PHILADELPHIA — Every day before the Mets play, Buck Showalter checks in with each of the relievers on his roster. He talks to them to see how they’ve recovered from recent outings. He asks if he can field that day. Then he makes his decisions — taking the player’s opinion into account, but not relying exclusively on it.
Before the Mets suffered one of their worst losses of the season on Sunday, a 7-6 loss to the Phillies that put them a season-high 15 games out of first place, setup man Adam Ottavino told Showalter he was available. He didn’t feel right the night before, throwing 26 pitches to record two outs, but he was ready to go if needed. Showalter responded that he would only use Ottavino if the game went into extra innings.
Similarly, closer David Robertson recorded five outs on Saturday, but did so on a more efficient 13 pitches. Showalter wanted to use Robertson for an innings maximum. Left-hander Brooks Raleigh, who has been on the field for several consecutive days, is unavailable. The Mets have never used him in three consecutive games.
That brought rookie Josh Walker to the mound with a three-run lead in the eighth. Walker did not retire any of the three batters he faced. Next in the bullpen was Jeff Brigham, who posted a 5.19 ERA in June. Brigham induced the ground ball he needed, but third baseman Brett Paddy made a clutch double and threw wildly to second base, where Jeff McNeil couldn’t glove it.
As Ottavino sat in the bullpen feeling guilty about his passivity, Brigham issued a bases-loaded walk and then struck out subsequent batters to force in the game-tying and go-ahead runs. He joined Oliver Perez as the only Mets pitchers to hit two batters in a row.
It was only after all this unfolded that Robertson began warming up for an appearance that never happened. By then it was too late; The Mets lost their 15th game in 20 games without hitting the bottom of the ninth.
“What else can we do?” Showalter said of his reliever usage. “That’s where we were.”
There were comparisons to the 2016 American League wild-card game, when Showalter — then Baltimore’s manager — left Cy Young candidate Zach Britton in the bullpen, pitching lesser relievers and, ultimately, losing the game. Afterward, Showalter explained that he didn’t want to use Britton in a tie because there was no one to shut him down if his team took the lead. His reasoning for avoiding Robertson was the same.
The urgency of Sunday’s matchup didn’t match a win or a home run to the playoffs, but for the Mets, it was still a rubber game against a division rival at a critical juncture in their season. Over the past three weeks, the Mets have seen their chances of making the postseason fade significantly. A series win against the Phillies may have represented a turning point.
Instead, the Mets lost behind Carlos Carrasco, Dominic Leon, Grant Hardwick, Walker, Brigham and Vinny Nitoli. Together, those pitchers own a 5.25 ERA. Two of them were out of the system at the beginning of May. Hardwick pitched two scoreless innings.
“They’re capable of getting the job done,” said Showalter, who was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes. “They didn’t do that today.”
In his postgame press conference, Showalter repeatedly said he didn’t understand the line of questioning surrounding his bullpen usage. He reiterated his desire to save Robertson in the ninth, avoiding either Raleigh or Ottavino.
“I don’t understand,” Showalter said. “What am I missing?”
Part of the problem is that Mets starters like Carrasco don’t usually play deep into games. Part of that is that with Edwin Diaz on the injured list and Drew Smith suspended, only three of the five high-relief relievers the Mets brought to spring training are active. This offseason, general manager Billy Eppler has made waiver claims, free-agent signings and trades, but he has yet to import another top-tier arm.
Perhaps that will change before the August 1 trade deadline. Probably not. Right now, the Mets risk reaching that level with a bad enough record to make a buying spree unwise.
“Hopefully,” Brigham said, “there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Showalter, at least, should have Robertson, Ottavino and Raleigh on Monday when his team begins a three-game series against the Brewers. There’s no guarantee the Mets will take the lead in that one, but if they do, their top bullpen will have their hands well rested.