Mets Catch a Break, Then Catch Fire, to Defeat the Braves on Opening Day

It was the bottom of the seventh inning on Monday, in a scoreless opening-day pitchers’ duel at Citi Field, when the Mets’ Wilmer Flores raced home from second base on a single to center field by Asdrubal Cabrera. Flores can hit for power against left-handed pitching and play multiple positions, but fleet of foot he is not.

Still, Flores learned a lesson in 2016 when his season ended in September as he injured himself in a futile headfirst slide into home plate. So Flores decided to lead with his feet on Monday, and his foot seemed to touch the plate just before Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers tagged him.

The home-plate umpire, Jeff Kellogg, saw it differently, however, calling Flores out. For a moment, it was last season all over again, a chance to score denied. But Mets Manager Terry Collins challenged the call, and it was overturned.

Instead of two outs and the game scoreless, the Mets had a 1-0 lead with one out and runners on base. And five batters later, they had a 6-0 lead that held up as the final score.

“Thanks, M.L.B., for inventing replay,” Mets right fielder Jay Bruce said. “That was a big point of the game right there. We were able to get a run on the board. It got us a little momentum and energy for the rest of the game.”

Collins said afterward that as Flores rounded third and headed home on Monday, he had flashbacks to that play last September — also in a tie game and also against the Braves — when Flores was not only out but also missed the rest of the season with a wrist injury.

“Oh, don’t tell me we’re going to go through this again,” Collins said he thought to himself.

In the end, the Mets did not. What went wrong in 2016 worked out fine this time, and in front of an announced crowd of 44,384, the second-largest regular-season crowd in Citi Field history.

Although the Flores call may have struck some fans as a good omen for 2017, others would put Monday’s events — safe call and all — into a larger context, one in which pitching injuries remain a constant concern for the Mets.

Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ ace, threw six scoreless innings, walking none and striking out seven with a combination of high-90s sinkers and demonic breaking balls. But despite a low pitch count of 86, Syndergaard had to leave the game because of a blister on the top of the middle finger of his throwing hand.

The Mets had hoped to pitch Syndergaard on Saturday, in a home game against the Miami Marlins. Instead, he will receive an extra day off and pitch on Sunday. Or at least that is the plan.

“We’ve got to stay healthy,” Collins said. “We’ve preached it and preached it and preached it. And now we have to act on it.”

The Mets began spring training with seven legitimate starters, including Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, the unheralded minor league prospects who helped carry the team to the playoffs last season. By Monday, however, the Mets were down to five, with Rafael Montero now the new backup stashed in the bullpen.

Steven Matz, whose career has been plagued by injuries, will be unavailable to the Mets for several weeks as he deals with elbow inflammation. And after Monday’s game, Collins revealed that Lugo would miss several weeks because of elbow problems as well. The Mets have labeled Lugo’s malady right elbow inflammation. However, Lugo said he would receive a second doctor’s opinion on Tuesday.

Before the game, Lugo said that a medical examination over the weekend showed that his elbow ligament was in good shape.

“I feel good,” said Lugo, who pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. “I never had any pain symptoms. The only thing I had was tightness, and it didn’t feel right to me. Just wanted to make sure. I’m ready to go now.”

The Mets, understandably, are taking a more cautious approach.

So Lugo watched Monday’s game from the dugout as the Mets pounced after Flores had been ruled safe. Curtis Granderson drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, Bruce drew a bases-loaded walk, and Lucas Duda cleared the bases with a double to left-center field.

All of the Mets’ damage came against the Braves’ bullpen after starter Julio Teheran had held the Mets scoreless for six innings. The Mets’ relievers, in contrast, did just fine.

Hansel Robles and Fernando Salas each tossed scoreless innings, and Gsellman closed it out in the ninth, getting some work as he waits for his first start.

As for Flores, and the play at the plate, he said he was surprised that Flowers, the Braves’ catcher, had set up for the throw several feet behind home plate, which may have allowed him to just beat the tag.

“I was surprised that he was behind the plate, but good for us,” he said.

The Mets have begun this season with a team-record $154 million opening-day payroll and a deeper roster than last season. A reflection of that depth was that Bruce and Duda, two players who have hit 30 homers in a season, were batting sixth and seventh on Monday.

But along with depth and talent, good fortune helps, too. And that was Flores’s role on Monday, putting a nice spin on the start of the season.

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times


Mets have another reason to fret with Noah Syndergaard's exit

NEW YORK -- Some prominent storylines from the 2016 MLB season have magically reappeared. Two days into the schedule, Bryce Harper remains an April force, the San Francisco Giants are shrugging off a bullpen meltdown, and the New York Mets have yet another pitcher health vigil underway.

An abrupt plot twist in the sixth inning lent a touch of intrigue to the Mets' 6-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Monday. Noah Syndergaard looked dominant in his 2017 debut, then departed with a shutout in progress and only 86 pitches in the books. A blood blister began forming in the second inning before bursting in the fifth, and manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen opted for caution and told Syndergaard it was time to call it a day.

