Free-falling Now
In seven months the Mets have gone from the World Series to a
world of trouble

The Mets have had little to feel good about this year, so they
were eager for a positive vibe after their 8-0 win over the
Dodgers last Friday night. New York had roughed up Kevin Brown,
who entered the game with the best ERA (1.09) in the majors, for
five runs in four innings. The Mets' own ace, lefthander Al
Leiter, had excelled in his first start after nearly a month on
the DL with elbow tendinitis. It was only New York's second win
in 10 games, and Leiter hoped out loud that it might have the
same effect as his win over the Yankees in June 1999. That game
woke the Mets from an early-season slumber and launched their run
to the playoffs. "You look back and find turning points after a
season," said manager Bobby Valentine. "This win is a step in the
right direction."

To borrow a lyric from Bruce Springsteen, whose music blares in
the clubhouse on days Leiter starts: "One step up and two steps
back." That has been the story of the season for New York. The
day after beating Brown and the Dodgers, the Mets were pounded
10-2 by L.A. Though they rallied to win 6-5 on Sunday, the Mets
ended the weekend with the NL's second-worst record (17-26) and
were in last place in the East, 8 1/2 games behind the Phillies.
Seven months after they played in the World Series, the Mets'
longest winning streak had been two games. "We're not hitting;
we're not pitching well; and when we do one, we don't do the
other," said third baseman Robin Ventura.

As dismal as things were--New York's average of 3.7 runs per game
was the league's lowest, its 5.17 ERA the second highest--the Mets
retained hope of climbing back into the playoff race. For one
thing, upstart Philadelphia can hardly be said to have a
stranglehold on first place, and the Braves, the perennial
division winners, were scuffling along with a 21-23 record. New
York righthander Rick Reed has pitched brilliantly: He was 5-2
with a 2.53 ERA through Sunday. He and a healthy Leiter give the
Mets a top-of-the-rotation duo that should bar extended losing
streaks. New York could also expect to get better production from
catcher Mike Piazza (hitting .167 with six RBIs in May), second
baseman Edgardo Alfonzo (.254 with 15 RBIs for the year) and
first baseman Todd Zeile (.240 with one home run).

To be sure, New York has been wracked by injuries to Leiter and
other key players. Alfonzo has been playing with a sore back and
a sore left knee. Centerfielder Jay Payton went on the DL on May
8 with a strained right hamstring. Leftfielder Benny Agbayani
missed two weeks with a fractured left wrist and has been
hampered by an abdominal strain for much of May. Rightfielder
Timo Perez (strained left groin), reliever Rick White (sore right
elbow in April, strained rotator cuff in May) and outfielder
Daryl Hamilton (strained shoulder muscle) have also missed
significant stretches. "We have Al back healthy, and Benny's
about ready to go," general manager Steve Phillips said last
weekend. "This is going to turn around at some point for us."

Even with everyone healthy, the Mets are enigmatic--not as
bumbling as they've shown so far, yet significantly weaker than
they were last year. The decline is the result mostly of a
falloff in their starting pitching, largely attributable to the
loss of 15-game winner Mike Hampton to free agency. Neither of
New York's off-season pickups, veteran righthanders Kevin Appier
and Steve Trachsel, has come through. They were a combined 3-11
with a 6.78 ERA through Sunday, and Trachsel, who got a two-year,
$7 million contract in December despite a 16-33 record over the
past two seasons, was banished to Triple A Norfolk on May 18.

The Mets also failed to bolster a weak-hitting outfield, so it's
little surprise that they had the least production from those
positions of any NL team. No help appears forthcoming. "The trade
front hasn't changed," Phillips said last Friday. "Most of the
guys available either aren't playing or aren't performing for
their own clubs. Any player we could get won't change the fact
that our current players need to play better."

Now's the time: This week the Mets began a stretch of 17 games
against division opponents, a golden chance to make up ground.
Given the track records of such players as Piazza, Alfonzo and
Zeile, New York will play better. That still might not be enough.

