Browsing Archive July, 2007

No Deal with Pirates

Not that there was any offer on the table, or any talks between Omar Minaya and Pittsburgh GM Dave Littlefield, but I’m going to make a preemptive statement regarding any trade with the Pirates: no thanks.

While last year’s deadline deal seems to have been a boon for both teams (no, we didn’t fleece the Bucs out of Ollie, as their cleanup hitter Xavier Nady is one of their few offensive forces), there appears to be no possibility of a similarly win-win trade this time around.

The Pirates have no chance of accomplishing anything this year, and are holding three middle relievers hostage (Damaso Marte, Salomon Torres, Shawn Chacon), and are dangling a few position players (Jose Castillo, Jack Wilson) on the market, it would not behoove Omar Minaya to try to obtain anyone currently in a Bucco uniform.

Why? The answer is simple: Dave Littlefield is currently playing the game of an annoying fantasy baseball owner. You know, that one guy in the league who’s always trying to pry Alex Rodriguez off your roster in return for Steve Trachsel and Julio Lugo? Yeah, that’s Littlefield this year.

Two cases in point:

1. The Pirates, woefully in need of a power hitter, and desperate to get one who is both young and relatively cheap, are offered Wily Mo Pena (ideal!). In return, Littlefield is asked to give up the 35-year-old, meltdown-waiting-to-happen Salomon Torres. A no brainer, right? After all, Torres has been in the doghouse since losing his closer job, and in addition has been a whiny be-otch about it. His current role with the Bucs is mopup man. Now, there’s no guarantee Pena will ever be the slugger everyone thinks, but he’s only 25 years old and has a 26-HR season behind him. What’s Littlefield’s response to the offer? “No thank you. Maybe if you could present a juicier package … ”

2. Littlefield offers good-field, no-hit Jack Wilson to the Blue Jays for Troy Glaus. And he was serious — he went so far as to pick up Cesar Izturis to play short with the idea such a deal would go down. There was no report on whether J.P. Ricciardi gave him an answer — if he was ever able to stop laughing. There’s a rumor that Ricciardi, in fact, laughed so hard at the proposal that he fell backward off his chair and was knocked unconscious — as a result, Littlefield thought that negotiations were still open, since J.P. never actually said “no”.

Would YOU want to deal with this joker?

Not a major loss, since the Pirates don’t really have much to offer the Mets. There was a time I thought maybe Torres would help, but certainly not at the price Littlefield has in his head. If he won’t take Wily Mo, what would he want? Milledge AND Gomez? David Wright? I’d hate to think what’s holding out for in regard to Marte, who’d be a better choice for the Mets’ bullpen.

With Ruben Gotay and Marlon Anderson playing well, and Damion Easley back, there’s no reason to gamble on Jose Castillo. Thank goodness, because it would likely cost Mike Pelfrey. Even the rumbles about the injured Zach Duke — or Ian Snell — being “available” don’t interest me anymore, knowing that the price is astronomical. Let the Pirates peddle with someone else, we’ll deal with more realistic GMs.

Teixeira to the Braves?

This one has me worried. The Braves have the pieces — in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and young arms — to nab Teixeira. Don’t believe that Atlanta is hesitant to trade away “Salty” — that’s veteran GM John Schuerholz playing his typically shrewd negotiations. With Brian McCann locked up for the next decade, the “other” young catcher is very available, in the right deal. And any deal that can land Teixeira is the right deal. Rangers GM Jon Daniel, however, is under pressure to make a very good deal — particularly with the Chris Young / Adrian Gonzalez for Adam Eaton / Akinori Otsuka trade looking so badly. Daniel will want Saltalamacchia plus a young MLB arm (Kyle Davies? Chuck James), plus another arm on the farm (Jo-Jo Reyes? Matt Harrison?). They might also want Scott Thorman in the deal — and if they’re smart, they’ll hold out for all that. The scary think is, the Braves probably can deal all that talent away, and still be fine for this year and 2008 — especially with Teixeira in the lineup. And the Mets have no way to prevent it.

