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September 29, 2008
The Morning After
If the history books declare this a Mets "choke," while glossing over the team that closed 13-4 and made up the ground that was left uncovered, it will be missing a huge part of the story. The Phillies won the NL East; it wasn't just handed to them.
After the games of September 10, 2008, the Phillies were 3½ games behind the Mets in the NL East, and four back of the Brewers in the NL wild-card race. Just like they did a year ago, they closed their season in style, winning seven in a row starting on the 11th-including a sweep of the Brewers-and finished 13-3 to win the NL East going away, clinching a tie Friday night, and the division Saturday afternoon. Their pitching and defense led the way, as they allowed three or fewer runs in 12 of of the 16 games. Or maybe their offense did, which scored at least six runs in ten of the games. In any case, you cannot write the story of the 2008 Mets without again acknowledging that they yielded the division to a team that played exceptionally down the stretch. The Phillies bullpen once again performed very well, capped at the end by Brad Lidge's perfect season in save situations, and while Ryan Howard is no MVP-and he is, I reiterate, a platoon player-his 1274 OPS in September is a big reason why he gets to keep playing into October.
Less explicable is the Mets' failure to close out the Brewers to win the wild card. There was no Rockies this year, no team winning 14 of 15 to catch the Mets from behind. At the close of play just nine days ago, the Mets were 2½ games ahead of the Brewers with eight to play. Their post-season chance was 87 percent, just shy of the team's high-water mark. The Brewers' chance that day, 15.6 percent, was its lowest since June 15.
It turned after that. The Brewers allowed 18 runs in seven games in going 6-1. You can't nod to that without acknowledging that they beat the Pirates three times, twice winning extra-inning games against minor league relievers, and were fortunate to play the best team in the league at the perfect time, when it had no stake in the outcome and was very close to its next meaningful series. Those circumstances helped, but also consider that they got three of those wins after being tied or trailing late, and that CC Sabathia started three games in eight days, the last two on three days' rest, and allowed a total of three earned runs. They played the teams put in front of them, and they went 6-1 to win 90 games, and while the context is worth mentioning, you can't use that context to dismiss the performance. The 2007 Mets closed the season with seven home games against bad teams, as good a context as you might hope for, and they failed. You have to win.
Perhaps 90 wins shouldn't have been enough. The Mets finished 3-5, and unlike the Brewers, they lost games late-three of the five losses over the last eight days came in the bullpen, as the problems holding leads and keeping games close that had persisted in the middle innings-and extended to the ninth in Billy Wagner's absence-repeatedly hurt them in the season's final week. They blew a 4-2 lead in the seventh to the Braves, blew two ties to the Cubs in a 9-6, ten-inning loss, and blew a 2-2 tie in the eighth yesterday to lose to the Marlins, 4-2.
Perhaps it is yesterday's loss that ties the strings and the bow on the gift box that was the Mets' 2008 bullpen. Jerry Manuel went to Scott Schoeneweis to start the eighth inning, and Fredi Gonzalez countered by using Wes Helms to bat for Mike Jacobs. When Helms launched Schoeneweis' third pitch over the left-field wall, not a single fan could have possibly been surprised. Schoeneweis has spent two years being eviscerated by right-handed batters, and it was Willie Randolph's inability to keep him from facing them in key situations that was the best reason-arguably the only reason-to let him go. Manuel did a better job of mixing and matching his relievers, most of whom have big platoon splits, but at a key moment, with the season in the balance, he rolled the dice and lost.
Manuel then brought in Luis Ayala, who went from throwing mop-up relief for the worst team in baseball to being the closer for a contender in a span of six days in August, the latter a job he was never qualified to do. As it turns out, Ayala's ERA with the Nationals (5.77) was a good match for his work with the Mets (5.50). He just happened to have a handful of good performances that caused the team to overrate him and treat him as a high-leverage reliever, a decision that bit them when he reverted to being Luis Ayala. Ayala immediately gave up a home run to Dan Uggla to make the score 4-2 and take away many of the Mets' options heading into their last two at-bats.
