Manuel's late-inning worries are over as long as newcomers K-Rod (left) and Putz stay healthy.
To stroll through the Mets' spring training camp was to find a team attempting to reinvent itself. On one day you could see 6' 5", 250-pound J.J. Putz and his fellow relief pitchers fielding grounders at second base and working on double play feeds; shortstop Jose Reyes exhausting himself in a hitting drill during which the batter must take 80 opposite-field swings at 80 machine-fired curveballs in six minutes; and every clubhouse television screening a DVD with nothing but opposite-field hits by the Mets in 2008. All of the events wore the stamp of the team's first camp under manager Jerry Manuel. "Best camp I've ever seen," says Putz, the 32-year-old erstwhile Mariner.
For subliminal effect, though, Manuel might have considered replacing the opposite-field video loop with a replay of the Mets' 8-1 win on Oct. 3, 2004 -- the last time the franchise won its final game of the year. In each of the past three seasons New York was eliminated on the last day with a loss at Shea Stadium: 3-1 to St. Louis in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS; 8-1 to Florida in Game 162 of the '07 regular season; and 4-2 to Florida in Game 162 of '08.
The Mets made sure that won't happen again; they tore down Shea Stadium.
Whether the first season in their new digs, Citi Field, ends with the same swan song is largely dependent on two relievers unencumbered by the franchise's recent frustrations: Putz and Frankie Rodriguez. (Here's all you need to know about how the East was decided last year: The Mets lost seven times after taking a lead into the ninth, the first-place Phillies not once.) There were eight closers last year who had at least 15 saves and struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings, and in two days in December the Mets seized two of them, trading for Putz to be the setup man to Rodriguez, whom they signed after his record-setting 62 saves for the Angels. When it comes to the last inning, New York did the best it could to author a happy ending this time.
"Totally different," general manager Omar Minaya says of the last two September collapses. "I actually think in '08 we overachieved, given a lot of injuries. We gave it away in '07. We basically had it. In '08 we never had it. The issue is, we have to win. We have to close it out before 162."
Manuel will have a far easier time with bullpen management this year than last September, when he went to his pen 69 times in the fateful final 17 games. With the overpowering stuff of Putz and Rodriguez, Manuel doesn't need to worry about batter-pitcher matchups or trying to create platoon advantages over at least the final six outs. "If they need me for more than three outs, I'm ready," Putz says. "If they need me in the seventh, I'm ready. But when I look at our bullpen, I see so much quality and depth that I don't think anybody needs to be overused. . . . And Sean Green is going to be a big key for this team. He was lights-out last year until he wore down from being used so much." Green, a sinkerball specialist acquired with Putz in a 12-player trade with Seattle and Cleveland, entered August with a 2.83 ERA but had a 9.55 ERA the rest of the year.
Other than smartly renovating the shoddy bullpen that absorbed nine walk-off losses, New York did little else to what Minaya describes as "a real good team last year.'' Its core remains the stalwart pitching of Johan Santana, 30, and three players in their prime years all capable of winning an MVP award: Reyes, 25; third baseman David Wright, 26; and centerfielder Carlos Beltran, 31, the linchpins of a team that outscored every other in the NL but Philadelphia in '08.
Since 2001 the Mets have ranked no lower than third in NL payroll, yet the investments in those eight years have returned more nightmarish endings (two) than playoff appearances (one). The Mets have been on the cusp of something great, and to put them over the top they have emulated the architecture of their bitter rivals, the Phillies, who traded for closer Brad Lidge and parlayed endgame certainty into a world championship. With Putz and Rodriguez, the Mets have what it takes to win the games that they should, including the very last baseball game of 2009.
-- Tom Verducci
Issue date: April 6, 2009