WASHINGTON — If manager Terry Collins had pinch hit for Rafael Montero, none of this might have happened.
The New York Mets twice had skirted disaster with Montero as the starting pitcher, winning his first two outings in place of Jacob deGrom despite Montero walking nine batters in 8 1/3 innings. Collins then stuck with Montero too long on Monday, in the manager’s second debatable decision in three days. And this time the Mets were burned in what became an 8-1 series-opening loss to the Washington Nationals.
The saving grace: The Cardinals continued their free fall with a loss to the Chicago Cubs. So the Mets maintained a half-game lead over St. Louis for the National League’s second wild card.
Montero had somehow limited the damage to two runs in the first inning when he coaxed a fly out from Danny Espinosa that stranded the bases loaded. Montero nonetheless walked three batters in that 37-pitch first inning. And given the importance of the game, the Mets should have lifted Montero and counted themselves fortunate to be trailing only 2-1 after one inning.
Yet when Montero’s turn to bat came in the top of the second inning with two runners on base and two outs, Collins decided to allow Montero to hit rather than lift him for a pinch hitter. Montero proceeded to strike out. He then returned to the mound and surrendered homers to opposing pitcher Mat Latos and Anthony Rendon, and the Mets trailed 6-1 when Montero was pulled with two outs in the bottom of the second.
Would rookie reliever Gabriel Ynoa have performed any better in that frame if Montero had been replaced by a pinch hitter a half-inning earlier with a chance to take the lead? Who knows? But Collins did not manage the game like a must-win with an expanded September roster at his disposal.
Collins said he considered lifting Montero. But the manager was unsure Ynoa, a minor league starter, would work comfortably if inserted in relief.
“I wanted to see if the other kid could settle down and pitch,” Collins added about Montero. “That was another part of it. That’s the decision we made.”
It was the staff’s second costly decision in three days.
Collins admitted he erred Saturday in Atlanta when he failed to pinch run for slow-footed Wilmer Flores after his two-out double in the eighth with the score tied. On T.J. Rivera’s ensuing single to right field, Nick Markakis threw out Flores at the plate. The Mets ended up losing in extra innings. To add injury to insult, Flores (sore neck) has not reappeared in the lineup since his plate collision with Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski on the play.
Collins accepted responsibility for Saturday’s gaffe, even if it is the bench coach’s responsibility to present those types of options to the manager. Collins said he was distracted by trying to set up the pitching for the following inning.
Now, the Mets clearly have to find a replacement for Montero in the rotation until deGrom is ready to return from forearm inflammation. DeGrom actually is close. He threw a bullpen session at Nationals Park on Monday, and the Mets believe his next time on a mound could be in an actual major league game in relief. Because deGrom has not pitched since Sept. 1, however, it would seem to be asking a lot to use him for a starter’s complement of innings as soon as the next rotation turn comes up.
“I don’t know who yet, but we’ll make a switch,” Collins said, referring to Montero’s days as a starter ending.