Browsing Archive April, 2006

Game 5: Win

Mets 3 Marlins 2

This was a game that the 2005 Mets would have lost. Either Looper or some other reliever would have given up the go-ahead run, and/or the Mets hitters would have simply given up. However, the 2006 Mets have solid arms in the pen, with Wagner owning the 9th, and they have a continuously developing David Wright to carry them.

Tom Glavine threw another gem, keeping the Mets in the game against the only Marlins pitcher they should lose to: Dontrelle Willis. Even though Willis is one of the top lefties in the Bigs, I was still disappointed with the Mets hitters lack of patience. The entire lineup had shown excellent pitch selection and patience through the first four games, yet were suddenly swinging early in the count vs. Willis. This shows lack of preparation and a psyche factor.

It happens often; a player knows that an elite pitcher is on the mound, and thus believes that he will have few good pitches to hit. As a result, he swings at pitches earlier in the count, believing it is the best pitch he’ll see in the at-bat and fearing getting behind in the count. This strategy is acceptable when you face a guy who can paint the corners with filthy stuff, but the truth is, there are few guys in that category. Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, Josh Beckett, Greg Maddux (in his prime), and Mark Prior come to mind. Willis, however, is not really in that class. If you watch him, he doesn’t so much throw strikes as much as he gets batters to swing and miss. He throws a lot of breaking pitches and fastballs out of the zone, getting batters to chase. If I were Mets batting coach Rick Down, I’d have the Mets batters watch their at-bats vs. Willis before the next time they face him. They’ll be suprised to see how many bad pitches they chased, allowing him to get ahead and/or get them out.

Otherwise, it was a very well played game all around. And David Wright is my Opening Week prediction for MVP.


Game 4: Win

Mets 9 Marlins 3

The Marlins are a team that the Mets are supposed to beat easily. Joe Girardi’s squad is really a triple-A team that happens to be playing out a Major League schedule. And the Mets did what they were supposed to do: win easily.

Steve Trachsel had a fantastic outing, using his guile and veteran status to keep the young Marlins batters off balance and confused. He registered quite a few strikeouts looking on borderline strikes. The backward K’s look good in the boxscore, but in reality most were close enough to go either way, and when a 14-year vet is facing a green rookie, the vet gets the strike. It was nice to see that for a change; personally, I spent too many years watching guys like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine get an extra two or three inches of “respect zone” against young Mets hitters. If Trachsel pitches like this all year, the Mets are a lock to finish in first.

One thing I’m really loving about the Mets hitters this year is their patience. Everyone in the lineup is taking pitches, working the count, and getting their pitch to hit. Carlos Beltran has been especially selective, and he’s hitting the ball hard all over the place. I’m guessing that the presence of Paul LoDuca and Carlos Delgado — two guys who always see a lot of pitches — have something to do with the change in approach from last year’s free-swinging Mets. David Wright, who showed remarkable patience last year, seems not even to start his at bat until after he has two strikes. Even Jose Reyes (his first-pitch leadoff double notwithstanding) is taking a bunch of pitches, to the point where he may very well walk 50 times this year. And if Jose walks 50 times, he may score 150 runs.

Perhaps as a consequence of his selectivity, Reyes is swinging the bat strong to start the year. In addition to the leadoff double — which reached the dead-center wall — he also mashed a line-drive homer into the rightfield seats. Hopefully the newfound power stroke won’t get to his head; I’d like to see a season of 8 HRs, 20 triples, 35 doubles.

The Mets looked great, all-around. The one negative was again Jorge Julio, who struggled in his one inning of work. In his Mets debut, I felt he was hit with a bit of bad luck: bad hops, some errors, some broken bat hits. Again, although the line score does not bare it out, Julio did not look that bad. Watching closely, though, it’s clear that his issue is between his ears more than anything. It’s true that bad luck seems to follow him; however, he does not deal with it well. Whereas great pitchers shrug off unusual hits, bad calls, and poorly timed errors, Julio lets these issues pile on to his shoulders. He gets visibly frustrated, loses his focus, and the ball goes all over the place. Last night, though, he did take a tiny step forward; with the bases loaded and a full count on one of the most dangerous hitters in the NL, Miguel Cabrera, Julio kept his focus and composure as Cabrera fouled off several good fastballs. Finally, Julio snapped off a nasty slider that caught Cabrera looking. Unfortunately, Mike Jacobs smashed a 2-run single on the next pitch, nullifying what would have been a scoreless, courageous inning. It could have been a huge step forward, instead it was a tiny step. If nothing else, this particular inning gives us a glimpse of what Julio is capable of producing out of the pen. He has truly electric stuff, and can dominate batters with it when his head is on straight and he’s focused on the task at hand. But when his concentration lulls, problems mount, and disasters occur. We can only hope that this inning is not a microcosm of Julio’s 2006 season, but rather an encouraging sign of better things to come as he matures.

