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Knuckling Down
JOE SHEEHAN
July 05, 2010
After a slow start, the Mets rallied behind two back-of-the-rotation pitchers. But can they stay in the race?
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July 05, 2010

Knuckling Down

After a slow start, the Mets rallied behind two back-of-the-rotation pitchers. But can they stay in the race?

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Like the financial conglomerate that lends their ballpark—Citi Field—its name, the Mets got into trouble early this season with risky investments that threatened to take down the entire operation. An 18--20 start, capped by a four-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins in May, brought calls for the firing of top executives such as manager Jerry Manuel and G.M. Omar Minaya.

With the fifth-highest payroll in baseball ($134 million) not producing anything like the fifth-best team in baseball, it appeared the Mets might have to bail out on the 2010 season.

But, like Citigroup—which has become one of celebrity financial analyst Jim Cramer's must-buy stocks—the Mets are now soaring. Through Sunday they were 43--32, just a half-game out of first place in the NL East. It's not their many expensive stars that are behind the turnaround. Their 25--12 push can be traced to changes at the back of the rotation, specifically to May 19, when knuckleballing journeyman R.A. Dickey replaced injured lefthander Oliver Perez. Two days later Japanese free-agent lefty Hisanori Takahashi came out of the bullpen to spot-start for Jonathan Niese, and he stayed there when Niese returned in place of the injured John Maine. Before they were sent to the DL, Maine and Perez made 16 starts, averaging 4 2/3 innings per start with an ERA above 6.00. The Mets went 5--11 in those games. Dickey and Takahashi have made 14 starts, averaging a tick more than six innings an outing with an ERA of 3.19. The Mets are 10--4 in those games.

There are warning signs, however, that the current positive returns may not be sustainable. The Mets had the league's 11th-best OBP (.327) and were seventh in slugging (.404) at week's end. Excellent base stealing has closed some of that gap; the Mets led the NL in stolen bases with 74 and were successful on 81% of their attempts. The bigger help has been an unusually good performance with runners on base: A team that had a .249 average and .382 slugging percentage with no one on jumped to .279 and .422 with runners in scoring position.

Another area of concern is Jason Bay's power outage—the leftfielder has just four homers. Still, despite falling short of home run expectations, he has 23 other extra-base hits and a .366 OBP. The anticipated return after the All-Star break of centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who has missed the entire season with a knee injury, would lessen the pressure on Bay, balancing the lineup and reducing the outfield role of OBP sink Jeff Francoeur.

Even with the return of Beltran, it's hard to see this team holding off the surging Phillies in the second half. That will leave the Mets in a wild-card mix with the Braves, Reds, Dodgers and Rockies—probably coming up a bit short, a place no $134 million team wants to be.

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