Linebrink Deal Sets the Bar

So finally there has been a significant trade: Scott Linebrink from the Padres to the Brewers in exchange for three minor league pitchers. Seems a little odd that the Pods would give up an Aaron Heilman-type setup man for anything other than offensive help. However, Linebrink has had an up-and-down year (like Heilman), and as a result his stock has dropped. Since he’s likely to test the free-agent market come November, San Diego felt it a better plan to dump him now and get some bodies in return.

The pitchers they received are actually pretty good. One of them, lefthander Joe Thatcher, will join the team immediately, as their only southpaw in the bullpen is Royce Ring. Thatcher had a 0.55 ERA in AA, then a 2.08 in 24 games in the PCL, and could be a difference-maker down the stretch. The other two pitchers obtained — Will Inman and Steve Garrison — are 20-year-olds with good upside. Inman, in fact, was the #3 prospect in Milwaukee’s organization, according to Baseball America. To put things in perspective, Inman is kind of like a righthanded, younger version of Jason Vargas — he’s a control pitcher with an aggressive demeanor and good makeup but only tops out in the low 90s. Garrison is a lefty drafted in 2005 out of The Hun School in Princeton, NJ. He’s heated up recently, and was part of Baseball America’s “hot sheet” last week:

A mid-season surge has propelled the 20-year-old Garrison toward the top of the Florida State League leaderboard. A 10th-round pick in 2005, Garrison has won his last four starts–including a seven-inning, three-hit shutout on Sunday against Daytona–and is 4-0, 1.38 with 24 strikeouts in 33 innings in July. Garrison had yielded 28 runs over 10 starts in June and July but has given up only five earned in five July starts.

Sounds to me like a pretty good deal for the Padres, particularly if Thatcher can help them this year. Now that we know an underachieving setup reliever rental can fetch three promising youngsters, it makes the trade market seem all the more difficult for Omar Minaya. You know the Nationals are looking at this deal, and licking their chops with Chad Cordero offered around. Same think with Kansas City, who have Octavio Dotel. It would appear that if the Mets were interested in obtaining either of these pitchers, or a similar late-inning hurler (Eric Gagne?), the cost would be AT LEAST Mike Pelfrey PLUS two more prospects, at minimum.

My guess is after seeing this deal go down, Omar is sniffing the waiver wire, on the lookout for this year’s Guillermo Mota. Let’s hope he can find one, as it appears we’ll need someone to take over Joe Smith’s spot.


Mets Game 101: Loss to Pirates

Pirates 8 Mets 4

The Pirates mixed in one longball with several dozen cheap hits and used the Mets’ hangover against them to avoid being swept at Shea.

The Mets — or shall we say Jose Reyes — jumped out to another first-inning lead to begin the game 1-0. Reyes led off with a single, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout, and scored on a shallow fly ball. Anyone who doesn’t believe that “speed kills” hasn’t watched Jose.

Oliver Perez was nasty — for five innings. Through those first five he was nearly untouchable, striking out eight, with great command of his fastball and a downright filthy slider. Think he was amped?

With the dominating stuff Ollie had, there was only one way the Pirates were going to score against him: with a lot of luck and mistakes by the Mets. In the sixth inning, they got both. First, eighth-place hitter Nate McClouth got sawed off and bounced the ball just over the head of Ollie and it squeaked into the outfield for a cheap single. Then, with an 0-2 count, pitcher Paul Maholm drew back the bunt and stuck it back out butcher-boy style and dribbled the ball over a drawn-in David Wright for an infield single. With men on first and second, Cesar Izturis dropped a perfect bunt that was thrown away by Perez, scoring McClouth and putting runners on second and third. Ollie settled down to induce two consecutive popups, and seemed to be out of the inning when he went 2-2 to Xavier Nady. The next pitch was another nasty slider, but Nady blistered it off of Wright’s knee, and both runners scored (the play was scored a hit, but it was questionable). Perez went 2-2 to the next batter, Josh Phelps, but allowed a two-run homer into the bleachers. Ollie completely lost his focus and his fight after that blast, and walked Jose Castillo after going to a full count. Finally, Perez struck out Ronny Paulino to end the inning. By that time, the score was Pirates, and Perez had expended over 100 pitches.

