Vargas, an 18-game winner last season for the Kansas City Royals, was rocked for three homers, eight other hits and six runs in 4 2/3 innings in an 11-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Thursday. And he actually lowered his ERA.
That’s because his first start after a month-long layoff with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist was worse, still — he gave up nine runs and nine hits in 3 2-3 innings during a 12-2 loss to the San Diego Padres on April 28. That’s a combined 23-2 deficit for the Mets in Vargas’ first two starts.
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No wonder the Mets are expecting better — after all, how could it be much worse? — when the left-handed Vargas starts for the third time this season on Tuesday against the Reds at Great American Ball Park, where New York wins like nowhere else.
The starting pitchers will own a combined 23.21 ERA as Vargas (0-2, 16.20 ERA) opposes Reds right-hander Luis Castillo (1-4, 7.01 ERA), who is coming off a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday that represents one of his best starts of a disappointing-to-date season.
The Mets are having trouble locking in on what’s troubling Vargas, who signed a $16 million, two-year contract after going 18-11 with a 4.16 ERA for the Royals last season. One issue: home runs, and a lot of them. He’s given up five deep balls in only 8 1-3 innings.
“I’m throwing quality pitches early in the count and not making the quality pitch to put the hitter away,” Vargas said. “It’s the timing of the off-speed or two-strike pitches that I’ve been throwing.”
Manager Mickey Callaway had a simplistic explanation for a two-run homer by the Braves’ Kurt Suzuki and a run-scoring double by Nick Markakis in a three-run Atlanta first inning last week: “Two really bad pitches. He hung a curveball (for the Markakis double) and then hung a changeup for the homer.”
Maybe Cincinnati is the place where Vargas gets his season turned around. The Mets had lost six in a row and eight of 10 overall before winning 7-6 Monday — making them 11-5 on the road this season and 32-14 at Great American Ball Park, where they’ve won 10 of 12.
They built up a 5-0 lead after Michael Conforto broke out of an 0-for-13 slump with a homer in the first off the winless Homer Bailey (0-5), Adrian Gonzalez hit two more of the Mets’ four homers and they held on to win.
Castillo hopes to reverse that after being encouraged by his start against Milwaukee in which he gave up two runs on nine hits but struck out seven in six innings.
“I had very good command of my pitches,” Castillo said through an interpreter. “You know it (the changeup), that’s my best pitch. You believe in that. You believe in a pitch like I believe in my changeup.”
Still, the Reds have looked on in disbelief while losing 27 of their first 35 games, including 15 of 19 at Great American Ball Park.
One problem has been minimal offensive production from the outfield. Center fielder Billy Hamilton is hitting .206 and left fielder Adam Duvall has a .164 average, five homers and 16 RBIs after hitting at least 30 homers and driving in 99 runs in each of the last two seasons.
“You respect the last two years that he’s been a 100-RBI guy, you can’t dismiss that,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said Monday. “So we’re going to give it as much time as we can.”
Even if the Reds already seem to be running out of time to do anything in their 2018 season.
Vargas is 1-0 with a 5.23 ERA in two career starts against the Reds but doesn’t have much of a track record against their current hitters. Eugenio Suarez is 1-for-4 (.250). Castillo hasn’t opposed the Mets, and only Todd Frazier (1-for-2, .500) has at-bats against him.