Monday, July 03, 2006

Funky Boss

Games 80 through 82 – Mets

Mets 8, Yankees 3
Yankees 16, Mets 7
Pirates 11, Mets 1
Record: 48-34

Last night’s blowout in the Bronx had everyone mocking or bemoaning the state of the new, new Mets today, and the jeers/fears were somewhat justified. It wasn’t that they lost by a count of 16 to 7 to the universally loathed Bombers, it was how they lost. After knocking Jaret Wright out of the game early with a 4-spot, the Mets saw the Yankees come storming back against the woefully overmatched Alay Soler . . . with “Nero” Randolph fiddling with his moustache all the while, staring blankly at the spectacle as if it were some kind of bad dream he just needed to ride out. Towards the end, most of us were wishing that were the case, or at least wishing that we’d ventured off into dreamland instead of staying up to watch the carnage.

The Yanks piled it on, of course, led by the “Bride of the Yankees,” Alex Rodriguez. When Paul LoDuca barked at A-Rod for supposedly showing up his pitcher, it seemed to be a case of willful misdirection. Nobody saw Soler’s painful struggles more obviously than the Mets’ catcher, and the guy who showed up the young Cuban the most last night was the manager who wouldn’t spare him further humiliation. A wise choice by Paulie to single out the easiest target in the five boroughs rather than create dissent by placing the blame where it was most deserved.

When Willie was standing stoically in the dugout as if he were the warden overseeing Alay Soler’s death by firing squad, I screamed obscenities at him from 500 miles away and felt convinced he was the worst manager in all of baseball. When Joe Morgan began to come down on him, I was less sure of Randolph’s culpability for obvious reasons. When the Township's masses went ballistic on him in game threads, there was more reason to step back and reassess. While I love the pulse of MetLand as taken through the blogging quotient, their twist on Newton’s third law (“for every action there is a not-even-close-to-equal and off-base overreaction”) as a credo makes you take every consensus with a grain of salt. Despite these caveats and a day to apply perspective, all signs still point to Willie Randolph as the most deserving of our ill will.

For as much as Soler disappointed the club with an atrocious outing, he’s a rookie pitcher (sort of) who’s going to have tough nights along the way. A similar feeling goes for Heath Bell. Xavier Nady’s 1-2 punch of failing to notify Jose Valentin that he was getting tagged out at home plus a 4-run doink off his glove to usher in garbage time didn’t make us feel great about him, but it didn’t erode all remaining confidence we had in the guy. The same can’t be said for the Mets manager who appeared bewildered by the way the game unfolded. Willie Randolph seemed as helpless in his role as I was in mine, and that’s a problem. That he apparently had some misguided master plan that involved tonight’s outcome didn’t matter; by night’s end, he’d already lost most of our support.

It didn’t help him that just a few dozen yards away, a negative image of his inaction was on display. Joe Torre didn’t need to see any more of his starter after an inning-plus, and his quick hook shifted the Yank-train back onto the tracks. Meanwhile, Boxcar Willie, our Casey Jones at the lever, had our engine diverging out of control and rolling into a hayfield while he watched along indifferently. Hindsight is 20/20, but let’s not pretend it was sheer luck that led to those results. When the other guys got in trouble, their skipper rolled up his sleeves, made some changes, and did what he could to fix things. It sent a message. When our skipper sat by, letting Soler crumble before us miserably, it also sent a message. White flag waved, series surrendered, let’s slink back to the pathetic National League with our tails ‘tween our legs and try and limp to the division title.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but when the manager is admittedly worried more about tomorrow’s game against the Pirates than tonight’s against the Yankees, the signal sent is one of “pick your battles” and some sort of strategic concession. The Met team that was finding creative ways to win any ballgame despite any deficit is now appearing to choose when to gut it out and when to simply go out there and take a ration of shame for the team. A few minor injuries – and if anyone doesn’t think the Mets have largely skated on the injury front, just ask the Yankees if they’d like to switch places – have the Mets playing timid.

That is if we’re to believe Willie actually had such a game plan Sunday night. His inability to manage his bullpen, and specifically to know when one of his guys is lacking the stuff or control to get anything done that doesn’t evoke images of the movie “Firestarter” has been shouted from the blogosphere rooftops for as long as he’s been doing it. Every pitcher on the staff is going to have games when they just can’t get it done; it’s not a mere footnote on the respective job descriptions of manager and pitching coach to be able to gauge the pitcher’s performance in real-time and get the most out of him before he catapults the team’s chances to win into the DMZ. I knew Soler was cooked early in that dreadful inning. LoDuca knew it, the other players on the field knew it. Hell, Soler knew it, and he kept shooting quick, darting glances into the dugout like “Really? You want me to stay in?”