One last note, concerning Mike Jacobs. I was a huge fan of Jacobs as a Mets minor leaguer, and never understood why they didn’t consider him as the catcher of the future. As much as I love having Delgado in the lineup, there’s a small part of me that wishes Jacobs wasn’t part of the deal, but was instead platooning behind the plate with LoDuca this year. So last night’s game was a special treat, as not only did the Mets win handily, but I got to see Jacobs drive in three runs, including one on a monstrous upper-deck shot off Trachsel. The guy exudes exceptional confidence and composure for a youngster; I really see him continuing to do big things in the future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his HR and RBI numbers compare to Delgado’s this year — though he’ll likely strike out more, walk less, and hit for a lower average.


Game 3: Win

Mets 10 Nationals 5

Lots of excitement, especially for only the third game of the year. First, the 2006 debut of Pedro Martinez. Pedro was not very sharp, and did not have his best stuff. But Pedro being the guile, aggressive, wiley pitcher he is, gave the Mets six good innings and the bullpen a one-run lead. Once again, Duaner Sanchez made things look easy, pitching two strong innings before giving way to the Chad, who by the ninth inning had a five-run lead and no problem holding on to the victory. In between, all kinds of emotions erupted from the players, fans, umpires, and at least one manager.

To start, the Mets hit 4 Nationals batters — the most ever in the Mets’ history for one game. Jose Guillen was hit twice by Pedro, and took a few steps to the mound after the second time. To his credit, Pedro stared him down as the home plate umpire and Paul LoDuca held Guillen back. Senor Guillen is a good hitter — probably the most dangerous hitter in the Nats’ lineup — but he ain’t too smart. Here’s a guy who crowds the plate, always stares the pitcher down after an inside pitch, complains to the press that his pitchers don’t protect him by retaliating, yet wonders why he got plunked 19 times last year and is on course to get hit 162 times this year. C’mon Jose, figure it out: you’ve made it very clear to every opponent that you don’t like pitches near your body. And so guess what they’re gonna do to mess with your head? Jose? Are you following?

To their credit — and in their defense — the Nats pitchers did try to retaliate. For example, Ramon Ortiz tried to hit David Wright; but Wright is young and spry and was able to get out of the way. And there were a few other close shaves, but the Mets hitters didn’t make a big deal out of it (the proper reaction). Even when Paul LoDuca was plunked with a purpose pitch, he calmly tossed the bat and hurried to first, not even looking in the direction of pitcher Felix Rodriguez. F-Rod was promptly tossed from the game, as was Frank Robinson, though Robbie did not leave without giving the ump a 15-minute diatribe. The beanballs back and forth, and the emotions tied to them, have set the stage for what should be a good old-fashioned rivalry between the two clubs. It will be fun to watch!

But the rivalrous raucous between the clubs was not the only emotional issue at stake. In addition, the Shea Stadium crowd continued to crow at Carlos Beltran after his first three at-bats, but the boos turned to cheers after his fourth at-bat yielded a huge 2-run homerun. The cheers were thunderous, and the crowd clamored for a curtain call. Beltran, however, refused to go out, and had to be pushed out onto the top step of the dugout by teammate Julio Franco for a one-millisecond acknowledgement. After the game, Beltran confirmed that he did not want to go out, sounding bitter about being booed earlier. Well if Beltran doesn’t quickly thicken his skin, and cover his ears, or start producing, the remainder of his 7-year contract is going to seem more like a jail sentence.

It’s clear that Beltran is sensitive, and now it’s questionable that he will be able to handle the pressure of playing in New York with a big contract. Lesser men than he have succumbed and been run out town: Ed Whitson, Bobby Bonilla, and Roberto Alomar are just a few. And there have been much better ballplayers — Reggie Jackson, Jason Giambi, and Derek Jeter immediately come to mind — who had been booed just as unmercifully, and for a longer period of time, yet were able to eventually win the fans over. In no other city does Darwin’s theory of the survival ring more true than in New York. Beltran needs to realize there was a reason that Houston and Kansas City and other small towns could not offer $119M over 7 years, and there is a lot of baggage that comes with the paycheck. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


Game 2: Loss

Anderson Hernandez makes great catchNationals 9 Mets 5

Brian Bannister made his Major League debut in front of a New York City crowd of just under 20,000, on a chilly 40-degree evening. From what we had heard and seen of him in spring training, the assumption was that Bannister was a control-type pitcher who would throw a lot of strikes. In fact, there have been some comparisons to the great Greg Maddux inasfar as his style goes.

