Mets’ Drew Smith too important to be bare handing comebackers

After a weekend sweep that put the Phillies even further in their rearview mirror, things are pretty good in Mets country. However, when workhorse hand Drew Smith left Sunday’s game with an injury to his throwing hand, the Mets were dealt another potentially debilitating card.

The 28-year-old tried to catch a ball with his bare hands in the seventh inning. Not only did it clink from his exposed flesh for a smack, it also dislocated the pinky on Smith’s all-important right hand. After throwing an understandable tantrum when he realized what he had done, Smith later told reporters that he immediately feared the worst.

“Luckily it wasn’t broken,” he said. “I honestly thought it was broken on the hill just by the looks of it. Dodged a bullet. We will try to avoid that [injured list]maybe you’ll see how it reacts in the next few days.

Much of the frustration Smith displayed after his reactionary blunder came precisely because he knew his baseball instincts were overtaking anything he’d been taught about catching the ball.

“You know, as a pitcher, you shouldn’t be doing that,” Smith said of a ball hit at 94.5 miles per hour. “It’s just a reaction. I actually did it at a similar game in Colorado last week, luckily it didn’t hit my hand. I went into the dugout and [pitching coach Jeremy Hefner] literally told me, ‘Don’t do that.’ We talked about it and I just did it again and this time it got me. Needless to say, I won’t do that again.”

The Mets entered baseball Monday with the largest division lead, topping the National League East by 8.5 games. Even when things haven’t gone well — injuries have already knocked Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Tylor Megill, James McCann and Trevor May out of the active roster — the Mets have remained rock solid.

Smith’s 21 relief innings is the most of anyone on the team. He’s not just stacking a lot of innings in low-leverage places. He’s done exceptionally well in a fast career-boosting season. With a 2.57 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and a batting average of .164 opponents, Smith has found home in big courts towards the end of games. All but two of his appearances this season have started in the seventh inning or later. In situations Baseball Reference classifies as “late and close” (seventh inning or later with a tied batting team, lead by one, or has the tie at least on deck), the slider-lucky right-hander has netted just seven hits in 49 plate appearances.

The Mets’ bullpen has spiraled slightly out of control in recent weeks. Starting with the stress reaction in Trevor May’s arm that came in early May, the team has taken some bad luck from the pen. Edwin Diaz continues to blind, but three other crucial cogs — setup man Adam Ottavino and left-handers Joely Rodriguez and Chasen Shreve — have ERAs above 4.00 at the moment. Not long after May’s injury was discovered, the Mets announced that Sean Reid-Foley needed Tommy John surgery and removed him from the equation for the remainder of the season. With the Mets’ bullpen depth already being challenged, a broken finger for Smith would have sent her downhill in a flaming wagon.

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Good thing he and the team’s shortstop, who was there first after Smith’s injury, aren’t medical professionals.

“I looked [Francisco] Lindor and was like, ‘That looks broken,'” Smith recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘Yes, it does.’ We came in and took the x-ray and just put it back in. The original X-ray showed no fractures.”

Smith’s breakthrough coincided with a small but powerful change in his repertoire. Never a big strikeout guy, Smith has seen an uptick in punchouts this season. He started the year with a 21.3% strike percentage in 76.1 MLB innings. In his first 21 innings of 2022, that rate has jumped to 27.7% thanks to an off-season change.

In 2021, the first season of Smith’s big league career in which he registered 40 innings, he relied on a cutter as his key secondary. This season, pitch tracking data shows the cutter was canceled entirely, with Smith instead throwing a slider at slightly reduced speed. This slider was the killer pitch in 16 of his 23 strikeouts and has missed 35.8% of the times a batter has swung it. Smith told the Daily News that the cutter and slider are essentially the same pitch with the same grip but a slight difference in shape. He explained that instead of trying to “stay behind him” like he did when it was acting more like an editor, he’s now sidestepping to the side.

Smith, who said this is the first time he’s dislocated anything, is now playing a “waiting game” with the swelling. As of Monday, the Mets have three games with the Washington Nationals, a team bottoming out in NL East. They then embark on a brutal test of their validity, playing three straight West Coast series against the Dodgers, Padres and Angels. Should Smith be able to avoid the IL, putting the Nats streak to rest in preparation for the road trip is a smart move. While rookies Stephen Nogosek and Colin Holderman are yet to give up a deserved run, Smith is a much more trustworthy option when he’s fully healthy.

Smith was one of the strongest officers in the Mets’ bridge to Diaz. You can hardly afford to lose him for any length of time, and even a non-IL absence is enough to induce some uneasiness. From what he said after Sunday’s game, Dallas Baptist University’s product should be fine after some basic rest and relaxation. That’s huge for the Mets, huge for Buck Showalter’s sanity, and even bigger in terms of the trickle-down effects on the rest of the pitchers in the organization.

Let’s just make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to how to pitch a comeback.

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