Series Preview: Mets vs. Braves II
The Showdown Begins
The Mets send Mike Pelfrey to the mound tonight to face red-hot Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium.
After last night’s win against the Florida Marlins, the Mets find themselves in first place, a scant 1/2 game ahead of the 10-5 Braves. While it’s hardly a “make or break” series, this weekend will nonetheless be an ideal opportunity for one of the two teams to emerge as the frontrunner.
The Mets nearly pulled out two wins in their initial series with the Braves in Atlanta, but lost a 3-2 heartbreaker in the at Turner Field on April 8th. Aaron Heilman gave up three doubles in the 8th inning, wasting a gem of an effort by Orlando Hernandez, and allowed the Braves to propel into sole possession of first place for the first time since April 2006. It’s taken the Mets nearly two weeks to regain NL East leadership, but the Braves can climb back ahead with a win tonight.
With the new and improved Tim Hudson on the hill, the Braves have their best chance of the weekend to beat the Mets. Hudson was re-motivated over the winter, and dedicated himself to a rigorous training regimen. So far, the hard work has paid off, as Hudson has allowed only 2 earned runs in 21 innings of work — helping him to a perfect 2-0 record in three starts. On paper, Hudson’s 0.86 ERA and 0.95 WHIP seem daunting, and a difficult challenge for second-year pitcher Mike Pelfrey to overcome.
However, Hudson can’t possibly continue to pitch as well as he has, can he? Eventually, the dam must break, and why not against the most powerful lineup in the National League?
How the Mets batters plan to approach this game should be interesting, since their main strategy thus far has been to take pitches and get into deep counts. Against Hudson, who throws a lot of strikes, that could make things difficult — you don’t want your batters falling behind 0-1 or 0-2. Though, the Mets did employ a more aggressive approach against strike-machine Dontrelle Willis two nights ago, and that produced favorable results. As always, the offensive tone will be set by Jose Reyes in the first inning. If he gets on base and scores in innning one, the Mets will have a good chance to take the game. Getting runs against Hudson early is the key to beating him, because the more he cruises, the more he beats batter mentally.
Before Reyes gets to bat, however, Mike Pelfrey needs to set the tone in the top half of the inning. This is a huge test for Pelfrey, and could give the Mets a good indication of what he’ll provide over the course of the 2007 season. First of all, Pelfrey will give us a clue as to how he handles perceived “pressure” as the game is against the Mets’ top NL rival (sorry Jimmy Rollins!), and the result will decide who is in first place. Secondly, this will be Pelfrey’s first regular-season outing against a strong offensive team (his previous start came against the feeble Nationals). How will he respond to the test? Will he crumble under the bright lights at Shea? Will he keep his cool? Will his nasty sinker and average off-speed stuff be enough to retire the better hitters in the NL? We’ll find out tonight.
Tomorrow afternoon’s game is Dog Day at Shea, and Oliver “The Human Slot Machine” Perez goes against the equally unpredictable Chuck James. This is the game the Mets have to take, as Friday will be tough against Hudson and Sunday’s matchup has the impenetrable John Smoltz vs. Tom Glavine in their second matchup of the year. Yes, Smoltz is beatable, and Glavine is on a roll. But I’d feel a lot more comfortable putting the pressure on smug-faced Smoltzie to stop a three-game losing streak than watch him ride behind the momentum of a win.
To win Saturday’s game, the Mets need to take advantage of high fastballs Chuck James likes to offer, and get into the weak Braves bullpen early (Mike Gonzalez is likely unavailable with a tender elbow). As pointed out by Alex Nelson on Metsgeek, James is essentially a fly-ball pitcher. Unlucky for him, he’s about to face a lineup of fly-ball hitters who have just started pounding the ball recently. This molotov cocktail of a mixture could result in another high-scoring game for the Mets — assuming they don’t get too thrown off by Hudson’s sinkers on Friday and the sunny brightness of the afternoon start. More importantly, Oliver Perez must completely shake off his last disaster of a start, find that mysterious arm slot of effectiveness, and put together at least five innings of mediocre pitching. The entire Mets bullpen is on about ten days’ rest, so they can take it from there — assuming, of course, that Pelfrey doesn’t have a meltdown in the first few innings of his start.
With too many unknowns at play, I’m not making any predictions. In any case, it should be an exciting weekend of baseball. Let the games begin!