The Mets started fighting back immediately in the bottom of the sixth, as Lastings Milledge went deep to make the score 5-2, but the Pirates scored three more in top of the seventh off relievers Scott Schoeneweis and Joe Smith.

Ruben Gotay drove in a run with a sac fly in the seventh, and Jose Reyes blasted a solo shot in the eighth, but it was too little, too late.


It’s really hard to say that Oliver Perez was entirely at fault in letting the game get away, though it may have looked that way. The key, I think, was Perez going to a 3-1 count to McClouth with the pitcher on deck. McClouth, as the 8th-place hitter, should never have seen three balls in his at-bat. But he fought to a full count, broke his bat, one thing led to another, and next thing you know the Pirates are winning. If Perez disposes of McClouth quickly, he very well might pitch into the eighth inning.

A similar snowball effect occurred in the seventh — bad luck, bad bounces, compounded by some poor pitches that followed. It’s too annoying to re-live the play by play.

Joe Smith’s velocity is down, and slider has lost some bite. It’s fairly clear that he’s fatigued, which is to be expected considering he’s never handled this kind of a workload before. It may be time to demote him to AAA, have him pitch just once or twice a week to continue building his endurance (for next year), and add another arm to the bullpen. Have Smith disappear for the month of August, get him some rest, and bring him back up just before rosters expand, so he can be a situational righty in the postseason.

Ruben Gotay looks more tense and aggressive, with less strike zone discipline, from the right side. He doesn’t seem as cognizant of strikes and balls, probably because he’s right-eye dominant. One wonders why switch-hitters who can be so Jekyll and Hyde don’t simply give up the weaker side of their ballgame, and concentrate on one.

Next Game

The Mets host the Nationals for a three-game set beginning on Friday night at 7:10 PM. Jorge Sosa takes the mound against former Met Mike Bacsik.


Perez vs. the Pirates

Oliver Perez as a PirateSo Oliver Perez will make his first career start against his old team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Knowing he’s an emotional guy, one wonders if he’ll be seriously amped up for the start — possibly too keyed up to be effective.

Interestingly, Ollie was beyond gracious when questioned about his rediscovered success in a Mets uniform. In the Pittburgh Post-Gazette:

Asked yesterday in the New York clubhouse if he would be pitching as well for the Pirates as he is for the first-place Mets this season — 9-6 record, 3.00 ERA, 99 strikeouts in 108 innings — he replied quickly and emphatically, “Yes, for sure. I’m sure of that. You see a lot of players in the majors who have a bad year, then a good one.”

He then pointed back to his career year with the Pirates: “I pitched well in 2004, and I was in Pittsburgh. I could do it again.

“I was just thinking too much those last two years in Pittsburgh,” Perez replied. “I was putting too much pressure on myself. Then, they sent me down … and traded me. It was not easy.”

“But I came here, and there were a lot of guys with experience, guys who have been in my situation. They just told me to believe in myself. Just play baseball. Enjoy it. And that’s what I did. I feel now how I did in 2004.”

When he was asked, how did his pitching improve? Some have credited New York’s highly reputed pitching coach, Rick Peterson, for harnessing Perez’s mechanics and creating a fresh level of consistency.

Perez shrugged that off, too.

“It’s not something he told me about mechanics. He just told me to believe in myself, to believe in every pitch, and everything would be OK.”

And the velocity that has made a lively comeback?

“I just feel more comfortable, so I’m throwing harder. But it’s still not about that. It’s about the pitches that I’m making. I’m locating the fastball and changing speeds. I feel like a pitcher right now. I’m not just throwing.”

This much is clear as can be: Perez is eager for tomorrow.

“It’s great to see my old teammates, and it will be fun to pitch against them.”

