Against Yanks, Mejia shows mettle
Encouraging performance urges Mets to keep righty in bigs
NEW YORK -- Even in a season that hardly portends to be anything momentous, the Mets will have their moments. Their 5-3 victory over the Yankees on Saturday night will constitute one almost regardless of what follows it. And within that win was another. The Mets witnessed a coming of age of one of their most prized young players. It was a moment, a Mets moment -- a Mejia moment, too.
And for Jenrry Mejia, 20 years old and younger than that in baseball years, it was, well ... momentous.
Sandwiched between six innings of borderline stellar starting by Mike Pelfrey and the pitching of three more veteran relievers, Mejia stared down the greatest challenge he has faced in what still ranks as a cup-of-coffee tenure in the big leagues.
With runners on first and second with no outs in the seventh inning, Mejia retired Brett Gardner on a ground ball to the right side. Then, with runners on second and third, he struck out Mark Teixeira and retired Alex Rodriguez on a ground ball.
"The best [moment] I've had," Mejia said.
As uplifting as this victory was for the Mets, it was nothing more than one game. But this one game was saved three times -- by Mejia in the seventh and by Frankie Rodriguez in the eighth and ninth with, each inning more perilous than the previous.
Rodriguez's seventh save was of distinction because it required five outs and it came against the middle of the order. But he is the closer, paid handsomely to achieve the final outs. Mejia's seventh-inning appearance was of distinction because of whom he faced and the narrow margin for error.
Fifteen minutes after Rodriguez had retired Francisco Cervelli with two runners on base for the game's 27th out, manager Jerry Manuel acknowledged he hadn't challenged Mejia to the same extent in the rookie's first 20 appearances.
And shortly thereafter, Mejia was rewarded for his performance. His reward: Someone else -- Manny Acosta -- was assigned to the Minor Leagues to create room on the 25-man roster for Ryota Igarashi, who is to end his assignment to the disabled list on Sunday. So for now, Mejia remains a reliever, and the Mets' rotation remains in a state of flux. And that, in turn, creates a greater need for reliable relief.
Mejia accepted his non-demotion quite well, of course. He was prepared to move to the Minor Leagues, looking forward to starting but significantly more pleased by the personal status quo. The big league minimum does have a degree of appeal.
"Why would we even consider sending him down?" one of Mejia's colleagues asked. "Getting to be a big league starter will take a lot of work, a lot of time. We can take advantage of his talent as a reliever right now."
That talent was on display after Mejia had surrendered a leadoff single to Kevin Russo and walked Derek Jeter on five pitches.
"I almost had a heart attack," Pelfrey said. "I started watching him, and I almost turned it off."
Gardner represented a lesser challenge than those who followed, but when he advanced Russo and Jeter, Mejia had run out of rope.
"I knew [Teixeira was] a left-handed hitter. ... I had to get a strikeout," he said. "I didn't want that run to score."
Teixeira fell behind, 0-2, but extended the at-bat to seven pitches before he struck out for the second of three times in the sixth, seventh and ninth. Mejia's reward was facing A-Rod, who has swung the bat well, if not for power, so far in the Subway Series. First base was unoccupied, but with Robinson Cano on deck, Mejia came back from a 2-0 count and, on the sixth pitch, Rodriguez pulled a ground ball to David Wright at third base.
"I knew who they were and how good hitters they are," Mejia said. "I liked that I got to face them in a big part of the game."
Mejia threw almost exclusively fastballs in his 23-pitch workday. His catcher, Rod Barajas, said the right-hander threw harder than at any time in his first 19 appearances. The scoreboard radar reading -- who knows if it's accurate? -- was 97 mph on Mejia's second-to-last pitch to Teixeira. With a fan dressed in a Nolan Ryan Mets jersey -- No. 30 -- cheering him on, Mejia hit 98 mph on the strikeout pitch.
Ninety-eight mph with movement. Sound familiar? Mejia swore that the presence of Mariano Rivera played no role in his velocity or the late cut on his fastball.
"I was just trying to do my job -- I had to do my job," Mejia said.
For now, that job involves the seventh inning. Next year, the final year of Rodriguez's contract, Mejia might handle the eighth. And what about 2012? By then, Rodriguez will be under contact with the Mets if his contact vests.
"I'd like to be a starting pitcher," Mejia said. But he wants to be in the big leagues, too. For now, those preferences aren't available in one package. And none of it is his call, anyway. So Mejia smiles and says "I'm happy."
That ought to be enough for a while.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.