Son of a Pitch!


There’s a rumor going around that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was refused a chance to lay a wreath at Ground Zero, he offered instead to bring one out to Shea Stadium. If so, it should have been delivered directly to the bullpen.

As we sift through the wreckage, there’s no real mystery what happened to the 2007 Mets: Their relief pitching collapsed. No lead was safe, and demoralization began to set in—first with the starters, who faced an increasingly greater strain down the stretch, and then with the rest of the team, which began to feel as if nothing they could do would prevent the bullpen from giving it all back.

At bat, the Mets were pretty much the same team this year as last, and a very good argument could be made that they had one of the two best hitting teams in the National League. The Philadelphia Phillies led the NL in scoring this season, while the Mets finished fourth—but Citizens Bank Park inflates scoring, while Shea Stadium suppresses it. On the road, in neutral parks, the Phillies outscored the Mets by just a handful of runs. Before being blanked by the Cardinals last Thursday night, Mets hitters had actually averaged 6.2 runs per game over a 13-game stretch in which the Mets were 4-9. The problem was that the pitching gave up 7.5 runs per game—with more than half of that coming over the last three innings.

What should have been the Mets’ problem last year—pitching—turned out to be the problem this year, and with a vengeance. In 2006, the Mets were third in the league in runs allowed; this year they finished seventh. Though Mets fans may be shocked to hear it, the starters did a better job this year than last—in fact, much better, allowing just 4.40 runs per nine innings to last year’s 5.01. What saved the Mets last year was a remarkably resilient relief corps that posted the NL’s best bullpen ERA, 3.64. A lot of people thought, perhaps correctly, that the Mets were extremely lucky with their bullpen last year and that more than a few of their relievers were having career years. In any event, the Mets started the 2007 season missing three key members of that bullpen—Chad Bradford, Roberto Hernandez, Darren Oliver—and with no one to replace them.

In retrospect, what happened this September was a bomb that waited all season long to drop.

The Mets’ team ERA was a respectable 3.91 before the All-Star game and an Ian McShane–ugly 4.68 in the second half. And most of that difference was the bullpen: 3.73 in the first half (not far from last year’s seasonal mark) and 4.65 since. The most spectacular implosion, of course, was Billy Wagner, with an ERA of 1.64 before the break and a whopping 3.54 since. The likely explanation is that 36 birthdays—13 of them in uniform—have taken a yard off Billy’s heater.

What really hurts for Mets fans is the idea that the core of this team might be traumatized by what happened in 2007. The real test will come next season, when we’ll see if Jose Reyes can shrug off the boos. The player who was supposed to be a symbol of the Mets’ resurgence was a disappointment at bat and in the field. Not a big disappointment—a .280 BA and .421 slugging this year, compared to a .300 and .487 in 2006—but Mets fans were expecting Reyes, at age 24, to be a superstar, not just the best shortstop in the NL. Above all, they did not want someone with a lack of enthusiasm for running out ground balls.

What Mets fans shouldn’t forget is that David Wright did not disappoint and that he should remain the leading candidate for the National League MVP. All season long, Wright hit with terrific power, was successful on nearly 90 percent of his steal attempts, and was platinum-glove quality at third base. His on-base percentage was only six points lower than Alex Rodriguez’s. The only weakness Wright showed down the stretch was an inability to pitch in relief.

While watching the air go out of the Mets’ season, we couldn’t help but wonder how many Yankees fans thought back just a few seasons ago and reflected on a team that, but for a bit of luck, might have had the worst collapse in New York baseball history. In 2000, the Yankees had their worst finish ever, winning just three of their last 21 games, and getting outscored over that stretch by a jaw-dropping 55-148. This included seven straight defeats to close the season, during which the Yankees scored just 15 runs and the pitching staff gave up 68. The 2000 Yankees ended the regular season with a won-lost of .540%, a shade lower than this year’s Mets, and wound up the regular season with a record of 87-74—actually one win less than the Mets had this year. One difference was that the Yankees didn’t have a team like the 2007 Phillies on their heels: The Red Sox couldn’t build up enough steam to take advantage of the Yankees’ collapse and finished two and a half games back. Because the 2000 Yankees were able to shake off the cobwebs and sweep the board at the end, beating you-know-who in the World Series, no one recalls now how the regular season ended.

If the Yankees’ pitching doesn’t hold up against the Indians this week, no one is going to care that they had the best record in baseball after the All-Star break. All the while that the Mets were in free fall, the Yankees were winning, but there were ominous signs that were obscured by the 10- and 12-run barrages repeatedly put up by the hitters. Both Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte were once again shelled in their last outings, putting considerable doubt on their postseason reliability—and, in perhaps the most disturbing incident, Mariano Rivera blew yet another save by giving up three runs in a game meaningless to anyone but himself against Baltimore.

What Yankees fans may soon find themselves facing up to is the fact that their pitching staff is every bit as shaky as the Mets’, and that, when Joba Chamberlain isn’t on the mound, their bullpen may be even worse.