Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Perfect Way

Game 32 - Mets

Phillies 5, Mets 4
Record: 21-11

I am so very ashamed of myself for not seeing this one coming until right before it happened. I spent an embarrassing amount time scrolling through Metblogs today, reading and thinking and writing all about the Mets' current dilemma. I joined a chorus more robust and harmonious than “We are the World,” one filling the airwaves and lines of sight with a plea for the move of Aaron Heilman into the starting rotation. Omar, Willie, and Rick (the original, less famous Pep Boys) have filled an egg carton with deaf ears and blind eyes, however, wanting to keep a brilliant rotation intact.

I read it over and over and over and over today, and yet it didn't cross my mind until Heilman took the mound after the Mets had dramatically rallied to tie the game in the top of the ninth inning; Aaron Heilman is going to blow the game, making fools of both the professionals who touted his relief value and the masses of commoners who saw him as the rotation's savior. It was just too perfect, it had to happen. And it did. I give myself credit for the premonition minutes before its arrival, but I'm truly disappointed in myself for not recognizing the obvious opportunity for a hearty, ironic groin-kick.

Not that this episode will – or should – alter the thinking of either party in this stalemate. One inning does not a season make, whichever direction you're headed. And the list of blame or credit for this outcome has many more names on it than Aaron Heilman's.

Credit: Brett Myers threw a brilliant game, and the Phillies lineup scratched crucial runs across whenever they saw an opening (including the game-winner as well as one very key run off Duaner Sanchez in the 8th -- the first he's allowed this season). They did what they had to do.

Blame: Pedro was slightly off in the early going, though he settled down nicely and eventually fanned 10. He managed to keep the Phils in the yard but still was touched for three in the second. Jose Reyes made a dunderheaded baserunning play to end an inning, even though he appeared safe in slow-mo, as well as live action, super-fast speed and even with the television on the fritz after I hurled the remote at it because of the bad play/bad call.

More blame: the Mets' hitters seemed to think it's as simple as swinging upwards and the ball will fly out of the Bank; David Wright lifted several lazy flies to left. It was only when they decided to simply go for frozen ropes (after two full turns through the order and then some) that the band box came into play.

Still more blame: it's been fun to hurl some discredit the umps' way lately, and this game was no different. I will say this: it's been long accepted that some umpires have a strike zone that clearly extends 3-6 inches off the plate on either side, and I think it's total bullshit. Home plate umpire Doug Eddings is notorious, according to Keith and Ron, for a wide zone. Well, his zone got awfully tall, too, especially when Kaz Matsui struck out looking on an at-least-letter-high curve with two out and two on in the ninth inning. It was egregious enough that the normally cool and calm Julio Franco got tossed from the dugout for vocally objecting. (I disagree with the blank check that that rule about not arguing balls and strikes gives umps, too, but that's a beef for a different meal.) I just think it's ludicrous that the league condones – almost to the point of endorsing – an ump-by-ump strike zone. It's difficult enough some nights for a hitter to get settled in and adjust to what the pitcher’s throwing and the way he's swinging the bat that game without having to take a few innings to get used to pitches that are called for balls 98% of the time being consistently rung up as strikes. Punch-outs are exciting, sure, but when they happen to several batters in a row and none of the strike threes actually went over the plate, it's crap. It goes both ways; Pedro got helped out of a few jams with the same shady practice.

Obviously some strike zones are inevitably going to vary with the human factor, and that's fine. But don't embrace this inexact science; while other sports are creeping towards officiating precision with instant replays and umpiring crackdowns, MLB is throwing a whole new sub-set of ground rules at batters and pitchers from night to night. Look, it's relatively simple: if Doug Eddings tends to increase the plate width by 1/2 a dish, instruct him from the league office to rein it in. The autonomy that umpires have with how they call a game invariably leads to hostilities between themselves and players; players who feel cheated because liberties are being taken at their expense (more than just blowing a call) are going to do things like, oh, say, throw a bat at an ump. Lock down the strike zone – as best you can – and you can limit your blow-ups to the normal inept officiating and hot-tempered brats in stirrups.

People say "as long as it's consistent, you have no argument." I call bullshit again. You can do better than that. Consistency should be on a seasonal basis, not night to night. Keith mentioned the importance of knowing your umps' tendencies, and he's dead right in the current scenario, but really, can't we expect better? Does anyone really go to the park anticipating (even at the bottom of a long list) the exciting strike zone of Harry Wendelstadt? Of course not. It's a sad tale that we want to dehumanize officials by making them as robotic and uniform as we can, but that's what we want.

I was mildly irritated by Eddings' ridiculous zone (best pinned down as "anything east of Wayne and west of Wilmington") for most of the game, but it was only when Heilman entered in the final inning – and got inexplicably squeezed on three pitches – that my frustration went from "(I need another beer" to "somebody's going to have to read some serious whining because of this." It was uncanny; minutes after Matsui was rung up, Franco was run, and the rally was slain by another iffy strike, Heilman gets jammed up by the most generous umpire since Enrico Pollazzo. It was akin toNBA refs’ swallowing their whistle in the last few ticks of a big game, except the consequence was completely one-sided, making it even more atrocious. Whether it directly impacted the finish is conjectural at best, and to insinuate that this annoyance was the story of this game is misleading. I'd have ranted about it win or lose, though undoubtedly far shorter after a win.

And just so I can get it out of my system in one post (hey, I didn't blather on interminably when the umps crapped themselves in Sunday's Braves game), big thanks to the man in blue covering second base tonight. In addition to calling Jose Reyes out on principle (which is fine – I just hope to God he didn't think he was actually tagged), he facilitated a bizarre fielder's choice in an otherwise rally-licious inning by waiting until Pat Burrell had trapped, dropped, picked up, dropped again, and regained the baseball before making the out call. His hesitation – aided by his being noticeably out of position, same as in the other play, duped Pedro into running back towards first, sealing his fate. Fine work, sir. Preesh.

Anyway, enough. The Mets actually had a fairly sub-par ballgame in toto – Reyes, Beltran (who watched three consecutive "strikes" sail by in one at-bat), Sanchez, and Heilman all had less than stellar games, Pedro was just imperfect enough to hurt, and yet (thanks to Nady and Delgado's two-run pokes), they were in it until the end. An end that had Heilman fielding a swinging bunt instead of LoDuca and awkwardly chucking it into no-man's land as the winning run trotted home, but a close play to end a close game nonetheless.

Ratchet it up a notch tomorrow, dudes. The Philistines are just three games back now and there will be no let-up just yet. Oh, their spirits will crumble and the fans will turn on them before it’s all over, because that’s what they do in this town, but no time soon.

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