I’m not ignoring the fact that there are only so many pitchers on a roster. I’m not ignoring the fact that there are 162 games in a year and that overextending your pen in one could inflict damage that impacts several others. You just have to live by a few simple guidelines.

Wave the proverbial white flag only if you must, but never:
1. In the first third of the game.
2. When you have the lead.
3. When you are losing by a run or two.
4. When you’ve already chased their starter in the second inning.
5. When it means you embarrass a young pitcher.
6. In the name of saving Darren Oliver to start the next day against Pittsburgh, and then not.

Willie claimed that the game got out of hand very quickly, as if in a split second it went from a 4-0 joyride to a 13-4 wreck. Granted, 13 runs in three innings is relatively rapid, but it was over a span of 20 to 25 minutes. Football coaches have 35 seconds to call, relay, and execute a play that will sink or save them – hoops coaches have a fraction of that at times. Baseball managers have a relative eternity to see a sweating, shaking starter heave 77 mph curveballs wide and wider of the zone and do something about it. Yes, four-pitch walks fly right by when the batter isn’t conveniently fouling off a few to give you time to crank those wheels in your head. Games can get away from you for a few runs, but a barrage during which the watching world is beckoning and bellowing for what by then seems incredibly obvious – that Alay Soler simply could not get it done – isn’t zipping by in an instant. I pray that was a bad excuse off the cuff and not the reality in his mind.

Speaking of hindsight, the Sunday night game looks that much worse after having watched tonight’s debacle. Hmm, I guess when you finish up interleague play on such a sour, sad, surrendering note and think that a return to playing the dregs of the Senior Circuit will magically cure what ails the team, you’ve got another think coming. The Mets went out and got some hits tonight but lacked that spark to knock them in with well-timed smacks. John Maine -- who, inexplicably, started despite all of the shrewd thinking ahead -- pitched well enough for a while, but then the bullpen collapsed like the house of cards it’s been set up to be lately. Being embarrassed by the Yankees is one thing, but to get clobbered by the Bucs is a disgrace of whole other depth. Yikes.

And here’s where we change gears, giving this schizo post a whole new outlook.

Hypocrisy #1: Despite a plea not to show signs of crying “uncle,” Pedro needs to be sat down. He should rest from now until the second half of the season. Pride and the fun of the All-Star game are swell until they get in the way of long-term plans. Whatever is ailing him in his hip (his toe probably isn’t feeling all that keen these days, either) need not be tweaked, inflamed, and aggravated in the next 10 days or so. We need a 100% – or as close as we can get – Pedro down the stretch.

Hypocrisy #2: Despite my feeling that Willie Randolph is sending his club signals of weakness and submission, there may be no better time during this season for him to demonstrate his skills as a leader than right now. This is the first real bump in the road for the Mets, and to deal with it by not dealing with it may let the team know that an even keel will see its way through the stormy seas . . . or it may let them know that Willie is in over his head. Take charge and make this team yours today, Mr. Skipper. Show us something.

Hypocrisy #3: Exaggerated words like “embarrassment” and “humiliation” made their way throughout Met-related news content everywhere today, and there will be more of the same tomorrow after the drubbing at the hands of the worst team in the worse league. (Truly, to watch Chad Bradford’s and Pedro Feliciano’s work tonight, maybe those words aren’t such an exaggeration.) With the right clubhouse talk from the right coaches, though, these can be shaken off and the order of most of the first half can quickly be restored. We’ve seen how the vibe and direction of the team can change at the drop of a hat. (It seems quick to us the way things can turn around, but you should see how fast it goes for Willie Randolph. Whoa.) Seven games left before the Break. That’s more than enough of an opportunity to have everything in command by the time we regroup for the rest of this slog.

Hypocrisy #4, and this is the doozy: I’ve been concerned for the Mets’ long-term plans for many lines here, and as recently as last week I assessed the Met rotation as being sorely lacking for the race to the pennant. And as much as I think that the Mets really need one or two new pitchers to arrive between now and July 31, I have a very bad feeling in my gut right now. I have this sense that the ass-kicking the Mets took in Boston and the Bronx, plus Pedro’s woes, plus Soler’s and El Duque’s struggles, have Omar closer to frantic than he’s projected. Immediate instinct says the time is now to go out and get someone, to deal Milledge, Pelfrey, Floyd, and whomever else he has to in order to get a starter. Please, Omar, don’t do anything rash. If the GM’s of the league’s doormats are worth their salt, they all placed calls to Mets HQ tonight to dangle an A- or B-tier starter out there in exchange for the rest of the Mets’ farm. Beware them, Omar, and beware your own frustrations and impatience. The one thought that should keep Omar out of any lopsided deal would be the thought of the current state of the Mets with Scott Kazmir in the 3-spot of the rotation. It’s the one time when such thoughts might be healthy.

So there you have it: Whitney’s lessons through his own self-contradictions. Learn them. Know them. Live them.

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