Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mets and Yanks: The Gonfalon Bubble

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, October 26, 2006:
With polo shirts and seersucker trousers stored in the attic for the next six months, it’s time to wrap up the baseball season too. The Cardinals and Tigers pecked and clawed at each other for five more desultory evenings, but when viewed through Gotham-colored glasses, the national pastime of 2006 had concluded some time before.

Laid away for winter storage, each memory is briefly savored or rued on the way to being forgotten. And with the Mets and Yankees it is the regret, not the joy, that lingers; long distant is the confidence of summer, when each had emerged as the best team in its league. While all but the credulous knew that a Subway Series was no certainty, to have both New York teams mothballed at the end while ragtag nines competed for the championship—oh, this was hard to bear.

How to view the Yankee season? As an Alex Rodriguez October brownout? A starting- pitcher collapse? A middle-relief meltdown? Yes, in some measure all such descriptions are apt. Granted, coming into the season the age and health of the starting rotation — Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, Chien-Ming Wang, and Carl Pavano — were in question. But who knew that both corner outfielders and the second baseman would go down in mideaseason? Who knew that over the summer the Yanks would pull away from the Red Sox on the backs not only of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jason Giambi, and Johny Damon but also the likes of Melky Cabrera, Andy Phillips, and Brian Bruney?

Joe Torre did his best job of managing this past year, and deserved to get a championship for holding the fort when he could have been forgiven for giving it up. So when the Yankees acquired Bobby Abreu and Corey Lidle to fill in for missing stars, and then saw a semblance of a return to form by Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, fans might have been forgiven for regarding their team as a steamroller that could not be denied, The Greatest Lineup Ever Assembled, as Barnumesque sportswriters dubbed it.

But when the aging pitchers turned into pumpkins at midnight, Joe Torre and A-Rod turned out to be the unforgiven. George Steinbrenner even toyed with the idea of scapegoating his manager as he so often had in the past. But after a few tense days wiser heads in the democratized front office prevailed, and the future Hall of Fame helmsman will return for 2007. And here’s hoping that the “what have you done for me lately” crowd does not succeed in packing Rodriguez off to Chicago for Carlos Zambrano and prospects, as is currently rumored. The Yanks have a once-in-a-lifetime player in A-Rod, and at a bargain rate (improbable as that may seem), as the Texas Rangers are on the hook for nearly 40 percent of his $25.2 million annual salary.

The starting and middle relief crew will change — they must — or the boys of summer will again come to ruin in the fall. Below is a partial list of free-agent starting pitchers who might look good in pinstripes, even some who have worn them before



Matsuzaka, the 26-year-old Japanese star who purports to throw a new pitch called the gyro ball (Al Leiter dismisses it as a cut fastball) is the prize in the bunch, but he will be very expensive, even more so for the Yankees because their payroll will expose them to a massive luxury tax. It was for this reason that they turned down Carlos Beltran two years ago because his $16 million per year would have a bottom-line cost to the Yankees in excess of $23 million. If they lose a bidding war for Zito they ought to go bargain hunting for Meche and Wolf.

That same shopping list will appeal to the Mets, even though it was their hitters who let them down in the League Championship Series against St. Louis. If the Mets elect not to pick up their $14 million option on the 40-year-old Glavine’s services — and prudence would dictate that they not — they will go into the 2007 season with ace Pedro Martinez still on the shelf after season-ending rotator cuff surgery and 40-year-old Orlando Herenandez returning as their lone veteran starter. Free agent Steve Trachsel will not return, and minor-league callup John Maine often looked like a deer in the headlights until magically, in October, he became a gazelle.

During the course of a season that saw the Mets send 13 men to the mound as starters—remember Alay Soler (8 starts), Jose Lima (4), and Geremi Gonzalez (3)? And then there were Brian Bannister (6), Dave Williams (5), Mike Pelfrey (4) and boo magnet Victor Zambrano (5). Last to be mentioned in this season-long cattle call for auditions, as the Mets cruised to the NL East flag, is Oliver Perez, a reclamation project who came to New York via Pittsburgh.

When El Duque joined Pedro on the sidelines before postseason play commenced, the Mets were forced to scramble. They swept the Dodgers as manager Willie Randolph brilliantly regarded his whole staff as a bullpen, bringing in relievers at the first sign that Maine and Trachsel might blow up. But after splitting the first two games with St. Louis, a blanking by Glavine and a too-short stint by Maine, the Mets’ prospects looked bleak. Had Franklin P. Adams been with us to opine on the scheduled Mets hurlers for the remainder of the Series, he might have written:

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Trachsel and Perez and Maine.”
Trio of pitchers, and sure for the birds,
“Trachsel and Perez and Maine.”
Ruthlessly pricking Mets’ gonfalon bubble,
Making a Cardinal walk into a double —
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Trachsel and Perez and Maine.”

Perez and Maine were hardly a modern-day “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” but they proved to be unexpectedly, preposterously effective. While the poet of “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” would have been right about Trachsel, who gave a dreadful performance that will surely drive him out of New York, he would have been oh-so-wrong about the previously erratic Maine, who followed a weak outing by Glavine in Game 5 with a briliant one to keep hope alive in Flushing. Perez followed suit in Game 7, but did not walk awy with the palm because after a first-inning score the Mets went hitless until a ninth inning that still has Mets’ fans boiling. A miraculous catch by Endy Chavez, retrieving a certain home run from beyond the left-field wall in the seventh inning, was nearly forgotten.

Dominating the heart of the Cardinal order in the eighth frame, Aaron Heilman was left in to pitch the ninth despite the availability and itch to redeem himself of closer Bill Wagner, who had been awful in Games 2 and 5. Throwing a changeup that failed to dip, Heilman yielded a two-run homer to light-hitting Yadier Molina, and the second guessing rumbled through the grandstand onto the next day’s sports pages.

However, Randolph’s decision to stretch Heilman and withhold Wagner proved not as controversial as a call he was to make in the bottom of the frame, when the Mets mounted their ultimately futile rally. After Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez singled to open the inning against closer Adam Wainwright, the manager scorned the opportunity to bunt both men into scoring position. With Heilman due to bat, he might have asked Chris Woodward to sacrifice; instead he sent up injured slugger Cliff Floyd, who had been unable to play in the field since the early innings of Game 1.

Floyd was not going to bunt. Willie was looking for a Kirk Gibson moment. Instead he struck out. Peter King, writing for Sports Illustrated, opined, “Dumbest managerial move of the postseason: Willie Randolph sending up stale, injured and unable-to-bunt Cliff Floyd to pinch-hit with runners on first and second and no one out in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, with the Mets down 3-1 and contact hitters Jose Reyes and Paul Lo Duca to follow. The only play there was to bunt the runners to second and third, but Floyd, looking old and ill-prepared, struck out looking. Just absurd.”

Peter King writes football. Baseball people, including Willie Randolph, knew that if Woodward had successfully bunted the men over to second and third, Reyes would have been walked, leaving the slow Lo Duca to confront a double-play situation.

Carlos Beltran was given the A-Rod treatment after he struck out looking to end the game. People complained, “Couldn’t he evn get his bat off his friggin’ shoulder?” No. The pitch was unhittable. As Mets’ GM Omar Minaya said, “People who say you have to swing at that are people who never played the game, who never stood in the batter’s box and faced a 90-plus-miles-per-hour fastball, then had the guy throw a curve.”

Willie Randolph and Joe Torre both did phenomenal jobs, bringing flawed, banged-up squads to the very edge of ultimate success. Next year, it says here, they’ll meet in the World Series.

--John Thorn


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