Mets pitching dominant in shutout of Phillies, but James McCann plays role of unsung hero

James McCann high-five grey uniform with batting helmet

PHILADELPHIA– The sliders kept coming in rapid-fire fashion. Edwin Diaz had that 100-mph fastball in his back pocket, but with the game on the line in the ninth inning he threw one slider after another, practically daring the Phillies’ hitters to look for it and risk getting embarrassed by the heater.

“The slider was working,” Diaz said afterward at his locker with a shrug. “Why change my mentality when something is working?”

Why indeed.

Hanging onto a 2-0 lead on a night after an epic bullpen meltdown, the Mets desperately needed Diaz, who was just back from attending his grandfather’s funeral in Puerto Rico, to be untouchable.

So for starters he threw a 2-2 slider that produced a swinging strikeout from Kyle Schwarber.

Then, after J.T. Realmuto squeaked an infield single into shallow right field, Diaz had no margin for error.

His answer was to throw five straight sliders to Bryce Harper, who kept taking mighty hacks like he refused to believe he wouldn’t get a fastball eventually, and finally struck out swinging.

Still more pressure after Nick Castellanos’ ground ball on a fastball turned Francisco Lindor around, allowing Realmuto to beat the force out at second.

Again Diaz went to the slider: five straight to Rhys Hoskins, finally getting one last swing and miss to end the game and preserve the 2-0 win over the Phillies.

In all, Diaz threw 23 pitches, and 15 of the last 19 were sliders.

It made for a fascinating finish to still another spectacular night of pitching for the Mets, who so far can lay claim to having the best starting rotation in the majors even without Jacob deGrom.

Tylor Megill backed up his dominance on Opening Night against the Nationals with an even more impressive start against the Phillies and their monster lineup. He went 5 1/3 and has now pitched 10 1/3 scoreless innings to start the season, looking like a star in the making.

In addition, Drew Smith emerged as potentially an important lifeline for what looks like a thin bullpen, getting five big outs to get through the seventh and eighth innings, three by strikeout.

And finally Diaz offered reason to believe this could be the season he puts it all together again as the elite closer the Mets thought they were getting from the Mariners three years ago. For when he commands his slider like he did here Tuesday night, it often makes him all but unhittable.

Yet if the pitchers were the headliners on this night, the unsung hero was surely catcher James McCann.

He was the one who kept calling for changeups in key spots from Megill, believing hitters were geared for 97 mph heat, and getting big outs because of it.

He was the one who made sure the hard-throwing Smith mixed it up, using his changeup and cutter to set up outs with the fastball.

And finally he was the one who kept putting down the sign for Diaz’s slider, no matter how many times in a row it was going to take.

Afterward the pitchers all said they have faith in what McCann calls, knowing how well he reads swings in addition to the pregame work he does in going over scouting reports and analytics.

“I put all my trust in James,” Megill said.

McCann, for his part, said the pitch-calling is what he takes the most pride in as a catcher.

“That’s the fun part of the game,” he said. “It’s a chess game: what a hitter’s looking for, what do his swings look like against a certain pitch … knowing the hitter’s strengths, the pitcher’s strengths, the hitter’s weaknesses, the pitcher’s weaknesses.

“It’s something I take a lot of pride in. It starts before the game, looking at all the information, the numbers. That’s my foundation but then once the game starts I’m also trusting what my eyes are telling me.

“With Diaz I could see right from the get-go the way that he had good stuff, and the swings were telling me the slider was the pitch to go to. It was one of those nights when I felt strongly about it so I kept calling it. And credit to Diaz, he kept throwing good ones.”

That’s the risk, of course. One hanging slider could have ruined everything, and it’s always easier to second-guess that type of mistake when someone like Diaz can throw the ball past anybody when he locates it.

Problem is Diaz doesn’t always command that fastball, and velocity barely fazes hitters these days, so if it’s down the middle it often gets hit.

McCann saw the “action,” as he called it, on the slider and preferred to live and die that way.

“You really have to believe in what you’re seeing,” he said.

That belief paid off in a big way and made for a happy clubhouse; the stinging sensation of Monday night’s eighth inning collapse seemingly forgotten.

That’s the nature of a 162-game season, and more to the point, the Mets are riding high early in this season, the dominant starting pitching even without deGrom giving them reason to believe they have championship potential.

And so a night that began with Buck Showalter frowning about comments made by Megill about wanting to throw 100 mph at some point — “More isn’t always better, just get people out,” Buck said — ended with Smith jokingly touting what he called “the Megill program” as a way of increasing his own velocity.

“A Red Bull and two Advils,” Smith said with a laugh. “He said it works for him.”

In truth, pitching coach Jeremy Heffner told me he had a conversation with Megill about trying to do too much with velocity, but as it turned out, it wasn’t a concern at all. In fact, Megill said afterward he understands his changeup is vital to him sustaining this hot start.

“It’s becoming a big pitch for me,” he said. “James called it in some big situations and we got some outs with it.”

As such the night belonged to the pitching again. But it was also a night to appreciate the guy calling the shots.

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