Familia embracing ninth-inning opportunity

After setbacks to 'pen, new Mets closer is tied for tops in Majors in saves

Familia embracing ninth-inning opportunity

NEW YORK -- Jeurys Familia felt some nerves. He wasn't the only one. The 25-year-old righty had struggled mightily in Spring Training and had limited experienced saving games. Yet there Familia was, being called on in the ninth to preserve a one-run lead in Atlanta on April 12, with suddenly just the shredded remains of a safety net behind him.

"That first time, I got a little excited," said the soft-spoken Familia.

Now Mets manager Terry Collins is excited that Familia is his closer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Familia has been the bullpen's anchor during weeks of turmoil, and he's a big reason why the Mets keep winning in spite of it all.

Injuries, a suspension and setbacks have opened the door for Familia -- who entered Spring Training on track to pitch primarily in the seventh inning -- to sit tied for the Major League lead in saves at the season's two-week point.

Familia improved to 6-for-6 in save chances after locking down the Mets' 7-6 win over the Marlins on Sunday.

Familia earns the save

New York was hoping for this kind of production out of Jenrry Mejia before he was suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Right-hander Vic Black is on the disabled list. Lefty Josh Edgin had Tommy John surgery in March. New acquisition Jerry Blevins provided left-handed help in the ninth before fracturing his forearm. Bobby Parnell is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Meanwhile, Familia has held opponents to a .160 average and has struck out 9 batters in 7 2/3 innings.

"He's been a special guy for us," Collins said. "He's one of those guys who embraces all the opportunities he gets."

The pattern seems to repeat itself every year at least a few times around the Majors: An established closer goes down and a once-overlooked reliever is thrust into the spotlight.

Jason Grilli did it with the Pirates in 2013 after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to Boston. Grilli finished with 33 saves. After Hanrahan got injured, Koji Uehara emerged to save 21 games and help lead the Red Sox to the World Series. Cody Allen took over for John Axford in Cleveland last season and notched 24 saves.

Familia had a nice first full Major League season in his own right, posting a 2.21 ERA. He struck out 73 batters in 77 1/3 innings -- remarkable given how many sinkers he throws.

Familia gets the save

According to Fangraphs, Familia owns the highest average fastball velocity among pitchers that throw sinkers at least 50 percent of the time. He consistently throws the pitch as high as 96 mph, running it into the hands of right-handed batters.

It's the pitch that Familia turned to Sunday against Giancarlo Stanton, who represented the go-ahead run at the plate with two outs in the ninth. The 1-2 sinker came in at 97 mph, and Stanton tapped it to third.

So far, Familia has also curbed the control issues that hurt him in 2014, having walked just two batters in 7 2/3 innings. Command has been an issue ever since he started throwing the sinker in 2012.

"I hit too many guys," Familia said.

Now, the more the sinker darts downward, the more it elevates Familia.

"It gets some pretty good reactions from hitters seeing it for the first time," said catcher Anthony Recker. "Usually it's an expletive."

Joe Trezza is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.