No Complaints

For the first time all season, I have no complaints about the New York Mets. 

For some reason, the Mets are in first place.  By a strange coincidence, Carlos Delgado is hitting as well as he did in 2006.  As it turns out, Oliver Perez may be the Mets’ best starting pitcher right now.  And, by an act of Providence, the decision to replace Willie Randolph with Jerry Manuel actually paid off.

OliverPerez.jpgTwo days ago, I gave up on the season.  It’s not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.  But today, the Mets are what we thought they were going to be.  The starting pitching has been solid, and has gobbled way more innings than they used to.  The bullpen has at least been effective every now and then, as opposed to never.  Billy Wagner is back to being automatic in the ninth.  And the lineup is producing runs.

Carlos Delgado is the difference maker in this lineup.  Yes, Jose Reyes needs to get on base, which he has to a tune of a .360 OBP.  Yes, David Wright has to be the Mets’ best hitter.  But when Delgado is producing, the Mets suddenly have a legitimate cleanup hitter.  That takes pressure off both Wright and Carlos Beltran.
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So, on July 24th, the Mets are in first place.  Be sure to expect a horse race the rest of the way between the Mets, Phillies, and maybe the Marlins, if their starting pitching can hold up.  The Mets need to fend off both teams, and Father Time, if they want to be in it until the end.

Billy Wagner

OK, so maybe I overreacted last night.  I probably wasn’t the only one.  But for anyone who doubted the talents of Billy Wagner (You know who you are…Benigno and Roberts, and the
billy-wagner-pinn.jpgrest of you brain-dead WFAN callers), the bullpen is lost without Wagner.  Number 13 is the closest thing to a sure thing in the Mets’ ‘pen.  Except for about 5 or 6 games a year, you know that the ninth inning is safe with Wagner.  Even Mariano blows saves every now and then.  Fortunately for the Mets, Wagner was back tonight.  And he helped erase the memory of the devastating loss on Tuesday night.

 

Collapse II

So what happens on a day when your ace gives you 8 solid innings of 2-run ball against your fiercest divisional opponent and leaves with a three-run lead?  Why, your bullpen blows the game in the ninth, of course.  And in spectacular fashion.  It wasn’t just a failure, it was a failure of EPIC proportions. 
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Maybe Jerry Manuel should have left Johan Santana in, but I agree with his decision.  Santana’s outs in the eighth inning were hard outs.  A line drive, a deep fly ball to Beltran, not to mention the line-drive double (following a foul line drive) by Pat Burrell.

In any event, teams do not recover from losses like this.  I’ve given up on this season before, only to see the Mets battle back into contention.  But they won’t overcome this loss.  Time to think about 2009.

And yes, I am ripping off Mets Blog with the Charlie Brown pic.

The Look

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We haven’t seen this look in while.  This is how Carlos Delgado looks when he is locked in.  It’s a look of restrained victory, as if he is admiring his work, but at the same time, remembering the hardships along the way.  It’s the same look a Great White has on its face just before it bites its prey in half.  It’s the look he had in 2006.  And it’s no wonder the Mets of 2008 are looking more and more like that team, when it circled its opponents like a deadly predator.

Midsummer Classic

Last night’s All-Star Game should be considered a classic.  The American league won, 4-3, on a sac fly by Michael Young in the 15th inning.  And the players and managers actually looked like they were trying to win the game.  And yet, all we hear in its wake is incessant whining by the media, the fans, and some players, that pitchers were overused, guys who
ASG.jpgpitched on Sunday shouldn’t have been used, Brad Lidge shouldn’t have warmed up so many times (actually, I agree with that one…but that goes for any game), bla, bla, bla. 

OK, then, in light of all that, allow me to fix the ASG for everyone.  It’s really really easy.

First, I have mixed feelings about the ASG deciding home field advantage in the World Series.  It does seem to inspire the players, but who wants an ASG to decide such an important event?  So let’s can that rule.  It should just be an exhibition. 

Second (here comes the easy part), expand the rosters to 40 players.  Designate five pitchers and five batters to play ONLY IN THE EVENT OF EXTRA INNINGS, NO EXCEPTIONS.  Let’s call them “Second Team All-Stars.”  What’s wrong with doing that?

There, problem solved.  Now, let’s all enjoy the second half.

Game On

I’m taking a big risk.

