Seth Lugo had won six straight road starts heading into his Fourth of July matchup with the Washington Nationals yesterday. That streak was, “... tied for the longest stretch in team history with Tom Seaver (twice - September 20, 1968-May 21, 1969 and August 9-September 27, 1969) and Jerry Koosman (twice - April 11-June 4, 1968 and September 11, 1972-April 29, 1973),” as the Mets mentioned in their pregame notes.
Lugo was (3-0) on the road this season before taking on the Nats, with a 3.38 ERA in 18 2⁄3 innings pitched outside of New York’s Citi Field after getting off to a late start to his 2017 campaign, and the Mets had won in 10 of his previous 11 starts going back to August 25, 2016, with Lugo is 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA in 65 2⁄3 IP over that 11-start span.
In four starts back since coming off the Disabled List (elbow inflammation after he participated in the World Baseball Classic), Lugo had thrown 76 curveballs, with opposing hitters 7 for 20 against the pitch in 2017, after he held hitters to a .235 AVG on his curve last season, while throwing it with, “... an average spin rate of 3,318 rpm in 2016, which led MLB among pitchers who threw at least 125 curveballs.”
So, Dusty Baker was asked — after the Nationals, with a “sub”-filled lineup that featured Wilmer Difo (2 for 3, BB), Adam Lind (1 for 5), Ryan Raburn (1 for 2, BB), Stephen Drew (1 for 4), and Jose Lobaton (1 for 3, BB), knocked Lugo around for 10 hits and six runs in five innings in the nation’s capital, with, according to the reporter, none of those hits six hits by the “subs” on the curve (though the Nationals put four in play, three for hits, overall) — did his bench bats go into the game with a plan to avoid offering at Lugo’s breaking ball?
“Mmm... I can’t tell you that cause he might be reading it too,” Baker said, “but the curveball is tough to hit, and the curveball sent many a player home.
“The secret to hitting, like my roommate used to say, Ralph Garr, the secret to hitting the curveball is don’t miss the fastball.”
That a lineup that was “missing” available players like Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Goodwin, Matt Wieters, and Anthony Rendon, who all sat this one out, (though Goodwin came on late) and injured players like Jayson Werth and Trea Turner, was able to rough the Mets up and win 11-4 in the end, was impressive, of course.
“That just shows you that they work when they’re not playing,” Baker said, “... and it shows you what kind of job [Hitting Coaches] Rick Schu and Jacque Jones are doing to prepare them for who’s pitching and what they’ll most likely do to them — and the fact that they play.
“They don’t sit too long and so then that has the team fresh tomorrow.
“Like again, I played yesterday the young guys that don’t need as much sleep as us old guys, and then today, we played fresh bodies again, like [Daniel Murphy], he responded big time (4 for 5, 5 RBIs). Anthony [Rendon] usually always responds probably the best from a day off, and so I give [the bench players] a couple days notice that they’re going to be playing and when and whom and they can study video and do whatever they have to do to get prepared and ready to play.”
They were clearly ready, and Drew and Difo, in particular, have allowed the Nats to get by thus far with Turner out (fractured wrist), without having to look for a shortstop to fill in until Turner is ready to return in another 8-10 weeks.
That depth (at several positions), Baker said, is a key part of the Nationals’ success.
“[Signing] Drew was one of our priorities when the season started,” Baker explained.
“Difo has been chomping at the bit to play more. He was playing at lot, but wasn’t producing like he is now, but now I have three of them, all three can play all three infield positions interchangeable, like tonight I put [Adrian] Sanchez at second, I wanted to see him at second, cause I know he can play short, and Difo has played second, short, and third for us, and the fact that they can — the hard part for a young player, you don’t see many players that can turn double plays from both sides of the bag.
“Most of the time, it’s a lot easier from shortstop because you can see the runner coming at you, but at second base, I see Difo out there practicing all the time and he was at second base yesterday, he was practicing all the time on turning double plays, and so that’s the toughest part that you have to feel comfortable with and to learn.”
Difo has also impressed Baker with the adjustments he’s made at the plate, after he struggled offensively early this season.
“He was in the lineup a lot earlier, don’t forget,” Baker said. “Difo might have closer to 100 at bats, we just urged him to stay out of the air, because he was hitting a lot of fly balls to left and a lot of fly balls and none of them went out of the ballpark, so the best thing if you’re up in the air is to stay out of the air, and so he’s made some adjustments in his swing and his approach, and so we’re working with him and it’s easier to convey these things when a person has some success doing what you’re trying to convey to them.”
Until Turner returns, and Baker has all his weapons at his disposal, he’ll continue to mix things up and try to keep everyone ready.
“I want to keep them rested and you have to keep the other guys sharp too,” he said.
“Like Anthony was off today, Drew played third, and I think Difo has played two days, I think Drew will play short tomorrow and then I’ve got to keep him healthy, so then he’ll probably not play the next day against the Braves. I’ve got a plan. Might not make much sense to a lot of people, but I’ve got a plan.”