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August 27, 2008

Prospectus Today

May Mets Fans Not Rush to Judgment

by Joe Sheehan

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Let's make one thing clear: that the 2008 Mets blew a 7-0 lead and lost to the Phillies, 8-7 in 13 innings, to fall out of first place, has absolutely nothing to do with 2007, has nothing to do with anyone's character, and does not determine who will win the NL East this season.

With that said... boy, if you're a Mets fan, that sucked. After opening up a 7-0 lead after 3 innings, the Mets had to be thinking about having Johan Santana going to the mound with a chance to sweep the short series and then heading to Florida to play the collapsing Marlins up 2 games over the Phillies. That it didn't turn out that way wasn't just about the bullpen; it was a team effort, from Pedro Martinez to David Wright to, yes, Luis Ayala and Scott Schoeneweis.

Think about the fifth inning for a second. Martinez had pounded the strike zone on the way to four effective innings before allowing a broken-bat 1-2 double to Clay Condrey, the pitcher's third career hit in 25 plate appearances. That's inexcusable, no matter how weak the hit was. Four batters later-home run, walk, strikeout, home run-the Mets' lead was 7-5, and Citizens Bank Park was a zoo. Pedro Martinez wasn't "pitching to the score," he was desperately trying to get out of the fifth inning before falling apart. He did-Jerry Manuel seemed determined to leave him in for the win-but the cost, the four runs, would prove critical.

That the Mets had seven runs after four turns at bat-and seven runs after 13 turns at bat-can't be overlooked. The Mets had runners at first and second with none out and the number three spot up in the sixth; they also had first and second, one out, and the number three spot up again in the eighth. They hit into double plays in both innings, then again in the 10th. David Wright was part of the failures in the sixth and eighth, and made a base-running gaffe in the 11th, getting thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double with two outs, denying Carlos Beltran a chance to bat against Ryan Madson. The Mets didn't get a runner to second base after the eighth inning.

The offense failed. Pedro Martinez failed. The bullpen allowed three runs in 8 1/3 innings, which is much better than their typical level of performance. Focusing any amount of anger at the Mets' relievers is facile; yes, the bullpen blew a two-run lead and eventually lost the game, but it was put in a tough spot by the rest of the team. As has often been the case in the absence of Billy Wagner, Mets relievers were asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. I've advocated for a bigger role for Pedro Feliciano, who doesn't give up homers and who in the past has had some success against right-handed batters. Last night, he hurt my case, allowing hits to two right-handed batters in the eighth in helping the Phillies get back to 7-6. Luis Ayala hasn't been good since 2005, and he has an ERA of 5.46 this season. Jerry Manuel asked him to close out a one-run game in the ninth. Scott Schoeneweis hasn't retired a right-handed batter since 2003; he was brought in to face six of them in the 13th. There was no chance that the game was going to the 14th at that point.

On the other hand, Brian Stokes threw two shutout innings between Martinez's departure and the eighth. Aaron Heilman bobbed and weaved around a leadoff double-he hung a pitch to Chris Coste-in the 10th and a bases-loaded situation in the 11th to throw three shutout high-leverage innings. Joe Smith got a critical strikeout of Pat Burrell in the eighth. As you go through the play-by-play, you can try and look for reasons to criticize Jerry Manuel's handling of his relievers, but it's hard to find an example. Maybe he could have left Sanchez in a bit longer in the eighth, but bringing in Feliciano to face three lefties and a switch-hitter in five batters made sense. Why Ayala instead of Heilman in the ninth? Jerry Manuel has probably been a bit too reactive in assigning roles, so Ayala is the closer of the moment, even though Heilman is the better pitcher. The decision was consistent with the current approach, even if the current approach is a bit mistaken. (Objectively, Ayala is the Mets' fourth-best reliever.)