Good quotes by Ollie. It would be very difficult for him to agree that Rick Peterson had a profound effect on his pitching, without offending the coaches in the Pittsburgh organization who worked so hard to get him on the right track. And if you followed the Pirates, or Ollie’s career pre-Mets, you’d know that Pittsburgh pitching coach Jim Colborn and others in the organization did in fact try everything under the sun to bring Perez back to his 2004 form.

But sometimes a player simply needs to get out of an environment, and / or hear the same things from someone else before it clicks. Personally, I don’t think there’s any way that Perez has the same stats and form this year as a Pirate — in fact, I’m not certain he wouldn’t be still toiling in AAA right now. However, that’s less because of the perceived ineptitude of the Pirates and more because Ollie was due for a change.

In any case, Ollie’s comments show he’s a class act, and a guy who takes responsibility for his actions.


Mets Game 100: Win Over Pirates

Mets 6 Pirates 3

It was deja vu all over again.

The Mets jumped out to a six-run lead in the first three innings, with four of the runs being driven in by Paul LoDuca and one each by Damion Easley and Marlon Anderson. With a six-zip lead, it looked like Tom Glavine would cruise easily to his 299th career victory.

However, he struggled in the fifth, allowing three runs — capped by a two-run homer by Jason Bay — to turn what looked to be a laugher in the making into a save situation. Tommy settled down to pitch a scoreless sixth, though he did give up several hard-hit balls. By the end of his six full frames, he’d thrown 113 pitches, and left his 299th in the capable hands of the bullpen.

And capable it was, with Aaron Heilman pitching two perfect innings. He’s now retired 16 out of the last 16 batters he’s faced.

Billy Wagner came on in the ninth to save his 23rd game of the season without incident.


As pointed out in the series preview, Jason Bay was batting .162 with four homeruns in the months of June and July. So far in this series, he’s 4-for-7 with three homers.

While LoDuca was driving in all the runs, Lastings Milledge also kept swinging a hot bat, going 2-for-4 with a run scored. He also was the recipient of an intentional HBP, as he had drawn the ire of the Pirates with his theatrics in Tuesday night’s game.

Glavine has me a bit concerned. He’s struggled in his last two starts, and I thought for sure he’d eat up the aggressive Pirates hitters. Some of it may have had to do with the tiny strike zone of Tony Randazzo, but that’s part of my concern — if he doesn’t have a generous, “pitcher’s” ump, he’s in deep doo-doo, even against a horrific-hitting team such as the Buccos.

How about Shawn Green doing every little bit he can to show value, with Milledge swinging like a man possessed? He’s not hitting for much power, but he’s dumping little hits here and there and running his butt off on the bases — including getting a basehit and then a steal vs. lefty John Grabow in the sixth. He eventually made his way to third and faked an attempt to score on a shallow fly caught by second baseman Freddy Sanchez — which drew two throws, the second of which was nearly thrown away. (Green went 2-for-4 with a double, by the way.) Can you say “motivation” ?

Carlos Beltran sat out the game with a pulled stomach muscle. Good thing the Mets DFA’d outfielder Chip Ambres instead of demoting Sandy Alomar, Jr. or AHern, eh? Genius.

I keep checking, but haven’t seen any changes in the MLB Official Rule Book in regard to the hit by pitch. Yet, remarkably, Nate McClouth was awarded first base after getting hit by a pitch he swung at, in the ninth inning. It didn’t matter, but it’s the principle. The rulebook clearly states in section 6, rule 9(b):

(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
If the ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a strike, whether or not the batter tries to avoid the ball. If the ball is outside the strike zone when it touches the batter, it shall be called a ball if he makes no attempt to avoid being touched.

So, based on the above, explain to me how McClouth gets first base?

Anyone who watched the SNY postgame, I have a question: was that George Hamilton sitting in for Lee Mazzilli? Either my TV color is way off or Maz is looking like the inside of a blood orange. Take that tan to South Beach, Mr. Toasty.

Next Game

Oliver Perez makes his first start against his old teammates in an odd 12:10 PM afternoon start (day camp field trip!). Lefty Paul Maholm hurls for the Pirates.


