the title. But that’s who he is. Familia wasn’t being cocky. Or issuing a guarantee. He was just doing what effective closers do. And that’s refuse to entertain thoughts of failure.
A short memory helps, too. The Mets stumbled last October, in part, because of the relief crew’s failings — with Familia blowing three saves in the World Series. Familia served up Alex Gordon’s game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 1, but the next two were not entirely his fault, thanks to defensive gaffes by Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda.
From what we’ve seen from Familia, there’s no reason to believe he’ll carry that baggage into the season-opening series, even with the Mets returning to the scene of the Game 1 crime, Kauffman Stadium, to kick things off on April 3. Familia had only five blown saves during the regular season, and none after July 30, a streak of 15 straight entering the playoffs.
Then again, as good as Familia was, it’s still only one year, with a not-so-awesome ending. We’re going to need to see Familia repeat that performance, because the true test of a special closer is a longer period of sustained success, a topic John Franco knows something about. Franco, who is visiting Tradition Field this month as a guest instructor, earned 426 saves over his 21-year career, and he believes Familia should be capable of another 40-plus season.
“It’s hard to be consistent year in and year out,” Franco said. “But I think Jeurys has a great makeup, and with this team, he’s going to get a lot of opportunities. He’s got the right attitude. I don’t think he’ll be affected by any aftershocks of the World Series. He just has too good of stuff to be bothered by any of that.”
Familia was nasty again Sunday in stifling the Marlins for his hitless inning, striking out Justin Bour and J.T. Realmuto. The power splitter is back, so no worries there. But it’s the bridge to Familia that remains in beta stage, until the Mets give it a test run under the bright lights in K.C.
Reed took over the set-up role from a fading Tyler Clippard last year, but now he’ll have it from Opening Day, with the heat of performing that task for the defending NL champs. Bastardo had a 2.98 ERA and 10 K/9 in 66 appearances for the wild-card Pirates, so he’s pitched for a contender. Still, New York is a different animal, and requires a thick skin for the occasional rough patches. That’s another part of the Mets’ relief experience Franco is very familiar with.
But the worst days, Franco recalled, were the ones when Al Leiter or Mike Hampton dominated for seven innings, only to have him detonate their victory in the ninth. Those dumpster fires stuck with him a little longer than the others.
“That bothered me the most,” Franco said. “They’d pitch great and we’d come in and mess it up for them. They’d have nothing to show for it. They were out there for two hours busting their butts and we’d come in for 10 minutes and blow the game.”
The scenario Franco referred to, at least the Leiter-Hampton part, is likely to happen far more frequently this season for the Mets, who converted 70 percent (50-for-71) of their save chances last season. Of the seven teams with 48 or more saves, only the Rays were worse at 69 percent (60-for-87). Protecting those leads are going to be paramount, and Terry Collins had to feel better Sunday seeing the Blevins-Bastardo-Familia combo reel off three hitless innings. Maybe Harvey did, too.
“It’s a blessing having a group of starters that good,” Blevins said. “We care about those guys. Them being good makes it a little bit more fun to watch, but the pressure is the same as it always is for us.”
We’ll find out soon enough.