Jul 24

Three Mets’ Storylines: There’s A Good Feeling Again

 

CONFORTO: WOW! (Getty)

                                   CONFORTO: WOW! (Getty)

As erratic as the Mets have been since the end of April, after winning two of three in Miami the feeling again is the playoffs are possible.

And, it’s not a wistful feeling. Down by 1.5 games after the Chicago series, had they lost or been swept by the Marlins there would have been a doom-and-gloom aura surrounding the team.

“I said coming out of the break this was crunch time for us,” manager Terry Collins told reporters. “This was a good series for us to win.”

Today’s 3-0 victory over the Marlins was the combination of Steven Matz pitching tough for six innings; the bullpen following the script; Michael Conforto doing it at the plate and in the field; and, believe it or not, they scored tack-on runs without going deep.

If there was a formula to winning, strong pitching, situational hitting and defense, is the one to pick, and for the most part the Mets got it this weekend.

That this came on the road against a team ahead of them in the standings, making it that much sweeter.

Today’s other storylines today were:

PITCHING PLUS: Matz, bothered with a bone spur in his elbow, pitched six strong innings to win his first game since May 25.

Perhaps most encouraging was how he pitched to Giancarlo with runners on the corners and two outs in the fifth.

“I just didn’t want to give in and give him that ball he could crush,” Matz told reporters. “I didn’t want to miss fat and make a mistake with runners on.”

Matz threw 99 pitches, which is too much for six innings.

Following Matz was the 7-8-9 script of Hansel Robles, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia, with the closer converting his 51st consecutive save opportunity.

For all the talk of the Mets needing a reliever, what Robles and Reed have given them can’t be overlooked.

CONFORTO SHINES: Conforto laid out making a spectacular catch robbing the first batter of the game, Miguel Rojas, of extra bases. Considering Martin Prado singled and Stanton walked later in the inning, the Mets avoided a big hole.

Conforto also had two hits and scored the Mets’ first run.

“He’s too good a hitter,” Collins said. “He worked hard and flattened his swing out. I know he’s going to hit.”

Jul 23

What I Will Always Remember About Piazza

PIAZZA AND SEAVER

                                         PIAZZA AND SEAVER

In thinking of my favorite Mike Piazza memory, I always go back that one swing against the Braves, Sept. 21, 2001, in the first professional sports event in New York City following the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center.

I was in Baltimore at the time, covering the Yankees and Orioles, and in the back of the press box was a television tuned to the Mets and Braves. The pregame ceremonies were moving, and like most of the Yankees writers, my eyes kept darting back to the game at Shea Stadium.

After all, this was our city, and history was being made at the stadium whose parking lot a few days before was used as a staging ground to shuttle food and other supplies to the hundreds in need in lower Manhattan.

During such times it is cliché to say sports are insignificant, but they also have a way of diverting our attention and making us feel good when things are black. Piazza’s dramatic home run off the Braves’ Steve Karsay didn’t heal New York’s pain, but for one moment it made things seem normal.

It wasn’t the greatest moment in franchise history, but it definitely was one of the most significant. For that reason, it is my favorite Piazza memory.

The following are my other most memorable Piazza moments:

Piazza vs. Clemens: This was more a soap opera than a singular event and the first domino was a grand slam the one-time 62nd-round draft pick Piazza clubbed off Roger Clemens in June of 2000.

A month later, in one of the classic punk moves of all time, Clemens hit Piazza in the head with a fastball in a night game at Yankee Stadium.

Then, in Game 2 of that year’s World Series, Clemens’ broke off Piazza’s bat, and grabbed the barrel end and disgustedly threw it at the Mets’ catcher.

A few days ago, former Yankees manager Joe Torre said he doesn’t believe Clemens threw the bat at Piazza intentionally.

I covered that game and couldn’t believe not only what I saw, but that Clemens wasn’t ejected. Knowing what I know now, a case can be made for steroid rage.

Of course, Torre wouldn’t throw a former player of his under the bus. However, as somebody who oversees disciplinary cases for Major League Baseball, what Torre would do if faced with a similar incident?

In the end, Piazza’s career numbers off Clemens were 8-for-22 (.364) with four homers.

A footnote to all this was Shawn Estes’ lame attempt at payback when he lobbed a ball behind Clemens’ back. To this day when I think of that pitch, I just shake my head.

Mauling Mendoza: The year before Clemens, on July 10, 1999, Piazza hit a three-run homer off Yankees’ reliever Ramiro Mendoza that measured 482 feet and hit a party tent behind the visitor’s bullpen at Shea Stadium.

Piazza’s swing uncoiled into a ferocious crack when bat met ball. This might have been one of the hardest hit, if not longest, of the 427 homers Piazza hit during his career.

