MILWAUKEE -- What transformed Jeremy Hefner from a pitcher hanging on in the big leagues earlier this season to one who has now produced a dominant six-start stretch?
In one sense, Hefner said after limiting the Milwaukee Brewers to one run in seven innings, something Darwinian kicked in.
New York Mets
“Just trying to survive, I think,” Hefner said. “I was maybe one or two bad starts from being in Las Vegas. So something had to change.”
After Sunday’s 2-1 victory, Hefner now has posted a 1.64 ERA in seven starts since June 4. That is the best ERA over that span. Miami’s Jose Fernandez was displaced from that honor after allowing three runs in six innings today, which bumped the rookie phenom’s ERA to 2.06 during that span.
The Mets have won Hefner’s past five starts. He has 12 quality starts this season, second on the team only to Matt Harvey (14).
Hefner has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven straight starts, the longest streak by a Met since Johan Santana had 13 straight starts of that caliber spanning 2008 and ’09.
“I just tried to give it my all and my best, and if I wasn’t good enough, then I’m a Triple-A pitcher,” Hefner said. “But if I go out and give it my best, and it’s good enough, then I get to stay. So there really wasn’t much pressure. A fan or you guys or someone looking in may see that as pressure, but I didn’t see that as pressure. It was a challenge for me. And I embraced it. And I’m doing pretty good.
“Everybody wants to be in the big leagues. All those guys in Las Vegas right now want to be in the big leagues. And I was one of those guys. Now that I’m here, I want to take advantage of the opportunity.
“My expectation was to be here. My performance wasn’t matching up to that. Perception is reality and all that. I knew I could do it, but I had to show everybody that I could do that.”
There were technical changes that helped fuel Hefner’s improvement.
Hefner’s fastball averaged 91 mph and topped out at 93 mph against the Brewers.
That is a significant difference from earlier in the season, before a mechanical tweak. Take Hefner’s April 20 start against the Washington Nationals, for instance. Hefner’s fastball averaged 89 mph and topped out at 91 mph.
The change, designed to make the baseball harder to pick up, involved Hefner twisting his torso more. Essentially, Hefner now shows more of his back to the batter during his motion. Pitching coach Dan Warthen spotted Hefner fooling around with the twist in a bullpen session after a subpar start and encouraged him to incorporate it.
“The intent was not velocity. The intent was deception,” Hefner said. “And velocity came with it. … Luis Tiant, Johnny Cueto -- obviously not as drastic as those guys, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to go for.”
Hefner had surrendered seven homers over his first four appearances of the season, in only 14 innings. He since has allowed seven homers in 87 innings over his past 14 starts.
“Throwing more sinkers,” Hefner said about the key to the turnaround. “I wasn’t getting ahead earlier in the season, so I was having to throw a few more four-seam fastballs.”
Hefner noted he still is not immune to mistakes. The lone run he surrendered Sunday came on an 0-2 pitch to Jonathan Lucroy over the middle of the plate that pulled Milwaukee within a run in the seventh.
“Especially in a 2-0 ballgame I can’t let that happen,” Hefner said.
The difference from earlier this season, Hefner added, is that he is secure enough to shake off a blemish.
“I know I’m good enough to be here. I know I’m good enough to beat these hitters,” Hefner said. “And if someone does beat me, then I know I can get the next guy. Or, if something happens in the field, I know I can get the next guy.”