|JERRY MANUELHis way is working|
By mid-June it seemed pretty much over for the Mets, again. The season. The front office regime. The back page. You name it.
Then retread Jerry Manuel came along, and whether he was the cleansing breath or the master motivator or simply the right guy at the right time, the Mets were in play for the NL East title again. The rehabilitation won't be complete until they 1. beat the Phillies when it counts and 2. maintain their division lead into October.
For now, however, they've done it without their All-Star closer, Billy Wagner, out since Aug. 2 with a sore elbow. Without starter John Maine. And in large part without Pedro Martínez, who has been in and out of the rotation.
"We got things straightened out," said Martinez. "This is a great clubhouse. Great guys playing together. This is what we always thought it was going to be."
They have ridden, at times, the aging Carlos Delgado, who has thrust himself into the MVP race. David Wright and Jose Reyes have been offensive forces, too.
This weekend at Shea Stadium, they are trying to separate themselves from the Phillies, the team that embarrassed them last season when the Mets suffered the worst collapse in major league history, going 5-12 in their last 17 and losing six of their last seven as Philadelphia won the NL East.
In this showdown, the Phillies started with a 3-0 shutout win behind Brett Myers to draw within two games of the Mets.
Before the game, Phillies legend Mike Schmidt sent an email that was posted in the clubhouse: "The Mets know you're better than they are. They remember last year. You guys are never out of a game. Welcome the challenge this weekend. Good luck. #20."
But Wright said, "Last year was last year. This is a different team with players who take it one day at a time. We don't allow any of what happened last year to enter into our minds. I think that's what makes this team the team it is right now."
Manuel was there for the bad times. He was Willie Randolph's bench coach. When he was handed the job June 17 after Randolph's firing, the Mets were an underachieving 34-35, and the thought was "same old stuff."
Ah, not quite. Manuel's 45-27 record doesn't begin to tell the story.
"There's something different," said utilityman Damion Easley. "I'm not sure I can really explain it, but Jerry's style, both in the clubhouse and on the field, are different than Willie's. We always knew that Jerry would be different, but we didn't know for sure.
"Whatever it is, so far it works, and the guys in this room now have a confidence they maybe didn't have before."
Is it a case of winning building chemistry? Because this was a team that had all the wrong chemistry, both last year and at the beginning of this season. Certainly, the talent was always there. Reyes has stolen 47 bases and has all-world ability. Ditto Carlos Beltran and Wright. Delgado has found the fountain of youth, with 31 homers and 96 RBIs (62 in his last 62 games). Is it coincidence or simply a guy who didn't like his work environment and now loves it?
This was a team full of cliques. A team that had clubhouse issues and no real leader. On Friday, players seemed to be enjoying themselves. Martínez entertained the media, talking about hurricanes and floods and hoping his Long Island home wouldn't be drowned by the torrential rains that were due.
"I can have a few rooms for you [media] guys if you need them," he quipped, "ah, but I have to take care of my guys in here first."
While Martínez has not pitched well - 5-3, 5.07 - his value has come as a mentor to younger pitchers. He has also been a valuable sounding board for Johan Santana, who has grasped the ace role. Santana is 5-0 in his last 12 starts with a 2.30 ERA. Oliver Perez has also benefited by being around Martínez, going 4-1 in his last nine starts with a 2.91 ERA.
With the news on this day that Wagner was getting close to returning (perhaps Tuesday), the Mets were buoyed even more. This is a team that has blown 11 games out of the bullpen since the All-Star break, and 24 in all this season.
On Friday, the Mets weren't able to silence the cacophony from last September. Yet it didn't seem to bother them.
"Everybody who was here last year knows that we often beat ourselves last year," said Wright. "It's a lesson learned. This team is far more resilient. We tend to bounce right back after a loss rather than let it linger and consume us.
"We were beaten by Brett Myers, who pitched a great game. There's a difference between being beaten by a great performance and beating yourself."
Which is why Manuel could smile after a defeat.
"This team has a great attitude," he said. "It's a night when you tip your cap to a great performance by Myers. We played hard. We had the tying run up at the plate in the ninth inning. That's a great sign."
Just the next step for Stairs
A few questions for Phillies outfielder Matt Stairs:
Being from Canada, was it tough on you to get traded from Toronto to Philadelphia?
MS: "Well, I kind of knew it was in the works. Philly's been after me for two or three years. I loved it in Toronto. Obviously, being a Canadian player and playing for the Blue Jays is pretty special. I feel bad I didn't have the year I'd hoped and the team had hoped because if I or we had, maybe I'd still be there. But this has worked out, coming over here and being in a pennant race."
Is it a lot different for you being a National League player as opposed to being in the AL?
MS: "This is year 14 for me and I've been with 11 different teams, so I've seen everything and I can easily adapt to anything. Here, you pretty much have to be ready to hit from the fifth inning on as a pinch hitter. It's been fine. I don't think I've needed any time to adapt to anything. I've been able to slip right in and hopefully help this organization win. It's always fun to be right in the thick of it like we are here playing the Mets for the divisional title."
Are you surprised you've been in the game this long?
MS: Fourteen years longer than I thought I'd ever be in it. I remember how excited I was the day I was told I was going from A ball to Double A. I've remembered everything about my career, every stop, and I've taken something from each place I've been. I loved Boston because of the atmosphere there. It was just a great place to play baseball."
I understand you live in Bangor, Maine? Most athletes seek warmer climates in the offseason. What gives?
