The greatest stars in sports are the ones who make it look easy. Juan Lagares makes center field look like a backyard garden. Ever since his quiet debut in 2013, Lagares has captured the imagination of every Mets fan by running down fly balls with the greatest of ease. He has turned the cavernous outfield at Citi Field into a place, as Gary Cohen, observes, “Where extra-base hits go to die.” When he makes those plays that no mere mortal should make, he draws another simpler Cohen-esque response: “Oh, wow!” Coming into 2014, the only knock on Lagares’s record was a lackluster performance at the plate. That tension came to headway one Saturday afternoon in Washington.
May 18, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares (12) hits an RBI single against the Washington Nationals during the sixth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
#3 – Lagares Silences Doubters for Good (May 17)
At the beginning of the season, Lagares appeared to put his hitting fears to rest. He homered on Opening Day and hit .314 through his first 13 games. But a hamstring injury shut him down for the rest of April and sent him on a mini-slump in early May. On May 14, Terry Collins benched Juan for a Subway Series game at Citi (much to the disappointment of your author, who was at that game and had little else to cheer about after Tanaka’s shutout).
Everyone needs a day off, especially after spending time on the DL. But Collins kept Lagares out of the lineup the next day, and for the beginning of the Nationals series as well. Of all that happened around the Mets in 2014, this may have caused the greatest uproar from fans and reporters alike. We at Rising Apple were baffled by the decision, as were pundits at other publications. There seemed to be no real logic in sitting Juan Lagares over Eric Young, who had speed on the base paths but nothing further to distinguish him from Lagares. We all wondered how long it would go on.
Whether feeling Juan had gotten enough rest or sensing a potential coup if he benched the young outfielder one more time, Terry Collins returned Lagares to his center field perch for a Saturday matinée at Nationals Park. He would bat sixth. And make it known immediately.
In the top of the first against Gio Gonzalez, singles by Daniel Murphy and David Wright, plus a walk from Chris Young, loaded the bases with one out for Eric Campbell. Soup lined a single up the middle to plate Murphy and Wright for a 2-0 lead. That brought up Lagares, who poked a 1-1 fastball into right field to make it 3-0. If it had ended there, it would have been a successful day for Juan and would have warranted another start. But if it ended there, would this really be our third-best game of the year?
Campbell singled again with one out in the top of the third as Lagares came up looking to top his first bit of heroics. Quite literally, he outdid himself: Juan blasted a two-run shot into left center to make it 5-0 for the New Yorkers. And as he rounded the bases triumphantly after his first home run since Opening Days, Mets fans got a look at their center fielder of the future. Restored.
Sep 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares (12) can
The Nationals got a couple back in the bottom of the fourth off an Ian Desmond home run, but Bartolo Colon kept Washington at bay for the rest of the afternoon. He got a little help in sixth from his freshly anointed wizard.
If Juan first-inning RBI single was his statement, and if his two-run blast in the third was his exclamation point, his play on Jayson Werth’s fly ball to dead center made the whole thing boldface. With a great leap and a catch at the apex that made Keith Hernandez gasp with awe, Lagares eliminated any doubts. Colon applauded and Eric Young came over from left to congratulate the fired-up 25-year-old. Not only was Juan Lagares here to stay, he was the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Signed, sealed, delivered.
Colon leveraged Lagares’s latest heroics into another nice start, finishing his eight innings with just two runs against on five hits. He also walked one and struck out five on 105 pitches. Now would come fulfillment of the other big story of the week. Jenrry Mejia, recently brought from the rotation to the bullpen, was in for his first save opportunity. Could this man finally be the answer to the Mets’ long-unsolved closer problem and void the services Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde?
Resembling Farnsworth and Valverde, Mejia allowed Werth to single to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Unlike the other two would-be stoppers, Jenrry overcame and gave a preview of things to come. He struck out Wilson Ramos with a wicked slider, forced Desmond into a force out, and sent Danny Espinosa packing with a blazing fastball to end the game. The Mejia stomp was yet to be born, but the Mets had new life after a 5-2 win over their NL East rivals. And Juan Lagares finally had a storyline to eclipse the controversy: 2-4, HR, 3 RBI, and one spectacular catch.
Lagares would return to the DL in June and miss the final week and a half of the season, perhaps raising durability concerns. But when healthy, his overall body of work was undeniable. Juan hit .281 over the season with 24 doubles, four home runs, 47 RBIs, and a .703 OPS. He also learned to translate his fielding speed to the base paths, swiping nine of his 13 bags in his final 18 games.
But the glove remained the story for the pride of Juan Pablo Duarte High School (rough translation) of the Dominican Republic. Lagares earned his first of what is sure to be many, many Gold Gloves in 2014. He was so dominant defensively that he led the Mets in WAR for the season (as a .280 hitter!). With a glove for the ages and a bat to boot, Juan Lagares may be the most exciting piece of the New York Mets’ next postseason push. He’ll certainly remain a favorite of fans and starters alike.
May 17: the 3rd-most Amazin’ game of 2014. On Friday, we’ll unveil our #2 entry, which pays tribute to a man who served as starting pitcher for close to half of our previous dates.
Amazin’ Ten of 2014