Letting go – twice: Funny, considering the debate as to which cap Piazza would have on his plaque – Dodgers or Mets – is both teams let him go.

Piazza was in the prime of his career, and there was already talk of him being the best hitting catcher of all-time, when the Dodgers foolishly traded him to the Marlins in May of 1998.

The Dodgers and Piazza were in negotiations to keep him from leaving after the season as a free agent. That a contender such as the Dodgers would trade a marquee player like Piazza was beyond stupid. However, in hindsight, it must be remembered Piazza was traded not by the O’Malley family, but News Corp., which helped run the team into the ground.

A week later, the Marlins, in a salary dump, traded Piazza to the Mets for Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall.

Piazza’s good-bye at Shea: On Oct. 2, 2005, it was clear Piazza’s eight-year run with the Mets would not be extended. As it usually is with the Mets, it was about money.

He went 0-for-3 in his final game with the Mets, but we all knew he wasn’t going to return and finish his career in New York. The crowd would not let him go and gave him standing ovations throughout the game.

Really saying good-bye at Shea: On Aug. 9, 2006, the Mets were on their way to the playoffs, but the sellout crowd couldn’t resist showing its love for Piazza one more time.

In a 4-3 victory over San Diego, the crowd roared the way it used to for Piazza when he hit a pair of solo home runs off Pedro Martinez. It was fun to see Piazza unload off Martinez in the fourth, but to see him do it again in the sixth was surreal.

Setting the HR record for catchers: Piazza set the record for most home runs by a catcher with 396. The former record was 351 by Carlton Fisk, which Piazza passed on May 5, with a blast by San Francisco’s Jerome Williams, at Shea.

Saying good-bye with Seaver: The Mets know how to throw a party. There was that sensational night against the Braves, and there was also the final Sunday afternoon of the 2008 season when they closed the doors at Shea forever.

All the greats were trotted out, but watching Piazza walk through the center field gate with his arm wrapped around Tom Seaver is something I will never forget.

Treated unfairly by the press: I covered Major League Baseball for over 20 years, and usually support that profession.

However, two things made me ashamed.

The first was the crass and obnoxious articles questioning Piazza’s sexuality, which is nobody’s business.

The second were the persistent, unfair attacks and insinuations of PED’s.

My basis in voting for the Hall of Fame is: 1) Has he ever failed a drug test administered by Major League Baseball? 2) Was he ever named in an official document such as the Mitchell Report? 3) Did a player, manager or coach ever accuse him on the record?

The answer to those questions have always been NO.

Piazza was again asked that question by long-time New York baseball writer who has an unreasonable vendetta against Piazza based on a few pimples. It was embarrassing to hear the issue raised again, but Piazza answered with class, as he usually did.

That he would be treated so shabbily by the New York press, and yet still want to be inducted representing the Mets is a testament to how you treated him for eight wonderful years.

I only wish it could have been longer.

I hope you’ll share your favorite memories and thoughts about Piazza.

Jul 22

Three Mets’ Storylines: This Is Why They Got Reyes

The Mets gambled bringing back Jose Reyes because they needed a leadoff hitter to spark their listless offense. What they envisioned came to fruition Friday night in Miami in what truly can be described as a must-win game.

Reyes ripped three hits, scored two runs, drove in another, stole a base and had several sparkling defensive plays in a 5-3 victory to pull them within a half-game of the Marlins for the final wild-card spot.

REYES: Huge spark tonight. (Getty)

REYES: Huge spark tonight. (Getty)

“I needed to step up my game a little bit and set the tone,” Reyes told SNY. “We know we had to win the first game of the series because they have [Jose] Fernandez going tomorrow and he’s one of the best pitchers in the league.”

The Mets’ offense still has holes, but if Reyes keeps having games like Friday’s, leadoff won’t be one of them.

“This guy produces runs,” manager Terry Collins told reporters. “We have a lot of games left to play and hopefully he’ll be a big part of our line-up. … Hopefully, he’ll have a lot more like this.”

In addition to Reyes, the Mets got two sacrifice flies from Yoenis Cespedes and a two-run homer by James Loney.

Reyes did commit a throwing error, but overall his defense at third has exceeded expectations. More games like Friday’s will greatly increase Reyes’ chances of coming back next year.

The following are the other two storylines in the game the Mets needed:

BULLPEN SCRIPT: In their perfect world, the Mets want a bullpen script of Hansel Robles in the seventh (he also got the last two outs in the sixth), Addison Reed in the eighth and Jeurys Familia in the ninth.

Of course, with Familia it isn’t always easy. Cespedes misplayed Christian Yelich’s line drive into a double and Familia walked Marcell Ozuna to bring the tying run to the plate.

