Bullpen slowly coming together
Without Wagner, manager Manuel has had to fiddle with staff
NEW YORK -- When the Mets placed closer Billy Wagner on the disabled list on Tuesday with a strained left forearm, it left a hole in the back end of the bullpen.
The rest of New York's relievers had proved effective through most of the season, but without a specific closer to rely on, manager Jerry Manuel was forced to rework the order on the mound for those final innings.
And the hole only seemed to grow wider.
Right-hander Aaron Heilman gave up a three-run homer when he came out in the ninth inning Tuesday to close against the Padres, and Scott Schoeneweis surrendered a game-tying solo shot Thursday in the series finale against San Diego.
But in the first two games of a three-game set with the Marlins, Manuel has been pleased with the relief performances he's seen, and the bullpen has found a way to plug the hole.
Manuel has chosen Heilman's arm to see the most action in the closing role. And the right-hander bounced back from his outing Tuesday to deliver two scoreless innings on Friday, and he added one more Saturday for consecutive saves -- his first two of the season.
"He's one of the guys that takes the ball all the time, and it's paying dividends for him," Manuel said. "The more he gets out there, the better he can be consistently with his mechanics and delivery and things like that. It could make him very effective."
Heilman has pitched in each of the past three games, but Manuel said he could probably throw again Sunday in the finale of the Florida series if needed.
The Mets manager was also encouraged by the performance of reliever Duaner Sanchez in Saturday's contest. The righty pitched one inning and gave up one hit with one strikeout.
But it was velocity, not numbers, that had concerned Manuel. He was comforted to see that the pitches flying out of Sanchez's hand Saturday night had the look of what made him effective in the earlier half of the season.
"He was in the strike zone with a little bit more life on his pitches," Manuel said. "Sanchez, when he has that, he really has a presence about him and he's a very confident individual. Sometimes that's half the battle in those late innings is having confidence."
The recent homestand presented a variety of opportunities for New York's relievers, but one member of the bullpen has not taken the mound since Wednesday night. Callup Eddie Kunz joined the team August 3 in Houston, but has pitched just two innings with the Major League club.
Manuel said he would normally want to give a player in Kunz's spot more time on the field. It would give Kunz more experience and allow Manuel to evaluate his response to games at the big league level. But at this point in the season, winning is the most important thing.
"I haven't really given him what I feel might be the best opportunities for him, but that's the nature sometimes of the big leagues when you're in a pennant race," Manuel said. "There's times when you can't afford to take a look. There are always games that you could get people in regardless, but it just hasn't arisen for him on a consistent basis."
When asked if he would use Kunz in a pressure situation Sunday afternoon against the Marlins, Manuel said he believed there were other options available.
The Mets will have more decisions to make come Wednesday, when starter John Maine is eligible to come off the disabled list from a mild strain to his right rotator cuff. Brian Stokes took Maine's spot in the rotation with a start Saturday, and Manuel said keeping Stokes on as a member of the bullpen is a possibility. Wagner is eligible to come off the DL on August 18, and Manuel said if everything continues to go well, the Mets expect their closer back the first day of his eligibility.
Samantha Newman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.