Oh What a Relief It Is

The Cast of Misfits in the Mets Bullpen

A collection of castaway closers, a crackpot, a headhunter, more journeymen than a conquistador battalion, a guy who hadn't thrown a pitch in the majors for two years, and a stopper who spent two months on the disabled list . . . this is the best bullpen in baseball? This is the fine line between a four-run, six-inning Orel Hersheiser start and a come-from-behind victory? Is it just the sad state of pitching or, perhaps, is Queens the perfect setting for such a cast of characters to collectively reach levels more than a dozen general managers had long since given up on?

With Met starters averaging just over six innings per outing, this is a bullpen with more "holds"— baseball's coolest stat before the "walk-off home run" became hip— than a WWF superstar. They keep their team in games and they're asked to do it more than any other playoff-bound team. Note this compelling stat: No Met starter ranks in the National League's top 25 in ERA, so the relief corps bear a heavy burden.

As of press time, the pen boasted a collective 27-14 record with 45 saves and a staff ERA of 3.35— Gooden/Orosco­type numbers in an era of Dotel/McElroy. A look inside this Steve Phillips creation, er, masterpiece:

After stints with the Twins and Red Sox in the mid '90s, Pat Mahomes spent two years hurling for the Yokohama Baysters. A May pickup for the Mets, his return to the States has been nothing short of remarkable. Mahomes is 7-0 with a 3.51 ERA and has gained the trust of manager Bobby Valentine, finishing 11 games for the club.

Remember the quirky Turk Wendell? The mouthfuls of black licorice and between-inning toothbrush antics with the Cubs? Well, he's grown up a bit, developing into one of the league's better right-handed setup men— and quotable players. After one stellar start last week, Wendell credited his outing to "subconscious conscious. It's a conscious level you're at where you're not trying too hard." Whatever. He sports the second-lowest ERA on the team with a 3.29 Zen factor.

Just as he did last year, Dennis Cook is quietly posting stellar numbers while setting the plate for the closer du jour. His record is a solid 10-4, his ERA a well-respected 3.56. The ageless wonder (at 37) is consistent, crafty, durable, and, of course, well traveled. Before coming to the Mets from Florida last year, he'd hurled for the Giants, Phillies, Dodgers, Indians, White Sox, and Rangers.

In 13 games for the Mets, Chuck McElroy has proven himself as a lefty asset for Valentine. A trade-deadline boon by way of Colorado, McElroy, in his 11-year career, has also thrown for the Phillies, Cubs, Reds, Angels, and White Sox, besides being selected by Arizona in the expansion draft and traded to the Rockies the same day.

The lone disappointment among the flurry of midseason pickups by Phillips has been Billy Taylor. The Mets gave up Greg McMichael and Jason Isringhausen for the A's closer, and while Izzy has since won the finisher's role for Oakland, Taylor has only just lowered his NL ERA to the near-single digits. But, hey, even a playoff-bound team needs a mop-up man.

And then comes the closer's spot— filled by John Franco and Armando Benitez: an orange-T-shirt-wearing veteran and a soft-spoken fireballer. Franco, probably the first of the agita-inducing relievers headed for the Hall, will likely ease back into the closer's role as September comes to a close. The Brooklyn native converted 19 of 20 save opportunities before he went down on July 3 with a sprained tendon in his middle finger.

Benitez was nothing short of Mariano-like after Franco got hurt. Whereas Franco had been averaging close to one hit per inning before his stint on the DL, Benitez has averaged about half that. He's also averaged greater than half a strikeout more per inning than his aging mentor, his numbers nearing the league leader. Throw in a 95 mph fastball, and you've got yourself a closer, a role he was stripped of with the Orioles last year after a speedball plunked Tino Martinez between his 2 and 4. But on a team where everybody except Bobby Bonilla gets second chances, Benitez was handed the ball and has pumped more gas than a Midtown Sunoco.

 
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