Inge in Control
A Big Catch For the Tigers

Every major league team coddles its prized pitching prospects,
monitoring pitch counts and massaging psyches to ensure that the
stars-in-the-making stay on the right track. Catching prospects,
as the Tigers' Brandon Inge has discovered, are shown no such
courtesy. After Mitch Meluskey, who was slated to be Detroit's
regular catcher, went down with a season-ending shoulder injury
less than a week before Opening Day, the Tigers had two choices:
try to deal for a veteran catcher or throw the talented but raw
Inge, 24, who had played in only eight spring training games and
was getting ready for his first full season at Triple A, into
the breach. What's the best way to handle your catcher of the
future? "Just turn him loose," says Detroit third base coach
Lance Parrish, a former All-Star backstop.

The 5'11", 185-pound Inge has wowed the Tigers and opposing
scouts with the way he has handled his baptism by fire. Through
Sunday he'd nailed 46.7% of runners trying to steal, the
second-best success rate in the majors among catchers with at
least 25 chances, and impressed Detroit pitchers with his pitch
calling. (Befitting his rookie status, he was also tied for the
lead in the majors with seven passed balls.) Never mind that he
was hitting only .247 with nine RBIs; Tigers manager Phil Garner
made it clear from the get-go that Inge wasn't out there for his
bat. "He told me I could hit .100, .200, .300, he didn't care,"
says Inge. "Defense is my focus right now."

A shortstop and relief pitcher at Virginia Commonwealth, Inge was
taken by the Tigers in the second round of the June 1998
draft--and promptly switched to catcher. Inge, who credits Tigers
minor league catching instructor Glenn Ezell with helping him
make the shift, has compensated for his inexperience behind the
plate with his athletic ability and arm. He likens a catcher's
footwork on throws to second to that of a shortstop's turning a
double play, an approach that made him a threat to base stealers
almost as soon as he donned a mask. (In his first full season
behind the plate, at Class A West Michigan, he threw out 43% of
would-be base stealers.) The mental aspects of catching have
provided his biggest challenges. "We're throwing more information
at him than he's ever heard," says Parrish, "but he's handling it
well."

Before a game, with the help of Parrish and Detroit pitching
coach Dan Warthen, Inge will immerse himself in scouting reports
to get up to speed on the hitters he'll face. After most games he
watches tape, then sits with that game's starter to go over the
pitches thrown. Inge also relies on his pitchers to school him on
their preferences. "[Righthander Dave] Mlicki said to me, 'Hey,
you're not doing anything wrong, but usually I like a really low
target,'" Inge says. "They've all been good about telling me
things."

Garner and his pitchers allow Inge to handle most of the pitch
calling, though he gets help from the bench in tight situations
and against hitters he doesn't know well. "There have been games
when I've said to him, 'It's your game; I'll throw what you put
down,'" says righthander Jeff Weaver. "We've had success doing
that."

However, Inge's most impressive asset has been his cannon arm,
and his goal is to throw out 50% of would-be base stealers this
year. "Seeing a guy take off from first is my favorite thing in
the world," he says. "There's no better feeling than beating the
runner to the bag with a throw."

Keeping an Eye on the Ball
Erstad Fights The Glare

There's a long history of fielders losing fly balls in bright
sunshine, but Angels Gold Glove centerfielder Darin Erstad
struggles with the twilight in Anaheim. In a 9-3 loss to the Blue
Jays on May 15, Erstad lost track of what should have been an
easy, inning-ending fly ball off the bat of Brad Fullmer. As
Erstad searched the hazy, pink-and-purple skies in vain, the ball
landed about 15 feet behind him for an RBI double; Toronto went
on to score two more runs in the inning. "I can honestly say I
never saw the ball after it hit his bat," Erstad said.

It was the second time this season and third in four years that
Erstad had lost a ball in the gloaming at Edison Field, where the
early-evening sky provides an overcast, disorienting background.
To combat the problem, Erstad the next evening switched to
special eyewear, wearing amber-colored sunglasses for the first
few innings of night home games. Those shades, which he had
already worn for games in the Twins' Metrodome, where fly balls
are notoriously difficult to track against the dingy gray
ceiling, are designed to sharpen contrast in hazy conditions. He
also plans to try a pair of orange-tinted contact lenses that he
usually reserves for day games. "Anything that could possibly
help," he says, "I'm going to try."

