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Subway Series exhibition games underscore Yoenis Cespedes’ readiness for regular season

2020-07-25

The Subway Series will look a little different on Saturday without the friendly banter between Mets and Yankees fans as they stand on long lines for Shake Shack and Mama’s of Corona inside a packed-out Citi Field. But this weekend still features plenty of interesting storylines to follow, including appearances from Yoenis Cespedes, as baseball games tardily return to New York for the first time in seven months.

Mets right-hander Rick Porcello will square off against Yankees righty Mike King on Saturday, and righty Corey Oswalt will go toe-to-toe against southpaw Jordan Montgomery on Sunday.

“It’ll be great watching the opposing uni come in and face us,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said of the exhibition games. “I think it’ll give another taste of competition for the guys.”

Porcello is a compelling choice to start for the Mets as they get their first look at the Yankees — the tough crosstown rival the Amazin’s will face six times in the 60-game regular season. The former Red Sox pitcher has faced the Bronx Bombers 26 times in his career. Porcello has gone 11-10 with a 3.96 ERA over 156.2 innings pitched against the Yankees.

While it will be interesting to see how long of a leash the Mets give Porcello before releasing their relievers from the bullpen, most of the attention this weekend will be turned toward Cespedes.

The Cuban slugger has completely stolen the show at Mets camp with his still-vicious at-bats and power-arm antics in the outfield. Cespedes has put his three surgeries (double heel in 2018 and ankle procedure following a wild boar attack in ’19) behind him. His goal is to be in the lineup on the July 24 Opening Day against the Braves, and this weekend will be a test of sorts for that objective to come true.

The Mets expect Cespedes to appear in both home-and-home exhibition games against the Yankees. Rojas said Cespedes might slot into the designated hitter role for one game, and start in left field in the other. The team has so far been encouraged by Cespedes’ progress in the outfield and speed on the basepaths. The Mets aren’t too worried about the slugger’s plate presence, which should unquestionably intimidate opposing pitchers.

“Yankee Stadium has got a big gap, so moving around and taking a first step off the bat, if he can play left there and get challenged for a few plays will say a lot to us,” Rojas said. “That’s something we haven’t seen yet in our games as much, him getting really challenged.”

If Cespedes looks game-ready this weekend, he’s expected to split left field with J.D. Davis and Dom Smith in the regular season. Davis said most of his reps have come from left field during camp, but he’s comfortable splitting time at third base too. Smith should also get some reps from the DH spot when he’s not playing in left or splitting time with Pete Alonso at first base.

“He’s moving well,” Davis said of Cespedes. “I’m having conversations with him about hitting, defense. It looks like he hasn’t really skipped a beat out there. He’s always breaking down the game or talking about situations. It’s going to be exciting to see him play. I’m a younger guy so I got to see him on TV, but to actually be in a locker room with him and be on the field with him, it’s going to be a pretty cool moment to see what he can do.”

The Mets are thrilled to confront a new team after an abnormal spring training 2.0 in which they only faced each other during camp. It will be interesting to see how a rookie big-league manager like Rojas will handle pitching changes and lineup arrangements, as well as rally his players during moments of adversity.

Their first two exhibition games against the Yankees will give the Mets a better idea of what health regulations and social-distancing guidelines will be like on the road, though the real test will come after the team stays in hotels and flies across the Eastern portion of the United States. The Mets have enjoyed a smooth camp in terms of injuries and health scares. Robinson Cano returned from his six-day mystery absence, but pitchers Brad Brach and Jared Hughes are still missing from camp.

“Once that regular season starts, it’s a whole other level,” right-hander Michael Wacha said. “Pitching underneath the lights, going five innings, those are good progressions. But whenever you have another team in the box, it’s a whole other level of determination, excitement and just that grit going after them. It’s something that I’m looking forward to for sure.”