Three Books to Read Regarding Home Run Kings

There’s been a lot of hoopla surrounding some guy in San Francisco chasing the number 755 (which means very little, by the way). Something about a “Home Run King”.

For anyone interested in reading about the Home Run Kings, I implore you to read the following books, in this specific order:

1. Sadaharu Oh!: A Zen Way of Baseball

This is a wonderful, insightful book written by the REAL homerun king (858 career homers) — Sadaharu Oh — as well as an overview of Japanese baseball in the 1960s-1970s. After you read this book, you are guaranteed to have a newfound appreciation for Japanese ballplayers, and Oh in particular. The guy was, and remains, a class act — the kind of ballplayer you’d want your kids to look up to and emulate. The only drawback to this book is that it is very difficult to locate and buy. If you follow the above link, it’ll take you to Amazon, where there are about a dozen available. If they’re gone by the time you read this, you may have a better shot obtaining it through a second-hand shop.

2. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story

This is the autobiography of the American Home Run King, Henry Aaron. Like Oh’s account, this book will open your eyes to a greater respect for the man who would pass Babe Ruth. And if you do as I say and read these books in order, you may find it fascinating that both Aaron and Oh share common traits — specifically, respect and care for others, selflessness, an immense respect for the game of baseball, high moral standards, the way they dealt with racism and prejudice (you didn’t know Oh was half-Chinese? that was a major issue in Japan back then), how each reacted to adversity, and the fact that both are considered class acts and icons of their sport.

3. Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports

You had to know this was coming. Though “Game of Shadows” is a book about several athletes, and focuses on BALCO, there is quite a bit of interesting information regarding Barry Bonds — the guy currently chasing Henry Aaron for the United States homerun record. If you didn’t read this, you should. If after reading this, you think Barry Bonds didn’t use steroids, then hold your breath, because eventually the sand surrounding your head will seep into your lungs and kill you.

I would have suggested Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, but haven’t read it yet. It’s by Jeff Pearlman, who wrote Bad Guys Won — a book I did read, and found gripping. Somehow I get the feeling that after reading Love Me, Hate Me, I won’t get the same fuzzy feeling about Bonds that I did after the previously mentioned autobiographies by Aaron and Oh.


Hero Today, Gone Tomorrow

So Chip Ambres has been designated for assignment.

If he didn’t get a dramatic, game-winning hit within the last three days, no one would have noticed. Some might have mentioned that they didn’t realize the Mets had anyone named Chip on the team.

Taking away his clutch RBI single against the Dodgers, does the demotion make sense?

The Mets sent down Ambres to make room for Damion Easley. OK. That leaves the Mets with three outfielders — Milledge, Beltran, Green — and two infielder/outfielders (Marlon Anderson, Damion Easley), four second basemen, and three catchers.

It’s very strange that the Mets would choose to demote Ambres rather than AHern or Sandy Alomar, Jr. While it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to pluck Ambres off the waiver wire, the process would have been unnecessary in the case of Hernandez — who won’t see any playing time at all, other than perhaps some late-inning defense, or a pinch-running stint.

Willie Randolph spent all of 2006 and most of 2007 with two catchers, yet he suddenly feels the urgency to carry three — at the expense of depleting the outfield. Incredibly, Randolph expended all three catchers in one game over the weekend, leaving Ramon Castro behind the plate at the end of the game. Thank goodness nothing happened to Castro — but wasn’t the whole idea of keeping Alomar around to prevent such a scenario?

Anyway, back to Ambres. I suppose what Willie is saying is this: he doesn’t trust Chip Ambres enough to start him in a game. Because if he did trust him to start and play an entire game in the outfield, he’d not have been sent down — he’d have been playing in Shawn Green’s spot against one of the two tough lefties the Mets are about to face. Why Randolph won’t trust Ambres, I’m not sure. Perhaps Willie thinks that Chip is another 23-year-old kid who doesn’t have the sage experience and wisdom of, say, Ricky Ledee. Apparently, no one informed Willie that Ambres is in fact 27 years old, and in his ninth year of professional ball. And no one let Willie know that Ambres started about 50 games in centerfield for the Royals in 2005 — batting most of those games in the leadoff spot.