Syndergaard, who previously dealt with the issue as a minor leaguer in the Toronto Blue Jays' system, shrugged it off as "just a little blister," and expressed a sense of mock joy when a postgame interview session shifted from the state of his right middle finger to the emotional high of pitching on Opening Day at Citi Field.

"We get to the good questions," he said, "and not the blisters."

The reaction was similar to Syndergaard’s response last year when he bristled over the incessant speculation about a bone spur in his right elbow. He prides himself on his ability to pitch through aches and pains and isn't interested in worst-case scenarios.

But Collins, a man who knows something about monitoring pitcher injuries, conceded the importance of being vigilant and short-circuiting this storyline before it has a chance to morph into something bigger. Before the game was over, Collins conferred with Warthen and determined that Robert Gsellman will pitch Saturday and Syndergaard will get an extra day of rest before his next start Sunday against the Miami Marlins.

"We know how important it is to keep our pitchers healthy," Collins said. "Dan and I had been contemplating giving Noah the extra day this week, and this settles it. We have to let that blister heal up, and we're going to push him back a day.

"I think it's the right decision. We've got to stay healthy. We've preached it and preached it and preached it, and now we've got to act on it."

It's hard to blame Collins for being skittish, given all the medical updates he has to monitor. The Mets have Matt Harvey coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Jacob deGrom returning from elbow surgery, Zack Wheeler on the verge of making his first start since 2015 Tommy John surgery and Steven Matz on the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon to start the season. And the rotation depth took yet another hit Monday when they placed Seth Lugo on the DL with elbow issues.

Syndergaard has ascended to the top of the food chain because of a combination of competitiveness, durability and velocity that's rare among the current crop of big-league starters. He led the majors with an average 98.0 mph velocity in 2016 and announced his presence with a 98 mph heater right out of the chute against Ender Inciarte in the first inning Monday. According to Daren Willman, MLB's director of research and development, it was the fastest Opening Day first pitch in the three-year history of Statcast.

Syndergaard's secondary pitches take him to another level. After Freddie Freeman legged out a one-out triple in the fourth inning, Syndergaard struck out Matt Kemp on a 90 mph changeup and Nick Markakis on a 94 mph slider. Two innings later, Syndergaard returned to the changeup to whiff Kemp and threw four straight sliders to Markakis before setting down Atlanta's right fielder on a fly ball to end another threat.

"When runners were in scoring position, he upped his game, and that's what the great ones do," Collins said. "You watch them and they can coast along and coast along, and all of a sudden they get under pressure and their stuff gets just a little bit better. That's what I saw out of him today."

Syndergaard, who had said his heart was "racing" over the prospect of joining Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Johan Santana in the pantheon of Mets' Opening Day starters, emerged from the experience with a nice, warm feeling inside even though he would have preferred to go a bit longer.

"It was awesome out there, feeling the electricity of the atmosphere of the fans," he said. "The second I started walking up the dugout steps, I got chills. The crowd was unbelievable."

If the blister on his finger is as innocuous as Syndergaard thinks, he'll return in all his Thor-like splendor Sunday against the Marlins. But that doesn't mean Collins and Mets fans won't spend the next few days fretting about it. They've been down this road too many times already.


Noah Syndergaard exits with blister, Mets unload in seventh inning to shut out Braves 6-0 on Opening Day

In six innings Monday, Noah Syndergaard gave the Mets fans hope and then reminded them just how fragile that hope can be. The ace threw six scoreless innings before he was forced out of the game with a blood blister in the Mets’ 6-0 Opening Day win over the Braves in front of 44,384 at Citi Field.

Syndergaard dominated the Braves, striking out seven and scattering five hits, before leaving with the blister on the top of his right middle finger. News that righthander Seth Lugo will be “out a few weeks,” with an elbow issue that the Mets will not reveal followed the games. Before, lefty Steven Matz revealed he was diagnosed with a flexor tendon strain in his left elbow and not just simple irritations.

The pitching depth the Mets had been so excited about in spring training is already being stretched thin after the first day of the season.

That ominous fact overshadowed the Mets’ six-run seventh inning off the Braves’ horrible bullpen, three hits by shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, the three-run double by Lucas Duda, and Syndergaard, Hansel Robles, Fernando Salas and Robert Gsellman combining to throw the Mets’ first Opening Day shutout since 2012.

With the bulk of those expectations riding on starting arms like Syndergaard’s, what is described as a small blister cast a big shadow over the Mets’ Opening Day win.

While Syndergaard said the blister is not something he is concerned about, the Mets will give him an extra day of rest this week. They pushed back his scheduled Saturday start to Sunday night. Gsellman, who pitched an inning of relief Monday, will start on Saturday instead of Sunday.

