Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 6, 2012
BASEBALL: That Sinking Feeling
I've lived through many depressing Mets seasons, ranging from years like 1978-80 when there was just no hope from the outset to years like 2006-08 when the team just unraveled right at the very end. But there is, in my view, no more unwatchable spectacle than a team that stays in the hunt or at least plays respectable halfway through the season, then just goes into freefall.
We've been down this road before. The two most memorable of these were 1991 and 2004. In 1991, the Mets had a Gooden-Cone-Viola front 3 and a rebuilt post-Strawberry lineup with Vince Coleman and Hubie Brooks supposed to stand in for Darryl. It was not that impressive a solution, but for a while it seemed to work: the team was 46-34 and 2.5 games back at the All-Star Break, and 49-34 (a 96-win pace, and with 368 runs scored and 312 allowed, they were only about two games above their Pythagorean record) three games after the Break. They went 4-4 the next 8 games to stand 53-38 (still a 94-win pace) on July 21, 4 games back of the Pirates. Then they just stopped. Look at their batting and pitching lines through July 21 - Gooden was 10-6 with good peripheral numbers (but a 4.06 ERA), Viola was 11-5 with a 2.92 ERA, Cone was 9-6 with a 3.07 ERA (with a combined K/BB ratio of 329/112 between the three), the Franco/Pena/Innis bullpen was solid, HoJo was hitting .268/.363/.553 with 69 RBI, Brooks was hitting .254/.350/.454, Kevin McReynolds .293/.357/.463, Gregg Jefferies .287/.360/.426, and Dave Magadan, Coleman and Rick Cerone had OBPs of .379, .360 and .369.
The team went 24-46 the rest of the way, including an 8-21 mark in August (batting / pitching). Brooks and Coleman got hurt, combining for just 159 ineffective plate appearances the rest of the year. McReynolds hit .212/.275/.351 the remainder of the way, Jefferies .256/.312/.322. Garry Templeton ended up starting at first base for a while, and hit .209/.235/.291 after July 21. HoJo kept hitting for power, but with an OBP of .315 the rest of the season. On the pitching side, Gooden started just 6 more games, and Viola - due partly to poor defense - collapsed to 2-10 with a 5.73 ERA the rest of the way. It was a gruesome end to the team that had averaged 95 wins a year from 1984-90 and been on pace to do the same in mid-July. The team would not contend again for 6 years.
2004 was horrible in a different way. The Mets were coming off two straight down years, so expectations were low enough in Art Howe's second season at the helm. And in fact, they were never a really good team - but due to a poor start by the perennially division-leading Braves, the Mets were 1 game out of first place as late as July 15, the first game after the All-Star Break. The trouble signs should have been obvious: the team was 45-43, the Phillies were tied for first, the Marlins were also a game out, and the Mets' .528 Pythagorean record still paled next to Atlanta's .551. As it turned out, the Braves would go 50-24 the rest of the way.
The Mets on July 15, 2004 had a few bright spots (batting / pitching). Mike Piazza, then 35, was hitting .293/.385/.500. Cliff Floyd was hitting .281/.347/.516. Al Leiter and Tom Glavine had ERAs of 2.39 and 2.66, and closer Braden Looper's 1.80 ERA understated his dominance - 43 K, 6 BB, 2 HR in 50 IP.
You know what happened next. The Mets dropped 10 of their next 14 games to fall 7 games back on July 30 - and then pulled the trigger on a trio of trades that packed off top pitching prospect Scott Kazmir and another prospect to the Rays for Victor Zambrano, obtained Jose Bautista from the Kansas City system in exchange for Justin Huber and then packaged Bautista and Ty Wigginton for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger. The deals were win-now deals, but the Mets had already effectively dropped out of the race; after going 3-5 their next 8 games, they were 11 games back and finished. Overall, they ended up 26-48 the rest of the way, Benson posted a 4.50 ERA and Zambrano got hurt and started only 3 games. (batting / pitching). The team became almost as totally unwatchable as in 1991, the sole exception being the July 21 callup of David Wright, who hit .293/.332/.525.
