Browsing Archive October, 2006

Mets Preparation

So the Mets lost to the Cardinals … they couldn’t score several runs off surfer dude Jeff Weaver. What went wrong?

Perhaps it is an issue with the Mets’ advance scouts — or the inability to decipher their reports — and the remarkable ability of the Cardinals to have their defense properly positioned on every batter for every pitch.

It seemed like every time a Met batter hit the ball hard, there was a Cardinal moving less than two inches to snare the line drive or grounder. It’s been happening the entire series, so much so that it can not be discounted as “luck”. Rather, the Cardinals did an exhaustive job scouting the Mets’ hitters, preparing their pitchers, and directing their defense accordingly. Every Cardinal on the diamond was in perfect sync, moving a step to the left or right with every pitch.

Conversely, the Mets seemed to be constantly out of position, particularly with the right side of the field — Delgado, Valentin, and Green. Maybe those specific players looked out of position because they’re older and don’t have the legs and range of a younger player. But it seemed to me like no one on the field had any idea who the batter was, where he tended to hit the ball, nor how the Met pitcher was planning to attack him. No matter where Green played, he was yards and yards away from where the ball was hit — so he’s either getting awful jumps or he’s not positioned properly. Likewise, there have been at least half a dozen balls that went past Jose Valentin — not because his range is poor, but because he was so far away that even Roberto Alomar in his prime would not have gotten to the ball. That tells me he doesn’t know the hitters AND he doesn’t know where the pitcher is throwing the ball.

While Willie Randolph and his formidable coaching staff are supposedly tireless in their preparation, we’re not seeing the fruits in this postseason. So that means one of three things: 1. they’re not working that hard; 2. they’re worker harder instead of better; or 3. they’re doing a good job of preparation but the players aren’t listening and executing.

I’m not sure, but I doubt it’s the fault of a few people. Rather, it looks to be an organization-wide issue. The scouting staff is not doing a good job of scouting and/or communicating. The coaching staff is not doing a good job of preparing the players. The players are not executing based on the information given.

This last game, against Jeff Weaver, was a microcosm of the Mets’ inability to execute an offensive plan. This is nothing new, as the Mets have never shown any kind of plan at bat, other than waiting for extra-base hits. If a Met hitter went up to the plate thinking he was a small part of a systematic approach to score runs, Jeff Weaver would never have lasted past the third inning. The numnut, Cardinal-loving Fox broadcasters can spew and gush all they want about how Weaver pitched a “great game”, but the fact is, the Mets had him on the ropes early and often, and could not put the hammer down. Rather than being patient, or stroking the ball to the opposite field, they swung from their heels on nearly every pitch. Even Paul LoDuca, who all year has been the lone “team hitter”, was swinging at questionable pitches early in counts. And Shawn Green, who in the last game did such a great job of dropping a ball into left field, was instead swinging for the fence with men on second and third and one out. Wake up Shawn, it’s not 2002, you’re not 29 anymore. You’re on the wrong side of 30, you’re not on HGH, and your bat is slow, so go back to slapping line drives the other way with men in scoring position. Same goes to Jose Valentin. These men have the skills, the sense, and the wherewithal to be “team hitters”, but their minds are clouded with visions of heroism. It’s up to Willie Randolph and the coaching staff to properly prepare these guys with a specific, TEAM plan, and then it’s up to the players to execute as a team.

Luckily, the Cardinals must come into our house for the series end. The Mets must win one game at Shea, on Wednesday, and there is no reason why they can’t do it. Then, they must win one game, on Thursday, in order to face the Tigers on the weekend. The 3-2 advantage means nothing — the Mets’ decision to create a game plan and follow it means everything.

John Maine vs. Chris Carpenter. Let’s make some noise and rock the house, Shea faithful.

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Trachsel Messes the Bed

Steve Trachsel did everything he could to completely deject and demoralize his teammates and Mets fans as quickly as possible, and was 100 percent successful in attaining that goal.