Hey, I know it was Kansas City, but it was still the big leagues. It’s not like Ambres hasn’t been at this level before.

Granted, the Mets were counting on Moises Alou returning on Monday. And now it’s Thursday or Friday. At this point, does it make sense to count on Moises for anything? And, does it make sense to carry so many second baseman? Or three catchers?

I guess it’s more important to bring AHern into the game in the eighth and ninth innings for defense, than to have a true outfielder start in Shawn Green’s spot against the lefties. Now, if we see Damion Easley start at second base, and Green starts in right, I may lose my mind.


Mets Game 99: Win Over Pirates

Mets 8 Pirates 4

Wow … where to start?

John Maine pulled a little league feat, pitching and hitting his team to victory. Lastings Milledge was 3-for-3. Ruben Gotay had two more hits, with an RBI and a run. Paul LoDuca had two hits and two runs. Even Shawn Green was inspiring, with his clutch single and hustle around the bases.

In short, it was a good evening all around — and a great game for a Mets fan.

Maine was the hero, pitching seven solid innings of five-hit ball, allowing two runs, one walk, and striking out 7 en route to his 11th victory. Message to the rest of the National League: he’s back in form. Maine also helped himself with the bat, dropping two perfect sacrifice bunts to advance runners. Oh, and in his one official at-bat of the evening, he sent an Ian Snell fastball about 380 feet into the visitor’s bullpen — his first homer as a professional. The two-run shot put the Mets ahead 6-2, and capped a four-run fourth.

In the first inning, the Pirates got on the board when ex-Met Xavier Nady doubled in Adam LaRoche, who stroked a two-out single. The Mets, however, came right back in the bottom of the inning, thanks to back-to-back doubles by Jose Reyes and Ruben Gotay, a single by Carlos Beltran, and a sac fly by David Wright.

That fourth frame began with a Ryan Doumit groundout, but proceeded with the previously slumping Jason Bay crushing a fastball — dropping it over leftfield fence and nearly into the bleachers. Maine settled down after that, though, and didn’t allow another run to the Bucs. With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the inning, Paul LoDuca doubled with one out. Shawn Green jumped on the first pitch he saw and ripped a shot up the middle to score LoDuca easily to put the Mets ahead. Green then advanced to second on a ball that got away from catcher Ronny Paulino. Lastings Milledge then fought off a full-count pitch and hit a bullet through the legs of third baseman Matt Kata’s legs. Kata recovered to chase down the ball, but Green never hesitated rounding third, and was sent home by the perpetual windmill known as Sandy Alomar Sr. Ball and Green arrived at the same time, but Green slid away from Paulino’s tag for the Mets’ fourth run. If Alomar had a crystal ball, he might not have sent Green — but with the light-hitting Maine on deck and one out, it was a fairly justifiable gamble. Maine, however, sent the second pitch he saw — a high fastball — over the fence to make the score 6-2.

The hot-hitting Milledge blasted a two-run tater inside the leftfield foul pole to extend the lead to 8-2. Which was a nice touch, because it meant Billy Wagner could take the day off, and Guillermo Mota had the luxury of allowing two runs in the ninth without anyone getting nervous.


Gotay is now hitting .342, and Milledge has raised his average to .262 — it was about 100 points lower a few days ago. So much for the idea of relying on old veteran bats, eh?

Gotay also made some slick, athletic plays around the second base bag. I’m still not convinced his glove is “suspect” — regardless of his zone rating.

Maine had a nice sequence vs. Xavier Nady in the third. Nady, who dives into the plate, was dusted by a 2-1 purpose pitch under his chin. That moved his butt a few feet further, and Maine then painted a fastball on the outside edge of the dish that Nady took for strike two. With the count full, Maine threw another good strike, and Nady grounded out to short. I’m really liking this mean streak that Maine’s been showing since his start in Houston — it’s an edge that will help him dominate hitters in the future.

