The time is quickly approaching for Mickey Callaway to lock in on roles for his relievers.
By taking two of three this past weekend from the Nationals, the Mets proved they are more than just a team that can make up ground by beating on teams below .500. And at just one game back of Washington for the final Wild Card spot and 44 games left in the season, most of which will be against other teams in contention, Callaway can't risk his bullpen reverting to what it was before July.
Sadly, had the bullpen performed just average -- instead of losing an NL-worst 17 games the first three months of the season -- they would likely be leading the Wild Card and a just few games behind the NL East-leading Braves.
Having eight relievers available to pitch in any role and any situation based should work in theory. However, this idealistic strategy often breaks down because pitchers are people and -- for whatever reason -- they crave and believe routine, not matchups, breads success.
In reality, while young pitchers tend to be more amenable, any veteran reliever will tell you he prefers to arrive at the ballpark knowing his role so he can prepare himself mentally and physically in the best way possible. It may be irrational, it may be insane, it may be superstitious hocus pocus, but it's their reality. And more or less any manager in a playoff race that has attempted using fluid roles sees it backfire down the stretch, and eventually reverts back to tradition.
This is why Jeurys Familia may be the most important pitcher in the bullpen.
Callaway had one of the better performing bullpens in the NL during July. Again, though, it's worth noting his eight relievers were pitching against some of the league's worst lineups. Also, three of his starting pitchers -- Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler -- had been pitching deep in to games, which helped rest and reduce how often relievers needed to pitch.
The team's bullpen has slipped to an average performance in August, though. And on Sunday, when they could have completed a three-game sweep of the Nationals and move to sole possession of the Wild Card, the bullpen stumbled and Washington won the game.
But, despite the loss, Familia dominated the Nationals during eighth inning Sunday.
Seth Lugo has pitched exceptionally well all season, as has Justin Wilson since returning from the injured list in early July. Luis Avilan is also on top of his game and pitching like he did 3-4 years ago will not be enough of a bridge to Lugo and Wilson, though.
Here's where Familia comes in.
The 29-year-old signed a three-year deal this past winter to return to the Mets, for whom he began his career before being traded to the A's last summer. He struggled during the first half of this season. However, as Edwin Diaz and other relievers have failed to improve, Familia has not allowed a run in 11 of his last 13 appearances, during which he has a 2.79 ERA, but a 1.84 WHIP. He's gotten better, though, having not allowed a run or hit in the past week, including his three strikeouts and one inning of work Sunday.
"His effort level is right where you want it," Callaway said of Familia. "That's a turbo sinker he's throwing up there. ... He's making huge strides. He continues to work and continues to have faith in himself."
Familia's turnaround this season not surprisingly coincides with the return of bullpen coach Ricky Bones and the firing of pitching coach Dave Eiland, who was replaced with long-time, minor-league pitching guru, Phil Regan.
Bones and Familia have a long, successful history of working together, including 2015 and 2016, when Familia combined for 91 saves and two postseason appearances.
"He noticed that I was finishing a little bit short," Familia said Sunday of Bones, according to the NY Post. "Now I'm finishing a little longer, so now my arm has the opportunity to pretty much reach its point of the release."
With Diaz getting worse, a resurgent and effective Familia could single handedly change the entire dynamic of the bullpen and allow Callaway to begin locking his top relievers into specific, predictable, routine roles.
This only happens, though, if Callaway gets away from Diaz and begins regularly using Familia and Avilan equally in tight spots between the exit of the starting pitcher and when he turns to Lugo and Wilson.
According to SNY's Andy Martino, Diaz will remain on the roster and not be demoted to Triple-A.
Callaway continues to speak highly of Diaz. This is fine, because actions speak louder than words. And in action, the manager is clearly moving away from using his supposed-to-be closer, Diaz, who pitched Sunday for the first time in nearly one week. He's also only pitched three times in August where as Familia has been used six times.
The other difference could be Brad Brach, who signed with the Mets on Thursday after being designated for assignment by the Cubs. Brach made his debut for the Mets in the sixth inning on Sunday with runners at first and third base and two outs. He retired his one batter, Brian Dozier, and kept the tied score in tact.
Brach, who grew up in New Jersey, grew up a Mets fan and hopes to help get the organization back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
"I told [Callaway] I'm ready for whatever situation he needs me for," Brach said. "I'm ready to get outs for this team, big outs. So for Mickey to put me in that game right there with the winning runs on base was huge for my confidence."
Roughly one year ago, Brach -- then with the Orioles -- was considered to be among one of the most valuable trade candidates in the league. The Braves ended up acquiring him in return for international draft money. He signed a one-year, $4.3 million deal this past winter with the Cubs who, after he struggled in 42 appearances, designated him for assignment. The Mets picked him up four days later.
In a similar situation, former elite-closer Gregg Holland is now also a free agent having been cut by the D-backs. Maybe the Mets could be among teams interested, but he's a gamble. But, he's a veteran, he's due just $400,000 for the rest of this season, and he has experience pitching in all situations, including a postseason race.
In the end, whether signing Holland or not, Callaway now has the talent to lock in to the following rhythm: Starting pitcher hands off to Familia, Avilan and/or Brach, who pass the ball off to Wilson and/or Lugo. If Diaz decides to get his act together, great. Otherwise, though I realize idle arms struggle to get going, Callaway has no choice but to continue keeping Diaz off the mound in big spots.
The combination of the above five, plus his starting pitchers continuing to go deep in games, should get Callaway's bullpen stable and sailing through the final six weeks of the season.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!