It appeared the Mets were suffering from the same bad karma as the Red Sox last week, having dropped six of seven after Thursday's hideous 8-7 loss to the Marlins. But the Mets were able to catch themselves by winning within 19 hours Friday night and yesterday, delaying and possibly halting what would be an embarrassing fall out of first place in the National League East.
While the Mets are still only 1 1/2 games up on the surging Phillies, the rebound started with a decent, though unspectacular outing by Pedro Martínez Friday night. He went five innings (90 pitches) and allowed three earned runs in improving to 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA. But it had been evident the Mets needed Martínez more than ever.
Fernando Cuza, the pitcher's longtime agent, told a reporter outside the Mets clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium late Thursday afternoon, when the Mets were in complete disarray, "Pedro is feeling better than ever." Cuza gushed about his prized righthander, who has come back from major shoulder surgery just in time for the late-season push. "His shoulder is stronger than it's ever been," Cuza said. "He's very excited. He could be pitching for a while."
Martínez would like nothing more than to be a factor going into the playoffs. When he first returned after his lengthy rehab, general manager Omar Minaya had hoped his mere presence would provide an emotional boost. Yet he knew Martínez would have to pitch well for that to happen. While Martínez isn't the pitcher of his heyday, Cuza, who has been around him longer than anyone, believes he could be a huge player in the playoffs - and in the future.
The Mets appeared so concerned about the state of the team they sent two front office personnel to Miami for the weekend series - Minaya and assistant general manager Tony Bernazard. Both were having one-on-one conversations with various players Thursday afternoon in hopes of keeping spirits high even after owner Jeff Wilpon had ripped the team for lackluster play.
Wilpon said on SI.com Wednesday he was "disappointed with the way the team is performing" and called out Minaya, manager Willie Randolph, and the players. "We shouldn't be in this position," said Wilpon. "But we are. We've got to fight our way out and pull this out."
The comments clearly disturbed some players and did nothing to ease the tension. It didn't help that Lastings Milledge exploded at umpire Jim Joyce over balls and strikes Thursday night and was ejected. Nor that Billy Wagner, the team's fine lefthanded closer, was suffering from back spasms and unavailable.
"It's just typical of what we're going through right now," said veteran lefthander Tom Glavine, who lasted only five innings Thursday night, allowing 11 hits and five runs in his worst outing in some time. "A lot of crazy stuff."
"You have to keep positive and get through it," said Minaya.
They have gotten through it, at least for now.
Randolph, who in many ways has the same demeanor as Red Sox manager Terry Francona, was taking criticism for not showing more fire. But he kept insisting he'd rather deal with things behind closed doors, one-on-one. He's trying to get the leaders like Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright, and old pros such as Glavine, Martínez, Orlando Hernandez (currently injured), Moises Alou, Paul LoDuca, and Carlos Delgado to come up big down the stretch.
Last year was a breeze for the Mets, who piled up 97 victories and won the East by 12 games. They were able to rest players and set up their rotation for the playoffs, then swept the Dodgers in the Division Series. But losing the NLCS to the Cardinals in seven games was a shock.
This season started out easy again, hit a major bump last week, and the hope is it's smoothed out again. The Mets have been in first place for 134 days through last night and have had as much as a seven-game lead (after beating the Braves Sept. 12). No team with a seven-game lead and 17 to play ever has lost a division lead.
"I guess the Red Sox are a good parallel," said a Mets pitcher. "They have a good team, too. But both teams are capable of turning it around and being the team they've been all year."
Unlike the Red Sox, who have the wild-card cushion to fall back on, the Mets are in danger of losing the division and getting shut out of the postseason.
"We have to relax," said a Met veteran. "We're still ahead. We're still in front. We need to create the feeling that they're catching us until they can't catch us anymore."
Over the last two games, they got that feeling back.
Math behind the muscles
In a paper he will soon publish in the American Journal of Physics, Tufts professor Roger Tobin concludes that steroid use increases home runs by 50 percent even with a 4 percent increase in batted-ball speed.
Tobin, a specialist in condensed matter physics, said the explosion in homers coincides with the "steroid era" of the mid 1990s and that the surge leveled off in 2003 when Major League Baseball implemented testing. In a statement released by Tufts, Tobin said it's "physically and physiologically plausible that steroids could produce effects of the magnitude observed.
"A change of only a few percent in the average speed of the batted ball, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, is enough to increase home run production by at least 50 percent. This disproportionate effect arises because home runs are relatively rare events that occur on the 'tail of the range distribution' of batted balls."
Tobin concluded that the force exerted by muscles and the kinetic energy of the bat could be increased by 10 percent through the use of steroids. He calculated the speed of the bat as it hits a pitched ball is about 5 percent higher with steroids and the speed of the ball as it leaves the bat is about 4 percent higher.
Asked about the effect of steroids on pitchers, Tobin conducted a mechanical analysis and found the effects were less. He calculated that a 10 percent increase in muscle mass should increase the speed of a thrown ball by about 5 percent - or 4-5 miles per hour for a pitcher with a 90-m.p.h. fastball. That translates into a reduction in ERA of about 0.5 runs per game.
"That is enough to have a meaningful effect on the success of a pitcher, but it is not nearly as dramatic as the effects on home run production," said Tobin. "The unusual sensitivity of home run production to bat speed results in much more dramatic effects, and focuses attention disproportionately on the hitters."
Henderson takes a few ideas and runs with them
A few questions for all-time stolen base leader Rickey Henderson, first base coach of the Mets:
Now that you're a coach and you'll be 49 on Christmas, have you finally given up the hope that you will play major league baseball again?