My last post was before the July 4 game against the Phillies.  The Mets lost that game 3-2, on the strength of a Shane Victorino walk-off single against Duaner Sanchez.  On that day, I nearly wrote a post about how the season was over, and it was time to look ahead to football season.  But I decided this team was not worth the effort (besides, no one reads this blog anyway.  You know who you are.  Or maybe you don’t, because you’re not reading this.  What an odd paradox.)

After all, the Mets had shown little real improvement under Jerry Manuel.  They were still playing win-one, lose-one, .500 baseball.  The bullpen was still blowing games for Johan Santana, as they did on that night.  And they were still struggling to score runs.  Losing the first game in a four-game set to the Phillies seemed like an ominous note of doom.  The Mets could very easily have been swept into fourth place by the Phils with little hope for a comeback.  But sometime during that weekend, a switch flipped.

The advice from new Pitching Coach, Dan Warthen, suddenly sunk in.  Oliver Perez moved to his more comfortable spot on the mound, the middle of the rubber, and pitched a gem on Sunday.  The bullpen held the lead for John Maine on Saturday after he left with forearm stiffness.  And on Monday, seemingly poised to blow a seven-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, effectively repeating, on a small but concentrated scale, their 2007 collapse, Billy Wagner miraculously coaxed the final out of the game from the same team that crushed their dreams. 

Since then, the Mets have gone on a streak that no one could have seen coming.  They dominated the punchless Giants and the foundering Rockies, by a combined score of 31-4 over a six-game span.  Jerry Manuel is now 17-9 as manager.

So what changed?

Every Mets starting pitcher has a winning record.  The bullpen has been near-perfect.  They have shed the one-size-fits-all approach of Rick Peterson.  No longer are they restricted to Peterson’s “.190 line,” which forced them to only throw knee-high pitches.  Now, they work around the letters as well.  For power pitchers like Maine, Perez, Santana, and especially Mike Pelfrey, that can be a powerful weapon.

Pelfrey has been the biggest revelation.  He struggled after being rushed to the major leagues.  Now, he’s mixing his 91-mph sinker with his 95-mph four-seamer, slider, and changeup, while tossing the occasional slow curve.  He’s always had the kind of stuff to be an elite pitcher, and now he has the confidence and proper guidance he’s always needed.

At the plate, the two most maligned players in the lineup have been red-hot.  Jose Reyes is hitting .320 since May 1st, and Carlos Delgado has found the fountain of youth.  Unable to react to the fastball anymore, Delgado has learned to work the count to get into a fastball situation.  Then, he’s able to cheat on it and crush it.

Jerry Manuel has loosened up the clubhouse. David Wright praised him for making it fun to come to work every day.  The Mets have shed the corporate atmosphere propagated by Willie Randolph, and adopted more of a…well, more of a baseball clubhouse kind of atmosphere.  And sure, Manuel has a reputation as a laid back guy, but for someone who follows the teachings of Ghandi, he certainly argues with umpires a lot.  He’s more intense than Randolph, and he’s less of a politician.  He’s exactly what the Mets needed.

So, why am I taking a big risk?

I haven’t blogged since the beginning of the Mets’ nine-game winning streak.  As I write this, I may be jinxing the Mets.  If they win their next game after the all-star break, I can exhale.  Until then, here’s hoping that some other superstitious fan is doing something silly that’s keeping this streak going.

Or maybe it’s just that the Mets are playing well.  Nah. 

The Lonely Baseball Nerd’s Guide to Minute Maid  Park

I recently had four days off from work (two days off for the Fourth, and no one told me), and nowhere to go, so I figured I’d take a trip down I-45 from my current home in Dallas to the land of National League Baseball in Texas, Houston.  That’s right, Houston, where concrete mingles with cow manure and barbecue, and the local baseball team has quietly put together a pretty successful franchise over the last couple of decades.

Nolan.JPGI’d been to the Astrodome, but not to the new ballpark, so I figured I’d hop in my A4 and make the four-hour trip to see the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Astros in a getaway-day, 1:05 PM matchup on July 3.  I couldn’t find anyone to go with me (the only reason Texans ever go to a baseball game is because the Cowboys or Texans aren’t in town, anyway), so I figured I’d go by myself.

After dodging Texas state troopers for three and a half hours, I arrived at Minute Maid Park (Formerly known as Enron Field.  We all know what happened there.  After Enron, it’s like they decided to go with the least offensive name possible.  I guess “Webkins Park” was taken, so they settled on Minute Maid.). 

