Thursday, June 22, 2006

Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun

Games 66 through 71 – Mets

Orioles 6, Mets 3
Orioles 4, Mets 2
Mets 9, Orioles 4
Reds 4, Mets 2
Mets 9, Reds 2
Reds 6, Mets 5
Record: 44-27

The Mets have stumbled through the last week of baseball after their virtual coronation as division winner by just about everyone. The Reds are overachieving, but really shouldn’t pose that much of a threat to a Mets team on a roll, while the Orioles franchise is beginning to resemble the bloated toad that owns it. That the Mets’ week of C-/D+ work arrived immediately following my post chastising the ubiquitous drivel announcing the division race as already over doesn’t really prove anything, but that won’t prevent an “I told you so” tone from seeping in here nonetheless.

The division is not won yet, even as the other contenders bottom out when the Mets hit a minor bump. That said, even if the competition is going to fade away from here on out, if the Mets have their eye on actually making some noise in October, there are plenty of question marks that don’t need leaving until Labor Day to address.

The spikes in the rotation are starting to flatten out, for better and for worse. Before, it seemed to be Pedro and Glavine surging and three nights of shrugging our shoulders with shaky results. Now, as Trachsel, Hernandez, and Soler throw sandbags on the back end of the rotation, Martinez and Glavine appear to be gassed from carrying the load for a couple of months. Fair enough, but it doesn’t take more than two or three pedestrian outings by this formerly high-flying duo before we start to fret.

The bullpen can commiserate. Everyone seems to be chipping in a feeble outing here and there, and Billy “Scally” Wagner took his turn last night. It’s not yet time to question whether something’s wrong with him/them. It’s time to take note but sit back, watch, and hope the other shoe remains impossibly hovering in mid-air like a size 13 Air Jordan circa 1986. There’s every chance it could.

Speaking of impossibly, the Met hitters remain implausibly sweltering. Even last night, when the inexplicable resurrection of the marginally competitive pitcher that was Joe Mays was held at Shea Stadium, you just knew that the Reds’ pen couldn’t hold the lead. And they didn’t, what with Jose Reyes hitting for the cycle, Jose Valentin baffling all doubters, and “clutch” starting to appear more in descriptions of David Wright than in those of the Porsche Boxster.

Despite the continued accumulation of hits, the Mets have dropped four of six; the run-scoring wasn’t as acutely opportune while the pitching suffered letdowns and the defense appeared on vacation at times. Small plays that speak larger, like nobody covering on a throw down to second, had me figuring the Mets were busy reading their own accolades and buying playoff tickets for their peeps. It hasn’t become rampant, and it’s certainly allowable to a certain degree after that masterpiece of a road trip, but it’s time now to refocus on the little things, a practice that had them delivering up to full potential just a week prior.

Why now? The immediate schedule – after this afternoon’s series closer versus Cincy – has granted the New York Mets a truer litmus test than they’ve had in recent memory. The Metmen have piled up on supposed contenders in the NL lately, but starting tomorrow night they travel to Toronto, Boston, and the Bronx for nine important games in the self-assessment process. Each of those three teams is a legitimate playoff threat, and each can hit like gangbusters, but each also has some dips in the rotation – the Met bats will need to keep up their sick pace, and we’ll soon see how they stack up.

Fans of American League teams have long touted their half of the baseball sphere as being a superior product; with the DH, high-scoring affairs, and several of the league’s highest payrolls, the fireworks fly for fans of sluggish intellect, and that’s the way they like it. They can’t be bothered to watch the eyesore that is a pitcher at the plate, and they figure managerial strategy is best saved for parlor games like Chess or Connect Four. If only the AL could allow aluminum bats, or at least adopt designated hitters for middle infielders, players under 6’, and guys in slumps, it’d be a more perfect creation.

Unfortunately for the purists, geeks, and fans of the “real” brand of baseball that’s played in the National League, the AL blockheads are dominating whatever rivalry might exist between supporters of the two leagues. The Junior Circuit has ruled where it matters most – head-to-head competitions. Though it’s not the best determiner of superiority, the All-Star Game hasn’t been won by the NL since 1996. (Though they did record a tie a few years ago. Score.)

Meanwhile, in the contest that actually matters, the National League hasn’t even won a single World Series game in going on two years. The last three NL winners of the Fall Classic sported media guides with less than 10 years of team history. It was hard to get too thrilled about those wins, except that it wasn’t the Yankees. Before those, of course, we had the Braves in ’95, only serving to deny long-suffering Indians fans true celebration and mar an otherwise pristine Atlanta Braves stretch of regular season champions/postseason tramplings. It’s been since the 1990 Reds shocked the A’s that NL rooters could be proud of their league’s performance. And 2006’s outlook offers little relief. When people eloquently remark that the National League . . . sucks, mutter something in a begrudging affirmative and move on, people.

The Mets, however, could shine a little light in the next week – both an enlightening look at how this team really stacks up against some of baseball’s heavyweights as well as a ray of hope for fans of the Senior Circuit as a whole. The AL smoked through last weekend’s interleague contests like they were facing AAA clubs. The Mets’ own division seems to be decaying in unison all of a sudden. (The upstart Marlins excepted, though they did lose last night to complete the NL East oh-fer.) Being Farmer Ted’s “king of the dipshits” and taking the East title would satisfy the Township residents to a high degree; knocking the Braves off the mountaintop and actually dripping some postseason sweat will be a sweet sensation for the boys in royal blue and blaze orange and will have us fans downright giddy. Taking aim at something greater than that isn’t greedy, though -- it’s the wiser move for a bliss more thorough and permanent. And there will be no stretch of the season more telling of how far off the mark the New York Mets are than over these next nine games. Shoot straight, you bastards, and don’t make a mess of it.

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