Out of the New York groove: Yankees, Mets stumble badly to start season
As season-opening series go, the two New York teams did not put their best feet forward. In fact, the Mets and Yankees did a good job of convincing the baseball world that they have two left feet apiece, with the former getting steamrolled by the Nationals in Queens and the latter barely avoiding a sweep by the Astros in Houston thanks in part to a gift from above. As the iconic manager common to both teams famously asked more than half a century ago, can't anybody here play this game?
Now, three games is just a sliver of a 162-game season — two percent, if you're in the mood to round decimals upward. For all of the unsightly displays by either the Mets or Yankees, we really don't know more about them than we did on Sunday. Any season-opening series is just a Rorschach blot produced by a combination of leftover smoke from the Hot Stove and the charred remains of the most optimistic predictions. Even so . . .
Before they could even take the field for Monday's opener at Citi Field, the Mets experienced "complications" that prevented manager Terry Collins from fielding his intended lineup. Not only was second baseman Daniel Murphy out due to paternity leave — a non-issue that nonetheless triggered a blizzard of idiocy from talk-radio shouters and ill-informed fans — but leftfielder Chris Young was on the bench due to a quad strain before he could even make his debut with the club. By that point, Sandy Alderson's stated goal for this year's team to win 90 games was in the crosshairs, forcing the general manager to explain that the number (a target that wasn't supposed to be public, but inevitably leaked) wasn't a prediction. "It was a challenge, a challenge for us internally — how do we get there?" he told reporters. Keep in mind that the Mets last broke the 90-win threshold in 2006; they won 88 and 89 games the following two years, winding up a buck short of a playoff spot each time, and in particularly gruesome fashion to boot. They haven't won more than 79 games in a season since, and have turned in back-to-back 74-win campaigns.
As a motivational exercise from a GM with a strong track record goes, fair enough; it's not as though the Mets can just kill time playing Klondike until Matt Harvey returns from Tommy John surgery. For the first six innings on Opening Day, everything was coming up Milhouse. Filling in for Young, Andrew Brown clouted a three-run homer off Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg in the first inning, and despite starter Dillon Gee — with a career ERA+ of 95, nobody's idea of the best representative for an Opening Day starter in an organization that prides itself on pitching resources — serving up a two-run shot to Adam LaRoche in the following frame, the team carried a 4-2 lead into the seventh. Collins inevitably stuck with Gee too long, however, and the Nationals rallied to tie when relievers Carlos Torres and Scott Rice each issued four-pitch walks to the only batter they faced. Yeesh.
It took a bailout by fresh scrapheap pluck Jose Valverde to keep things level at 4-4, and the Mets even retook the lead when Juan Lagares homered to lead off the eighth inning. However, closer Bobby Parnell — pitching through an elbow injury that will probably require Tommy John surgery, but sure, throw him into the fire — blew the save and allowed the tying run to score. The Nats rallied for four runs in the top of the 10th against Jeurys Familia and John Lannan to go ahead 9-5, and only David Wright's two-out, two-run shot in the bottom of the frame kept things from looking even more lopsided.
Wednsday night marked free-agent signing Bartolo Colon's debut, and while he pitched solidly in the grand scheme (six innings, three runs), he was undone by solo homers from Ian Desmond and pitcher Gio Gonzalez. Meanwhile, New York's offense was so inept against Gonzalez and friends, mustering three hits, that the most memorable highlight was Colon's broken-bat near-base hit in the third inning, which produced a standing ovation from the Citi Field crowd. Relievers Gonzalez German and Kyle Farnsworth each allowed a run to put the game out of reach. That non-relief was nothing compared to the dumpster fire that followed Zack Wheeler's six-inning, three-run effort on Wednesday, when Rice, Familia and Torres conspired to allow five runs in three innings, exacerbated by the returned Murphy's second error of the game during a four-run seventh.
