Mets try to knock out Phils and bad memories of '07 collapse
The Mets could collapse again. They could take another huge lead into the second half of September and totally gag it away, placing another division title on another silver platter and handing it directly to the Phillies. Everybody knows it's possible.
Then again, the Mets could use this weekend's series against the Phillies to put a serious muzzle on that kind of talk. They could take their three-game lead in the National League East and double it before midnight Sunday. That wouldn't bury the second-place Phillies -- last year proved that -- but it would go a long way toward erasing the painful memories of last September and putting the Mets in position to close out their second NL East title in three seasons.
This is a different Mets team, remember, than the one that choked away a seven game lead with 17 games remaining in 2007. With a new ace, a new manager and a renewed determination, the Mets are better on paper. Could they really collapse? Again?
"I think if you look at the two rosters, and you go down them, 1-to-25, I think the Mets are stronger," says the Braves' Tom Glavine, who probably would say that, considering he played for the Mets from 2003-07. "But I think it kind of evens the playing field a little if Wags [Mets closer Billy Wagner] isn't back. Their bullpen is markedly different when Billy is on the back end."
If there's one huge question remaining with these Mets -- other than the possibility of a repeat choke, that is -- it is the state of their battered bullpen. With the lefty Wagner out, the 'pen has become kind of a crapshoot by committee, a grab bag of interchangeable arms with no real standout and definitely no stopper. Wagner last pitched on Aug. 2, when a sore elbow pushed him to the bench. (It's still sore, by the way.) Things deteriorated until, on Aug. 30, the patched-together bullpen gave up two late runs in a 4-3 loss to the Marlins. That dropped the Mets' lead in the NL East to a single game. It was the 11th blown save in 26 tries since the All-Star break and the Mets' 24th choked save of the season. Only the Cardinals have more.
Since then, though, the bullpen has bucked up, throwing 15 1/3 straight scoreless innings over the last four outings. The bullpen, at least in the last week, has more than supported an underrated rotation, which is 10-1 in its last 19 starts with a 3.28 ERA. The Mets, not coincidentally, have opened their biggest lead of the season.
(The Mets' rotation really is a lot better than most outsiders realize. Johan Santana, the new ace, is 5-0 in his last 12 starts with a 2.30 ERA. No. 2 Oliver Perez, a dominating force at times, is 4-1 in his last nine starts, with a 2.91 ERA. He has an 0.35 ERA against the Phillies in four starts this season. Mike Pelfrey is 13-6, with a 3.88 ERA. And then you have Pedro Martinez, who may not be the Pedro of old, but he's certainly still capable.)
Nobody knows how difficult it can be to face the Mets more than the Phillies, who are just 5-10 against New York this season. (They were 12-6 against the Mets in '07.) The Phils have a lineup that produces 4.9 runs a game against the rest of baseball. Against the Mets, the Phillies score just 4.1 runs a game. Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who leads the league with 39 home runs, has five homers against New York this season, but he's hitting just .206, with 23 strikeouts in the 15 games. Left fielder Pat Burrell is batting just .218 (with 17 whiffs). Second baseman Chase Utley is at .228.
The Phillies do have their strengths. That lineup, for example, when it's not playing the Mets. Lefty Cole Hamels (12-8, 3.01 ERA), who will match up against Santana on Sunday night in the marquee game of this marquee series, is a true ace who has become a workhorse, too, with 203 innings already this season, tops in the NL. Brett Myers is 5-1 with a 1.42 ERA in his last seven starts. And the bullpen, with new closer Brad Lidge, has a 3.23 ERA, best in the NL.
Maybe most importantly for the Phillies, recent history is on their side. Last year, they came into Shea for a three-game series on Sept. 14, 6 1/2 games behind the Mets. After their sweep, they left just 3 1/2 games back. That was part of a 13-4 finish that pushed them past the Mets on the final day of the season. The Mets finished that stretch 5-12, including six losses in their last seven games.
It was nearly impossible to imagine a collapse of that magnitude at the time it was happening. (It was the first time in history that a team had squandered a lead of at least seven games after Sept. 12.) It'd be even more difficult to fathom this time around.
These Mets are different. Since Jerry Manuel replaced Willie Randolph as manager back in June, the Mets are 45-26. Their lineup is now every bit as lethal as the Phillies'. The Mets, in fact, score 4.95 runs a game to the Phillies' 4.83 (second and third in the NL). Against the Phillies, the Mets are averaging 5.4 runs a game.
"They have so many thoroughbreds over there. [Jose] Reyes, [Carlos] Delgado, [Carlos] Beltran, [David] Wright. There's not many teams with four guys like that," says Nationals manager Manny Acta, a coach with the Mets back in 2006. "Do they have holes? Yes, they do. But I think if Billy [Wagner] is able to come back, I don't see any reason why anyone would think they can't win the division."
The Mets, of course, can win the East. They have the lead. They have an easier schedule than the Phillies in the final weeks, with more home games (15-13, with 22 games left for each team). Their toughest series after this weekend is four games at home against the Cubs. But the Phillies have four at home against the Brewers.
Yes, the Mets can win the East. And they probably should. All they have to do is finish what they didn't finish last season. For the Mets, it starts this weekend.