I’m not sure what is most painful — watching Trashel pitch, watching David Eckstein foul off pitches, or listening to the most annoying broadcast team of all time (Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, and ‘man-on-the-spot’ Ken Rosenthal).

I was kind of hoping McCarver would say, just one more time, that Darren Oliver should have been replaced by a pinch-hitter in the sixth. Then I could have thrown a beer can through my TV screen and been spared the agony of watching the last three innings of the game.

Hmm… Tim, maybe you haven’t seen the Mets play this year? Maybe you hadn’t noticed that Oliver Perez is not the Oliver Perez of 2004? Willie Randolph was COMPLETELY correct in leaving Darren Oliver in the game, and keeping the bullpen fresh — because until the Mets batters showed some semblance of re-entering their minds into the game, it made sense to treat this game as a giveaway to the Cardinals. The Mets’ current roster was not built to try to come back from a Tracshel disaster — their only recourse was to give up the game and figure out a way to win Game Four. It sounds idiotic, and perhaps defeatist, but over the long run, it’s the Mets’ best chance to win a seven-game series without Pedro, El Duque, and Dave Williams.

Here’s the logic. Oliver Perez starts Game Four. If Perez does not somehow pull lightning out of a bottle and come up with a superb outing, then the Mets need to go into panic mode again. They have to pray that Perez can get through three or four innings without too much damage, then go to the bullpen for the rest of the game — similar to what was done with the Maine start. And then they need Glavine to pitch another 7-inning masterpiece.

What numnut McCarver doesn’t realize is that the Mets need all of their bullpen arms to be fresh and ready to enter the game from the 3rd inning on for the Perez start, and again in the sixth for the Glavine start. So there’s no point in wearing out valuable bullpen arms in a game that the team has already given up on.

Because that’s exactly what happened. Trashel fell behind 2-0 after the first inning, which wasn’t so bad, except that Jeff Suppan was looking dominant from his first pitch of the game. But when Trash gave up a homerun to Suppan — on an 0-2 pitch no less — the game was over. The miniscule 3-0 lead meant nothing compared to the overall feeling it created among the Mets team. Trashel has a way of not just losing games, but completely demoralizing his own team, of letting the air out of the Mets’ collective balloon. Willie Randolph was smart enough to see the air leak out, and recognize that there was no chance of the team coming back from a five-run deficit against a confident Suppan who was supported by unbelievably perfect positioning by the fielders behind him. Suppan made perfect pitches, and the fielders were perfectly placed. It’s hard to crack that kind of a defense.

So after Trashel shat the bed, our hopes for a World Series appearance are now pinned squarely on the fragile shoulders of Oliver Perez. Let’s pray that the 2004 edition shows up for the game.

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Mota Blows It

Cardinals 9 Mets 6

Sure, look at the game from the surface and blame Billy Wagner for the loss. However, the game was lost by Guillermo Mota, who refused to hit the target Paul LoDuca insisted on — twice — and allowed a below-average Major League batsman to beat him.

Scott Spiezio was sitting on the fastball in. Regardless of his bullcrap comment after the game — that he was “sitting on everything” — Spiezio was looking fastball in. That’s why LoDuca called for a fastball OUT on 0-2, twice in a row. The first time, Mota missed the target and threw in, and Spiezio jacked a 97-MPH fastball foul into the right field stands. LoDuca, perhaps thinking maybe Mota did not understand where he wanted the ball, reiterated that he wanted the fastball OUT. Mota pretended to understand, then proceeded to throw another fastball in the exact same spot — down and in — and Spiezio sat on it again and nearly put it over the right field wall. The end result was a two-run triple to tie the game, and ultimately move the momentum to the friggin’ Cardinals.

So, yes, again, Wagner did blow the game, but I for one am not a guy who likes the idea of bringing in Billy in anything other than a save situation. He doesn’t seem to have the same edge unless it is such. Sure, as a professional pitcher getting paid $13M per year, you better be at top form no matter the situation, but in reality that isn’t the case, and manager Willie Randolph has to make moves accordingly. Wagner has proven to be ineffective when the team is up by more than three, when behind, and when tied. Of course, you can’t hang this one on Mr. Willie, as he did what a home team manager is supposed to do. And in fact, he didn’t have much of a choice — when you have a thirteen-million-dollar closer, you use him in that situation. What is he supposed to do, bring in Bert Hernandez or Darren Oliver? Not likely.

