Friday May 28th, 2010

NEW YORK -- A smirk on his face, Jason Bay considered the commotion surrounding the Mets this season. "Maybe we can get our own TV show at some point," he said.

They could certainly make a compelling pitch. The Mets go on exaggerated winning streaks. They go on exaggerated losing streaks. Their players and coaches scuffle with each other. Their script is never dull.

And should such a television show exist? "I think you'd find some comedy in it, and there'd be a hell of a lot of drama," Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "I don't think you could show it on ABC. HBO would be perfect."

If only the folks behind Hard Knocks would venture into baseball. They'd need look no further than the Mets, who seem incapable of doing anything halfway. They're 25-23 and two games out of first place, but have taken an extraordinary road to get there.

The Mets have the National League's best home record (18-9) and worst road record (6-14). Their schedule has been a series of streaks -- "a roller-coaster ride," Francoeur said -- in which they went from last place in the NL East to first place and then back to last in just 23 days. In a span of just more than three weeks, manager Jerry Manuel's job went from being in jeopardy to being safe to being in jeopardy.

It's safe again, at least for now. The Mets not only swept the Phillies this week but also shutout their rivals in all three games, their first such string of blanking the same opponent in three consecutive games since Sept. 26-28, 1969. That came on the heels of a series win over the crosstown Yankees, giving the Mets a 5-1 record against last year's World Series participants.

One can only hope the cameras have been running. Consider the Emmy-worthy episodes the Mets have produced in just the past two weeks:

May 17: With the Mets having lost five in a row and seven out of eight, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon flew to Atlanta to join the club before its three-game series against the Braves, conjuring memories of the last managerial firing. Two years ago general manager Omar Minaya flew to Anaheim to fire manager Willie Randolph on the first evening of a road trip. This time, however, the moment passed without any carnage. "I came to talk baseball with them, OK?" Wilpon told reporters about his visit. "Nothing dramatic. Sometimes it's just better to speak to people in person." The Mets split the two-game series with the Braves.

May 19: Manuel benched third baseman David Wright. Though he was mired in a 3-for-25 slump and striking out nearly twice as often as his career rate, Wright accepted the temporary hiatus begrudgingly, offering a passive-aggressive take on Manuel's move. "I've never liked having off days," Wright said at the time. "I don't enjoy having off days. But sometimes the staff and the coaches think that's what's best for the players." The Mets lost to the Nationals that night, despite benefitting from a triple play and an Angel Pagan inside-the-park home run.

May 20: Before playing the Marlins, Manuel announced underperforming starter Oliver Perez, who is in the midst of a three-year, $36 million contract, had been demoted to the bullpen for the second straight May. And that wasn't even the most dramatic news involving a Mets starter. The day's starter, John Maine, lasted just five pitches, getting removed abruptly and without consultation after none of his first five pitches exceeded 85 miles per hour. Angered by the move, Maine said after the game that the coaches should "cut me a little bit of slack", considering he only faced one batter. Pitching coach Dan Warthen gave a rather backhanded compliment about his pitcher's willingness to battle through physical adversity, saying, "John's a habitual liar in a lot of ways as far as his own health. He's a competitor and a warrior. He wants to go out there and pitch." The Mets won, 10-7.

May 23: Late in a game in which the Mets seemingly led the Yankees by a comfortable margin, closer Francisco Rodriguez and bullpen coach Randy Niemann reportedly had an angry confrontation and had to be separated. Manuel later referred to the incident as a "disagreement" that was resolved without his intervention. The ninth inning against the Yankees got dicey, but K-Rod eventually struck out Alex Rodriguez, who represented the tying run, to end the game. Coincidentally, this happened just a few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of when K-Rod got A-Rod to hit a seemingly harmless popup that Luis Castillo dropped, costing the Mets a sure win.