The Mets' bullpen simply asked too much from too many flawed pitchers. A good bullpen will have a couple of guys with large platoon splits who are generally asked to get guys out who they can get out. The Mets had, at times, four and five guys like this in their pen. That's a failure of assembly, something that can be blamed on management. On the other hand, the Mets' relievers who were supposed to be their full-inning guys were disasters, largely responsible for the bullpen's demise. Aaron Heilman turned in the worst year of his career; Duaner Sanchez came back from injury without his fastball; Wagner got hurt. That's a failure of the players.
The rotation collapsed as well. The only Mets starter to record a win in the team's last 11 games was Johan Santana. The only starters other than Santana to record wins in September were journeyman Brandon Knight, rookie Jon Niese, and Oliver Perez. When John Maine got hurt, the rotation immediately went from a strength to a question mark, even as Mike Pelfrey turned in a Maine-level performance. The real question here is the decision to count on Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez to share a rotation spot, rather than bring in more outside help. Martinez looks done, with D-level stuff that he's surviving on because he has a tremendous mind for the craft. Hernandez, of course, didn't pitch a lick all season. More pitching depth should probably be a goal for next season, although in fairness, I think we'll see a lot of roster turnover here in general.
Can the Mets' hitters be blamed? Only if you use a very short time horizon. The Mets scored 24 runs in the series with the Cubs, then just three over the weekend. That hurt Sunday, when a few extra runs could have made a big difference. Then again, the fifth and sixth batters for the Mets in their must-win 162nd game were Nick Evans and Ramon Martinez; that's a failure of construction.
The challenge for Omar Minaya this offseason is to construct a roster from top to bottom. Minaya has shown a deft touch with the frontline talent, making good free-agent signings and trades to help what is absolutely a championship-caliber core, benefiting from the presence of David Wright and Jose Reyes, of course. The Mets, however, have had weak benches and bullpens for two years, and shown a stunning lack of resilience in the face of injuries. The front office has to do a better job of backing up its core with good players around it in the lineup and behind it in the rotation and bullpen.
In the modern era, our focus on reaching the postseason can approach tunnel vision, so I think it's worthwhile to consider some context. For the second year in a row, the Mets will have a better record than an NL division winner. The combination of small divisions, an unbalanced schedule, interleague play, and a wild card create a lot of fuzziness about the term "better," the same way that three levels of short series can confuse people about "best." The Dodgers are five games worse than the Mets by record, and worse than that if you take caliber of competition into account. They're being celebrated thanks largely to the inability of their four opponents-by-dint-of-geography to assemble a team capable of winning 85 games. The Mets, or for that matter, the Yankees, didn't have that luxury.
As you place their seasons up against those of the Dodgers or the Twins or the Angels, you must consider all of the factors that go into the evaluation of a team's success, and not just the bright-line test of "making the playoffs." The quixotic structure of modern MLB shouldn't shape the discussion to the extent that it does; there are so many flaws in it that it has to be part of that discussion.
Over in the AL, the White Sox and Twins each lost two of three at home-the White Sox have quietly pulled as big a collapse as the Mets, closing 4-9-to force the White Sox to play their makeup game with the Tigers. If they win today at US Cellular Field, the Twins will travel to Chicago for a one-game playoff Tuesday, the winner of which will take on the Rays in the Division Series.
Is there really any scenario in which the Sox don't win today? They're playing at home, in a game they have to win, against a sub-.500 team closing out the most disappointing season in baseball. The Tigers have to fly in from Detroit to play a completely meaningless game that does little but push their offseason back by a day. They're starting Freddy Garcia, who has made all of two starts this year, and backing him up with a wretched bullpen.
The thing is…it's baseball. No one team is ever so big a favorite in any one game as to make the "upset" possible. For that matter, no team ever "upsets" another in the regular season. It's just not a term we use in this game. So despite having every edge you can find, the White Sox will be putting their season on the line. There is no such thing as a gimme in baseball, and that's what makes today so compelling. If the Sox lose, closing 4-10, including the last three of four at home to non-contenders, that's arguably up there with the Mets' 2007 and 2008 stories.