MS: "My wife and I love it up there. I coach hockey at the local high school. Done it for three years now. I coach the offense. I played when I was younger and just love doing it, so after the season ends, it's something I look forward to doing. It's cold up there, but it's beautiful and it's a lot of fun coaching."
Subscribing to the theory it's interesting to ask about MVP
Can we agree that the MVP vote in both leagues will likely come down to the last week? It usually does. But it doesn't hurt to ask the folks who vote on the award what they're thinking.
With all of the Dustin Pedroia hysteria recently, it was interesting to see that his story has resonated across the country. While our very informal poll of prominent baseball writers is just that - very informal and very premature - Pedroia garnered a lot of support.
Basically, I asked writers to give me their top three in each league or the league they covered. This was done on Friday, the same day it was learned that White Sox MVP candidate Carlos Quentin would have a screw placed in his broken right wrist, likely sidelining him for the year. Some voters were aware of Quentin's injury and still voted for him.
From the 12 respondents, Quentin and Minnesota's Justin Morneau both received four first-place votes. Pedroia received two, while Frankie Rodriguez and Joe Mauer each received one. Morneau also received four second-place votes, Quentin two and Pedroia two.
In the National League, Albert Pujols appeared to be the favorite with seven first-place votes, while CC Sabathia garnered two, Brandon Webb one, Ryan Howard one, and Manny Ramírez one. Lance Berkman received three seconds and two thirds. David Wright garnered three seconds and four thirds, an indication of his strength.
Kevin Youkilis received two third-place votes, but he could benefit if he can get healthy and put together a few good weeks at the end. Others receiving either second- or third-place votes were Hanley Ramirez, Aramis Ramirez, Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, and Ryan Braun.
"I don't even think about that until the season is over," said former NL MVP Howard. "There are a lot of good candidates in our league. A lot of times, this is the time of the year when you show how valuable you are. A lot of guys have had great years, but this is crunch time."
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Don't be surprised if Curt Schilling ends up in a postseason broadcast booth; 2. Has Nomar Garciaparra finally become a bench player?; 3. Marlins fans should be ashamed of themselves after only 600 of them showed up for a Wednesday matinee; 4. Four years later, Derek Lowe will again be a sought-after free agent; 5. Told you Carl Pavano would help the Yankees.
Frankly, he's impressive
Frank Thomas hasn't said whether he's going off into the sunset after the season, but there are signs that he may. The slugger was placed on the disabled list and is done for the season with an injured right thigh. If this is it, Thomas, 40, will join Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Mel Ott as the only players who finished their careers hitting .300, with 500 home runs, 1,000 runs, and 1,500 walks. Thomas has a.301 career average with 521 homers, 1,494 runs, 1,704 RBIs, and 1,667 walks in 2,322 games. Pretty impressive career.
No relief in sight
While the Tigers are an early front-runner for Francisco Rodriguez's services, don't rule out the Cardinals. They will likely fall short of a playoff berth because of their bullpen. Through Friday, they had 30 blown saves and 30 bullpen losses, both worst in the league. They've lost 12 games on walkoff hits, 21 losses have come in the opponent's last at-bat, and 14 losses came after they led through seven innings. While Dave Duncan is a tremendous pitching coach, he is not a magician.
Hampton has something left
Mike Hampton, who turns 36 Tuesday, will likely pitch himself into a new contract - believe it or not - after his eight-year, $121 million deal ends this year. While it was one of the greatest bust deals ever, Hampton has gone 1-1 with a 3.81 ERA in his last four outings, all quality starts. He is resigned to the fact that he won't be back in Atlanta. But a lefty is a lefty, right? "It'll be a one-year deal somewhere," said a National League GM, "but given the way he's throwing, I'll bet you there'll be a few teams - especially in the National League - who will be after him."
The rub for Cubs
The Cubs have to be concerned. Even though the setbacks to Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden don't appear serious, the question is, how strong will their 1-2 starters be in September and October suffering from tired arms? "Looks like they caught a break with Zambrano," said a rival NL Central GM. "If it's tendinitis, a little rest and he should be OK because he's a horse. Harden we know has the history of spending a lot of time on the DL. That one I'd be more concerned about."
The Twins are finally home after the Republicans forced them on a 14-game road trip in which they went 5-9, lost eight games by a total of 12 runs (four on walkoffs), and Joe Nathan blew three saves. But the White Sox have a bigger problem, losing Carlos Quentin with a broken right wrist. One major league scout reasons that the Twins' young pitching staff might be hitting a wall. "You can see the fatigue in their body language and not finishing off pitches and not repeating their deliveries as consistently," said the scout. "That's what happens with young pitchers when they get tired. Having said that, they may still have enough to beat Chicago. Without Quentin, they still have a lot of hitters, but this kid had a special year."
Besides trying to find someone who would take Gary Sheffield, acquiring a closer, and perhaps signing a starting pitcher, the Tigers will also have to head out in the free agent market for a shortstop. The feeling is Edgar Renteria will not return. The conclusion is simply this: Renteria can't play in the American League. The Tigers thought they were obtaining a steady shortstop and good hitter, but he's been far from that. There's not much out there for free agent shortstops, so you wonder: Would the Tigers ever be tempted by Julio Lugo?
From the Bill Chuck files: "Milton Bradley is going for the percentage Triple Crown; he leads the AL in slugging, on-base percentage, and is second in batting average. George Brett won it last in 1980 . . . With the two cycles hit on Sept. 1, it brings to mind that the Padres, Rays, and Marlins are the three teams who have never hit for the cycle. The last Dodger cycle was by Wes Parker on May 7, 1970, and he got his triple in the 10th inning." . . . Happy 62d birthday, Joe Rudi.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com