Terry Collins said with any issue with their pitchers, the Mets want to err on the side of caution.

“We lost Seth Lugo today for a period of time, so we know that how important it is to keep our pitchers healthy,” the Mets manager said. “Actually (pitching coach) Dan (Warthen) and I had been contemplating giving Noah and extra day this week before this. That blister settles it. We’ll him back a day later. I think it’s the right decision.”

Collins and Warthen made the decision to shut Syndergaard down Monday as soon as they found out about the blister.

“It’s a small blood blister, started probably around the second inning or so,” Syndergaard said with a shrug. “It popped in the fifth inning and started to bother me.”

Syndergaard impressively got out of jams in the fourth and sixth innings before telling Warthen about the blister. With runners on the corners and one out, Syndergaard got Matt Kemp to strike out swinging on his new-found changeup. Then, after falling behind Nick Markakis 3-0, Syndergaard battled back and got the Braves right fielder to fly out and end the inning on a 99-mph fastball. Syndergaard had struck out Kemp and Markakis in the fourth with Freddie Freeman on third.

“I felt like I did a very good job in the fourth and the sixth innings. I didn’t let the game speed up on me too much,” Syndergaard said. “I found a little extra gear. That’s why we compete, because it’s fun, it’s fun to have the opposition challenge you.

“It was really encouraging to get out of tough jams like that,” Syndergaard said.

The potential of injury, however, is discouraging.

The Mets came into spring with seven guys they felt could start for them. Matz was shut down the last week of spring training. Monday he said he has the flexor tendon strain and “the plan now,” is to rest and then begin throwing the last week in April, which will basically force him to start spring training all over again.

The Mets believe Lugo’s injury stems from his appearance in the World Baseball Classic, where he threw 15 hard innings for Puerto Rico. Lugo said he would see a doctor about a second opinion Monday, but would not say what diagnosis he is seeking to confirm. Lugo had an MRI on Saturday and the Mets listed him with right elbow “irritation,” when they put him in the disabled list Sunday.

That quickly depletes the Mets’ depth of starting pitching.

“There is some trepidation there. We’ve got to stay healthy,” Collins admitted about the concerns about pitchers injuries. “We preach it, preach it, preach it and now we’ve got to act on it.”

PLAY OF THE GAME

With runners on the corners and blood blister that was starting to bother him on the top of his middle finger, Noah Syndergaard had to face the Braves’ fourth and fifth hitters. The right-hander who worked on his changeup all spring, pulled it out to strike out Matt Kemp. Then Syndergaard, who had started the day with a 99-mile an hour fastball, ended his day with one. He got Nick Markakis to fly on on that, his final pitch of the afternoon.

“That to me was the difference in the game,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “When he had runners in scoring position, he upped his game, and that’s what the great ones do. You watch him, coast along, coast along, then all the sudden under pressure, the stuff gets a little bit better.”

TURNING POINT

While Collins had a flashback to last September when Wilmer Flores suffered a season-ending hand injury trying to score from second base against the Braves, everyone else in the ballpark saw that somehow the infielder had, in fact, beaten catcher Tyler Flowers’ tag. The not so fleet-footed Flores scored the first run of the game (and the season) on Asdrubal Cabrera’s single in the seventh after quick video-review changed the initial call. The Mets went on to score five more runs that inning.

“I thought ‘Oh no we’re going to go through this again.’ He didn’t do a head first slide again, that helps,” Collins said sarcastically.

STAR OF THE GAME

Noah Syndergaard was as dominating as expected. He struck out seven, scattered five hits and did not walk a batter in the no-decision. The 24-year old is the third youngest Opening Day starter in Mets history, only Dwight Gooden, four times (1985-86 and 1988-89) and Tom Seaver, twice (1968-69) were younger when they made the first start of the season. The last Mets pitcher to strike out at least seven batters without issuing a walk on Opening Day was Jerry Koosman in 1978 in a complete-game win against the Expos. The last Mets pitcher to throw at least six scoreless on Opening Day was Bobby Jones in 1998 against the Phillies.

STAT

Mets pitchers did not issue a walk Monday. Last season the Mets led the major leagues in games without issuing a walk with 21. Noah Syndergaard had eight starts (nine appearances) last season without giving up a base on balls.

UNSUNG HERO

Asdrubal Cabrera drove in the first run of the season with his single in the seventh. He went 3-for-5, the first Met to have three hits in an Opening Day game since David Wright March 31, 2014 against the Nationals.

MIA: The Braves bullpen looks like it is going to be good hitting for the rest of the National League East. After Julio Teheran threw six scoreless, Ian Krol, Chaz Roe and Eric O’Flaherty, who was briefly with the Mets in 2015, gave up six runs on three hits and five walks.

UP NEXT

Wednesday vs. the Braves 7:10 p.m.

RHP Bartolo Colon (15-8, 3.43) vs. RHP Jacob deGrom (7-8, 3.04) 

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