Wow. If I’d written this piece two weeks ago, it would have been chock-full of vulgarities, profanities, and other various unpleasant diatribes. Because as June came to a merciful close, the Mets were floundering at several games under .500, had just fired their manager in shameless fashion at 3AM, and were slammed with injuries and ineffectiveness in every corner. If it wasn’t Ryan Church suffering from post-concussion syndrome, it was Moises Alou straining one body part while rehabbing another. The bullpen was consistently contributing to gut-wrenching losses, including a week from hell from closer Billy Wagner. And our new skipper hadn’t commanded a squad in years. After such a promising offseason highlighted by the acquisition of Johan Santana, it was shaping up to be a lost year.
And then something clicked, and we woke up. All of a sudden, Mike Pelfrey realized his best chance for long-term success was to sacrifice a few miles from his nasty sinking fastball in exchange for better command and movement, throw it 80% of the time, and induce grounder after grounder. All of a sudden, role players like Fernando Tatis, Endy Chavez, and Damian Easley were coming up with clutch hits on a daily basis. The bullpen was dominating. And as we await the results of tonight’s game, the Mets are guaranteed to go into the All-Star break, after this hellish year, no more than 1.5 games out. As the New York tabloids like to spout: “amazin’!”
Despite this satisfying 8-game winning streak (and counting), holes remain if the Mets are to mount a true World Series run. Alou is out for the season; a torn hamstring finally sent the resilient-but-fragile geriatric down for the count. Most likely, a solid career softened by injuries is over. In many ways, this is for the best; Minaya won’t be tempted to go with the Chavez/Tatis tagteam in LF “until Moises returns,” which was certainly a plausible line. With the good news that Ryan Church should return within a few weeks, we really only need to acquire one OF to drastically balance our lineup, while lengthening our bench in the process. Jason Bay and Adam Dunn have been knocked around, but the price is likely to be too high; our farm system isn’t exactly deep, and I’m not excited about moving Fernando Martinez for those guys. Randy Winn or Xavier Nady seem like more plausible fits. A few people have knocked the Barry Bonds idea around, but I’d rather sign my brother-in-law than bring that toxic waste into a clubhouse that’s finally getting its 2006 mojo back.
If LF is shored up and Church comes back raking like he was before the injuries, the offense should be very strong. One of my favorite Jerry Manuel traits is his willingness to go with the hot hand and utilize the bench, especially Ramon Castro and Easley. Expect to see Luis Castillo play just 4-5 times a week when he returns, with Brian Schneider getting the same sort of playing time. That’s good for everyone, as it gives the starters more rest and some deserving backups more run. Elsewhere, Carlos Delgado looks to finally have his stroke back, and should remain a solid #6 hitter, and the Reyes/Wright/Beltran trio is just fine.
With Pelfrey’s emergence, the rotation looks deeper than any in the NL outside of Chicago. Pedro hasn’t been himself in any way, shape, or form, but he seems healthy and I’m cautiously optimistic he’ll put together a decent (not spectacular, but adequate) second half. Maine and Perez aren’t as consistent as I’d like, but both can pitch a SHO any time out, and most importantly, can shut down good and bad lineups alike. Santana, despite some early problems with the gopher ball, has been as advertised; killer WHIP, K/BB ratio, and consistency. He’s a true ace, and makes the rest of the rotation fall into step behind him.
Every team could use some bullpen help, and the Mets are no exception — Duaner Sanchez doesn’t have his 2006 form back, though he’s still above average — but really, the current crew has a nice mix of lefty/righty, power/soft-toss, and depth. Heilman’s June resurgence has gone a long way in strengthening the pen’s core.
We’ll see if Omar has any tricks up his sleeve, but props to Manuel for loosening the collars and reminding the Mets how much fun this game can be; Jose Reyes looks like he breathes baseball again, as it should be. Props to the team for its resilience, and props to Fernando Tatis for hitting the biggest HR of the year; a 2-run shot against the Phillies last Sunday after Billy Wagner blew the save with just one measly strike to go. If the Mets do wind up putting together a strong season, I think that’s the at-bat we’ll all look back at as the real season-changer. Let’s go, Mets!