Game 119: Loss
The only silver lining in this atrocious series vs. the Phils is that, if Philadelphia completes the sweep on Thursday afternoon, they’ll STILL be 11 games behind.
Journeyman Lieber shut out the Mets on five hits, in easily his best performance in four years.
Tom Glavine continued his winless streak; after looking like he might be a Cy Young candidate in mid-June, he’s since won a total of three games in two months. Remarkably, he’s still in the running — his dozen wins are the secondmost in the NL (three pitchers have 13). There’s a distinct possibility the that NL will be without a 20-game winner in a non-strike season for the first time since 1987 (when Rick Sutcliffe won 18 games).
Is anyone else concerned that the Mets’ lineup has been completely shut down by Jon Lieber, Randy Wolf, and Cole Hamels? Sure, Hamels has a bright future, Lieber once won 20, and Wolf once had a year comparable to the best Shawn Estes could do, but this year, these three are not much more than ordinary. Certainly not dominating … and especially not skilled enough to manhandle a lineup crammed with the talent of the 2006 Mets. Heck, these guys would have trouble dominating the 1973 Mets.
To really put this lack of hitting in perspective, consider this: if Jose Reyes doesn’t play on Tuesday, the Phillies shut out the Mets in three straight games, and limit the Mets to four hits in two of the games, five in the other, and allow just ONE extra-base hit. If this is not a cause for concern, I don’t know what is.
Sure, the Mets are still 12 games ahead. However, the issue between now and October is not whether the Mets will get to the playoffs, but what they will do in the playoffs. The state of the pitching staff is borderline disaster. However, we have held out hope that if the starters can somehow get through 4-5 innings, and the overused, burned-out relief pitchers can take some HGH and manage to pitch four perfect innings, then the Mets’ offense can handle the rest.
The problem now, however, is that the Mets no longer have an offense. Yes, the bats will wake up at some point in the next six weeks, but the frightening thing is that they all seem to hit together, or not hit together. When Beltran is hot, so is Wright and Delgado and Valentin. If one of them is not hot, they’re all cold. It’s almost like watching a sorority house or an all-female office; after a while all the girls go on the same cycle. Similarly, it seems like all the Mets hitters do their hot and cold streaks together.
If you watch the games closely, you can pinpoint the issue: patience. In the last three games, few Mets batters have taken a pitch or two; there’s been a lot of first-pitch swinging. The argument in Wednesday’s game, of course, is that Jon Lieber is a control pitcher and throws a lot of strikes. Well you know what? He throws a lot of strikes when you don’t give him an opportunity to throw a ball. Then there’s the bunk that “you have to swing early in the count, because it might be the best pitch you see.” C’mon, fellas, this is Jon Lieber — circa 2006 — and not the 1965 version of Sandy Koufax. Lieber barely touches 89 MPH on a good day, so it’s not like he’s going to overpower anyone. His whole MO is to get batters to beat themselves. Case in point: Carlos Delgado, at-bat number two, in the fourth inning. He swings wildly at the first pitch, an awful slider that nearly hits him in the foot. He then takes a meatball over the middle of the plate for strike two. Strike three is a so-so curveball that freezes Delgado, because he’s still thinking about that first-pitch slider and ticked off about letting strike two go through his kitchen. Had he taken that first pitch, it would be 1-0 in his favor and an entirely different at-bat.
Delgado, by the way, was a real disappointment in this game. Besides striking out and grounding out to the pitcher fifteen times, he mashed a ball to the right field fence, but was thrown out at second. It should have been an easy double, but he watched the ball from the batter’s box, and lightly jogged to first base. It was not until striding past first that he began to run. I love Delgado, but this was him at his worst. Hopefully it will be the last time we see the “dog” in him, as it is completely out of character and not the type of thing you want to see from someone who supposedly leads by example.
After a great day on Tuesday, Jose Reyes went 0-4. But what was particularly annoying was Reyes’ at-bat in the 8th. With two outs, down three, Endy Chavez on first base, and ahead with a 2-0 count, Reyes chased a bad slider. The next pitch, he weakly grounded out to Lieber to end the inning. Are you kidding me? What in god’s name is he doing swinging at the 2-0 pitch? You’re down three, so even a home run will leave you back one. And to swing at a slider in the dirt? It might not have been so awful, except that the very next pitch — still ahead on the count at 2-1 — he meekly grounds back to the pitcher. When you’re ahead on the count, late in the game, and losing, the plan is to take unless something comes that you can drive to the wall. That’s not theory, it’s not something somebody learns from experience — that’s baseball. I don’t care if Jose Reyes is only 23 years old; this is simple, ordinary baseball that one learns in little league. If Nolan Ryan is out there throwing 100-MPH fastballs that are darting every which way, I might be able to forgive a batter for such a poor at-bat. But this is Jon friggin’ Lieber! There’s no blazing fastball, no Guidry-like slider, no hocus-pocus — just a lot of rinky dink junk and a flat straight ball with a little sink. Very similar to Tom Glavine in fact, only without the command and without the ability to change speeds well.
So where’s the problem? Is the Mets themselves, just going through a mass slump? Do the batters watch each other struggle early in the game, then this becomes a mental problem? Do they overanalyze the pitcher, and give him too much credit? Is Rick Down doing anything at all to help the situation? Does Mr. Willie need to wake up from his mid-game nap and tell Manny Acta to put on the “take” sign, since these “professional” hitters cannot be trusted to make intelligent decisions on their own?
Keith Hernandez brought up a great point during the aforementioned Delgado at-bat, harking back to a golden drop of wisdom bestowed upon him by the great Lou Brock. Brock said, you stay with your strengths, and look for pitches you want to hit, rather than be worried about the pitcher attacking your weakness. If you’re focused on your weakness, the pitcher will beat you on pitches in your strength zone. In essence, he’s beating you in both places. And that does seem to be a problem lately for many Met batters, not just Delgado.
When there is such an epidemic of poor hitting, you can’t help but put some responsibility on the team’s batting coach. Although I understand that Rick Down is the typical MLB hitting coach — hands off, let the guys do their thing — I don’t necessarily agree that it’s a great way to coach Big Leaguers. Back in the 1970s and 80s, there was a nontraditional batting coach named Charley Lau who rewrote the definition of his title. While it’s true that Lau was overly hands-on, and he taught some mechanicals that not everyone can agree on, he also introduced the concept of team hitting. (OK, team hitting has been around since the 1890s, so maybe I should say he “reintroduced” it.). It baffles me that more teams have not insisted on hitting as a team, and having an offensive plan. Offhand, the Braves and the A’s are about the only teams that teach AND enforce team hitting strategy. It makes a lot of sense to attack a pitcher with a plan, yet almost no one seems to do it, the Mets included. I guess it’s because baseball is filled with the throwback batting coach types like Rick Down, who are completely reactive (as opposed to proactive), and just kind of hang around until someone’s in a slump, at which point you meet him early to do some soft toss. The only other thing Down does, likely, is hand out the scouting reports and remind the batters how great the opposing starting pitcher is. This laissez-faire attitude in coaching hitters is rampant at the ML level, and likely won’t change anytime soon (the argument is that these are the best hitters in the world, so the best you can do is stay out of their way). Makes you scratch your head, don’t it?
Thursday afternoon pits John Maine vs. Scott Mathieson. Maine might have to start another scoreless innings streak to give the Mets a chance to win the game.