Game on the line in the eighth inning with the bases loaded? Too bad.
The Mets narrowly averted disaster on Monday night against the Phillies thanks to some old-school and inflexible bullpen management on the part of skipper Mickey Callaway—and despite that near-catastrophe, the team will apparently keep courting that same mess going forward.
Holding a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth in Philadelaphia, Callaway turned to his setup man, Jeurys Familia, to get New York to the ninth. Yet the veteran righty simply didn’t have it, walking three and allowing a single to find himself in a bases-loaded jam with two outs.
Out came Familia, but luckily for the Mets, they have one of the best relievers in baseball in closer Edwin Díaz. Even better, he was fully rested, as he hadn’t pitched in four days. Surely a four-out save was forthcoming. Instead, Callaway called for righty Robert Gsellman, who, while not a bad pitcher, is also definitely not Edwin Díaz. Facing Jean Segura, Gsellman issued a four-pitch walk to force in a run and tie the game while Díaz watched from the bullpen.
Gsellman recovered from there to get Bryce Harper, and the game chugged along into extras before the Mets won it in the 11th (with Díaz finally appearing and getting the save in the bottom of the frame). Yet it’s hard to understand why Callaway opted not to use his best pitcher in the game’s most crucial moment. As it turns out, though, that’s a set strategy that the Mets will stick to going forward. Per MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo:
These rules on usage (the Díaz Directives? Edwin's Edicts?) are, one imagines, in place to protect the young Díaz's arm and avoid burning him out early (though Callaway has already used him in eight of New York’s 16 games so far, including twice to get just one out in the ninth). It also reflects Díaz's usage pattern with the Mariners last year, when he got four or more outs just three times in 73 appearances. But that kind of hard limit seems at odds with the modern game’s need for a flexible, adaptable bullpen that can put out fires whenever it’s needed.
It seems self-defeating, too, to restrict the usage of your best reliever bar none. Díaz has 13 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings against just one walk, one hit and one run allowed; the rest of the Mets’ bullpen has given up 35 runs in 52 1/3 innings—a ghastly 6.02 ERA. Familia in particular has been awful, with nine walks, two homers and a 6.48 ERA in 8 1/3 frames. Diaz should be your first man up if things are getting hairy late in the game, yet Callaway seems determined to fight his toughest battles with his weakest pitchers.
Worse, the Mets’ manager is also set on tying his hands behind his back during extra innings, too, saying that Díaz will never pitch in a tie game on the road. Had the Mets not scored in the 11th on Monday, Callaway would have gone to righty Drew Gagnon—called up that same day from Triple A and the owner of 12 career MLB innings—to face Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto in a potential walk-off situation. That’s egregiously poor process, yet Callaway was more than ready to hold Díaz back for a save situation that may have never come.
That things worked out for the Mets is surprising, but it’s a bad sign for future perilous situations. It’s also galling when you consider that in order to get Díaz (along with Robinson Canó), New York gave up two of its best prospects in Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn. Paying that kind of price for a reliever means you’re getting one who can handle the biggest of messes, which Díaz almost certainly can. Instead, the Mets acquired an F1 car that they apparently plan on using only to drive to and from the grocery store. It’s both silly and a waste to use a weapon like Diaz on three-run leads in the ninth and not deploy him in a one-run game in the eighth.
Maybe Diaz’s usage changes down the road. Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen suggested as much, saying that his team “can always deviate from any rule.” It would behoove both him and Callaway, though, to dump this particular one sooner rather than later. The Mets may not be so lucky next time things go to pot in the late innings.