However, as he did in Chicago, Familia regrouped and struck out Derek Dietrich, and after Martin Prado’s RBI single, Adeiny Hechavarria grounded out to lock down his 50th straight save.

The bullpen picked up Logan Verrett, who gave up two runs in 5.1 innings, which should merit another start in the rotation. However, I’m not sure if he’s shown enough to prevent the Mets

WALKER STRUGGLES: Second baseman Neil Walker, who captivated Mets’ fans with nine homers and 19 RBI in April, continued to flounder as he went 0-for-5 to see his average drop to .242 and on-base percentage slide to .311.

Walker has only two hits in his last 32 at-bats in the last nine games he’s played.

With Fernandez being a tough nut to crack, it might not be a bad idea of resting him Saturday and letting Wilmer Flores play second.

Jul 21

Mets Should Hope Cespedes Leaves

If the Mets were truly honest with themselves, they might secretly be hoping for Yoenis Cespedes to exercise is one-year opt out and hit the market, where they can let him walk and develop their young outfielders.

There’s been speculation lately of giving Cespedes an extension now, which would create a splash but wouldn’t be in the best long-term interest of the Mets. It could set them back a few years.

CESPEDES: Let him Go. (AP)

CESPEDES: Let him Go. (AP)

The upside of letting Cespedes go is it would enable the Mets to develop their young outfielders: Juan Lagares, Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo.

It would also allow them to funnel some of the money Cespedes would receive to signing some of their young pitching: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Considering he’s coming off surgery and how poorly he’s pitched this year, signing Matt Harvey has dropped on the priority meter.

It must also be considered if Harvey and Zack Wheeler don’t bounce back, and they don’t have Bartolo Colon return, they would need to spend for a pitcher in the off-season. They must also address their bench and bullpen needs.

One of the obstacles to bringing back Cespedes is where to play him – and everybody else – if he won’t play center. I’m not crazy about having the player dictate where he will and won’t play. If Cespedes can’t, or won’t, play center he should leave. The Mets wanting him back was predicated on him playing center.

What the last few weeks with Cespedes’ strained quad taught us is: 1) he really doesn’t want to play center, which is something GM Sandy Alderson should have resolved before re-signing him, 2) neither Conforto and Nimmo have much experience in center, which is where they would figure to play, and 3) Lagares, who is on a long-term deal, would be the odd-man out.

Also bothersome in keeping Cespedes have been his brain and hustle lapses. And this year, in addition to his quad, his wrist, ankle and hip have slowed him down this year.

When Cespedes was playing for a contract last year it was with the drive of having something to prove. However, this year he’s proven to be too brittle and problematic.

If the Mets can get out from under Cespedes’ contract they’ll be lucky.

Jul 20

Three Mets’ Storylines: Just A Mess

The buzz after Tuesday night’s escape was it was the type of game the Mets could parlay into a run that would enable them to make another run at the playoffs.

Instead, with a patchwork lineup, the Mets’ sizzle turned to fizzle in one of their worst games of the season.

FLORES: Needs to play. (Getty)

FLORES: Needs to play. (Getty)

Bartolo Colon didn’t have it from the outset and the Mets’ offense was a rumor in Wednesday afternoon’s 6-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

The Mets are now 11-37 when scoring three runs or less, and their impotent offense goes into Miami, where they have always had a hard time.

“They are all big now,” Collins told reporters. “We have to go in there and win two. No doubt it will be a big weekend for us.”

Perhaps it is their biggest of the season.

Wednesday’s other storylines were:

MAKESHIFT LINEUP: With the off-day Thursday, Collins decided to rest Asdrubal Cabrera, Neil Walker and Yoenis Cespedes, which would give them two days off in a row.

Collins said they were tired, which is odd considering the All-Star break was last week and Cespedes has played in just three games since July 8. However, if he used Wilmer Flores on a rotation basis to rest his infield, and Cespedes was on the DL as he should be, there might be a different edge to the offense.

Flores hit another home run today and is batting .412 with seven home runs and 13 RBI in 11 games since July 3. However, he has started only two of the last six games.

Collins said Flores would start Friday against Marlins lefty Adam Conley, but he should be playing more. Much more.

Kelly Johnson started Wednesday and went 4-for-4. He usually produces when given the chance and should be in there Friday.

Last year, Collins said if players were hitting they would play. Both Flores and Johnson should play Friday.

GRANDERSON’S BRAIN CRAMP: One of the few Mets remotely hitting is Curtis Granderson, but his inexplicable brain meltdown in the first seemed to set the tone for the game.

Granderson attempted to bunt his way on but fouled off the pitch. It’s not a bad thought because he had the element of surprise, but gave that away with two more bunt attempts, including with two strikes that he fouled off.

What was he thinking?