Betty's No Good Clothes Shop And Pancake House
Aaron Heilman pitches two perfect innings, striking out four. Endy Chavez hits a game-tying pinch hit home run in the bottom of the ninth, just as I'm cursing Willie for taking out Ramon Castro. And after Duaner Sanchez gives up a twelfth-inning home run to Alfredo Amezaga of all people, the Mets fight back, capped off by a two-run double by Fernando Tatis. If this game doesn't wake the Mets up, nothing will.
Oh, and a little bit further south, Pedro Martinez strikes out six minor leaguers, walking none and allowing two runs on four hits in six innings.
It's beginning to feel a bit like 2006.
The Mets did not elect to fire manager Willie Randolph today and as a result will probably never win another game. I don't know who the Mets could or would hire that would be able to turn things around, especially given that both Bobby Valentine and Earl Weaver are likely unavailable. But I don't really think the team is going to be able to find a new first baseman, a new second baseman, a whole new bench and a way to keep Ryan Church, Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez healthy for the rest of the year. A managerial change seems like the most practical way to awaken this slumbering alleged giant. I won't pretend I know what's going on inside the heads of the players, but they certainly look like they could benefit from being shaken up a bit. And if the replacement manager happens to be competent at the motivational and/or tactical aspects of his job, all the better.
Unfortunately, each day this team's .500 play looks like less of an aberration. They are currently 23-26, which may be slightly unlucky given that they've scored 231 runs and allowed 230. But over their last 162 games, they've won 79 and lost 83. If this is a slump, it's been going on for nearly a third of Randolph's managerial tenure. They've won fewer games over Willie's last 162 than they did over his first 162 and that team had Doug Mientkiewicz, Miguel Cairo, Victor Zambrano and Kazushisa Ishii starting for much of the season.
Of course, the Mets haven't lost those 26 games this year based on Willie's oddly constructed lineups and strange bullpen machinations alone. Numerous players are underperforming relative to preseason expectations while very few are exceeding expectations. The only real pleasant surprises have been Ryan Church, who's hitting .311/.378/.530 but hasn't started since getting kneed in the head on Tuesday, and Scott Schoeneweis, who's been excellent but isn't likely to maintain a 1.42 ERA only striking out 3.3 batters per nine innings. In general the bullpen has been pretty good, aside from Aaron Heilman, Matt Wise and the now departed Jorge Sosa. But when the starters and hitters aren't giving the bullpen leads to protect, they can only do so much.
Offensively, Brian Schneider has met expectations as after a hot start he's fallen back to his usual offensive ineptitude at .266/.331/.330 entering tonight. David Wright and Jose Reyes have underperformed a bit, but they've both been pretty solid with the bat and Reyes did smack a pair of home runs tonight, perhaps auguring a hot streak. Carlos Beltran's .256/.362/.438 start has been disappointing, but I don't doubt that he will get hot at some point. I am not so optimistic about Carlos Delgado and Luis Castillo. Delgado did hit four home runs last week, regardless of what the umpires said, but he only had one hit that wasn't a home run on the just concluded seven-game road trip. Castillo actually hit a home run last week, too, but he is still slugging just .317, and he doesn't have the high OBP (.358) or the speed (six double plays grounded into) to make his grounders-and-walks approach to offense very useful. Wright, Reyes and Beltran could get hot and carry this offense, but they'll need to, because no one else is going to.
The Mets' bench has also been awful. Met pinch hitters are hitting .172/.243/.266 and none of the assortment of fifth outfielders and second basemen that have been pressed into starting duty have done much with the bat. Ramon Castro is finally healthy and has gone four-for-twelve with two doubles, but of course Willie won't use his as a pinch hitter despite the fact that the Mets are carrying three catchers for some reason. Castro and Fernando Tatis are what passes for power hitters on this bench while twenty-nine year old Valentino Pascucci and his .730 slugging percentage remain in New Orleans. Omar Minaya has constructed a bench full of old middle infielders and defensively oriented outfielders even though left field and first base were the two positions where he was most likely to need a good backup this year. Calling up twenty-two year old Nick Evans to play left field over the weekend was a surprising move that worked for at least one day, as Evans hit three doubles and the Mets won. But the bench as a whole is still quite punchless. Replacing third catcher Raul Casanova with Pascucci would be a step in the right direction.
As for the starting rotation, the story is much the same as it was a few weeks ago. Johan Santana, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey are all still striking out fewer batters per nine innings than they were last year and all but Pelfrey are walking more. Santana has still been quite good, as you would expect from his 58:15 K:BB ratio, but as a whole, the starting staff has not made things easy on the offense, the defense or the bullpen. Pedro Martinez will likely return next week, which could give the team a boost both emotionally and in terms of strike-throwing. If Perez and Maine can regain their 2007 form, this could still be a formidable staff, with Claudio Vargas filling the fifth spot adequately while Pelfrey heads to AAA to try to figure out how to get lefties out. But Perez locating some consistency is about as big an "if" as Pedro staying healthy for the rest of the season.
