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04 | April | 2007 | Mets Today
Archive: April 4th, 2007

Game 3: Win

Mets 10 Cardinals 0

Talk about breaking it open.

Behind the spectacular pitching of John Maine, it appeared that the Mets would grind out another good-baseball, well-executed win against their former closer Braden Looper. What began as a pitchers’ duel quickly became a laugher as Looper fatigued in the sixth, and the St. Louis relief corps was pounded and pillaged by the Mets’ batters.

The Mets exploded for ten runs over innings six through eight, highlighted by two homeruns by Carlos Beltran and another by Jose Reyes. Three runs in the sixth gave Maine his first lead, two more in the seventh added insurance, then another five in the eighth put the game away for good. Five Met batters had at least two hits in the game, and Beltran and Reyes combined for seven RBI. Even Shawn Green was impressive, stroking two hits and driving in a run. I guess he’s bought himself another day before being run off the team by the Milledgers.

John Maine was beyond impressive, spotting his 90-MPH fastball at the knees and mixing in an effective assortment of change-ups and sliders, keeping the Cardinals guessing all night long. Clearly, this was not the same pitcher who dominated them in the NLCS — in fact, he was much better. The “old” Maine was quite predictable: fastball, fastball, fastball. The new Maine was anything but. In addition, Maine was remarkably efficient for most of the game, averaging between ten and 12 pitches per inning through the first six innings. His only “bad” inning was the fifth, when he allowed a leadoff single to Scott Rolen followed by a walk to Jim Edmonds. That was the closest the Cardinals came to a rally, as Maine mowed down the St. Louis batters from that point forward. When it was all said and done, Maine pitched seven innings, allowing one hit and two walks, and striking out six. He threw 97 pitches, 65 for strikes.

While Maine was the main story on the mound, it was good to see was Ambiorix Burgos making his Mets debut. Burgos pitched a perfect eighth, striking out one. He threw 13 pitches, 10 for strikes.

Also making his Mets debut was Aaron Sele, whose performance was nearly as auspicious. He struck out the first batter he faced (David Eckstein), gave up a long double to Chris Duncan, came right back to strike out Albert Pujols looking, then retired Scott Rolen on a weak ground ball. Two things struck me about his appearance: 1. he displayed a hellacious 12-6 curveball; and 2. he showed no fear in going right after Albert Pujols. Granted, he had a ten-run lead, but it’s surprising how many hurlers will still pitch around a Pujols or Bonds in that situation.

The Mets remain undefeated and in first place in the NL East. They have Thursday night off, then travel to Atlanta to begin a three-game weekend series against the Braves. Friday night’s game begins at 7:35 PM and pits Oliver Perez vs. Mark Redman.


Mets Chemistry and Continuity

It seems like all the pundits are trying to look smart by picking the Phillies or the Braves to win the NL East, based on the changes those teams made to “improve” their respective squads. The prognosticators point to the additions of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano to the Braves’ bullpen as indicative of why the Braves will win more games in 2007, and praise the Phils for adding Freddy Garcia to their starting rotation. Furthermore, they point to Omar Minaya’s “disappointing” offseason as evidence that the Mets will take a step backward.

Let the predictors outsmart themselves … they seem to have discounted an incredibly valuable aspect of the 2007 Mets: continuity.

While it’s true that Omar was unable to land Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa, Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan, or any other starting pitcher this past winter, it didn’t necessarily make the offseason a failure. One positive that came out of the winter was that the 2006 NL East Champion roster returned mostly intact — the only players lost were Cliff Floyd, Chris Woodward, Michael Tucker, Chad Bradford, and Darren Oliver. In other words, the roster retained everyone except one guy who played half a season, two bench players and two bullpen guys. The Opening Day lineup was nearly identical to the one that breezed through the NLDS and nearly won the NLCS. How many other teams can claim that kind of continuity?

Part of the reason there weren’t significant changes to the roster was simple — change wasn’t needed! The Mets were that good. Why mess with success? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

There’s something to be said for retention — and change is not always better. In all sports, championship teams tend to be the ones that keep a core of players who practice winning habits. Turnover tends to be low, and the core players instill the team’s winning values into the few newcomers. Look at any team that was successful over a period of 3-5 or ten years and you will notice consistency in the roster. For example, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s and 70s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, the Yankees of the 1990s — all these teams had very little turnover from one year to the next, and as a result cultivated a winning culture.

The Mets are following the same plan. Omar and co. have assembled an outstanding group of ballplayers who are both talented and know how to win — i.e., through preparation, attitude, and execution. Playing together for a year, they’ve learned to trust each other, lean on each other, and pick each other up. They’ve also followed team-first formulas that result in wins — for example, Paul LoDuca dropping a sac bunt, Carlos Beltran lifting a sacrifice fly, and David Wright making contact on a hit-and-run. The small things can be executed with the confidence that the next guy will also do his job, and everyone can focus on their small tasks that, when accumulated, create a victory.

Not to be discounted is the improvement of overall team defense, simply by staying together. We’re already seeing the benefits of keeping Jose Valentin and Jose Reyes around the keystone — they each know exactly where the other will be when turning double plays. Similarly, Carlos Delgado knows exactly which way David Wright’s throws tail, depending on where he fields the ball. Wright, in turn, is learning how much ground to the left he needs to cover, with Jose Reyes next to him. Reyes and Valentin know how far into the outfield they need to be to set up for cutoffs for Beltran, Green, and Chavez. Paul LoDuca knows whether a particular pitcher has the time and skill to field a particular bunt and throw out the advancing runner. These are all seemingly small things, but when they’re all added up, can mean the difference in a dozen ballgames over the course of a season. Anyone who watched the Atlanta Braves play every day from 1991-2005 can support this claim.

In the first two games of the 2007 season, the Mets did not win via spectacular means. Despite their supposedly overpowering lineup, there were no dramatic homeruns nor a string of exta-base hits. Rather, they worked cohesively — as a team — in both grinding out runs and preventing the opponent from scoring. Good pitching, strong defense, team hitting — a boring formula, but it works.

In the meantime, the new players on the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are being introduced to their respective programs, getting a handle on what their new managers’ expect from them, learning the habits of their new teammates, and generally trying to fit in to their new surroundings. While the “new and improved” Phillies and Braves work out the kinks and try to build a team chemistry, the old and familiar, unchanged Mets will be quietly racking up wins.