Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Game 98 - Mets

Mets 8, Phillies 6
Record: 41-57

Three weeks, sixteen games, and one team make-over after Armando Benitez snatched Aaron Heilman’s win away for himself, Heilman picks up his first career victory. Of course, if his ERA hangs around its current lofty state (7.18), he isn't likely to win too many more games. Still, thanks to a surprising Metropolitan offense, and despite the threat of another bullpen giveaway, he notched it. Cliff Floyd hit a three-run tater, Jason Phillips added a two-run job, and little Joe McEwing even hit a solo shot in support of Heilman and three relievers.

John Franco posted another scary performance. He relieved David Weathers after one batter (a double) in the ninth, got an out, then gave up a double, then a long fly to right field that Raul Gonzalez snagged with a nifty little play; if Roger Cedeno's playing right field, it’s a triple. He followed with a walk of Pat Burrell on four not-close pitches, making us (Fran Healy, Ted Robinson, and me) wonder if it was semi-intentional. Sure, nobody wants to put the tying run aboard, but Met-eater Pat Burrell – even a .195 hitting Pat Burrell – scares you more than Tyler Houston (or his pinch-hitter, Jason Michaels). Well, it never would have scared Franco a few years back, but he looked like he wanted nothing to do with Burrell and was playing the odds. It worked, as it turned out, when Michaels’ hard grounder to third was scooped by Ty Wigginton and fired to second for the final out.

Not to belabor the Franco issue – again, he made his bones long ago as a top-notch fireman (and a friend to the NYFD), it’s just that he is fresh off a major injury, he’s not getting any younger, and he looks, for the most part, like a shadow of his former self. There are two things wrong with this picture. First, on a selfish note, if he’s costing the Mets wins, he’s affecting the fans’ attempt to salvage some joy from this debacle of a season. The beauty of the 162-game season, as I have stated (and as I recently read, more eloquently put, in a decades-old article by Roger Angell in his latest collection of columns), is that even in the darkest, stormiest season of rain clouds, there are inevitably 40-60 rays of light that shine through and bring back the warm feelings. To watch John Franco threaten more than one of these rays of light is irritating; to witness the formerly dominant closer struggle mightily is downright painful.

John Franco used to be uniquely impressive on the mound, if only for one strange aspect of his pitching game: with rare exception, he never threw a strike. Oh, most of his pitches would pretty damn well look like strikes as they came in; you’d watch batters’ eyes light up as they reared back and let loose a massive swing . . . that missed by several inches as the ball sailed way out of the zone. I was always baffled that hitters wouldn't take more pitches than they did. Then again, the ones who did would stand there and watch him nick the outside corner for a called strike, thereby falling behind and forcing them to be more aggressive, which would inevitably lead to that whole massive swing, miss by inches thing. It was aesthetically pleasing pitching, rather than Benitez-style overpowering. And it worked.

These days Mr. Franco seems to be having two problems. One, his fastball, which used to complement his other pitches impressively, is not scaring anyone. More importantly, though, he’s still not throwing strikes, but they’re missing by wide margins and in all the wrong spots. He’s been missing pitches up, in the middle of the plate, in places where batters catapult them into deep gaps and left-field walls. The onetime tailing away pitches now begin away and end further away. People aren’t scared, people aren’t fooled. And as I mentioned, it goes well beyond the aggravation of adding more losses to the compost heap of this season; it makes you feel sorry for the guy, and I don’t want to feel sorry for John Franco. He’s way too great for my pity.

No comments: