Saturday, April 16, 2005

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Game 11 - Mets

Mets 4, Marlins 3
Record: 6-5

The Mets won't be a presence in the National League relying solely on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, but once again we saw how integral those two high-profile acquisitions will be to the Mets' success. Meanwhile, if the names that don't draw much ink outside these parts continue to come up big -- almost taking turns game to game -- well, look out. It's incredible to watch this team, one week removed from being unilaterally labeled the "same old Mets," playing utterly as a unit, picking each other up in key spots, and excelling in the clutch -- generally, the antithesis of what we'd come to know from their recent predecessors. We're not even 10% of the way through this adventure, so it's important to be able to differentiate "look like" from "are," but dammit, the New York Mets look like a real baseball team. If they can manage simply to keep me believing that statement for the remainder of the season, we may see what remaining "Misery" there is around here fade quietly into the night.

I know. Lotta ball left. Stay on target.

Backup catcher Ramon Castro provided the highlight today, knocking in the increasingly valuable Victor Diaz from second with a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth. It should be noted that the starting catcher -- and a guy who's caught more crap than balls in the dirt of late, most recently by my newly linked up cohort -- came through with the second huge RBI double in as many games since I openly pleaded for his "reputation reclamation." There can be a great number of defensive failings we'll look the other way on when he's drilling balls off and over the wall with the game on the line.

The Pedro vs. Al tête-à-tête delivered as promised, mostly, with a Martinez's only damage being Piazza-aided and Leiter looking as solid at Shea as he ever did. Just a word on Al Leiter -- I dig the guy and wouldn't wish him ill except as a rival, but I've already heard a few mentions of the suggestion that right about now the Mets are ruing the decision not to bring back Big Al for another years at $7M+. It's just not so. When the Mets turned their back on Leiter's seven years of service, they were saying "nothing personal, just business," but they weren't saying he's a bad pitcher. This (7IP, 1ER, 3H, 2BB, 4K) they knew he could do. For seven innings in April and maybe May. And six in June. And five in July. And probably not at all in August. Look at the avalanche that was last year. The first few months played like a highlight film, while the last few like a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Again, Al Leiter will surely help this Marlin team with his pitching and his leadership, but we saw today that Florida's biggest weakness, like the Mets', might be its bullpen. If Al Leiter were an 8- or 9-inning starter, which his age and his pitching style preclude almost completely, this game's result likely would have been very different. The Mets simply decided for that price they'd be better served looking at younger talent that might go deeper into games. Someone like, oh, Aaron Heilman, for example. (Two days ago my point wouldn't have had nearly that kind of fuel.)

I just caught the talking heads (including Steve Phillips) at Baseball Tonight spending five minutes breaking down a play from today's game by Doug Mientkiewicz to throw out a runner at home, and why a left-handed first-baseman has a natural advantage over a righty. Two things wrong with it: (1) Doug is right-handed and still made a fine play, so why'd they show that clip? (2) They highlighted that play but failed to mention that the runner was, very clearly to all who saw it at any speed from any distance at any angle, blatantly safe. Another game-changing flub by the man in blue, but such in-depth analysis missed it.

The Mets caught a big break there, but they were on the short end of some unlucky bounces earlier. In the fourth inning, with Miguel Cairo (yet another one of the lesser-known keys) on second, Beltran laced one off 3B Mike Lowell's glove. The ball bounded toward the stands and seemingly would have landed in them, with Cairo plated and Beltran ground-rule doubling, were it not for a teenage girl with a baseball glove and Kaz Matsui's eye-glove coordination. By reaching over the needlessly short wall and thunking the ball, the young lady ensured that Cairo would remain at third and, more significantly, Beltran at first where Piazza could double him up. It's just another instance of the only major sport where the spectators can have a hand -- literally -- in the outcome of the game, and that's not one of the many unique things that make baseball great. Andy Van Slyke used to joke that the home fans catching or dropping foul balls and home runs should be counted somehow in the game. He was kidding, people.

Another unfortunate bounce arrived when Piazza's late-inning wallop one-hopped over the wall in left-center. Beltran (I am relishing typing his name ten times a post) would clearly have scored from first with two outs, but he had to hold at third because of the ground rule. The run he didn't score would have given Braden Looper a cushion even he might not have botched.

Ah, what to say about Looper? He was lousy for the second time in three tries in this embryonic season. More than simply not getting it done -- today, despite getting some help on that horrible call at the plate -- Braden Looper has looked unimpressive. Closers -- the good ones -- instill, if not fear, something uncomfortable in the batters he faces, and not a Marlin seemed uncomfortable today. Not uncomfortable, not confused, not worried, and certainly not afraid. It may not be time to retool the position yet, but I'd just like to see opposing batsmen not look like they're taking BP off Looper, both in the result and their batter's box demeanor.

In the meantime, notch another losable win for the Metropolitans. The top row of the April calendar was all losses, while the second week was all wins. Tomorrow begins Week 3. Let's break the pattern and keep this streak rolling.

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