Daily Windup: Mets and their struggling bullpen limp to finish
Nothing tears the heart out of a team like a bullpen that can't hold a lead. And so it is that the Mets, a pretty good group of players otherwise, are crawling toward the finish line without a discernible beat in their collective chest.
This is a slow, painful trip that the Mets are taking here, made even more excruciating by the fact that the Brewers are matching them last breath for last breath. The so-called "race" for the National League's wild card -- the Mets lead the Brewers by 1 1/2 games as the final week of the season begins -- has become a competition to see who can screw up less quickly. It is a race in reverse.
And the Mets, seemingly, can do nothing about it. Their bullpen is a wreck, a combination of guys that should be better and guys that have no business being anywhere near the end of a game. Sunday afternoon's implosion against the Braves -- five runs allowed in the last two innings of a 7-6 loss -- wasn't the greatest example of Mets' bullpen ineptitude over the past six weeks. Just the latest.
"There's really nothing more to say or explain or philosophize about or whatever," said Mets reliever Scott Schoeneweis. "It's tough to feel like you let down a lot of guys."
The Mets have blown 29 save chances this season. Outside of the Mariners, Cardinals and the guys that made No Country for Old Men, no one has screwed up the ending of something quite to that degree.
It's not as if Jerry Manuel, the manager of the Mets, doesn't know what's going on. Everyone knows it. In the 45 games since closer Billy Wagner last pitched -- that was Aug. 2, before his elbow blew up for good -- Manuel has called for a reliever from the Mets' bullpen a stunning 158 times. Considering that three of those 45 games didn't merit a reliever, Manuel has lifted his arm to make a pitching change 158 times in 42 games, an average of nearly four waves to the bullpen for every not-complete game.
A quick roster of the wave of wavees in that time: Eddie Kunz, Schoeneweis, Carlos Muniz, Pedro Feliciano, Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith, Duaner Sanchez, Brian Stokes, Luis Ayala, Nelson Figueroa, Ricardo Rincon, Brandon Knight and Bobby Parnell.
By the time the regular season ends Sunday, that arm of Manuel's might be up for a little surgery of its own.
"That's where we are now. That's the hand that we have," the ever-philosophical manager said Sunday. "We've done OK with that so far."
That, maybe, is the strangest part of the Mets' predicament. As much as the bullpen woes have hurt, the Mets are actually 28-17 since Wagner's injury and have a 75 percent chance to make the postseason, according to both coolstandings.com and Baseball Prospectus.
No bullpen, therefore no heart. Yet the Mets are still alive. Paging Freddy Krueger.
"Our starting pitching and our offense have carried us. If they hadn't been doing what they've been doing, we wouldn't be remotely close to where we are," Schoeneweis said. "We've got to turn it around late in the game."
To be fair, this has not been all the bullpen's fault. The lineup has faltered at times. The starting pitching has had some hiccups. There's been some bad luck. (Sunday, the Braves' Casey Kotchman checked his swing and blooped a Schoeneweis pitch over second base to drive in the tying run in the bottom of the eighth.)
But, generally, the lineup has been superb (4.97 runs a game, second in the NL). And the starting pitching has been a strength (3.93 ERA, fourth in the NL). So the bullpen, if not due for all of the blame, still has to handle most of the burden for the Mets' failures.
There is time to stave off the unlikely event of a Brewers' charge in the final week. The Mets are back in New York this week, playing what could be the final games ever at Shea Stadium, four against the Cubs and three with the Marlins.
(The Brewers, meanwhile, are back in Milwaukee for three games against the Pirates and three against the Cubs to finish things off. The other team still in the equation is the Phillies, who lead the NL East right now but, with a few losses, could fall back with the Mets and Brewers. The Phillies finish at home with three games against the Braves and three against the Nationals.)
Whatever happens in the final week, the back end of the Mets' pitching staff is going to be closely watched. There's been some talk of sticking sore-shouldered starter John Maine in the bullpen to help, though Manuel is resisting that idea. The team has just started to break in the 23-year-old right-hander Parnell, who could be of some use. If they make the postseason, the Mets undoubtedly will push one of their starters into the bullpen.
"We know we can get guys out," reliever Smith said after Sunday's loss. "If the season ended today, we'd go to the playoffs, right? That's OK."
He's right, of course. But the season doesn't end today. And that might be the most heart-wrenching news for Mets fans yet.