And now the Mets are in a deep hole. Instead of taking advantage of scoring five runs in five innings off “ace” Chris Carpenter at Shea, the Mets blew a golden opportunity to go up two-zip and instead gave the Cardinals precious momentum going home to St. Louis. So, instead of putting pressure on the Cards, the Mets now have their backs against the wall, going to the Cardinals’ house for three straight with Steve Trash-sel, Oliver Perez, and Tom Glavine on three days’ rest — not exactly a situation providing optimism. Trash or Oliver has to pitch the game of his life in order to bring the series back to Shea, as we can’t count on Glavine throwing a third consecutive gem on three days’ rest.

Similarly, it’s going to be hard to believe that the Mets’ offense is going to erupt for the six to eight runs needed to win over the weekend. First, they will be fighting the momentum of the Cardinals’ win at Shea, which cannot be underestimated — momentum is EVERYTHING in baseball. Second, other than Carlos Delgado and one swing by Carlos Beltran, the Mets as a team are not especially frightening thus far. Yes, Jose Reyes, Paul LoDuca, and Shawn Green are sprinkling singles here and there, but the firepower that branded the Mets offense has so far been nonexistent. I’m talking about the extra-base hits, the doubles in the gap, the Jose Reyes triples, and the blasts over the wall … we’re not seeing them. David Wright, in particular, has been remarkably invisible at the plate, swinging at first pitches too often and not getting good wood on the ball. Also, Jose Valentin is having such poor at-bats, Mr. Willie might consider giving the anemic-hitting Anderson Hernandez a start.

One Valentin appearance that drove me nuts came in the bottom of the third, with the score tied 4-4. After Carlos Delgado grounded out to start the inning, David Wright walked on five pitches, then Shawn Green fell behind 0-2 before working a walk. This at-bat by Green should have been a game-changer, as he fought Chris Carpenter tooth and nail through a ten-pitch at-bat that put runners on first and second. After all that effort, Jose Valentin grounded the first pitch he saw into an inning-ending double play. Casual fans might not think much about that sequence, but anyone who knows baseball knows that the Mets had Carpenter on the ropes at that point, and Valentin had no business swinging at the first pitch — under any circumstance. If it’s Beltran or Delgado batting, I’d say, OK, take a rip if you think you can put it over the wall, but after walking two straight batters, and losing a mentally and physically fatiguing battle to the second one, you absolutely MUST force the pitcher to throw at least another two pitches. It may seem like a tiny detail but in fact it is small things like this which meant he difference between a win or a loss. Who knows, if Valentin doesn’t swing at that pitch, he might have either drawn another walk, to put Carpenter into a deeper hole, or gotten an even better pitch, one to rip and drive in one or two runs. Especially with Valentin struggling the way he has recently, he needs to be smarter in that situation … as it was he completely wasted a fine at-bat by Green.

On Saturday night we have Trachsel against Suppan in a battle of mediocrity, with Suppan getting the edge for his ability to perform at home. Trax needs to come up with a Kenny Rogers-like performance to keep the Mets in the game.

By the way, I officially hate David Eckstein, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Yadier Molina, Scott Spiezio, So Taguchi, and Scott Rolen nearly as much as I used to hate Jack Clark, Terry Pendleton, Willie McGee, Andy Van Slyke, Tito Landrum, Tommy Herr, and John Tudor.

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Glavine, Beltran Come Up Big

Mets 2 Cardinals 0

The New York Mets had to get a vintage Tom Glavine performance, one where Tommy goes deep into the game, is efficient with his pitches, and pitches just well enough to win. The veteran lefthander succeeded on all three counts.

The St. Louis Cardinals — Albert Pujols included — were unable to get good wood on Glavine’s slop all game, as Tommy cruised through seven marvelous innings. Perhaps as important as Glavine’s ability to preserve the bullpen was getting out of the game in under 90 pitches, as it looks as though he’ll need to pitch on three days’ rest.