Minute Maid Ext.JPGThe exterior of Minute Maid Park is brick, accented with green steel.  If you go to Minute Maid, get used to green steel.  There’s a lot of it.  And it’s not that pleasing hunter green either, it’s more like the color of something that might come out of Linda Blair’s mouth.  In fact, the interior, framed by lots of green steel, takes on a kind of Linda Blair Green tint no matter where you look.

The retractable roof was mercifully closed on this 100-degree Houston day, and the temperature inside was perfect.  Ducts and vents were evenly dispersed throughout the
Crawford View.JPG stands, allowing every patron to feel the freon love.  The concourse featured classy displays of notable past Astros like Nolan Ryan, Glenn Davis, Jeff Bagwell, and The Cheater…er, I mean Mike Scott.  The scoreboard was adorned with the retired numbers of former Astro greats – all nine of them.  That’s right, the Astros have retired NINE uniform numbers, including Jackie Robinson’s, since their inception in 1962.  The
Davis Cedeno.JPGMets, who came into existence that same year, have retired a grand total of four, including Robinson’s.  And of those four, the only Mets PLAYER to have his number retired is Tom Seaver.  The Mets have won two World Series.  The Astros have won a grand total of NONE.  There’s something wrong here.

If the Mets have retired to few (Gary Carter and Mike Piazza should be up there on the outfield wall, maybe Darryl and Keith, too), the Astros have retired too many.  Nolan Ryan, Jeff Bagwell, Jimmy Wynn, Don Wilson, and Jim Umbricht (the latter two due to their untimely deaths) are no brainers.  Jose Cruz is borderline.  He was a popular Astro, but he only hit 165 career home runs to the Too many numbers.JPGtune of a .284 lifetime batting average.  But Larry Dierker?  He had one 20-win season in 1969, and finished with a mere 139 career wins.  And Mike Scott had five good years with Houston – thanks to the fact he learned how to put the same three scratch marks on every ball he threw and somehow managed to get away with it.

But, anyway, back to the ballpark.  It’s clean, comfortable, has great sight lines, and great food (lots of Texas BBQ!).  The closed roof does kind of give it an airplane-hanger feel, but it is quite necessary.  My only complaint were the lines to get into the men’s rooms.  I mean, you expect that sort Lefty's.JPGof thing with the ladies, but I’ve never seen lines quite so long at any other men’s facility in any other ballpark.

The field is natural grass and well-maintained despite the thinning grass around the warning track.  The replica steam engine above the left field wall actually does run, and moves back
Stros Express.JPG and forth after an Astros home run.  And, of course, Minute Maid Park features the two most thoughtless and dangerous “features” in any of the new generation of ballparks. 

Tal’s Hill.  Someone decided it would be a good idea to move the center field fence back to 436 feet and have a grassy hill abruptly climb from the warning track to the middle of the wall.  Then, they decided to put the flagpole smack dab in the middle of the hill – IN PLAY.  This way, if the center fielder doesn’t snap his Achilles tendons climing the hill, he’ll smack his head on the flagpole.  Of course, this did lead to a
Tal's Hill.JPGspectacular catch by Carlos Beltran last year.  I just think it’s an unnecessary and dangerous gimmick.

The visitor’s bullpen.  The bullpen is located in left-center field, between Tal’s Hill and the Crawford Boxes (which, incidently, offer a unique view of the field).  The visitor’s bullpen causes two problems.  First, it is bordered with a chainlink fence.  Chainlink fences are made from interwoven metal which can tear up an outfielder while he makes a crashing catch against the fence.  Second, a ball is deemed to be a home run if it hits the wall above a
Weird Left Field.JPG yellow line painted above the visitor’s bullpen.  This causes lots of confusion, and leads to missed home run calls.

The game was nothing to write home about.  The Dodgers beat the Astros 5-2.  Chad Billingsley was outstanding for LA, and Brandon Backe continued to frustrate Astros fans, striking out eight over seven innings, but surrendering long home runs to Andre Ethier and James Loney.

Backe to Loney.JPGParking was pretty darned easy, considering the ballpark is located downtown, and for fifty bucks, I got to sit right behind homeplate.  Not too bad, considering.

Big Sam.JPGComing back home on I-45, I spotted the huge statue of Sam Houston.  Just the sort of classic tacky thing you like to see on a road trip.  Naturally, I had to stop and shoot it.



 So, Minute Maid Park?  Not my favorite of the new generation of parks, but it was certainly worth the trip.