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Heat's on Willie

But Wilpon 'disappointed' in team from 'top to bottom'

Posted: Thursday September 20, 2007 11:50AM; Updated: Friday September 21, 2007 10:20AM
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Willie Randolph
Willie Randolph's tactics have come into question as the Mets try to cling to their NL East lead down the stretch.
AP
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The Mets could be in the midst of a historic collapse, and manager Willie Randolph assumes the posture of a man without a care, infuriating radio call-in people, bloggers and fanatical e-mailers. But now the complaints about Randolph are said to be more pointed than that and coming from people a lot closer to the situation, folks inside his own organization, in fact, some of whom have the ear of general manager Omar Minaya, who for three years has been Randolph's staunchest in-house supporter.

No matter how many times Randolph, who is easily one of baseball's most experienced pennant-race participants over the past 30 years, tells everyone that, "This isn't Armageddon,'' no one is listening. Folks look at Randolph's lifeless, tight team and see a stoic leader, and they blame him. But according to people familiar with internal discussions, it isn't just the fans this time who are wondering whether Randolph's message is being lost and his strategies are misfiring.

The Mets' message du jour is, "We're all in this together,'' but the reality is that there are cracks beneath the veneer. And it's only natural that the front office that for two years has been taking bows for assembling what's generally viewed as the National League's most talented team is wondering whether Randolph is getting the most out of his players. Eight straight losses to second-place Philadelphia and two bad ones to the Nats before Wednesday night's win -- not to mention 10 errors in back-to-back losses -- have everyone in Flushing searching for answers.

"I'm disappointed with the way the team is performing overall, and that's everyone, top to bottom,'' Mets COO Jeff Wilpon told SI.com before Wednesday's much-needed win expanded New York's NL East lead over Philadelphia to 2 games. "I'm disappointed in Omar, Willie, the players ... that's everyone. We shouldn't be in this position. But we are. We've got to fight our way out and pull this out.''

Randolph's fate is said to be "up to Omar.'' And while there's no indication the manager's job is on the line, even if the freefall continues, say the unthinkable happens and the Mets miss the playoffs after leading their division since May 16. Randolph's status would take a clear hit. Minaya, who, let's not forget, has "full autonomy," is finally starting to hear some cries of bullpen mismanagement, and a couple holes are beginning to show in the relationship between the two great New York stories, the Brooklyn-bred manager and the Queens-raised GM.

However, only one of them is facing the heat of this fire. Minaya was publicly deified for a string of superb transactions a year ago, and while last winter didn't measure up to the one before, the perception that this team's talent is too good to lose places the bull's-eye squarely on the manager. Everything was supposed to be going Randolph's way this year, too, with a rich two-year extension that'll pay him $2 million in 2008 and $2.25 million in '09 (heavy deterrents to a firing), and especially with Manny Acta -- who is personally closer to Minaya and other front-office members and who was perceived to be the heir apparent -- gone to Washington. But instead Acta's Gnats did a number on the Mets two straight nights, tightening New York's noose.

The Mets' malaise started well before the All-Star break, and Randolph got hot when Minaya wrongly blamed hitting coach Rick Down (whom Minaya fired anyway). Things have not improved on the field since that misguided move; if anything, they've gotten worse.

Meanwhile, Mets people adhere closely to their "all together'' mantra, refusing to open old wounds. Folks familiar with the team's internal discussions say the gripes about Randolph's strategies, particularly as they relate to the relief corps, have been going on behind closed doors since the early days of his three-year tenure. But until lately Minaya was having little of it. While it was the front office's call to give multi-year contracts to Scott Schoeneweis and the tainted Guillermo Mota, Randolph's over-reliance on Mota generally and Schoeneweis lately (the struggling lefty pitched in his fourth straight game Tuesday) has been questionable.

While fans have accused Randolph of lacking passion, that's a bit unfair, as his department-store mannequin demeanor isn't appreciably different from the Yankees' iconic Joe Torre, who has also faced criticisms of bullpen mismanagement. Randolph has also been chided for going too easy on his players, though he correctly points out that he has engaged in many unreported one-on-one confabs.

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