Mets hope to serve notice against Philly
You wouldn’t call it the beginning of the apocalypse, or even a must-win series, for that matter. Still, in the next three days the Mets have a chance to make their case as the East’s surprise team — against Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, no less.
Granted, it’s probably a fantasy from a team that hasn’t earned the right to consider itself a peer of this National League powerhouse. Any potential challenge to the Phillies won’t take shape until after July, and that’s assuming the Mets are even above .500.
But after taking 2-of-3 from the Marlins, there’s at least an embryo of hope for this troubled franchise. So much has gone wrong until now — no money (Madoff), no ace (Santana), recurring injuries (Jason Bay) — but the Mets arrive at Citizens Bank Park tonight a few rungs higher in their climb toward self-respect.
By taking a series on the road, as they did in Florida, the Mets immediately distanced themselves from the 2010 team, which was beaten in every road series until June, when they finally prevailed over the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The Mets came from behind against Rickey Nolasco on Saturday in a 6-4 win, then finished off the Marlins, 9-2, thanks to their not-so-secret weapon, R.A. Dickey, who’s on his way to becoming the rotation’s de facto ace.
That, along with the fact that Carlos Beltran is in the everyday lineup, and that the Mets — a notoriously undisciplined team last year — collected 14 walks in three games, represents the good news for manager Terry Collins. The bad news is that Dickey will not face the Phillies — he’s pitching the home opener against the Nationals on Friday — with the rest of the matchups seemingly stacked against the Mets.
Start with Mike Pelfrey, who evaporated in his Opening Day assignment against Josh Johnson. Including the 6-2 loss to Florida on Friday, Pelfrey is 2-11 with a 6.85 ERA in his last 20 road starts against the East. The right-hander gets Joe Blanton on Wednesday, after which the Mets run into Roy Halladay on Thursday, opposed by Jonathan Niese.
But rather than shy away from the long odds, Collins has been pointing to this series as an awakening, if not for the Phillies, then to the disillusioned fan-base and to the players themselves.
"We did tell our guys," Collins said. "We talked about it the other day, this us-against-the-world stuff. That’s great as a team phrase kind of thing, but you’ve got to believe you can go out and play.
" … I always look back at the days when I would play the Yankees when I was in Anaheim — a great club and you’d get yourself up to play them. You raised your level of play a little bit higher because you want to show them you’re as good as they are.”
The Phillies are missing vital parts of their machinery — Chase Utley, Brad Lidge, Domonic Brown, among others — but the Mets are well aware what’s waiting for them in a ballpark that eats up opposing pitchers. Despite a makeshift lineup, the Phillies’ 3-4-5 hitters were 15-for-38 against the Astros in a three-game sweep.
Jose Reyes is quick to acknowledge, “(the Phillies) are the team to beat.” You won’t find a single Met who’ll disagree — no trash-talking this year, on or off the record. Despite the bravado, Collins knows he still doesn’t have a pitching weapon to match Halladay or Cliff Lee.
Yet the Mets have seemingly absorbed the early-April call to arms, which is why Reyes can say, with all due respect to the Phillies, “we can still compete with any team. We’ve got a very good team, too.”
Like the Mets, the Yankees are bracing for a mini-showdown against a division rival, a three-game series against the Red Sox this weekend that might answer a few early questions. One, in particular, is already at the top of the list — Phil Hughes’ diminished radar-gun readings.
Since spring training began, the right-hander has barely touched 90-mph with his four-seam fastball, a disturbing drop-off from last year’s 93-94 mph. Hughes insists he’s not hurt, so he and the Yankees are at a loss to explain where the heat has gone.
One possibility is leftover fatigue from the 176.1 innings he threw in 2010 — more than double his 2009 output. Hughes didn’t think he was tired come October, but his 11.42 ERA against the Rangers in the ALCS said otherwise.
The Yankees will implement a long-tossing program this week as a way to strengthen Hughes’ arm. Joe Girardi say Hughes can get by in the meantime with finesse, but that’s just wish-casting — Hughes is an aggressive pitcher who’s relied on upper-end velocity to challenge hitters in the middle of the strike zone. He’s not about to turn into Mike Mussina or Jamie Moyer.
In any case, Hughes needs to find his groove quickly: he’s starting Friday at Fenway, which just happened to rank No. 1 on park factor in 2010 in doubles. It’s hardly the place for soft-tossers.
THE JETER FILE
The Yankees are also scrutinizing Derek Jeter’s 2-for-14 start, hoping it’s nothing more than a few weak at-bats in an otherwise small sample size. But Jeter, who made more ground-ball outs than anyone in the majors last year, still isn’t driving the ball. Just two of his batted balls managed to escape the infield in his first four games.
Jeter is, for now, locked into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, although a chronic slump would strengthen the case for Curtis Granderson. Dislodging Jeter, however, would require more political capital than Joe Girardi wants to expend. He told the New York Post on Monday, “I don't think it is right for the team to move (Jeter out of the top of the lineup). When it is the right time — if it ever is the right time — we'll know."
This isn’t a decision Girardi will be able to make, or execute, on his own. The manager would need help from GM Brian Cashman, and that’s just for starters. The Yankees are hoping Jeter makes it easy on everyone by finding the old explosiveness in his bat, which is why of all the remedies they’ve applied — changing his stride, taking extra batting practice, studying video — they’re using a decidedly low-tech solution, as well: crossed fingers.