This is clearly a flawed team, perhaps one that no one could manage into October. But there is still a lot of talent at its core. It is probably too late to surround that talent with a better supporting cast, but it's not too late to find them a new leader. Replacing Willie Randolph might not have any effect on this team's fortunes for the rest of the season and if that's the case, Omar Minaya may follow him out the door at season's end. But I think things have gotten bad enough that just waiting for the team to start playing better shouldn't be an option for much longer. Some sort of action needs to be taken and I'd much prefer firing the manager to the team's traditional response to adversity. Luckily there aren't many prospects left to trade.
So long, Mike
Today one of the greatest New York Mets off all time officially said goodbye to the game of baseball. Michael Joseph Piazza, most recently of the Oakland Athletics, announced his retirement
, beginning the five year countdown to his Hall Of Fame induction. The only questions that remain are which hat, Mets or Dodgers, will adorn his plaque in Cooperstown--judging by Piazza's statement, he'd probably choose the interlocking NY--and just when the Mets will get around to retiring his number 31. Tom Seaver's number 41 took its place on the Shea Stadium wall in 1988, a year after his retirement, so I don't see why there wouldn't be a Mike Piazza Day on the inaugural Citi Field schedule.
Piazza's prodigious power was and remains his calling card, but to focus merely on the long ball underestimates how well rounded his offensive game was. The greatest home run-hitting catcher in the game's history also put up a career .307 batting average and a .377 OBP to go along with his .545 slugging percentage. His career OPS+ of 142 ranks 61st all time, tied with hitters like Miguel Cabrera, Todd Helton and Gary Sheffield and ahead of Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie Jackson and David Ortiz. Piazza managed to rank in the top ten in OPS in the National League five times in the 90s despite playing the most demanding defensive position on the diamond in two of the toughest parks in which to hit in the league.
And, yes, he hit 427 home runs, 396 of them as a catcher and six more in the postseason. There were plenty of memorable shots among those. There was the two-run blast to center in the bottom of the eighth on September 21, 2001, to give the Mets the lead over the Braves in their first home game after the attacks of ten days prior. There was the solo shot to right in the first inning on May 5, 2004, that broke Carlton Fisk's record for home runs by a catcher and which I was lucky enough to witness live. But the one that stands out in my memory today took place on a Friday night at Shea in 2000.
The Mets entered June 30th
trailing the first place Braves by three games, having had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Atlanta a day earlier. The pitching matchup featured Mike Hampton for the Mets and Kevin Millwood for the Braves. Both went seven innings, but Millwood allowed just one run while Hampton was knocked around for five. Reliever Eric Cammack entered in the top of the eighth for the Mets and gave up two walks before Brian Jordan stepped to the plate and smacked a three-run home run to put the score at 8-1 in favor of the Braves. Cammack finished the top of the eighth*, bringing the heart of the Mets' lineup to the plate, beginning with two hitter Derek Bell.
Bell singled to center but Edgardo Alfonzo flied out. Piazza singled and went to second on a throwing error, putting runners on second and third for Robin Ventura. Ventura grounded out, driving in a run to make the score 8-2 but leaving the Mets just one out to work with. What followed was the most dramatic eighth inning at the end of June I think I've ever seen. Todd Zeile singled to bring home Piazza. Jay Payton singled. Kerry Ligtenberg entered the game for the Braves and walked the next three batters, Benny Agbayani, Mark Johnson and Melvin Mora, making the score 8-5. Terry Mulholland entered and walked Bell, bringing in another run. An Alfonzo single tied the game and brought Piazza to the plate for a second time in the inning, this time with two men on base. Mike then electrified the crowd, the bench and play-by-play man Gary Thorne by driving the ball over the left field wall to put the Mets ahead, 11-8, pumping his fist as he jogged to first.
The Mets didn't wind up catching the Braves in the division that year, though they did outlast them in the postseason after winning the Wild Card. But that game was some of the most fun I've ever had watching a game of baseball on television. Piazza provided a lot of fun moments in his nearly eight years in New York. He is the greatest offensive player in the history of the franchise and if his is the second theoretically blue and orange cap to adorn a plaque in Cooperstown, it will be a fitting honor.
*Fun fact: Cammack pitched so badly that even though the Mets took the lead after the inning that he pitched, he was not awarded the win by the official scorer. Armando Benitez, who pitched the ninth in what would otherwise have been a save situation, was.
Same old Mets
The Mets had another mediocre week, splitting six games with the Dodgers and Reds. The offense does appear to be coming around as they put 38 runs on the board in these six games. They even put together back-to-back twelve-run efforts. Of course, they wouldn't be the Mets if they didn't follow that up by being shut down by a pitcher of dubious quality. This time it was Bronson Arroyo who the Mets turned into Sandy Koufax for eight innings, lowering his ERA by a run and a half in the process, all the way to 7.14.
