The Mets caught the luckiest of breaks through another pitcher’s elbow injury…
It was nearly six months ago to the date the Mets opened their regular season against the Nationals on a sunny afternoon in Washington.
It was Bartolo Colon against Max Scherzer, and the game was underway as fans were yelling and screaming about Colon getting the Opening Day honor.
But the game went exactly as planned for Terry Collins and in shocking manner to that critical fan base.
Colon was brilliant and the Mets scratched out three runs against Scherzer, getting the ball to Jenrry Mejia in the ninth inning as he warmed up for his first save opportunity of the year.
That’s when things abruptly changed for the 2015 Mets.
Mejia never made it into the game. He suffered an elbow strain while warming up, and the Mets were forced to ask Jerry Blevins and Buddy Carlyle to piece together the ninth inning. They did just that in a game that would essentially define the Nationals season with good but not good enough pitching, an inconsistent offense, key misplays and both awkward and questionable in-game strategy.
But as it turns out, Mejia’s injury might have been among the most fortutious circumstances the Mets encountered in 2015.
Usually in these parts, injuries – especially to key cast members – are considered devastating. They crush the collective souls of the fan base and create an awkward circumstance for both the manager and general manager to perform damage control and public spin.
Not this time, at least after the panic died down that April afternoon.
And while nobody wants anyone to get hurt, it’s hard to argue this one wasn’t indeed fortuitous.
Because it was before the next game Familia was said to be their new, albeit temporary closer while Mejia healed.
But just a few days later, Mejia was suspended for 80 games after violating the leagues joint drug agreement after testing positive for a PED. He would not be seen or heard from again until July 8 in San Francisco.
By then, Familia was no longer their temporary closer. He had put a stranglehold on the job Mejia never seemed to have to begin with, as all the talk was Familia might take over as the team’s closer anyway, perhaps sooner than later.
He had racked up 24 saves with a 1.13 ERA by the time Mejia returned. So Mejia was now the understudy and setup man to Familia.
And Mejia was gone just a couple of weeks later again anyway thanks to another PED violation which will keep him out of action until next July.
But Familia’s catcher, Travis d’Arnaud, knew the Mets wouldn’t miss a beat with Familia in charge of the ninth inning.
“I thought it would fit him perfectly,” d’Arnaud said Sunday. “Based off the year before when he was our eighth-inning guy, he had tremendous stuff and he believed in his stuff and he believed in himself.”
It was a complete role reversal from 90 days earlier, in dominating fashion at that.
Now, nearly 90 days after Mejia came and went again, Familia has completed his first full season as the Mets closer as dominantly as he started. He recorded his 43rd save of the year on Sunday against the Nationals, tying Armando Benitez for the single-season club record.
One of the things we tried to do this week,” Terry Collins explained, “we were hoping to get Familia in a situation where he could break that record, but to tie it’s a huge step, especially where we started out day one, when all of a sudden we lost our closer and he stepped up and did a tremendous job all year.”
A week ago, he seemed certain to own that record, but the Mets lost five of their last six games and only led twice in that span – the first inning on Wednesday and in the ninth inning on Sunday.
“I think if there’s one guy who is mentally strong enough to be able to take the ball and go out there on the big stage, Jeurys Familia’s that guy,” Collins said. “He’s one of the sharpest guys you’ll ever be around. No fear. And he wants the baseball. When he’s out there to save those games, one run games in Dodger Stadium, he’s the guy.”
He hit one small speed bump along the way after the All-Star break, blowing his first three save opporunities against the Cardinals, Dodgers and Padres, as if the break derailed his rhythm.
But it was around that time Familia started toying with the idea of incorporating his split-fingered fastball, a pitch he had been messing around with in the bullpen for nearly two years, but never executed it in-game.
“Dan Warthen and Ricky Bones always told me, ‘you’ve got to throw that pitch because everyone knows you throw a sinker and a slider.’ I said, ‘ok,'” Familia recently explained about incorporating his splitter.
Since then, he’s become even more dominating, and really hasn’t looked back after his hiccup in late July. He finished his season by converting his final 15 save chances. He had a 1.30 ERA in his last 29 appearances with 36 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings during that span.
“He got thrown into that closer role, and he hasn’t looked back,” David Wright said after Sunday’s win. “He’s about as dominant as any arm in baseball, so he’s proven that he’s an All-Star caliber closer and you just feel confident when you can shorten the game up, and he definitely shortens up the game for us.”
Now Familia is tasked with translating his in-season domination into postseason success, and converting every chance he’s given in the ninth inning. There’s no margin for error now, as unlike the regular season when tomorrow always brought a new opportunity, there’s a chance tomorrow might not come if anyone slips up in a playoff game.
“Everytime I come into pitch, I trust myself,” Familia said.
And the Mets have trusted and will continue to trust their collective lives in the ninth inning with Familia. After all, he’s earned that trust with what was a magnificent season for the 25-year-old right-hander.