While Tom Glavine produced another stellar, clutch performance, Carlos Beltran did the same, rocketing a Jeff Weaver fastball off the scoreboard to give the Mets the only runs they needed. This is the stuff of which New York legends are made. A few more blasts like that and you will never again hear Beltran booed in Flushing.

Beltran’s homerun was inevitable, as he looked very comfortable in the box against Jeff Weaver in every at-bat, getting good swings and making solid contact all game. In fact, even when Weaver snuck a strike past him, it appeared to be a gift from home plate umpire Tim Welke — who was easily a ‘pitcher’s umpire’ for both sides throughout the game. Welke continually gave Weaver the sinker dying over the outside corner, but it was only a matter of time before Weaver made a mistake with a ball that got too much of the plate. It finally happened in the sixth, when Beltran got all of a flat fastball and deposited it over the right-field wall.

Weaver clearly took the Mets’ batters by surprise in this ballgame, changing several aspects of his style. First, he was aggressive, going right after the strike zone (although, it could be argued that Welke was giving him a lot of strikes). Second, he changed his arm angle, throwing more over the top. Third, and as part of the arm angle, he was mixing in changeups and overhand curveballs. Up until last night, Weaver has always been a three-quarter / sidearm sinker-slider pitcher who got into trouble because he couldn’t change speeds and nibbled off the corners. How Jeff Weaver was able to make an overnight transformation is a testament to Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan’s ability to get the most out of his hurlers. Either that or an investigation needs to be initiated to determine if, in fact, it was Jeff Weaver out on the mound and not his brother Jered.

Glavine’s performance was all-important for several reasons. First, he’s the only legitimate playoff starter the Mets have, and it was vital for the Mets’ psyche for him to step up, be an ace, and give the Mets a 1-0 lead in the NLCS. Imagine what would be going on in the Mets’ minds if they were unable to take the first game, at home, with their best starter, facing a journeyman like Jeff Weaver? How much confidence would the Mets have today against Chris Carpenter facing off against rookie John Maine? In contrast, Glavine’s win last night puts the Mets in an excellent position to overtake Carpenter, who suddenly has momentum and the Shea stadium fans against him. The pressure is squarely on Carpenter’s shoulders, as the Cardinals do not want to go home down 2-0 with their best pitcher not throwing again until — or if — the series returns to New York.

That said, I’m liking the way this Carpenter thing is shaking out, and surprised Tony LaRussa didn’t stick with his original plan to save his ace for St. Louis. While its understandable to want to throw your ace early in a series, and not want to fall behind 2-0. However, Carpenter is a MUCH better pitcher in his home ballpark. How much? His home ERA is 1.81 and his away ERA is 4.72 — that’s just about THREE RUNS PER GAME. And the past few years have been similar, so it’s not a one-year phenomenon.

Another thing to consider are the teams Carpenter has faced this year, en route to his sparkling record. In interleague play, he drew the Tigers, Indians, and Royals, shutting down the Indians but getting rocked by the Royals and Tigers. Against the NL he faced the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds four times each — significantly padding his ERA and won-loss record against these hitless wonders. Remarkably, the Cubs had the highest batting average of these four teams — hitting .268 — but that’s nullified by the fact they were second-to-last in the NL in runs scored (the Pirates were last). While there’s no question that Chris Carpenter is one of the better pitchers in the NL, there’s also no question that his stellar numbers have been boosted by pitching against anemic offenses.

One thing that is of concern, however, is the fact that Carpenter has not faced the Mets at all this year. Historically, the Mets have struggled mightily against pitchers they’ve never seen before — though generally those pitchers have been rookies. There’s no clear explanation for the Mighty Mets making guys like Billy Traber and Hong-Chih Kuo look like Sandy Koufax, but hopefully the issue lies with incomplete scouting reports on youngsters, and it is something won’t be an issue with an established veteran such as Chris Carpenter.

