On the day of the first exhibition game of spring training, David Wright pronounced it time for the Mets to finally forget a disastrous 2009. As the third baseman stood at his locker in the clubhouse at the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida, he also predicted better days in 2010.
"Last year was a case of everything that could go wrong going wrong," he said. "It won't happen this year. You can't have two years in a row like that."
So far, Wright has been, ahem, right about how he felt this season would unfold. The Mets won their seventh straight game Thursday night, beating the Indians 6-4 at Progressive Field to improve to 38-28 and remain a half-game behind the division-leading Braves in the National League East. That is a far cry from last season, when the Mets limped to a 70-92 finish as nearly every key player suffered some kind of serious injury or malady.
"This year has been a heckuva more fun than last year," Wright said. "It's always more fun when you win."
It is difficult to understand how the Mets are winning, at least from afar. The Mets have not been dominant in any one phase of the game and have only one player —Wright —who is having what would be considered an exceptional season. The team is fifth in the NL in runs allowed (3.97 per game), 10th in runs scored (4.41), and 10th in Defensive Efficiency (.690). They have only two players among the top 30 in the NL in WARP, as Wright is second with 5.2 and Angel Pagan is 18th with 3.6 while filling in admirably in center field for Carlos Beltran, who has yet to play this season while recovering from knee surgery.
So what is the Mets' best secret to success? Manager Jerry Manuel says it is very simple, noting, "We're playing with confidence, getting good pitching and defense, and doing a lot of the little things right."
At the forefront of the Mets' solid starting pitching have been the duo of right-hander Mike Pelfrey (3.3 SNLVAR) and left-hander Johan Santana (3.1). In Santana's case, it's just been the matter of him being healthy again after undergoing elbow surgery in the offseason. However, Pelfrey has taken major step forward in his fifth season.
"It's never been a case of Pelfrey not having enough stuff to succeed at this level," Manuel said. "His confidence level has reached the point now where it matches his physical ability. It often takes young pitchers a while before they begin to truly believe in themselves, and you see that happening with him now. He feels he is going to win every time he takes the mound."
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who made the conversion from traditional pitcher five years ago, is the first pitcher in Mets' history to go 5-0 in his first six starts. He has given the rotation a major boost since being called up from Triple-A Buffalo.
"This is really the first time I've ever felt that I've truly developed the muscle memory where I can repeat my delivery and grip on the ball consistently," Dickey said. "Everything has come together this season and I feel like I'm going to pitch well every time out."
Wright has a .317 TAv and has put to rest the notion that he had lost his nerve to dig in at the plate after being beaned by the Giants' Matt Cain last August and that his power stroke had been robbed by the Mets' move into spacious Citi Field last season. Wright is hitting better than ever and has 12 home runs, surpassing last season's total by two.
"I was never worried about any of that stuff," Wright said. "I had a tough year last season. We all did. We looked at this season as a fresh start and I've taken advantage of that. I've never been the type of guy who has tried to hit home runs, they've always come just as a natural extension of trying to make solid contact every time up. I haven't changed my approach at all."
Left fielder Jason Bay, the Mets' big-ticket acquisition in the offseason, has only four home runs after hitting 36 last season. However, he also has a .297 TAv after signing a four-year, $66-million contact as a free agent. Rookie first baseman Ike Davis' TAv is .288, and Pagan has chipped in with a .283 mark while also replacing injured second baseman Luis Castillo in the second spot in the batting order behind shortstop Jose Reyes.
"I think we're just starting to hit our stride offensively," Manuel said.
"The key for us is that everyone is contributing, both the hitters and the pitching staff," Pagan said. "We don't have one guy doing great things, but we have everybody doing their part. We're stringing hits together to keep innings alive, doing little things like hustling down the line to stay out of double plays. All of that adds up, though, and it's why we're winning ballgames."
The Phillies entered the season as the overwhelming choice to win a third straight NL pennant. Yet they are 34-30 and third in the NL East, 3 ½ games in back of the Braves.
While the Phillies are struggling, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said that he does not feel compelled to make a trade to shake things up. Furthermore, Amaro doesn't sound like a man inclined to make a pennant race-altering trade later in the season, such as he did last year when he acquired left-hander Cliff Lee from the Indians.
"This is our team," Amaro said. "They'll be fine. Once we get guys healthy, we'll be fine. The guys have track records. They're good players. They're championship-caliber players, and they will be again. I think we have one of the best nine in the game. I'll challenge anybody if they don't think we have one of the best nine in the game."
The Phillies, though, have lost their grip on the NL East lead. On May 17, they were on top of the division by five games but have lost 8 ½ games in the standings in just one month and one day.
"I'm paid to be concerned about it," Amaro said. "We're going through a tough time. It's not like the first time we've gone through a tough time. We're going to be OK. There's concern, yes, but we're going to be OK."
Speculation was rampant early in the week that Pirates manager John Russell was about to be fired and GM Neal Huntington's job status was tenuous. Both were believed to be in the last year of their contracts, which only fueled the speculation.
However, it turns out that Russell and Huntington are not in danger of getting the ax, even though the Pirates' losing streak reached 11 games Thursday night when they fell 5-4 to the White Sox. It also turns out that both are not lame ducks, as club president Frank Coonelly revealed on Thursday that the Pirates clandestinely extended both their contracts one year through the 2011 season last October.
It is a matter of course that teams announce contract extensions for their GMs and managers. Yet the Pirates kept the matter internal following a 62-99 season, sparking speculation in Pittsburgh that they did so for fear of not hurting season-ticket sales. However, Coonelly said he had his other reasons for staying mum.
"I know it never really ends the constant search for 'are you going to extend?' How many years are you going to extend? Are you concerned the manager won't have authority within the clubhouse if the players don't know he's on board for another year, two years, three years, whatever?'" Coonelly said. "That's a concept I disagree with entirely. That's part of the reason that I didn't find if necessary as organizational policy to publicly discuss the contract status of the general manager, manager, coaching staff. I really thought the public discussion of the manager and general manager's contract length just raised constant questions about, 'Are you going to dismiss? Are you going to extend?'"
Regardless, the Pirates are hurtling toward an 18th consecutive losing season as they are 23-43, giving them the second-worst record in the major leagues behind the Orioles (18-48). The Pirates set the major North American professional team sports record for most consecutive sub-.500 seasons last year.
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Angels are looking for middle infield help with Maicer Izturis on the DL and Erick Aybar likely to follow. Among the players they are considering trading for are the Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew, the Orioles' Cesar Izturis, the Cubs' Ryan Theriot, and the White Sox' Omar Vizquel. They have also considered signing free-agent shortstop Adam Everett, who was recently released by the Tigers. … The Mets have interest in Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson, who along with many of his teammates is on the trading block. … Add Buck Showalter to the list of candidates for the manager's job with the Orioles, along with fellow ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine and former Indians manager Eric Wedge. … The Mariners are considering designating first baseman Casey Kotchman for assignment tonight when they activate designated hitter Mike Sweeney from the disabled list. … The Rays are considering calling outfielder Matt Joyce up from Triple-A Durham to help at designated hitter. … Giants shortstop Edgar Renteria has lost his starting job and is now in a time-share with Juan Uribe. … Look for backup catcher Mike Napoli to begin seeing the majority of playing time at first base for the Angels in place of injured Kendry Morales now that outfielder Michael Ryan was designated for assignment when starting catcher Jeff Mathis was activated from the DL. The Angels have Bobby Wilson to serve as the No. 2 catcher.