Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mets Relievers Struggle Wherever They Go

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For Mets fans, that means the continuing struggles of their bullpen, which yesterday blew their third game of the week. A winter makeover left Pedro Feliciano as the only holdover from last years corps of incendiaries. The investment in Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz seemed to solidify the back end of the bullpen, but in today's topsy-turvy system of utilizing relievers, the two big studs would still have to depend on those lesser lights to get them to the 8th inning with a lead. At the end of spring training, general manager Omar Minaya decided to discard veteral Duaner Sanchez (over manager Jerry Manuel's objection) and cast his lot with a group of unproven yoots. They've actually pitched better than most Mets fans would believe by the staff's overall performance. Though their blowups have been dramatic, especially this week, they've done better than the non-Santana starters, with one notable exception.

Aaron Heilman was jettisoned in the Putz trade, but his role has been amply filled by the other Seattle pitcher included in that deal, Sean Green. That role is Primary Train Wreck. Yesterday's ugly loss at Philadelphia was all the more painful because we could see it coming so clearly. Green had two major debacles in April, a five-run outburst in St. Louis and a garish loss earlier this week at Post-Shea. In that one, Manuel put him in to start the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead. Bobby Parnell had gotten through the 6th inning after starter Livan Hernandez faltered. Manuel pinch-hit for Parnell, who has a very solid 1.59 ERA so far this season. I'm not sure I would have lifted him, but he did.

That wasn't the problem. The problem was putting in Green, who promptly walked a couple of guys, gave up a hit, and finally blew up completely by serving up a home-run ball to Jorge Cantu, who had already homered once in the game. So much for the lead. Once the game was lost, Manuel brought in Brian Stokes for his usual mop-up duty. Let's look at Stokes for a moment. He's 29 years old and has pitched in the majors since 2006. He got a few starts with Tampa Bay that year, then had a mediocre year in their bullpen in 2007 before the Mets acquired him. Last year, he joined the Mets in August, logging 24 games with the Arsonists with a decent 3.51 ERA. He was mostly a mop-up guy, threw a couple of disastrous outings onto the September fire, and the best thing you could say to him--apropos of what happened yesterday--was that he walked only 8 batters in 33 1/3 innings.

Stokes has pitched 11 innings this season and allowed one run (unearned). Again, most of those have been mop-up innings, including the five outs he recorded after Green blew the game on Tuesday. Where was Stokes yesterday when Green torched the game in the 10th inning? Resting comfortably in the bullpen. Manuel used almost everyone else in the bullpen, thanks to Oliver Perez managing to balloon his ERA up to 9.97 in two-plus innings of work, including walking geriatric Jamie Moyer with the bases loaded. Manuel started with the major-league debut of Ken Takahashi, who looked very good and got them through the 5th inning. Maybe Takahashi will be the lefty (unlike Casey Fossum) to take the load off of Feliciano, who has worked in a ridiculous 14 of the Mets' first 23 games.

Feliciano pitched the 6th inning yesterday after the Mets jumped ahead 5-4 and surrendered a game-tying home run. Parnell pitched the 7th, and Putz entered in the 8th. Putz has had a couple of tough outings but I like his chances for getting the job done over the long haul of the season, and he looked great yesterday, mowing down six straight Phillies and taking the game to extra innings. That's when Manuel faced the choice that seems to perplex a lot of managers these days. After his team failed to score in the top of the 10th (thanks to Carlos Beltran grounding into a double play with a runner on third), he had his choice of three relievers. He had his closer, Rodriguez, but you'll almost never see a manager put his closer into a tie game on the road. His thinking is, "I know he won't give up a run, but even if we score in the 11th he'll have to pitch a second inning to close the game, so if I use someone else I can save him for when we do get a lead." I've lost count of the number of times this has happened this decade, and how often that closer--the team's best reliever--never gets his ass off the bullpen bench because some inferior pitcher loses the game. Look at it this way: is the outcome of a game more in doubt when you have the lead or the score is tied? That's a no-brainer. There's no margin for error in a tie game. So get your best pitcher in there!