The resulting performance was mixed. On the one hand, Bannister did not perform the way he is capable, probably due to butterflies and nerves. It wasn’t the largest crowd he’s ever played for, but it was his first Major League game, and it was in New York City. His command was nonexistent; he couldn’t find a consistent release point and was throwing his four pitches all over the place. However, he pitched nearly five innings before giving up a hit — a combination of not throwing enough strikes to allow a hit and Bannister’s gumption. More than anything else, this kid proved that he has guts and he is unflappable.

Many say that manager Willie Randolph should have pulled him before he gave up a 3-run homer to Nick Johnson in the 6th; many more say Randolph should have removed him immediately after the opposite-field blast. I disagree, and I laud Willie for leaving him in there. The kid is going to give up a lot of homeruns in his career, and he needs to know how to overcome them. And Willie needs to find out now, in the beginning of the season, if Bannister has what it takes to make it at this level; being humbled is all about a Major League pitcher’s life. So there on the mound Bannister stayed, obviously tired, without command, and having just given up a homerun to cut his 4-run lead to only one run. He had nothing, but he made it through and finished the inning.

It looked like it would have been a great story from there: rookie bounces back to finish the 6th, Sanchez and Heilman look lights-out in the bridge to the 9th, and Enter Sandman to finish the game, giving the rookie a win in his first Major League game in front of the NYC crowd that included his dad in the stands. However, a Ryan Zimmerman blast off of Billy Wagner to lead off the 9th killed the story; so much for the Sandman bringing us dreams.

In a way, it’s OK. Maybe it’s just another lesson for Brian Bannister: this is the Big Leagues, and mistakes can kill you. Maybe Bannister will look to his lack of command—whether it was due to nerves or the cold or whatever—and realize that it can’t happen again. After all, Billy Wagner only gave up one run; Bannister gave up the other three. If Bannister hadn’t hit Jose Guillen before Johnson’s homer, he might have won the game.

It would have been nice had Wagner pitched a flawless ninth, giving Bannister a win in his first game. But in Bannister’s heart he’d look back and think “you know, it wasn’t my best game, I didn’t really deserve to win it.” There’s no doubt that this kid has what it takes to win in NYC, and now that he’s gotten the first nervous game out of the way, he can move on to the next start and truly earn his first Big League win. It will be much more satisfying.

As for the rest of the team, the Mets looked pretty good. Wagner is only throwing about 92 MPH, which is why Zimmerman was able to rock him. It was a 3-2 pitch that Wagner got up in the zone; when Wagner is at 100%, that pitch is riding in at around 98-99 and blows it past the rookie. The homer doesn’t concern me. It’s early in the season, it’s cold, and Wagner is not yet Wagner. He missed significant time in spring training with the finger sheath issue, and is probably a few weeks away from his real self. By late May, he’ll be throwing BBs, and I’m fine with that.

There’s a lot of concern about Jorge Julio; the columnists and bloggers are already calling for his head. Once again, I disagree with the masses. True, he gave up a single and then a homer after getting Matt LeCroy to ground out. Well, Wagner gave up a homer just the inning before, but are we calling for his head? The, a batter reached base on a strikeout, because Julio’s ball ran about 4 feet. Yes, it’s a problem, but there is hope when you throw 95+ MPH with that kind of movement. If … and yes it’s a big if … Rick Peterson can teach Julio to harness that fastball, we’ve got a very dominating arm in pen — Brad Lidge-like dominating. True, this has been Julio’s problem all along, but he does have two things going for him: first, he did have success at one point, so he’s capable; and second, he has Peterson. In my opinion, Peterson’s ability is way overhyped. But, he’s a pair of new eyes. Sometimes, all a pitcher needs is a coach with a different perspective. Maybe Peterson will see something that other coaches did not. My fingers are crossed.

After the strikeout, the next batter bunted and LoDuca jumped on it quickly enough to peg the guy at second and initiate an inning-ending double play. Instead, Jose Reyes and Anderson Hernandez couldn’t decide who was going to cover and the ball flew into centerfield. The next batter was walked intentionally, then all hell broke loose. Julio threw a great pitch to Royce Clayton that broke his bat, but the ball trickled into CF. Schneider struck out, then Damian Jackson hit a double. It was just one of those innings where nothing goes right. It could happen to anyone. From what I understand, these innings happened to Julio all the time in Baltimore. But that’s the past, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe that if he can make an adjustment in his mechanics, and gain a little confidence, he could be downright nasty. Time will tell.

As far as the offense went, I was happy to see the Mets show some patience and better pitch selection, particularly Reyes and Beltran. Hopefully both players will continue to be patient and watch pitches, Reyes so he can get on base and Beltran so he can get better pitches to hit. On the other side, I’m concerned about AHern, who looks greatly overmatched. He may well save 30-40 runs with his defense, but if he can’t produce at least 80-90 on offense, then the Mets need to consider Jeff Keppinger or another option at 2B. It will be very difficult to succeed with two automatic outs in the lineup.


