At the end of last season, after former Mets closer Bobby Parnell had neck surgery, New York manager Terry Collins said hard-throwing 51s right-hander Vic Black would be the leading candidate to replace Parnell if the need arose.
“The first time I saw Vic Black and the way he threw the ball, and the conversations I’ve had with him and the way I’ve seen him handle himself, I said, ‘If Bobby’s not 100 percent, we’ve got a guy who can step up there and do that,’” Collins said in September.
However, after Black struggled with his control in spring training — issuing 10 walks in 9 1/3 innings — he was sent to Las Vegas to start the season.
“Spring training hasn’t always been my forte,” Black said Friday — his 26th birthday — before the 51s’ 6-5 loss to Sacramento before a crowd of 10,163 at Cashman Field.
“I love practice, but I’m meant for playing under lights and when it matters,” he said. “Not to say spring training doesn’t mean something. For guys like me it does. You have to go out and perform and prove you can do it, and I didn’t.”
Despite ongoing struggles with his control, Black has thrived under the lights of Las Vegas, compiling a 1.45 ERA in 18 2/3 innings while converting seven saves in eight opportunities.
“Vic’s gotten better since the start of the season,” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “He throws 98, 99 mph. He’s a power arm with a power breaking ball. It’s all about consistency for him.
“Spring training, his control wasn’t there. That showed here at the start, but he’s improved. He’s going in the right direction, without question.”
Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in August for Marlon Byrd and John Buck, Black suffered a pinched nerve in his neck after his first appearance for Las Vegas and was out for eight days.
“I think during those eight days I got my head straightened out that I’m here, this is where they sent me and I’ve got to compete here and take care of business here before I can even merit an opportunity of being back there (in the big leagues),” he said. “You kind of get lost in the moment where you’re disappointed at being sent down, when it’s your first real spring training and you have a shot at making the team and you don’t do it.”
The 6-foot-4-inch Black started the season as the setup man for Jeff Walters, who had 38 saves last year for Double-A Binghamton but has struggled for Pacific Coast League-leading Las Vegas (32-16), blowing four saves while compiling a team-high 9.39 ERA.
“We knew that Vic could close, but we were going to try to use him to set up at the start and see how Walters fit the role at this level,” Backman said. “Things change.”
Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick in 2009, Black didn’t begin closing until 2012. He quickly embraced the role, recording 13 saves and a 1.65 ERA for Double-A Altoona.
“It just matches real well with my personality. The aggression,” he said. “If you talk to most starters, I’ve kind of disagreed with them in the past that you’re supposed to be able to pace yourself. I was all out from the beginning, which is why I think this is the best fit.”
Last season, the Amarillo, Texas, native had 17 saves and a 2.51 ERA for Triple-A Indianapolis before making his big league debut in July for the Pirates.
After joining the Mets, Black went 3-0 with a 3.46 ERA and a save, striking out 12 and walking four in 13 innings.
He has allowed only three earned runs in 17 appearances for the 51s but has had to escape jams caused, in large part, by 17 walks (with 18 strikeouts).
“He has the stuff to close in the big leagues, without question, but he’s got to be able to do it consistently,” Backman said. “He needs to continue to improve on that.”
Black, who has converted his past three save chances — with two walks in three otherwise perfect innings — said he has regained the form he flashed for the Mets late last season.
“I feel like I’m back on track as I assured them I would be,” he said. “I know they’re not too happy with the walks, but if they don’t score, it doesn’t matter.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.