What was great about this game — and the last few games in particular — was seeing the Mets come right back and score immediately after losing the lead. These boys got fight in ’em!

Moises Alou arrived at Shea with a healed quad and damaged shoulder. The MRI says he has tendinitis and some irritation in his rotator cuff — yet, somehow, he’ll be able to play three days from now. Huh. I’ll believe it when I see it. What’s the possibility that Alou was in the dugout just for show, and his coming back by the end of the week is really a bunch of horse manure? Wouldn’t other teams have the upper hand in trade negotiations, knowing the Mets are desperate to for a veteran outfielder?

Next Game

Tommy Glavine goes against Tom Gorzelanny in “Tommy G Night” at Shea (not to be confused with “Ali G Night”, which is later in the summer). Glavine should have a lot of fun with the overaggressive hitters in the Pittsburgh lineup. Game time is 7:10 PM.


Series Preview: Mets vs. Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates baseball flag logoThe last time the Mets faced an NL Central cellar dweller at home, they took three out of four. Today they welcome the 41-56 Pittsburgh Pirates to Shea for a three-game series.

The Pirates, actually, are a half-game up on the Cincinnati Reds and therefore not technically in first place. But no one will be surprised if they are by Thursday night.

Manager Jim Tracy sends his best three starters to the hill, so it won’t be a piece of cake for the Mets. Indeed, should the Mets not take the Pirates seriously, they’ll have not cake but their collective butts handed to them. Though they’ve been underachieving all year, the Pirates do have two things going for them: starting pitching and defense. Often, that combination can be lethal — even if the bats are quiet.

For a better quality preview, we’ve called on Pat Lackey from the popular Pirates blog, “Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?” to provide some inside information. His input is inside the quotes, in the gray boxes.

Game One: John Maine vs. Ian Snell

Both team send their aces to the mound in the opener. Maine, as we know, needs to get back on track after finishing the first half with a flourish, only to see his ERA “balloon” from 2.71 to 3.07 after his first two starts of the second half. It looked like his mechanics were a bit off, as his front shoulder was flying out a little early and causing his release point to be a little higher than normal (resulting in balls up and away to lefties). Less walks and more ground balls will help, and should be the result of a return to his better mechanics.

Unless you have him on your fantasy team, you might not know that Ian Snell is an up-and-comer with a high strikeout rate. In fact, he, like Maine, is having a year worthy of All-Star consideration, but was also snubbed. Snell — who has also been known professionally as “Ian Oquendo” (long story, but true) — is a little (5’10”), hard-throwing righty who’d been overlooked earlier in his career due to concerns about his size and durability (hmm … they though the same about a certain Pedro M.). Here is Pat’s take:

“You’re going to see the three best pitchers in the Pirates rotation this week, for what that’s worth. Snell really blossomed in the first half of this season. Last year in his breakout season he still had a lot of trouble with lefties and gave up a lot of homers. This year, he’s really managed to improve in both categories. He throws a good fastball (usually 93-95), a good curve, and has finally developed a decent change to go with the other pitches. In his first two starts after the break, he’s given up five homers, four to lefties, which is a bit of a concern given last season.”

Game Two: Tom Glavine vs. Tom Gorzelanny

Did they do that on purpose? Is it “Tom G” night at Shea?

Anyway, it’s time for Tommy Glavine to return to form, and the Pirates are as good a team as any. The Bucs have a lot of young, over-aggressive hitters in their lineup — exactly the types that Glavine feasts on. I think we’ll see at least 7-8 strikeouts and a lot of grounders on 1-0 and 2-0 counts.

Gorzelanny may be a better pitcher than Snell, as he has similarly good stuff doesn’t try to strike everyone out and thus more efficient. Look for him to keep the ball on the ground via a hard sinker and good changeup. Also, let’s hope Shawn Green is not in the lineup, or he’ll be eaten alive by Gorzelanny’s sharp slider (Delgado may wear the golden sombrero). According to Pat:

“Gorzelanny has also come a long way this year. He can also run his fastball up to around 95 or 95, though it usually sits in the lower 90s. He also throws a very good slider and a changeup. His strikeouts are a bit down from his minor league numbers this year, but it is his first full year in the majors.”