Even at that, the Mets had a lead with one out to go and Eric Bruntlett at the plate. Bruntlett was hitting .200 against right-handers, with four extra-base hits off of them in 130 at-bats; he had three off of them last year. He can't hit right-handers, and that Ayala let him double in the tying run is perhaps the game's great failure. Maybe it shouldn't have been Luis Ayala in that spot; maybe Beltran and Ryan Church should have found a way to get to Bruntlett's ball sooner; maybe Damion Easley should have made a better relay throw-any good one nails Jayson Werth at the plate, ending the game. That play, however-Eric Freaking Bruntlett driving in the run from first base off of a right-hander-was the inexcusable one. You simply can't get beat by that player in that situation.

On the other hand, the Phillies had all of the things that didn't work for the Mets go right. They got 10 innings of one-run ball-plus a critical double-from their relievers. The one time Charlie Manuel-isn't that going to be fun keeping straight going forward-played matchups, he used Scott Eyre to get Carlos Delgado to roll into a double play in the sixth. They capitalized on runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, eighth, and 13th. (The latter rally producing my favorite moment of the game, Brett Myers being given six straight take signs with the bases loaded and no one out. As a table-game manager, there have been many times I've uttered the phrase "make just one out" in similar situations. Charlie Manuel made sure of it in that spot. That Schoeneweis nearly walked a guy who wasn't going to swing under any circumstances is embarrassing.)

The Phillies made key defensive plays, from the double plays in the sixth, eighth, and tenth, to Jayson Werth's baserunner kill on Wright in the 11th, to Ryan Howard's spear of a Ryan Church grounder in the 12th. They got big hits from Rollins, Howard, Bruntlett, and Coste. They did everything right from the fourth inning onward, and they won a game that looked lost. That has an enormous amount of value in a race where the margin on September 28 could be that one game. It doesn't make the 25 guys in red better people than the 25 guys in gray, but for one night in August, it does mean that they played better baseball.

The storyline that last night's game creates for tonight is fascinating. Johan Santana has been one of the three or four best pitchers in the National League this season, a fact hidden for some behind a 12-7 record that has more to do with poor offensive and relief support than his own work. His 1.52 ERA over his last seven starts has been a key part of the Mets' rise to first (until last night, anyway). Because of the lack of wins, however, there's a large segment of New York fans and media who have been disappointed by Santana, even as he pitches at essentially the same level he has for years.

Tonight's game is going to define Santana's season for that loud segment. No matter what Santana did before, or what he does going forward, how his 2008 season is remembered-perhaps how his Mets career goes-will hinge not only on how he pitches tonight, but on how the Mets perform around him. Eight innings of two-run ball will be perceived as a failure if the Mets score just once, while a 16-run outburst by their offense will make Santana a hero no matter what he does on the mound.

It's an unfair spot, to be sure. It's also the cost of signing a contract to play in New York.

---

By rule, I have to express an opinion on this, so here goes: bring on the cameras. Replay usage on home-run calls only? Not even enough. I want it on the basepaths, on disputed catches, to call balls and strikes, and I want two cameras tracking Doug Eddings from the moment he leaves his hotel room in the morning. Baseball games should be decided by the players, not by low-paid middle-management functionaries of dubious competence and excessive self-worth.

With that said, the implementation here is terrible, with all of the umpires leaving the field to look at a camera. It smacks of the umpires wanting this to be a spectacle that garners attention and creates negative feedback. Create 15 New York-based jobs, have those men rotate through shifts at MLB Advanced Media's offices in Chelsea, and have the calls made from that location. Or better still, add a man to each umpiring crew who sits in the booth and makes the call when necessary. In the time it takes a manager to come out and argue, you can look at a dozen replays from a half-dozen angles and have the call made correctly.

It's a good thing that MLB is allowing technology to step in where human eyes fail. The next step is to recognize that human eyes fail almost completely at the job of making tenth-of-a-second delineations between when a ball hits a glove and a foot hits a bag, or the task of tracking a small object moving at 95 mph in three dimensions. The future of umpiring is now-bring on the cameras.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jerry Manuel,  Mets,  Double Switch,  The Call-up,  Luis Ayala

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