Jay Bruce cannot forget the pitch. It was Sept. 26, 2015, and Bruce, then an outfielder with the Reds, was the last man standing between the Mets and Jeurys Familia clinching the National League East title.
“It’s the single best pitch I have ever faced,” the now Mets outfielder said. “It was 95 miles an hour and it just dropped on me. It was nasty.”
Back then, Familia had a veneer that he was unhittable. He was arguably the best closer in the game and hitters, like Bruce, hated facing him. Things have changed.
Wednesday, Familia blew his first save of the season, allowing the Giants to rally for three runs — two earned — on three hits and two walks in the ninth inning as the Mets lost to the Giants 6-5 at Citi Field.
“I didn’t have my command today,” Familia said. “I walked a couple guys, they got a base hit. My command today wasn’t there.”
The Mets obviously have more urgent issues grabbing headlines these days. They are trying to work around injuries to their best pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, and best hitter, Yoenis Cespedes. They are trying to get Matt Harvey past his suspension, public humiliation and back onto the mound.
But Wednesday Familia added to their concerns. He was pulled in the ninth inning for the second time this season and talent evaluators have noticed a big difference in the closer.
“He seems completely disinterested,” said one scout who has watched him this season. “His body language stinks. His velocity is (down), it used to be better. It should still be good enough to get outs when located. His splitter seems to have less drop.
“He has left the ball up far too much,” the scout said.
These are not the first red flags with Familia since 2015.
There were eyebrows raised in the 2015 World Series, when he blew three saves, though poor defense didn’t help. Last season, however, the concern was raised when he blew the wild card game, giving up a three-run homer to Conor Gillaspie.
The Mets’ explanation was that Familia, who saved a team record 51 games last season, had too heavy a workload. Wednesday, Familia was pitching for the third straight day, so that question obviously came up again. He had thrown 10 pitches Tuesday night, closing out a 6-1 game, which in hindsight looked unnecessary.
Terry Collins, however, said that with Tommy Milone, whom the Mets had just claimed off waivers on Sunday, pitching Wednesday he viewed Tuesday as a must-win game. Also, the Mets manager said three days in a row is not too much to ask of a closer.
“Last night we had to win a game. Last night we had to win the game. We had to win a game last night. You bring somebody else in in the ninth inning and they get on, you gotta go to Familia. I did not know what was going to happen today. Tommy hadn’t pitched in 10 days. I said we’re going to win the game.
“He threw 10 pitches. He’s the closer, he’s used to that,” Collins continued. “He’s used to coming back back-to-back. He’s done that for years. He saved 51 games last year and go look it up how many times he pitched three times in a row.”
Familia pitched on three consecutive days on six occasions in 2016, blowing saves in two of those games. He did it four times after taking over the closer role in 2015 and recorded a save in each of those games — except for a suspended game.
After serving a 15-game suspension under the MLB domestic violence policy this season, Familia’s workload is well behind where it was last season. He had 11 saves in 16 appearances by May 9, 2016. He has three in 11 this season.
According to a talent evaluator, Familia is just not getting hitters to swing at his sinker this season or sometimes it’s not sinking at all. He’s falling behind in counts and he’s getting hit or walking hitters.
“For me, Familia is just working on his command. He’ll find it,” Bruce said. “He’ll get it back and be fine.”
Their closer is something the Mets would rather not have to worry about right now. It’s an issue they need to keep an eye on, however, if they don’t want their closer to be one that hurts them in the end — again.