A surprisingly sharp rotation has meant everything to the otherwise ragged Mets
Wherever he goes and whatever he does these days, Mets lefthander Shawn Estes has his little black book by his side. Like that other master of cool, Arthur Fonzarelli, Estes keeps his pad chock-full of names and numbers. Unlike Fonzie's, it has nothing to do with landing the honeys.
Since Opening Day the Mets' five starters—Estes, lefty Al Leiter and righthanders Pedro Astacio, Jeff D'Amico and Steve Trachsel—have been playing a private game of Who's the Man? After every start by one of the five, Estes goes to his book (which is, for the record, little and black) and enters numbers: One point is awarded for a win, one for seven or more innings pitched, and one for each hit, sacrifice bunt, RBI and run scored by the starter. After each of the five pitchers has made five starts, points will also be awarded for most strikeouts and fewest walks allowed during the marking period. Estes will then tally the numbers and announce the results. The loser buys the other four an expensive dinner. Then the calculations start over for another five turns through the rotation.
"It's a good way to bond, and it keeps things a little competitive between us," says Estes, who was acquired from the Giants in the off-season. "Unfortunately, I'm getting my butt kicked."
That Estes, who had thrown well despite an 0-2 record and 5.09 ERA through Sunday, had been the team's least effective starter speaks well for a staff that, to the surprise of many, had emerged as one of baseball's best. Estes and his four colleagues ranked second in the league with a 2.51 ERA and fifth with 90 strikeouts. Most important, as the team's highly touted offense continued to struggle (the Mets' .237 average ranked 15th in the league) and its Gold Glove-laced defense played porously (a major-league-high 26 errors), the Mets' rotation was the primary reason New York was 10-9 and only a game out of first place in the National League East.
"We heard people questioning our rotation, but I think the guys in here knew the truth," says first baseman Mo Vaughn, who was supposed to help rejuvenate the offense but had missed 14 games with a fractured right hand. "Everyone talks about hot young arms, but to get to the World Series, you need veteran pitchers with smarts and experience. Most teams are lucky to have two, maybe three. We have five."
While the Mets knew that Leiter (2-0, major-league-best 0.38 ERA), the team's ace since 1998, was a lock for double-digit wins and that Estes and Trachsel (1-3, 2.42 ERA) had been productive if inconsistent inning eaters throughout their careers, manager Bobby Valentine could not have foreseen the early-season dominance of Astacio (3-1, 2.89 ERA) and D'Amico (1-1, 1.71 ERA), who had battled injuries throughout his career.
Last year Astacio, 32, who pitched for the Rockies and the Astros, missed the final five weeks with a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder. Instead of undergoing surgery, he decided to rest. The Mets took a chance and signed him to a one-year, $5 million free-agent deal. On Sunday he had his first rough outing of the season a 6-3 loss to the Expos in which he gave up four runs and eight hits in five innings. "The guy's just a hard-nosed competitor," says Mets pitching coach Charlie Hough. "Because he pitched in the altitude of Colorado for much of his career, some thought he wasn't this good. But he's a tough guy to face."
So is D'Amico, a throw-in when the Mets sent Glendon Rusch and Lenny Harris to the Brewers and Todd Zeile and Benny Agbayani to the Rockies in a three-way swap for rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz. Two seasons ago, when D'Amico went 12-7 and battled for the league's ERA tide (his 2.66 ranked third), the Brewers desperately tried to promote the club's young ace as the next big thing. Last year, however, a compressed nerve in D'Amico's right arm limited him to 10 starts. It was yet another run of frustration for the 6'7", 250-pound finesse pitcher who owns one of the game's best curves but has missed 2� seasons with injuries.
When he learned of the trade to New York, the soft-spoken D'Amico was taken aback. Then, once he thought about joining a perennial playoff contender, the idea of a fresh start sounded appealing. "It's nice to be somewhere where I don't have a track record," he says. "I'm just going out, pitching and finding ways to compete. What more can I ask for?"