Game 1:Win

Soriano safe at homeMets 3 Nationals 2

A few notes regarding Opening Day …

It was an enjoyable game to watch, but hardly a solid Mets win. The Mets were very lucky to pull out a win, as there were a few calls that went the Mets way (Soriano was safe at home, but called out, for example), but more importantly, several missed executions that seem like nothing but are difference-makers over the course of a season. For example, Anderson Hernandez could not get a bunt down with no outs and a man on second base, and ended up striking out on a third-strike foul bunt. I don’t see Hernandez hitting more than .230 this year, which means he HAS TO get bunts down in order to be helpful on offense. There were also chances for Met baserunners to take an extra base and they didn’t; I’m hoping that was due to the wet grounds. On defense, aside from his game-ending assist, Carlos Beltran did an awful job of returning the ball to the infield. At least twice, he missed the cutoff man and gave the hitter or runner an extra base. Granted, there was no guarantee that hitting the cutoff man would have resulted in an out, but overthrowing the cutoff results in a guaranteed extra base. A Major League outfielder should know when he can and cannot reach a base on a fly.

Finally, the Mets’ ability to hit with runners on base looks no better than it was a year ago. There were several situations where the Mets had a runner on second with less than two out and did not get good swings. Forget about advancing the runner or driving him in; I was seeing strikeouts, popups, and weak infield grounders. Granted, it’s only the first game of the year, and perhaps it’s too early to criticize. However, these little things are called “fundamentals” and the reason they’re called fundamentals is because executing them is fundamental to winning. Great teams — winning teams — execute fundamentals consistently, not sometimes or once in a while. Watch the Braves for a few weeks and you’ll understand why they have no fans despite winning constantly: they’re boring! Rarely do you see a 12-1 win, or back-to-back homers, or four home runs in a game. Rather, you see broken-bat singles, hit-and-runs, sac bunts, runners scoring on groundball outs, and other remarkably unexciting plays. And at the end of the game, most of the time, they’re on the winning side.

On the positive side, Tommy Glavine looked great. Except for one inning where he forgot where the plate was, he threw lots and lots of strikes, and pounded the inside part of the plate to both righties and lefties, with both the fastball and the changeup. Also, both Glavine and Heilman pitched very tough with runners on third and less than two out. Heilman’s command was a little off, but he may still be pissed off about being sent back to the pen; he’ll be fine. Another great thing to see on the mound was the presence of Billy Wagner. As soon as he steps on the mound, you can feel the electricity, and you can see the other team frightened stiff. He “only” hit 95, but it’s clear that Wagner will bring a new kind of excitement to the end of ballgames this year.

In addition, I am very impressed with Paul LoDuca behind the plate. He has no arm, but he’s otherwise very solid and savvy back there. He calls a great game, in my opinion: lots of fastballs and inside pitches. I really like the way he receives the ball as well, with soft hands. I never understood writers and broadcasters who would talk about Piazza being a good defensive catcher who was discredited for a poor throwing arm. The fact is, Piazza is an awful catcher in nearly every facet. He did not call a good game, he did not block balls well, and he was very stiff behind the plate with jerky, rocklike hands. Pitchers lost a lot of borderline strikes because Piazza constantly over-framed and jerked the glove into the strike zone. Watch LoDuca, and you will see him simply hold a borderline strike right where it hits, occasionally just bringing it a hair into the zone. That’s good framing. Tom Glavine thought Questech was his bane when he came to Shea; he’ll find out this year it was Piazza, as LoDuca will coax strikes out of the majority of the borderline pitches.

I suppose I should say Xavier Nady’s hitting was a positive, but I just don’t like this guy’s bat; he looks streaky to me. Which is fine as long as he’s hot. But I’m just too much a Victor Diaz fan to give the X man credit just yet. Nady will have to really impress me, through July, to win me over.

Useless notes

I can’t decide what looks worse: Carlos Beltran’s hair or his cheesy wannabe goatee.

And what is the story with some of the ballplayers having facial hair? I thought that was a no-no in Willie’s Yankeeology. (Willie’s mustache looks really cheesy too … he needs to get rid of that with Victor Conte back in the spotlight.)

Further to the point, the Nats’ Nick Johnson has a really bad cheesy mustache himself. It looks so out of place, or like a stick-on. Meanwhile, Carlos Delgado looks like a teenager sans goatee.

Delgado, in fact, doesn’t look “right” to me. Not sure what it is, exactly. Maybe his uniform is too loose. Or maybe it’s the lack of facial hair. Or that stupid new vented helmet. His bat speed looks awesome: he’s going to hit some bombs this year. There’s just something about his appearance that’s not right. I’m wondering if someone gave him Mo Vaughn’s old uniform, and he was wearing longjohn layers underneath to keep warm.

Anyway, that’s game one. I call ’em as I see ’em.