Lakeland, Fla. — When he first got to camp, right-hander Bobby Parnell’s fastball was registering in the low-90s on the radar gun.
Gradually, it increased from 90 to 93. In his last couple outings he was hitting 95 consistently. On Sunday, he struck out Astros' Alex Bregman on back-to-back 96 mph fastballs.
“He used to throw 98-100; he doesn’t do that anymore,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But it wouldn’t shock me, the way he’s trending, if another month from now he was throwing 96 to 98 mph consistently.
“His arm strength and his confidence in that arm strength could come back.”
Parnell, the former closer for the Mets, has put himself in the hunt for one of the final bullpen spots — a competition that seems to change daily. While Parnell took a step forward Sunday, striking out two in a scoreless ninth inning in the Tigers 8-3 loss to the Astros, two other combatants took a step back.
Lendy Castillo walked three and didn’t complete the sixth inning. Bruce Rondon gave up a pair of long home runs in the seventh.
“I had some things go right for me today,” Parnell said. “I was able to throw strikes, which I’d been struggling with a bit. I felt like I took a step in the right direction.”
In previous outings, Parnell struggled to throw strikes especially to the first couple of batters he’d face. Ausmus said it was like he was trying to guide the ball instead of just letting it go and trusting himself.
Once he got runners on, he would rare back and turn it loose — generally with better results.
“I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Parnell said. “It’s kind of a downhill slide when you start walking people. You start thinking about walking people and that makes you walk more people.
“I kind of took a step back mentally the last two days. I didn’t do any mound work. Just kind of pressed the reset button.”
He said Sunday he felt relaxed mentally and physically and threw the ball as freely as he has all spring.
“I feel like the whole spring process has been good for me,” he said. “I feel like each outing I could take something positive from, even if the outcome was bad. My arm’s felt good. I feel like I can bounce back (in terms of arm strength) from day to day. That’s been night and day from last year.”
This is his first full season after Tommy John surgery. He came back in the middle of last year with the Mets and got hit around (6.38 ERA, 1.95 WHIP). He said it’s taken this long to rebuild his confidence.
“Last year, I’d throw the ball down the middle and it would get hit pretty hard,” he said. “This year, I have faith in my stuff and the confidence to be able to throw it down the middle for strike one. Last year, coming off the surgery, my mechanics were so bad they were seeing the ball for a long time and teeing off on it.”
It didn’t help that the Mets were in a playoff race and playing high-stakes games every night.
“My confidence just wasn’t there,” he said. “I’ve been trying to build it back this spring. As each outing has been progressively better, my confidence has been progressively growing.”
Ausmus said the bullpen picture is slowing getting clearer. The health of left-hander Blaine Hardy is one concern. It appears he is likely to start the season on the disabled list with a shoulder impingement.
Alex Wilson (lat strain), who pitched a successful 26-pitch live bullpen Sunday, has already been ruled out for the start of the season.
Closer Francisco Rodriguez, set-up men Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe, plus right-hander Drew VerHagen are veritable locks. If Hardy is out, then left-hander Kyle Ryan would likely make the club.
That leaves two spots for Parnell, Buck Farmer, Rondon, Castillo, Logan Kensing and possibly Shane Greene, who is the front-runner for the final rotation spot.
“I feel I have a chance,” Parnell said. “I think I can help this bullpen. But I know I need to keep working and I need to be more consistent.”