When he takes the mound against the Reds on Friday, Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia will be what his opponent, Reds pitcher Mike Leake, once was: an underdog fifth starter that emerged with the job out of camp.
Leake, who will be making his 2014 debut vs. New York, is coming off the best season of his career. He was 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 31 starts and 192 1/3 innings -- all career bests. This spring, for the first time in his career, Leake did not have to fight for a spot like he had from 2010-13. And he is no longer viewed as Cincinnati's fifth starter.
During his four-season career, Leake has provided some strong results against the Mets with a 2-2 record and 2.25 ERA in six starts. But he maintains he doesn't have a firm grasp of what type of foe the Reds will face on Friday.
"They only have a couple of guys that are still there. It's fairly a new team," Leake said on Thursday. "It's going to be a learning process the first inning or two because I won't know all of them. A few guys, I will know. The rest I will have to kind of see how they are swinging that day and react."
Leake had a last preseason tuneup pitching against his own team for Triple-A Louisville in an exhibition on Saturday. He allowed two hits and no runs in six innings, though the Reds did push across a run in the fifth after he'd recorded three outs. The official scorers decided to not count anything that happened after three outs, leading to a 1-0 Louisville win.
"It's tough. How much are our guys trying on a cold day that nobody wants to play?" Leake said. "I threw the ball well, yes, but I'm sure they didn't have the complete at-bats that they normally would."
Mejia beat out veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka for the fifth spot in New York's rotation after posting a 2.70 ERA with 13 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings in camp. It happened even though Matsuzaka pitched well and as Mejia he dealt with a bunion on his right foot and inflammation in the forearm after being hit by a comebacker against the Blue Jays.
Upon the news that X-rays were negative on Mejia's injured right forearm, the Mets decided he would be their starter to pitch Friday vs. the Reds.
Mets manager Terry Collins envisioned Mejia being in the rotation until at least the midseason before a possible shift to the bullpen.
"I think a lot of that will be dictated by how he pitches and how his health is," Collins said. "If he goes out there, there's no reason why we can't get him to 100 innings or so -- not more -- so that takes us pretty deeply into midsummer. By then, if we think his innings are running out, hopefully by then some of those young guys will be ready."
Reds: Hamilton playing in
Reds rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton has the speed to cover a lot of ground, especially in a smaller outfielder like Great American Ball Park. That's one of the reasons Hamilton has been positioned closer than other center fielders might normally be.
"We encourage him to play a bit more shallow," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "He's going to take away lot of the balls in front of him. He's going to throw more guys out or have the chance to. He's got a good arm. He goes back extremely well for a young guy that hasn't been in center field a long time."
It could be interesting to see how Hamilton covers a more expansive outfield -- such as Citi Field's.
Mets: Outfield opportunities open up
Outfielder Chris Young's assignment to the disabled list should create regular playing time over the next two weeks for both Eric Young Jr. and Juan Lagares. With Chris Young nursing a strained right quad and ineligible to return until April 18, the Mets' most frequent outfield alignment is apt to be the one they used Thursday: Eric Young in left, Lagares in center and Curtis Granderson in right.
Heading into the season, it appeared that Young and Lagares would battle for playing time in a four-man outfield mix. But Chris Young's injury changed all that, creating everyday opportunities for both.
With the Reds scheduled to start right-handed pitchers in all three games this weekend, Eric Young is a decent bet to lead off all three times. Andrew Brown should also receive some outfield starts in Chris Young's absence, but likely only with lefty starters on the mound.
Recent history has favored the Reds over the Mets, especially when it comes to pitching. Cincinnati's pitchers have produced a 2.36 ERA (33 earned runs over 126 innings pitched) against the Mets in 14 games over the last two seasons.
At Citi Field, the Reds are 12-5 all time, which included a three-game sweep in 2013 and a 7-1 record over the past two seasons. They are 4-0-1 in the last five series in Flushing.