Most managers won't do that, and Manuel didn't want to do that. So he had a choice between Stokes and Green. Let's see. Neither one pitched the day before, so rest wasn't a factor. What else might Manuel consider? How about ERA? Well, he had Stokes at 0.00 or Green at 8.49. That would seem to be a no-brainer, but evidently it wasn't that simple. Maybe there was some subtle psychology involved. He had Stokes, a guy who has been slotted into mop-up duty, and because he hasn't given up any runs in that role it must mean that he's comfortable there, so why would we mess with his head by putting him into a high-pressure spot. He had Green, who has been slotted into that guy-before-Putz role, a vital role on a staff these days, and because so much has been staked in putting him there it's important to build up his confidence after the recent disasters, so inserting him in extra innings with the game on the line would be a chance to restore everyone's faith in him.

Interesting theory. I think it's bullshit, but managers tend to think that way today, and in my desperate search for some reason why Manuel used Green instead of Stokes, it's all I can come up with. So in came Green. With one out, Pedro Feliz scratched out an infield single, and Green promptly hit Matt Stairs with his next pitch. That's when the sinking feeling arrived, the sickening certainty that Green was about to torch the 10th. Why such a powerful feeling? Because we've seen it so often before from his predecessor, Heilman, with his just-hit-a-deer-with-my-pickup-truck and his penchant for nibbling his way into walks until he came in with enough fat pitches to get pounded. So it was with Green. He did got a fly ball for the second out, but walked pinch-hitter Chris Coste to load the bases. My wife and I could hardly bear to look as he threw two wide pitches to Shane Victorino, putting himself on the verge of defeat. How many Mets fans out there were thinking the same thing? Most, I'd guess. Green worked the count to 2-2, then threw two pitches well out of the strike zone, not even tempting Victorino to swing. End of ball game.

So what's the lesson here, Jerry? It seems too obvious to happen. When the Mets put Oliver Perez on a boxcar to the minor leagues, they should make room alongside him for Green and his nearly-as-bad 8.76 ERA. Then give Parnell and Stokes a chance to do the heavy lifting between the starters and Putz-Rodriguez. Between them, they've allowed just two earned runs in 21 1/3 innings. Give them a chance! Hope Takahashi can buttress Feliciano from the left side, and in the meantime, try to do something about the two real problems on the team so far: starting pitching and too many stranded baserunners.

Mets fans: it could be worse. Really. They could still have last year's bullpen crew. Here's what they did in the last few days. On Thursday, Scott Schoeneweis--of the Diamondbacks--was pressed into action in the 7th inning at Milwaukee. The score was tied, the bases were loaded with two outs, and Prince Fielder was coming up. Let's bring in that lefty who's so great against lefties (.178 batting average last year) but who struggles against righties (.333 batting average against). You know what happened next, right? He walked Fielder and was left in to face righty Mike Cameron, who doubled in the other two inherited runners. There went the game, a 1-1 tie to a 4-1 loss in a mere two batters faced.

At that, Schoeneweis had a better day than Heilman. I shouldn't say anything bad about him now that he's halfway across the country, and actually he's pitched pretty well--until Thursday. He came in to pitch the 10th inning at Wrigley Field, and faced six batters. The carnage: a single, two doubles, two walks, and one batter safe on an error, totaling six runs allowed, one loss, and an ERA up to 4.91.

Finally, there's Sanchez, who landed in San Diego after the Mets released him in March. He's struggling, too, with a 6.14 ERA when he entered the game in Los Angeles Friday night. That was a terrific pitching duel between Jake Peavy and Clayton Kershaw, scoreless through eight innings. Sanchez took care of that in the bottom of the 9th. Orlando Hudson singled, and Sanchez wild-pitched him to second. That provided an excuse to walk Manny Ramirez intentionally, but with two outs, Sanchez did his impression of Sean Green, issuing unintentional walks to Matt Kemp and Russ Martin, forcing the winning run to step on home plate.

There you are. Things are bad, but they could be worse. The guys they dumped have showed that they deserved to be dumped. Of the current crop of relievers, only one has proved totally useless. It's time for Jerry Manuel and the powers-that-be to take stock, face the facts, get rid of the guy who can't do the job, and give guys who are pitching well a chance to make a difference. Maybe a couple of them will do so well that they can be traded for a hitter who can drive in some runs.


Unknown said...

O'Day now has 9 appearances and a 0.00 ERA...wrong reliever was released.

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