RH: "I always stay in shape. I'm an athlete and I'll always be an athlete. I've been blessed with a great body and a frame of mind that I want to play the game as long as I can. I've never been bored playing baseball. I know a lot of guys who play a long time get bored and quit. I'd play right now if they'd let me."
Could you still play?
RH: "I can outrun 80-85 percent of all the players in the major leagues right now. If I had the chance to go out and perform, I could outrun the guys on my team. They're fast but they ain't that fast. I was more explosive than all of them. I would lead the league in stolen bases if I was playing. I would guarantee that."
You can't convince anyone that you can still play?
RH: "I asked clubs to give me no contract unless I make it and they all said no. Most of them know I want this, but no one will give me the opportunity to do it. If I really knew the reason, I could accept it and move on. As much as I enjoy this game and I've poured my heart and soul into it, it leaves me with a bitter taste. I wonder, what did I do wrong that I can't continue? I wasn't a bad person off the field. I wasn't a bad person on the field. I played the game well. People say you're going to mess up when you can go to the Hall of Fame because you have to wait five years. Well, I didn't come up in this game as a kid and say the only reason I'm playing is to get to the Hall of Fame. I came to play the game of baseball."
Can you still hit?
RH: "I can still hit and I still hit in the cage. I think in my last couple of years I was a utility player and I hadn't yet adjusted to it or got used to it. I didn't know the right way to approach it. I got on base by swinging. Now guys get on base by walking. Later in my career I just didn't change my game plan."
Can you teach your God-given talent?
RH: "Sure, I always did that even when I played. I think [Jose] Reyes has stolen as many bases as he has because he's listened to me. He didn't know how to steal third before I started working with him. Reyes has done a fantastic job and I know he appreciates it. If they won't let me play, might as well give something back to the kids. It's enjoyable."
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. A sign of the times: The Padres have 20 shutouts, all of them involving bullpen help. 2. Every time I walk into Dolphins Stadium for a Marlins game, I expect to see Dan Marino in center field. 3. Hmmm. Prospective Cubs buyer Mark Cuban was sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field last week, and not once did
It appears the Angels will stick with a four-man rotation in the playoffs whether they're the top-seeded team or not: John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Jered Weaver, and Joe Saunders. That would set up Lackey for Games 1 and 5. The Angels also like the idea of using Saunders, a lefty, against some of the big lefthanded hitters on the Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians. What they're not crazy about is how poorly Escobar has pitched in September (20 earned runs, 29 hits, in 17 2/3 innings over four starts). The other concern for the Halos is the status of Vladimir Guerrero, who has been battling tendinitis and inflammation in his right triceps, which has limited him to DH duties. In his first 39 at-bats as a DH, Guerrero was 11 for 39 with 3 homers, 7 runs, and 10 RBIs. Overall, however, Guerrero seems to hit better when he's playing the field.
Few mistakes by the lake
What makes the Indians legitimate is this: They're 8-1 against Johan Santana and Justin Verlander. In fact, Verlander is 1-3 with a 8.13 ERA against the Indians and 16-3 with a 2.94 ERA against everyone else. The Tribe also has a true No. 1 starter in C.C. Sabathia, who has allowed two or fewer runs in 11 of his last 12 starts. The Indians are 20-5 since Aug. 25, and old friend Eric Wedge should snare the Manager of the Year award. "We're just playing good baseball every day," said Wedge. "We do our best not to beat ourselves and we have players who really care and have a lot of pride."
No tickets to Octoberfest
Last year's World Series combatants will both be watching the playoffs from home. The Cardinals couldn't overcome injuries and in-house problems, and there's a real possibility that Tony La Russa may not come back. There have been rumblings about a La Russa-Walt Jocketty-Dave Duncan threesome in Seattle. The Cardinals may go retro, with a younger/progressive leadership. The Tigers, meanwhile, added Gary Sheffield but never got their pitching untracked. "It's disappointing," said Curtis Granderson. "We could never sustain that good rhythm we had for a long stretch of time. This is such a talented team that we know we're going to be a factor for years to come here." Maybe. The Tigers have to decide whether Carlos Guillen is going to play shortstop next year or move to first base permanently.
Doomed in the dome
The Twins' new stadium can't be built fast enough for young righty Matt Garza. The kid is 1-10 with a 5.91 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) at the Metrodome. Until he beat Texas last Wednesday, he was 0-10. When the Twins play the Red Sox in the final series at Fenway, they will likely be without righty Pat Neshek, who much like Hideki Okajima was lights-out before the All-Star break. Now his arm is sore and he needs an MRI after making 74 appearances.
He proved to be a keeper
In the end, the Rockies realized that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make. They are happy they didn't trade Todd Helton to Boston for Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, or whomever else they were seeking. Helton has had a nice year and been a strong hitter during the Rockies' surge to make the wild card, which may fall short. Still, it's the first time in his 10-year career that Helton has had a shot at the playoffs. Last Tuesday, he hit a two-run homer to beat the Dodgers. In his last 20 games through Friday, Helton was 31 for 76 to improve his average from .298 to .316.
The name of Amherst, N.H., native Neal Huntington came out of the blue as the reported choice to replace Dave Littlefield as Pirates GM. Huntington has been a special assistant to Mark Shapiro in Cleveland. New Pirates CEO Frank Coonelly, plucked out of the commissioner's office by team owner Robert Nutting to run the franchise, said he wanted to use the best statistical analysis possible for player evaluation. Also, former Phillies GM Ed Wade got the job in Houston, where he was a longtime protegé of Astros president Tal Smith, who went through the process of interviewing about 15 candidates before settling on the guy everyone thought would get the job.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com