Whatever the reason, the Mets need to invert their performance against first-seen starters and pound Carpenter early in Game Two. Based on the aforementioned facts, it seems plausible, especially when you add in Carpenter’s more human numbers against lefties, and the Mets’ lefty-heavy lineup. Now if the Mets do get to Carpenter, and John Maine can put up a late-July-type performance, the Mets have a chance to go up 2-0. Should that happen, the momentum going into St. Louis might be too much for LaRussa’s bunch (Pujols is already cracking under the pressure), and this series might not return to New York.

Let’s hope that it can be that easy.

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Mets to Meet Cardinals

While Yankee fans cry, kick, hiss, and moan, contemplating whether Joe Torre should be shot or A-Rod exiled, we Mets fans will ride this posteason high as far as it will take us.

Let’s face it … with Pedro and El Duque done, Cliff Floyd barely able to walk, and John Maine suddenly our #2 starter, we should be overjoyed that the Mets have made it this far, and we should have zero expectations here forward. In other words, whatever the Metropolitans do in the next two weeks is gravy.

That’s not a pessimistic view — it’s reality. In fact, the Mets have a very good chance of getting past the Cardinals, a team that is similarly banged up and literally limped into the postseason. You need to look no further than the Game One pitching matchup to see a bright light of optimism: Tom Glavine facing Jeff Weaver. Weaver had been outright released by the Angels for poor performance, and wasn’t exactly a ringer for St. Louis, either. The Cardinals, desperate for a warm body after giving up on Sidney Ponson, put Weaver on the mound every five days for no other reason than they felt Adam Wainwright wasn’t ready to leave the bullpen. As it was, the decision was a good one, as the Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen had a season-ending injury — and Wainwright has taken over the role.

With Weaver starting Game One, Izzy out for the year, and Wainwright vacating the all-important seventh and eighth innings, this series is more likely to be a battle of the bats before becoming an arms race. Considering that the Mets are as close to being an American League lineup as an NL team can be, this bodes well for the Flushing faithful. Even against Albert Pujols, I like our chances in a seven game series slugfest.

As we know, the Mets’ lineup is heavily lefty. Luckily, the Cardinals’ best lefty — Mark Mulder — is also out for the year. They do, however, have two tough lefties in the ‘pen Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson … and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both appear in every single game. Outside of lefty vs. lefty matchups, I don’t see the Mets having a hard time with the Cardinals’ pitchers … manager Tony LaRussa will be pulling them faster than a Budweiser salesman can restock shelves with new aluminum cans.

There’s no doubt that Chris Carpenter will shut down the Mets in his start. However, we likely won’t see him until Game Three, we won’t see him more than twice, and we can still win those games if he doesn’t finish what he starts. Though the Cards’ have lefty depth in the bullpen, and Adam Wainwright is looking like the second coming of Jon Papelbon as a closer, St. Louis doesn’t have much else to be nervous about. To give you an idea of their middle relief, I give you two words: Braden Looper. That’s right, Looper is their top setup man. ’nuff said.

So the goal for the Mets should be to use the home field advantage and the favorable pitching matchups in the first two games, and get off to a quick 2-0 start. Glavine needs to be good, but he shouldn’t need to be great, to win Game One. If the Mets batters and New York City fans don’t intimidate and obliterate Jeff Weaver within four innings, then we have no business winning the NLCS. Assuming that, as long as Glavine doesn’t have one of those unusual meltdowns — such as we saw in Atlanta in late July — then Game One should be a gimme.

Game Two pits our most reliable starter — John Maine — against John Maine six years from now, in the image of Jeff Suppan. Though we would love to see a return of some of the Maine magic we saw in August, all we need is a solid five-inning stint and a typical bullpen performance to take the game. Again, we’re assuming that the bats will manhandle journeyman Jeff.

After Game Two, things start to get scary. We’ll have Steve Trachsel against the best pitcher in the NL, Chris Carpenter, and then Oliver Perez against, presumably, mini-Trax, Jason Marquis. If we concede Game Three to the Almighty Carpenter, and understand that Game Four with Perez is an absolute crapshoot (with more crap than shoot likely), then Games One and Two become intensely more important — especially considering that Game Five will also be in St. Louis.

