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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Buzz and Vibe of a Winner -- the New York Mets

I had great seats at the Phillies-Mets game last night at Citizens Bank Park, so good that I could see into the Mets' dugout and get a good sense of the team, the team that is leading the National League East over the heavily-favored Washington Nationals. 

The Mets went into the season with great pitching -- everyone knows the story of how this pitching staff has the potential to out-Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz the Atlanta Braves teams that were so great in the 90's and early 2000's.  The question mark was hitting, and for a while the Mets were the worst-hitting team in the National League.  Fast forward to right now, and they have been on a tear, thanks, in part, to the Quadruple A pitching staff that the Phillies have assembled in their poor man's style of trying to rebuild a franchise (I say "poor man's because it would appear that there are, in contrast, rich man's versions in the Cubs, Pirates, Astros and Royals).  The past three days have been glorified batting practice for the Mets, who set a franchise record the other night by hitting eight home runs against the Phillies in a come-from-behind 16-7 victory.

That victory perhaps was a statement on two fronts.  First, that the Mets can hit and can sustain their hitting.   Second, that the Phillies' surprise surge right after the All-Star break was just that, that the carriage turned into the proverbial pumpkin, and that a no-name bullpen with an anonymous group of hitters not named Howard or Francoeur only can take you so far before it craters. 

But what was more compelling to me last night was the buzz in the Mets' dugout.  I had seen that type of vibe in recent memory in the Phillies' dugout from say late 2007 through 2011 and particularly in 2008, when the Phillies won the World Series.  Roll back the tape, and you would see Shane Victorino energizing the whole dugout, Jimmy Rollins talking hitting with Charlie Manuel, Ryan Howard and his outsized smile, the intensity of Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley and for a time, the Old Master, Jamie Moyer, holding court over a young pitching staff, and particularly the precocious talent of Cole Hamels.  The team, collectively, was standing on the balls of its toes, ready to jump in, ready to battle from behind (which it did masterfully during the glory part of Manuel's tenure), and was talking shop the entire time.  That energy was something to see, and its an energy borne of success and confidence in knowing that you have control over your destiny and enough talent in the dugout to take control over it.

Last night, I saw David Wright as the sun in the Mets' universe, the rallying point for his teammates.  Players gathered around him as though is their sage, their sensei, their oracle, and Wright, to his great credit as a leader, didn't seem to pull rank or have an arrogance about him at all.  To the contrary, he looked comfortable in his own skin and more than ready for the role as the first among an increasingly talented squad that is primed to make its mark in the NL East for years to come.  Among those joining Wright in a small cadre of those talking shop was star pitcher Jacob deGrom, who was near Wright for most of the night, pitcher Jonathan Niese, who seemed to keep his teammates loose, the recently acquired veteran infielder Kelly Johnson, second baseman Daniel Murphy, pitcher Matt Harvey, and catcher Travis d'Arnaud.  Sitting behind the dugout it is hard to see who else might have been around, and I also give credit to third-base coach Tim Teufel, who seemed more than happy to engage the players when the Mets were in the field. 

In contrast, while some Phillies were up on the small fence that serves, among other things, to keep foul balls from plunking unsuspecting players, they didn't appear to be gathered around any leader, didn't appear to be talking shop, and appeared basically in personal silos, watching the game and left to their own thoughts.  That's not the fault of anyone in particular, as manager Pete Mackanin is doing a fine job and the front office has finally figured out that they need to rebuild and reload in a big way.  It's more testimony to a franchise that got drunk on its own glory, failed to plan for the future, and now has a lot of names that are new to one another.  Ruiz is a leader by example but not a rallying point, and his career is almost over.  Howard is a shadow of his former self.  Hamels, Rollins and Utley are gone; Victorino and Jayson Worth long gone.  Cliff Lee is on the disabled list, his career presumably over.  There just do not appear to be any leaders yet ready to rally the team around them.  Mikael Franco came up this year, is very young, and on the disabled list.  Odubel Herrera has shown some promise, just joined the team this year as a Rule 5 draftee and is still figuring out how to play center field.  Right fielder Domonic Brown's body language suggests that he'd rather be somewhere else; Francoeur, while energetic, is a journeyman, so much so that the outfielder actually pitched in eight games in the minors last season. 

Going back to the Mets, it seems that despite some major injuries much is going right for them now.  They have good pitching, and they have started to hit.  And it's a fine time to get hot bats at the end of August, where the games count the same as they did in April but have more attention paid to them and more incremental meaning as the teams march toward the playoffs.  That Wright has returned gives them their veteran presence; that players are rallying around him is exciting.  They look confident, and their body language and interactions in the dugout show it.  As did the humor of veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon, who in one at bat stood there with the bat on his shoulder, took three strikes, walked back to the dugout with an amused smile on his face and sat down.  His teammates smiled, too -- they know that the cagey old veteran was saving his energy for throwing strikes, which he did masterfully last night.

It's a tale of two teams, and what a difference eight years makes.  The Mets started their decline at the end of 2007, when they blew a 7-game lead with 17 games to go and ran into a freight train called the Philadelphia Phillies, who blasted Tommy Glavine on the last day of the season to win the division.  That last month of the season gave birth to a great run for the Phillies and the (always temporary in baseball) decline of the Mets.  Fast forward eight years, and the Phillies look like the one-time boomtown with empty storefronts abounding, while the Mets look like the new development with all the modern amenities.  Mets' fans should enjoy the journey here and now.  Their team looks primed for a good run.


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