May 25: Ex-Met and current Phillie Nelson Figueroa blasted Mets management for being cut in spring training, saying the team did it callously, unexpectedly and without cause. "When I became the odd man out, I asked why and they said, 'It's just the move we need to make,' and thought that would be enough to explain it to my family," Figueroa said. "I was supposed to call home and tell my wife and daughter, 'It was just something they had to do.'" He continued further, saying the Phillies don't spend much time thinking about the Mets because "you don't worry about what's behind you." New York, however, had the last laugh, scoring three runs off Figueroa in his one inning of work and winning 8-0.

May 27: Even on the night the Mets completed a three-game sweep of the rival Phillies, there had to be commotion, though this time the drama had nothing to do with the ballclub and everything to do with an unattended bag that forced police to close several sections of Citi Field for about 45 minutes prior to the game's start.

Of course, those episodes don't account for the headlines produced before this recent fortnight, such as Santana's spring training assertion that he, and not the Phillies' Roy Halladay, was the best pitcher in the division; the ongoing saga of centerfielder Carlos Beltran's knee surgery, which apparently was unauthorized by the Mets; the early-season struggles of Bay, Francoeur and shortstop Jose Reyes, whom one NL scout speculated was rushed back to competition after being diagnosed with a thyroid problem as a job-saving measure for Mets management; and the near-daily questions prefaced with the phrase "Considering that your jobs are on the line..."

Nor does that glimpse include the historic collapses of 2007 and '08, the reports of the organization's vice president for player development challenging minor leaguers to fights in the clubhouse or the rising angst at the medical staff in the face of mounting injuries in '09.

One former Met thinks some of the drama from recent seasons was simply "blown up too much" because of the club's high profile. But that's how it goes in New York, and so the baseball diamond becomes an escape from the tabloid headlines.

"When we step on the field, it allows us to ignore all that," said starter Mike Pelfrey, who's pitching like Santana's co-ace with a 7-1 record and 2.54 ERA.

Manuel deals with the daily grind coolly. For instance, on Tuesday, Manuel faced another question asked under the presumption that his job is in obvious jeopardy. The bespectacled manager didn't angrily reject the premise. He didn't loudly defend his work. Rather, in his classically understated tone, Manuel dismissed the query with the assurance, "I'm good."

With Beltran's status in the air, Manuel has done well to diffuse the uncertainty, focusing on the players he has rather than the ones he doesn't. "For the most part this is who we are," he said of his lineup.

The Mets are reaping the benefits of very good starting pitching, even from unlikely sources R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi, and a bullpen that's doing yeoman's work, but the offense has had trouble putting together multi-run innings. The Mets struggle to come back. They've scored first in all but four of their 25 wins; their May 11 victory over the Nationals is the only time they've overcome a deficit of more than two runs.

The Mets have played a bevy of close games but have lost most of them, going 5-11 in one-run games and 5-6 in two-run games.

"I'm not worried about the drama," catcher Rod Barajas said. "It just seems like we're playing good baseball. We've lost so many close, heartbreaking games. That's what kind of brings your morale down, and you feel like you might be in a bigger hole than what you actually are in."

Reyes, meanwhile, said he finally feels in form and that his timing is where it needs to be. It shows: In the past seven games, of which New York has won six, Reyes is 14-for-32 with seven runs scored. He had been batting .210 with a meager .256 on-base percentage before this hot streak.

"If he gets on base to lead off an inning, it's a run," first baseman Ike Davis said.

That exact scenario played out twice in the early innings of the series opener against the Phillies, which Francoeur called his "favorite game" of the season.

"We scored one in the first, one in the second, one in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth -- if you start doing that, you demoralize a team," he said. "When we score four and then don't score for five or six innings, all of a sudden that team feels like it can come back slowly. But when you score run after run after run, it kills the other team."

Morale for the Mets was high on Thursday night, not dampened by a two-hour pregame rain delay, nor a two-hour postgame flight delay before taking off for Milwaukee. What's in store for them on the road, no one can know, but it'll be worth tuning in. With this team, it always is.

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