If we can come back to New York either up 3-2 or down 2-3, I have faith we’ll win two in New York and go to the World Series. It won’t be easy, and bullpen will be completely burned out, but we can do it. Obviously, anything can happen, and who knows, maybe Oliver Perez finally lets the lightning out of the bottle again and pitches a five-hit shutout, like he did against the Braves on September 6th. Or maybe Carpenter proves to be fallible, or injures himself trying to field a bunt, and we take Game Three.

Regardless of what happens in St. Louis, it is of utmost importance that the Mets strike first and take the first two games at Shea. The two-game advantage puts the Mets in a position to win even if they are swept in St. Louis, as they have enough pitching depth and offense to wear out the Cards in a seven-game series.

Willie, this Bud’s for you … let’s crush the Cards like an aluminum can (or, er, aluminum bottle?)

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John Maine vs. the Dodgers

Just when we thought our greatest fears had been realized — that Pedro would miss the postseason — El Duque followed him to the sidelines. Before, there was concern that Steve Trachsel might have to pitch in a playoff game, but now, we can’t imagine what we’d do without him — and even he is somewhat questionable after a mysterious trip home that kept him from making his tune-up start and doing his throwing sessions.

Amazing how quickly things can change — the Mets went from the out-and-out favorite to plow through the NL playoffs to a 30-1 underdog in a matter of 48 hours.

Strangely, I like it.

As a Mets fan, I have to echo the feelings of Matthew Cerone, who recently said in his blog the following:

“…this frazzled, worried, sort-of-underdog vibe that surrounds the team right is something i am far more comfortable with…i’m not used to being a fan of the ‘class of the national league,’ as so many experts have been saying…i’m not used to seeing my team as the favorites…

…i’m far more comfortable having my back against the wall, and pulling off miracles for timeless memories… ”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. To be a Mets fan is to be the antithesis of the Yankee fan: expect nothing, love your team regardless of on-field performance, and maybe be returned with some unbelievable joy once a decade.

True Mets fans were not the ones booing Carlos Beltran and Jorge Julio during Opening Day ceremonies. Rather, they are the sons and daughters and grandchildren of Mets fans who once winced through Marvelous Marv Throneberry losing a grounder in the sun, watched Jimmy Piersall trot around the bases backwards on a home run, and suffered with Roger Craig through 24 losses in one season. All through the bumbling and incompetence, the original Mets fans cheered with passion, turning nondescript players into their own lovable heroes. Only the Mets could field a team with a Choo Choo and a Hot Rod, a Rusty and a Tug, a Mookie and a Kong.

Are you a true Mets fan? If you associate the word “franchise” with Tom Seaver before McDonald’s, identify “the Hammer” as John Milner rather than Hank Aaron, remember Frank Thomas as a white outfielder rather than a black DH, and Tim Leary as pitcher rather than a doctor dropping LSD, then you’re probably a true Mets fan. If you once believed Doug Flynn deserved a Gold Glove, Jose Oquendo would never hit, and J.C. Martin should have given his World Series share to his shoe shiner, then you’re most likely a true Mets fan.

We, as Mets fans, are more accustomed to finishing in 8th place one year, then surprising everyone as World Champions the next. We prefer to win a division with an 82-80 record than with wins in the triple digits. We like to go to the World Series as the wildcard entry. Even when the Mets dominated in 1986, it was necessary to fall behind in both the NLCS and the World Series … otherwise, it just wouldn’t have felt right.

That’s why, after pulverizing the competition in 2006, Pedro had to go. El Duque had to go down. Steve Trachsel had to disappear. Cliff Floyd needs to hobble. Without the adversity, there can be no magic … and without the magic, they can’t be the Mets.

If Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez were 100% and throwing bullets, Omar Minaya had pulled off a deal for Roy Oswalt or Barry Zito, and Cliff Floyd had just finished a season like 2005, this would not be a true Mets team going into the posteason … it would be another overpaid, obnoxiously talented New York team expected to blast through the underprivileged rest of the league. New York must have two teams — the Yankees and the Mets — and there must be differentiation between the two. Thus, the Yankees must be, well, the Yankees, and the Mets must be the lovable, overachieving, magical underdogs.

Which brings us to John Maine. He fits the story perfectly. When was the last time a Game One starter for a New York team took the subway to the game? Maine is inexperienced, unassuming, and ordinary. Even some Mets fans — albeit casual fans — don’t know who he is. He throws an average fastball, an average changeup, and an average curveball. Fittingly, he’s pitching at four o’clock, a time when most baseball fans are still at work, and few expect him to still be in the game by the time they get home. If he is, he might not be noticed, as fans will be busy preparing and/or eating dinner. In all likelihood, he’ll be removed from the game just as the pizza guy arrives, and when you finally sit down in front of the TV, Chad Bradford will be pitching. And you’ll look at the score and see Mets 4 Dodgers 3, and wonder how the heck the Mets pulled that off. Not an issue, though, as you’ll find out later via ESPN, SNY, MetsBlog, and/or the DVR. Naturally, the Mets bullpen will mow down the Dodgers in innings seven through nine, and John Maine will emerge as the unknown hero.

How will Maine do this with his average repertoire, his ordinary skills? Magic — Mets Magic. True Mets fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Meet Your Foe: the Dodgers

The New York Mets’ first-round foe is the Los Angeles Dodgers, which may be baseball’s version of Lieutenant Columbo — a group of rough-around-edges, unsuspecting ballplayers in trenchcoats who don’t look so fearsome to you until your three-game series with them is over and they’ve won two.

The Dodgers have little flash — no dominant ace pitcher, no big slugger, and a bullpen closer that no one right of the Pacific has ever heard of. Their Game One starter is Derek Lowe, a guy we know to be pretty good, but no one to fear. There’s a good chance their cleanup hitter will be Jeff Kent, who is well past his prime and had less than 70 RBI this year. In fact, their top homerun hitters were Nomar Garciaparra and JD Drew, who both hit 20. Despite Drew’s home run prowess and team-leading 100 RBI, there’s a chance he won’t be a starter in the OF in every game, as manager Grady Little has lately been depending on no-name rookies Jason Repko, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier.

Little has a fourth rookie, James Loney, who went 4-5 with 9 RBI in a crucial game at the end of the season — but will probably have him riding the pine while Garciaparra plays first base.

Speaking of, in Garciaparra, Julio Lugo, and Wilson Betemit, the Dodgers have three natural shortstops not playing shortstop because that’s where Rafael Furcal plays.

For all their quirks, the Los Angeles Dodgers (of Los Angeles) have played very competitive baseball from game one through 162, and despite their lack of a Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols, may very well have a better offensive team than anyone in the NL — including our beloved Mets.

Consider this: the Dodgers finished the year with 820 runs scored to the Mets’ 832. That’s not a huge difference — in fact, its negligible. Bottom line is, both teams average five runs per game. The Dodgers’ OPS is .781 to the Mets .780 — you can’t get much closer than that. Of more concern, offensively speaking, is the fact that the Dodgers walk slightly more often (3.7 per game to the Mets’ 3.3), and strike out significantly less frequently (5.9 to 6.7). If by chance this five-game series becomes an arms race, it would appear the Dodgers have a slight edge in their ability to create runs.

And as they say, it is pitching that wins in the playoffs. The Mets have a slightly better ERA — 4.14 to 4.23 — and struck out close to 100 more batters than the Dodgers, while walking 25 more. So far, it looks like a dead heat. Except for one glaring statistic: home runs allowed. The Mets have allowed 180 home runs this year, while the Dodgers limited opponents to 152 — less than one per game and the best rate in the Major Leagues.