In all, the Mets were outscored 22-10, or 22-7 after Brown's homer off Strasburg. Had Collins not gone a bridge too fa with Gee, the rotation would have at least held up its end via three quality starts, but it really makes no difference when the relievers are carrying a 10.61 ERA, having yielded a .366/.449/.585 line to the 50 hitters they've faced; as it is, Valverde is the only reliever on the roster yet to allow a run. Meanwhile, the offense has hit a robust .179/.243/.337 while striking out 36 percent of the time, and if you exclude the hot start by the normally light-hitting Lagares (5-for-11 with two doubles, a triple and a homer), that falls to .143/.208/.238, only incrementally better than Colon's career .102/.110/.102 line. Meanwhile, Young is on the disabled list, having lasted just one inning in Tuesday's game, and the first base non-platoon of Lucas Duda and Ike Davis (both lefties; what was that about two left feet?) is no closer to being sorted out.
Alderson's goal aside, nobody's really expecting 90 wins for the Mets. The same is now probably true for the Yankees after dropping two of three to a club that lost 111 games last year and 324 over the last three seasons. Tuesday's first game saw CC Sabathia fall victim to his usual Opening Day woes. Struggling to break 90 mph, he threw 50 pitches while digging a six-run hole in the first two innings, and though he hung around to eat six innings, the revamped offense was kept at bay by Scott Feldman, who — despite plunking Derek Jeter in his first plate appearance of the year — spun 6 2/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball. The two runs the team scored in the eighth inning against relievers Kevin Chapman and Chad Qualls were just a fig leaf, though at least the rally featured base hits by Jeter and Mark Teixeira, something that didn't happen all of last season as the pair never took the field at the same time.
On Wednesday, the Yankees squandered a six-inning, two-run effort by Hiroki Kuroda, though they were in the hole from the get-go as Dexter Fowler led off the home half of the first inning with a home run. The offense was shut out for five innings by starter Jared Cosart, and while they cut the lead to 2-1 in the seventh, reliever David Phelps served up a solo shot to Matt Dominguez in the bottom of the frame, and the team's only baserunner thereafter — Carlos Beltran on a leadoff double in the eighth — was followed by a trio of swinging strikeouts against Matt Albers. Hey, hey, hey…
New York finally broke through on Thursday, with its number eight and nine hitters, Ichiro Suzuki and "Never Nervous" Yangervis Solarte, collecting five of the team's seven hits and scoring all four of its runs in the 4-2 win. Before that could happen, the Yankees had to survive an unsettling start from Ivan Nova, who wound up walking five and plunking two while wobbling through 5 1/3 innings. Suzuki and Solarte — the latter of whom beat out longtime utility whipping-boy Eduardo Nunez for the last roster spot and was making his first big league start — sparked a two-run rally in the third with back-to-back singles. Solarte later doubled and scored a run on a Jeter single, then drove in Suzuki (who had doubled) when the Astros summoned their own futility by allowing his infield popup to drop between pitcher Brad Peacock and catcher Carlos Corporan.
Even with the win, the Bronx Bombers hit just .206/.291/.247 and scored seven runs for the series against a team that last year allowed 5.23 per game. That said, while Jeter and Teixeira combined to go just 4-for-20, both offered hope that they can shake off the rust after last year's injuries. Meanwhile, Solarte, a 26-year-old from Venezuela now on his third organization, offered hope that he could be the glue that holds together an unsettled infield. Perhaps the best sign for the Yankees thus far has come from the bullpen, which aside from the Dominguez homer allowed just one hit and one walk and struck out 10 in six innings, capped by David Robertson ushering in the post-Mariano Rivera Era with a 1-2-3 save on 13 pitches.
Both the Mets and Yankees have rough roads ahead. The former will face 2013 playoff teams in 13 of their next 19 games as they host the Reds, travel to Atlanta, Anaheim and Arizona for a nine-day road trip and then return home for seven games against the Braves and Cardinals. Without better relief work, they might wind up relegated to the International League by May 1. The Yankees head to Toronto this weekend, where Masahiro Tanaka's major league debut kicks off a three-game series, then return home to face the Orioles and Red Sox before a two-game breather against the Cubs. On April 18 the Yankees head to Tampa Bay and Boston for a total of seven games that should give them a better idea of where they stand in the AL East pecking order. For all of the pessimism outlined above, three games is just three games in a six-month season, and just about any analysis of the aforementioned series constitutes overanalysis; had those series dropped in mid-June, they'd escape notice. That probably isn't enough to settle the stomach of any New York fan — particularly one dying to vent his or her spleen over the sorry baseball to date — but it will have to do.