By David Russell
The New York Mets pitchers’ performance on the mound has been a big part of what’s kept the team in the playoff race this season, but the hurlers have also been making a big contribution at the plate.
First, there was Noah Syndergaard’s home run in late May against the Phillies. The left-handed hitter crushed a pitch 430 feet to centerfield. Before Syndergaard’s blast, the last Met pitcher to homer was Jeremy Hefner in 2012, also against the Phillies.
The tape-measure blast by Syndergaard wasn’t the only time one of the Mets’ top arms has delivered with the bat.
“It was one of the most impressive home runs I’ve seen in a long time by a pitcher,” said former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, who called the game for SNY. “Gary [Cohen] said the next one would be Harvey and he was right.”
Indeed, Matt Harvey hit a homer in mid-July at Citi Field in a win over Arizona. It’s one of the highlights of a strong season for Mets pitchers at the plate. Harvey, Syndergaard, Bartolo Colon, Jacob deGrom and Jonathan Neise are batting a combined .167 with 12 RBI this season, while the Mets everyday players John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell are hitting .165 and .176, respectively. Pitcher Steven Matz drove in four runs in his major-league debut.
Darling, who homered in consecutive starts in 1989, and hit .144 for his career, said there is more of an emphasis now on pitchers at the plate than there used to be.
“The guys hit much more now,” Darling said. ‘I’m jealous of it. We weren’t allowed in the cage in spring training. I was a good hitter in college. People ask me why pitchers can’t hit. Try taking one of the better hitters and give him no batting practice.”
Darling watched fellow hurlers Dwight Gooden and Rick Aguilera hit home runs during his Mets tenure. The hits sparked a friendly rivalry with the club’s pitchers back then.
“There was definitely some competition,” he said. “Aguilera was a legit hitter who hit a few home runs with not a lot of at-bats. Dwight was kind of a great athlete.”
Darling’s first homer came at Shea Stadium against the Expos on June 24, 1989. In his next start, he hit a three-run homer off Reds reliever Norm Charlton, one of the so-called “Nasty Boys” in the Cincinnati bullpen.
“That just shows you how awful I was before and after,” Darling said. “They were great and I’m glad I hit them, but there was a lot of downtime as far as hitting was concerned.”
Overall Mets pitchers have had a propensity for hitting home runs over the years. Dwight Gooden holds the team record for homers by a pitcher with seven. Tom Seaver hit six.
In 1983 Walt Terrell became the only pitcher to hit two homers in one game. The first Met pitcher to hit a homer was Carl Willey, a grand slam in 1963.
Still, Shawn Estes clocked the most famous home run by a Mets pitcher. He took Roger Clemens deep in the Rocket’s first start at Shea Stadium since he beaned Mike Piazza in 2000 and his subsequent bat-throwing incident three months later in the World Series.
Estes threw behind Clemens when the Rocket batted in the third inning, but got added retribution for Mets fans later with a blast in the fifth inning. He always took pride in his hitting and benefited from not giving up at-bats to designated hitters when he was in college. Estes’ first hit of the 2000 season allowed him to become the first of just two pitchers to homer off Clemens.
“If I hit him, it would hurt for a minute,” he said. “Hitting a home run bothers him for a week or a month.”
While Darling downplayed his sudden power surge, Estes joked around with the rest of the pitchers.
“You don’t want to show up the hitters,” Darling said. “They wouldn’t appreciate you strutting around.”
Estes got a friendly ribbing from his teammates after he took Clemens deep.
“It became kind of a joke,” he said. “‘How come you’re not hitting fourth today?’ Or if a pinch-hit opportunity arose, ‘start hitting in the cage.’”
With more position players such as deGrom being converted into pitchers nowadays, the door is open for more Mets pitchers to leave the yard and start dealing with that kind of friendly ribbing from their teammates.
“Guys who would have been outfielders or first baseman 30 years ago are pitchers,” Darling said. “These guys can field, hit and run. It’s fun to see.”