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September 30, 1999

Durocher's Revenge?

It's gotten quiet in Queens

by Greg Spira

Just one week ago, the New York Mets seemed in firm possession of the National League wild-card spot, a position they had held for several months. There was even a solid chance at a National League East title, with six games against Atlanta looming. Despite the formidable schedule, it seemed like they had little to worry about on their road to the postseason. All they needed to do is keep their autopilot on and they'd breeze into the playoffs.

Now, a little more than a week later, everything has changed. They've lost seven games in a row. After not being swept in a series all season, they were swept not only by the powerful Braves but by the middling Phillies. The team seems to have folded like "Quayle 2000". And while they're still in the wild-card race, one-and-a-half games out, it's now a race with a different team than they expected, the Houston Astros, who have been reeling almost as badly as the Mets.

After the debacle in Philadelphia, Mets manager Bobby Valentine suggested that he should be fired if the Mets don't make the playoffs. It's certainly true that Valentine hasn't been at his best over the last week: his trust in Kenny Rogers' declarations of good health was misplaced; his management of the bullpen in the first game of the Phillies series was a classic case of overmanagement that helped cost the Mets the game; and letting Rey Ordonez bat in key situations is always a mistake. But Valentine does not deserve most of the responsibility for the team's failures the past week.

The Mets, after a mediocre start in 1999, played their way into contention with a lineup that hit for average and walked, a deep, effective bullpen and an excellent defense. Last week, though, their strengths turned into weaknesses. The Mets' starting pitching was actually fine: they had quality starts in four of the six losses. But the team batted an anemic .208 during the week and couldn't even attain a .300 on-base percentage, while the bullpen blew both close games they were handed.

The media has quickly tagged the Mets with the choke label, even though the race isn't over yet. That's unfair; as Bobby Cox said the other night, teams don't choke - they just get beat. Choking just makes a more satisfactory story. There's still a great race because the Houston Astros are having similar problems to the Mets. the Astros' greatest strength this year, their starting pitching, has collapsed, and the Houston staff as a whole has posted their worst monthly ERA so far in September. Meanwhile, the Reds have charged past the Mets and the Astros without relying heavily on the bullpen that has been their bulwark all year. Instead, Cincinnati has already hit more homers in September than any team in the league has hit in any month this year.

Right now it feels like the Mets are dead. The odds are certainly against them, and having to face Kevin Millwood in their final contest with the Braves will not help their situation. But the Mets have proven their worth all year by playing a superior brand of baseball. In the last week they've faced the toughest staff in baseball and then had a series in which almost everything that could go wrong with the offense did go wrong. How often does Rickey Henderson ground into a double play with the bases loaded, anyway? It was the type of series every team has at one time or other, a series in which every hard-hit ball seems to be right at a fielder.

The last week could've happened at any other point in the season, and it would've just been a slump. Now, especially after last year's end-of-season slide, it's inevitable that the losing streak will be made out to be something bigger than it is. The reality is that the Mets got stepped on by a better team and a streak of bad luck. That may cost them the postseason, but it shouldn't overshadow the season they've had.

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MORE BY GREG SPIRA
2000-04-06 - Team of the Decade Outfield
2000-03-08 - Team of the Decade Infield
1999-11-20 - 1999 Internet Baseball Awards Results
1999-09-30 - Durocher's Revenge?
1999-07-15 - BPs Mid-Season Rankings
1999-03-10 - DiMaggio
1999-02-01 - The Prospectus Projections Project
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