2012 is starting to get that feeling. There were a lot of memorable highlights this season's first half, from Wright's amazing comeback (slashing his K rate by more than half from the prior years) to Johan Santana's no-hitter to RA Dickey's amazing dominance. All I really asked for was that, after Mike Pelfrey went down, this team keep Wright, Ike Davis and the four remaining rotation starters healthy. The Mets were 43-36, 2.5 games out and leading the Wild Card race on June 30 (playing only slightly above their Pythagorean record), and would make it into the Break 46-40.
Through June 30, things looked solid. (batting / pitching). Wright was hitting .355/.449/.564, and while he had no other major help, some other offensive contributors were pitching in a little: Lucas Duda was hitting .258/.348/.417, Kirk Neuwenhuis .275/.335/.414. Ike Davis, after a nightmarish start, was beginning to shake off the rust in mid-June. Dickey was 12-1 with a 2.15 ERA, Santana 6-4 with a 2.76 ERA, and the top four starters (Dickey, Santana, Jonathan Niese and Dillon Gee) were combining for 383/115 K/BB ratio in 395.1 IP.
But the second half has been a nightmare. Gee went down with a season-ending blood clot in his arm. Santana went to the DL, nominally with an ankle injury but most likely signifying his shoulder hasn't really recovered after his June 1 no-hitter; he had allowed 4 HR in 68 innings through that night, 11 in 42.2 IP and a 6.54 ERA since. Dickey's ERA since July 1 is 4.69, and most of the rest of the staff has been no improvement. In the outfield, Duda has hit .140/.260/.233, Nieuwenhuis .105/.190/.132, Jason Bay .109/.242/.164 (the former two have since been demoted). (batting / pitching)
The Mets lost 11 of the first 12 games after the Break, dropping to 11.5 games back in the division and 5.5 back of the second Wild Card. The losses have, this time, been more of the excruciatingly close variety. Of those 11 losses:
-On July 14, the Mets blew a 7-5 lead in the bottom of the 8th and lost by 1 run, 8-7.
-On July 17, the Mets staged a 3-run rally to lead 3-2 entering the bottom of the 9th, blew the lead, took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the tenth, and lost the game 5-4.
-On July 18, the Mets lost a 1-run game, 4-3.
-On July 20, the Mets lost a 1-run game, 7-6.
-On July 21, the Mets trailed 6-5 entering the 9th inning, before Dickey (working in relief) was tagged for two runs.
-On July 22, the Mets rallied with runs in the 7th and 9th to tie the game, then lost 8-3 in 12 innings.
-On July 23, the Mets rallied to tie the game in the 7th, then lost 8-2 in 10 innings.
That's a 12 game stretch featuring 3 extra inning losses, 3 other 1-run losses, and 1 other game that was a 1-run game into the 9th.
Amazingly, the team has actually righted the ship a little since then, with a 5-2 stretch entering yesterday's loss and a total record of 6-5 on the current West Coast road trip, including some spectacular moments by raw rookie Matt Harvey (1-2 so far but with 23 K in 16.1 IP). Daniel Murphy (.369/.414/.524) and Ruben Tejada (.338/.377/.392) have been on a tear since July 1, and Jordany Valdespin has hit a number of big pinch hit homers, picking up where Scott Hairston left off earlier in the season; Mets pinch hitters are batting .268/.367/.492 with 8 pinch homers on the season. So the situation is not as dire as that of, say, the Astros, who after posting a 22-23 record through May 25 have gone 14-50, including 4-30 since June 27 (and have traded away their only good starting pitcher and most of their bullpen).
But it's hard to watch, after the hope of the first half. This team will have to keep fighting to avoid the fate of 1991 and 2004.