Comparing the statistical lines, the teams do look very similar in nearly every category, except in the case of home runs. The Mets hit many, the Dodgers hit few. However, the Dodgers allow few, the Mets allow many. The Dodgers also have scored nearly as many runs without hitting the long ball, and in fact led the NL in batting average. So if the Mets somehow are able to keep LA from hitting homers, it likely will not affect their offensive production — they’ve been scoring that way all year. Conversely, if the Dodgers’ legion of groundball specialists can deny the Mets’ batted balls from taking flight, our Metropolitans may struggle to score runs. As you might imagine, the Dodgers also tend to turn a lot of double plays; in fact they were third in the Majors in that category, turning 174. By contrast, the Mets were 27th, with 134. These last stats feed further suspicion that the Mets may have their hands full with the Dodgers.

What does it all mean? Well, if you believe that regular-season statistics are an indicator of how a team will perform in the postseason, then this series between the Mets and Dodgers can easily go either way. In fact, it appears that unless the Mets are able to hit home runs against a staff that allowed the least amount in MLB, the Dodgers may have the edge. Even if the Mets are able to build rallies by getting on base, the numbers suggest that runners will be erased by double plays. So if the Mets offense is, in effect, grounded (pardon the pun), the only way they’ll get through this short series is via outstanding pitching — the kind that allows two, one, or no runs. Unfortunately, the tandem of El Duque, Tom Glavine, and Steve Trachsel doesn’t look up to the task. If this were five years ago, maybe, but in 2006, it’s asking quite a bit from two has-beens and one never-was.

For once, I hope Lt. Columbo is unable to crack the case.

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Game 162: Win

Mets 6 Nationals 2

Nice to finish the year on a high note.

The most important issues to address in the final game of the season were as follows: get all the relievers some work; get Cliff Floyd some at-bats; finish with a momentum- and confidence-building win.

Check, check, check.

Uncle Cliffy was inserted as the leadoff man for probably the first and last time in his life, for the sole purpose of maximizing at-bats. Despite his problems with his heel and ankle, our lovable Glass Joe managed to tough it out and looked pretty good at the plate. While he didn’t look fantastic, and we know a strained eyelid can keep him on the bench, he did look healthy enough to make some kind of contribution to the playoffs. With the way Endy Chavez has played this year (and of late), Floyd’s status isn’t much of a concern. It will be great to have Cliff in the starting lineup, but won’t be so bad to have Endy’s defense in the game and Cliff’s big bat waiting to pinch hit.

All the vital bullpen arms sans Billy Wagner got their last-minute tune-ups in, with Aaron Heilman the only one to give up a run. It was actually somewhat of a relief for Heilman to allow a run; it seemed like he was due to allow one, and better now than against the Dodgers.

Notes

Shawn Green, Jose Valentin, and David Wright all swung the bat well, with Valentin going 3-3. Since Valentin and Green had been struggling a bit in the last week or so, they picked a great time to get back into the groove.

Somewhat lost in the game was the performance of Oliver Perez, which was very good. He pitched four strong innings, allowing one run on five hits and a walk, with four strikeouts. Perez was especially dominating the first two innings, throwing with precision and efficiency. He struck out two and threw just 21 pitches in those first two, and looked to be on a roll. His third inning was also strong, though not quite as efficient, and the fourth wasn’t awful, despite giving up a run. With Pedro out and a heap of pressure on Steve Trachsel, adding Perez to the roster might not be such a bad idea. While I don’t know that I’d trust him to start a game and count on him going seven innings, he could fill a meaningful role as a 2- or 3-inning reliever. In fact, if things get desperate, I would not be afraid to use him exactly as he was used in this game — as a four-inning starter. Both Perez and John Maine have shown to be strong pitchers the first time through a lineup, so why not combine the two for a fourth starter, if necessary? Yes, it’s unorthodox and unheard-of, but so was the idea of “setup relief” not so long ago. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and are often the mother of invention. With only two legitimate playoff starters — and both El Duque and Tom Glavine could be considered shaky as well — it might be worth trying something crazy to get through a playoff game. Personally, I’d have more faith in giving the first six innings of a game to a Perez-Maine combo than to Steve Trachsel.

We’ll see how it all shakes out very shortly … let the REAL season begin !

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