While the Mets' play continues to be characterized by enough inconsistency to drive Joe Morgan to drink, there were some encouraging signs this week. Carloses Delgado and Beltran both had big offensive weeks. Delgado hit .368/.409/.632 in the last two series while Beltran hit .381/.417/.810. These two need to hit well if the Mets' offense is going to be much more than league average and while I never doubted that Beltran would eventually start to hit, it's reassuring to see that Delgado still has some life in his bat. Ryan Church also had a big week with the bat at .333/.391/.810, but he's been hitting all year. Perhaps the most stunning development of the week was Brian Schneider's Saturday home run. It was his first extra base hit of the season in his sixty-seventh at bat.
The Mets (19-16) get another chance to assert themselves against weaker competition starting Monday as they begin a four-game series at home against the Nationals (15-23). Nelson Figueroa (2-2. 4.81, 25:19 K:BB), John Maine (4-2, 3.00, 33:21) and Johan Santana (4-2, 3.10, 52:13) will pitch the first, second and fourth games of the series with game three's starter as yet undetermined due to Saturday's doubleheader. Odalis Perez (0-3, 3.43, 34:18), John Lannan (3-3, 3.40, 27:17), Tim Redding (4-3, 3.83, 30:18) and Mike O'Connor (1-1, 13.00, 4:11 (yes, really)) will start for the Nationals. This is the Mets' third series against Washington this season and once again they will not have to face noted steroid user and adulterer Paul Lo Duca, who is now on the disabled list with a fractured right hand. Lastings Milledge, off to a slow start with the bat at .252/.322/.341 will be in the lineup.
The Do-Do Walk
The Mets had a pretty good weekend, as they tend to do when they head to Arizona. They won two of three and put their theoretical everyday lineup on the field for the very first time in the season's twenty-ninth game. Moises Alou and Brian Schneider are back, Carlos Delgado is starting to hit and the Mets are just half a game out of first place in the NL East. It's enough to trick you into not worrying so much about this team.
Well, almost enough. In reality, the Mets, 16-13 and in the thick of the division race though they may be, are far from easy to root for right now. Their modest success seems to have been achieved by the skin of their teeth and this is born out by their unimpressive run scored to runs allowed ratio of 135 to 132. Their offense is right in the middle of the National League pack and this is disappointing, but not too surprising given that Alou has only played two games and nobody named Carlos has done much hitting yet. The "runs allowed" side of the ledger is a bit more troubling.
The Mets' pitching was supposed to be the team's real strength but so far they've allowed 4.55 runs per game, about average for a National League team this year. The fact that Pedro Martinez has only pitched three and a third innings has been a blow to preseason expectations, but his replacement, Nelson Figueroa, has been okay. The problem has been disappointing performances from just about everybody else.
I've talked before about the starters failing to pitch deep in the games leading to an overreliance on the bullpen and this continues to be a problem. The main culprits have been John Maine and Oliver Perez, who are both pitching fewer innings per start than they did last year. But a more fundamental problem, and one that is plaguing almost the entire staff, is the base on balls. Entering Sunday, the Mets had walked 4.1 batters per game, fifth worst in the league.
The Mets have ten pitchers who have pitched a significant number of innings (more than three and a third) in the majors this year and last year. Six of them are walking batters more frequently than last year, nine are striking out fewer batters and seven have a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only Billy Wagner and Scott Schoeneweis have significantly improved their K:BB ratio, while Joe Smith has slightly improved his. Those three and Johan Santana are the only Met pitchers with K:BB ratios of 2.0 or better. Figueroa and Duaner Sanchez, who didn't pitch in the majors last year, also fall below 2.0. Aaron Heilman is the only pitcher whose strikeout rate has improved, to more than a K per inning, but he's also walking more than five batters per nine innings.
The season is still young, but these are some pretty disturbing trends. More and more voices are calling for Willie Randolph's head, but perhaps Rick Peterson deserves a little more scrutiny. The supposedly elite Mets pitching staff is, across the board, walking more batters and striking out fewer. Not surprisingly, seven of ten pitchers, including all four returning starters, are throwing more pitches per inning than they were last year. Willie's bullpen management is far from perfect, but the fact that his pitchers need more pitches to get through an inning than they did last year isn't helping him any.
The Mets pitchers' season-long search for the strike zone now takes them to Chavez Ravine as they begin a series on Monday against the second place Dodgers (17-14). Perez (2-2, 4.03, 26:21 K:BB), Figueroa (2-1, 4.08, 22:15) and Maine (3-2, 3.48, 29:19) will start for the Mets. The Dodgers will counter with Chad Billingsley (1-4, 5.20, 40:17), Hiroki Kuroda (1-2, 3.82, 20:8) and Brad Penny (5-2, 3.19, 20:14).