Game Three: Oliver Perez vs. Paul Maholm

Ollie’s been brilliant at times this year — but only when his head is screwed on straight. Will his first start against the organization that trashed him prove to be too overwhelming for his psyche? There’s no doubt he’ll be keyed up, and looking to prove something, but sometimes his emotions get out of control — a bad call or error early in the game might set him off. My guess is that he’ll either throw eight shutout innings or be gone by the fourth. Let’s hope for the former.

The Pirates send Maholm to the mound, a guy who took full advantage of the Wandy Rodriguez Effect last year (in fact, it was nearly dubbed the “Paul Maholm Effect”), going 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts vs. the Mets. He’s an underwhelming lefthander who relies on staying ahead of batters and getting groundballs with his sinker — a lot like Tommy John.

Pat says this about him:

“Maholm got off to a poor start this year, but has really turned things around in his past few starts. He’s more of a soft-tossing lefty, mixing in a few off-speed pitches with a fastball that generally sits in the high 80s. He’s cut down his walks this year, which is where I think his recent success has come from.”

Mets Bats

The Mets are finally executing the team philosophy of taking pitches, getting into deep counts, and making the starting pitcher work — and it’s already paying dividends. Add to their newfound strategy of manufacturing runs the fact that Moises Alou will be making his return to the lineup — just in time to face the Pirates two tough lefties. Recent roster additions Marlon Anderson and Lastings Milledge are only hitting around .200, but the hits they’re getting have been big — Milledge has six RBI in his last seven games. Carlos Delgado continues to swing a hot bat, and David Wright’s average is creeping closer to .300 every day. With the injury to Jose Valentin, Ruben Gotay will get a fair chance to prove he’s the answer at second base — he’s 6 for his last 18. Jose Reyes broke his mini-slump by going 3-for-5 on Sunday. Carlos Beltran is batting .321 in his last seven games with three homers and seven RBI.

Pirates Bats

It used to be all about Jason Bay, but the Canadian is having a horrible year, batting only .246 and getting worse as the weeks go by — he’s hitting a combined .162 for the months of June and July. And we thought the Carloses were slumping! That makes Xavier Nady the Pirates’ top threat, and he is having a good year — .280/14/52. So the idea that we “fleeced” the Bucs out of Ollie Perez isn’t exactly true — it’s been a good deal for both sides. Pittsburgh’s lone All-Star rep, Fredi Sanchez, won’t win a batting title this year, but he is approaching .300. The much-heralded deal that brought slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche has been something of a disappointment, as LaRoche is hitting .246/14/56. He is, however, 7 for his last 15, so may be on a hot streak. Catcher Ronny Paulino is hitting nowhere near the .310 of a year ago, though Ryan Doumit is still banging the ball — and still can’t find a position. Centerfielder Chris Duffy is on the DL, and they have a kid named Rajai Davis who’s hitting .455 in his last seven games, but manages to erase himself from the basepaths with dumb baserunning blunders. As Pat says about the Pirates,

“I could talk about the Pirate offense, but let’s just say they made Woody Williams look like the old Woody Williams this week. There’s really no one worth worrying about there, from your perspective.”

Pirates Bullpen

Per Pat:

“The bullpen is just awful. Matt Capps has been a pretty good closer, Shawn Chacon has done a decent job setting up, and Damaso Marte has been devastating to lefties (he’s rarely allowed to pitch to righties), but that’s about it. Torres has been pretty bad all year, though he has battled arm troubles. John Grabow hasn’t been able to get anyone out all year. Masumi Kuwata is a 39-year old veteran of the Japan leagues that throws really, really slow and can sometimes sneak through an inning on that, but he’s rarely good for more than an inning. Tony Armas Jr. has been embarrassing.”

Bottom Line

The Mets are in the soft part of their schedule, and this is a golden opportunity to extend their lead over the second-place Braves. Taking two out of three from the Pirates is the expectation — anything less will be a disappointment.