When Mike Piazza left the New York Mets' clubhouse last Friday night, he looked as if he were living out the parlor game in which everyone imagines how they would spend the perfect day. He had just hit a game-breaking home run in yet another Mets win, he had the Playmate of the Millennium, Darlene Bernaola, awaiting him on the other side of the clubhouse door, and in his right hand were the complete works of Led Zeppelin, digitally remastered and fresh out of the box's shrink-wrap, ready to rattle the windows of his Cadillac on his commute home. Talk about your hitters on a hot streak.
These are heady, lamp-rubbing good times for Piazza, whose at bats at Shea are greeted with music to the metalhead's ears: Led Zeppelin riffs and booming chants of "MVP! MVP!" Further, by taking three straight games last weekend from a possible playoff opponent, the San Francisco Giants, New York affirmed itself as the hottest, and perhaps most balanced, team in baseball. The Mets are built like what Piazza left with on Friday night. (No, not her.) New York is a boxed set, with nothing left out.
"There's not one part that we're leaning on," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said after a 2-0 win on Sunday. "That means that if one area of our game slips, we can still win another way."
At week's end the Mets had ripped off a 16-3 run that left them, at 69-47, with just one more loss than the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East and with six fewer losses than their closest pursuer in the wild-card race, the Arizona Diamondbacks. All but four of the wins in this spurt have come after the Mets closed the last two obvious holes on their roster. On July 28 they obtained sure-handed shortstop Mike Bordick from the Baltimore Orioles to replace the unproven Melvin Mora, who was filling in for Rey Ordo�ez (out for the season with a broken left forearm). That day they also traded for Tampa Bay Devil Rays righthanded reliever Rick White to add depth to what was already a good, but taxed, bullpen. Bordick hit .300 in his first 15 games for New York while providing defense that instills confidence in pitchers. White allowed only one run and six hits over his first nine innings with the Mets.
"Before, there were questions of how long our bullpen could last and what kind of development Melvin would have this year," Valentine says. "Those questions are gone now. When Mike makes an error, it's, Ho-hum. When Melvin made an error, it was, Oh, god. Can he do it? Can he make the plays down the stretch? That affects the team psyche."
The Mets are also winning tightly played rehearsals for October. They won three playoff-quality games against San Francisco last weekend: 4-1, 3-2 and 2-0. Their pitchers suffocated the highest-scoring National League team outside of Colorado. The Giants never put together back-to-back hits in 94 at bats, scored only one earned run, went 2 for 20 with runners in scoring position and batted .043 (1 for 23) in seven scoreless innings against a Mets bullpen that hadn't lost a game since July 13.
New York, meanwhile, showed the opportunism that San Francisco lacked. Piazza's 411-foot rocket on Friday night, a two-run homer that broke a scoreless tie in the fourth inning, came with two outs and first base open. "Why would they pitch to him?" asked Todd Pratt, Piazza's backup. "I don't understand why anybody would pitch to him. He's that good."
The Mets won the next two days with rallies in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, that began with leadoff walks and climaxed with two-out hits. "We have no glaring weakness," lefthander Al Leiter said after he dominated San Francisco on Sunday with 12 strikeouts over eight shutout innings. "I like what I see. Now let's see how far it takes us."
As complete a team as they may be, these Mets—like the Led Zeppelin oeuvre—do have a signature piece: Piazza, 31, is their stairway to playoff heaven. "What does he mean to this team?" Leiter says. "Everything."
At week's end the Mets were 37-13 when Piazza drove in a run and 32-34 when he didn't. He ranked fourth in the league in batting (.351), seventh in home runs (31) and fifth in RBIs (97), extraordinary numbers for any player, but phenomenal for a catcher. "Look at this," Piazza says, offering his right index finger as proof of the hazards of his job. The finger zigs and zags like a lightning bolt.