On Deck
Opportunity Knocks

May 25-28, Rangers at Orioles
Somebody has to prevail in this matchup pitting the AL's worst
pitching staff against its worst offense. Through Sunday,
Baltimore was last in the league in batting (.237) and home runs
(32). At their current pace the Orioles will go deep only 118
times this season, which would be their lowest nonstrike-season
homer total since 1974. Texas, meanwhile, was well on its way to
tying the major league record for homers allowed in a season.

For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Like Todd Pratt, late on this tag of the Diamondbacks' Rod Barajas, the Mets are reaching for answers.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Thrown into the fire, Inge has come up hot.

enemy Lines
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week

The Twins have really made me a believer. Everybody knows about
their starting pitching, but they also have a pretty deep bullpen
and they're an outstanding defensive team. Torii Hunter is off
the charts in center, and Cristian Guzman is great at shortstop.
In fact, on our grading scale they have an above-average defender
at just about every position....

I don't know how much of an impact the addition of Vinny
Castilla will make, but I'm impressed with the Astros. Craig
Biggio is back to where he was before he got hurt last year,
they have a damn good offensive outfield, and I really like
their pitching. This team has enough to win its division....

On the other hand, the Reds are going backward. Their pitching
staff has huge problems, third baseman Aaron Boone is out with a
broken bone in his hand, and no one knows when Ken Griffey Jr.
will be back. They're in a state of turmoil....

Baltimore's young pitching has done such a good job
that the Orioles might deal some of it for the help they need at
virtually every position. Righthander Sidney Ponson might be the
one to move on; he can look like Don Drysdale some nights, but he
has never shown that he can maintain his stuff. A change of
scenery might do him good....

Sammy Sosa just doesn't have any help in the Cubs lineup. The
bullpen looks strong--Tom Gordon has his big hammer curveball
back, and I clocked Kyle Farnsworth's fastball at 101 mph--but I
don't think that this team can score enough runs.

Weekend Warrior

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday the Giants' Barry Bonds torched
Braves pitching for his 17th through 22nd home runs of the
season. Those six shots gave him 516 for his career and moved him
past Mel Ott, Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews into 13th on the
alltime list. Bonds also matched the major league records of five
homers over two consecutive games and six over three straight
games, with at least one homer in each. Here are the only players
to have accomplished both feats.

HR IN 1ST 2ND 3RD
PLAYER, TEAM DATES GAME GAME GAME

Barry Bonds, Giants May 18-20, 2001 1 3 2
Manny Ramirez, Indians Sept. 15-17, 1998 3 2 1
Mike Schmidt, Phillies April 17, 18 4 1 1
and 20, 1976
Ralph Kiner, Pirates Sept. 11 (doubleheader) 1 3 2
and 12, 1947
Ralph Kiner, Pirates Aug. 14-16, 1947 1 2 3
Tony Lazzeri, Yankees May 23 (doubleheader) 1 2 3
and 24, 1936

in the Box

PHILLIES 5, CARDINALS 4
May 18

Last season the commissioner's office instituted what it calls a
heads-up program for umpires: Before each series umps are now
given a report that highlights any bad blood between the teams
that could lead to a beanball war. Here's an incident that makes
the next meeting between Philadelphia and St. Louis, on Aug. 17
at Busch Stadium, worth a heads up. With Philadelphia leading
2-0 and none out in the eighth inning, Cards manager Tony La
Russa brought in lefthander Steve Kline to pitch to rookie
shortstop Jimmy Rollins. After getting ahead 2 and 0, Rollins
hammered a fastball into the leftfield seats for a two-run
homer. As he finished his swing, Rollins flipped his bat away
with a haughty flick of the wrists, an act of cool that incensed
Kline. As Kline, who had not allowed a home run this season,
watched Rollins tour the bases, he yelled at him the entire way.
"You don't do that s---," said Kline, who was pulled three
batters later. "I'll flip his helmet next time. A rookie has to
respect the game for a while."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)