Over the past decade, can you tell me a bigger joke than the one about The New York Knicks? How about the one about the New York Mets?
Being deeply affiliated with The Madoff Ponzi Scheme, facing possible financial ruin, terrible free agent acquisitions, bad luck and horribly played baseball has ensured that the Mets haven’t won more than 79 games since 2008. Hopes were high for this season before All-Star ace Matt Harvey went down with a season-ending elbow injury and that was a shocking and reality-jerking situation for skipper Terry Collins and Mets fans to grasp.
Most baseball heads predicted another year in the cellar, scraping to win 80 games and an ounce of respectability from MLB Nation. Even with Harvey healthy and being a potential 20-game winner, earning a playoff berth was going to be difficult. Without him, most people felt it highly improbable. The Mets have advanced to the playoffs just once (2006) since losing to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series 4-1.
When Daisuke Matsuzaka arrived in NY, it seemed like the perfect fit. He was struggling to just hang on in the majors after a super-hyped and once promising career in Boston. The Mets are a team in need of talent and he’s a pitcher in need of a home and a place with low expectations, where he can get his arm game back on track.
The journey of Dice K is a well-documented one. On November 14, 2006 the Red Sox won the bidding rights to Japanese icon Matsuzaka with a bid of $51,111,111.11, outbidding the Texas Rangers, Mets and NY Yankees. The hefty figure shocked the baseball world from Japan to the U.S. Matsuzaka then signed a six-year, $52 million contract, which could have been worth as much as $60 million if he fulfilled incentives.
Years later, Matsuzaka, who had made just one relief appearance in his first 124 big league outings, continues to stake his claim for a serious role in the Mets bullpen by retiring all three batters he faced in the ninth inning on Thursday, to preserve the Mets' third victory (4-1) in the four-game series against the Cardinals.
"It's a different type of pressure from when I start," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter after his first save at any level since 2000, when he was starring for Seibu of Japan's Pacific League. "But I definitely enjoyed it today."
Matsuzaka got the final out of the seventh on Wednesday, when right-hander Kyle Farnsworth nearly coughed up a two-run lead in the ninth inning of a 3-2 win. Collins said Thursday morning that he wanted to use Matsuzaka as the closer if a save situation presented itself.
Matsuzaka easily deaded right fielder Allen Craig, second baseman Daniel Descalso and pinch hitter Peter Bourjos to close out the win for O.G. workhorse Bartolo Colon, his rotation mate with the Red Sox in 2008, when Matsuzaka went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA and Dice K mania was in full effect.
But Matsuzaka battled numerous injuries for the remainder of his stay in Boston, including an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and he stumbled to a 17-22 record with a 5.53 ERA in his final four seasons with the Red Sox.
After making 19 starts with Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate last season, Matsuzaka requested his release and signed with the Mets, going 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA in seven starts. Matsuzaka lost the fifth starter's competition to right-hander Jenrry Mejia in spring training, but was recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas April 16 and has allowed one run and struck out eight in just 5 1/3 innings over four relief appearances, all of which have come in the Mets' last six games.
If he keeps these type of performances coming however, he is sure to get a ton of work in before the season is over. Kyle Farnsworth has always thrown hard but his stint with the Yankees already let you know what he’s made of. As a closer he throws one of the flattest fastballs you will ever see. It usually comes in at close to a buck and flies out the stadium in clutch situations ever faster. If he can still get batters out, Dice K has a better temperament for closing and the Mets might have found themselves a diamond, right off the MLB scrap heap.
The surprising Mets sit 2.5 games out of first, in second place in the NL East behind the Braves, with a 13-10 record. Despite maintaining their offensively inept steez, they are playing scrappy, inspired baseball and the parity of MLB competition and an effective 14th-ranked pitching staff, has them in a position that very few fans expected.
To put the Mets first 22 games into perspective, they have a putrid .315 team slugging percentage and prized free agent acquisition Curtis Granderson was hitting .130 before slamming a walkoff, ninth-inning single on Saturday, to lift the Mets to a 4-3 win in the first game of a three-game homestand against the Miami Marlins.
But they still have a better record than the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. No one believes they could actually sustain this winning pace, but every year is different in baseball and a few players having career years can always upset the predicted flow.
The once-unreliable Mets bullpen has all of a sudden morphed into its biggest asset. Besides for Dice K’s piff-perfect pitching, in the last five games, their relievers have allowed two earned runs over 18 innings for a 1.00 ERA.
Carlos Torres and Scott Rice are also getting it in and Farnsworth hasn’t imploded as of yet.
“When we get runs, they are throwing up zeroes after that,” Mets infielder Daniel Murphy said. “Those are big innings.”
Bartolo Colon is keeping the rotation warm in Harvey’s absence and besides for one piss poor outing in So Cal, Old Man Rivers has been worth every penny of the two-year, $20 million contract NY gave him. Since shaking PED drama and returning to the game, Colon has proved to be a savvy pitcher with a lot left in his tank. Colon helped the Mets send an early season message to all contenders by winning a series against the defending National League champions and moving two games above .500 for the first time this season. With the Yankees sporting an identical, AL East-leading 13-10 record, the Mets are still in play for top of New York…at least for now.
With two more series games left against the last-place Marlins, the Mets could roll into May with a 15-10 record. They were 10-15 and going nowhere fast at this point last season. The only dope look was the remarkable sideshow known as homegrown phenom Matt Harvey. After him, there wasn’t much reason to come to the park.
“It's been unbelievable,” Mets outfielder Chris Young said on MLB Network. Bartolo came in and did his thing today and everybody else. (Jon) Niese yesterday.They have kept us where we need to be and we’re having a lot of fun right now. Our pitching staff did an amazing job this series and kept us in all of the games”
When asked if he feels a little momentum building, David produced a wide, cautious grin and said, “I’m not going to say we don’t.”
I don’t blame him for not committing to an assertive answer. NY Mets seasons are known to take on a schizophrenic nature. The franchise is not new to collapses or underachievement. There are times in Mets history, however, where positive favor has befriended them. The Miracle Mets of '69 had New York in a trance. The ’86 Mets were drama personified. They played hard. Partied hard with liquor, drugs and fast women, and lasted about as long as a free Drake Concert. It’s almost time for another Mets run. They really only have one superstar and that’s David Wright. The rest of the guys are B and C players who need to rise above their abilities to move something in the NL East.
Redemption Road seems to be leading to Citifield these days and vets like Dice K and Colon are holding onto the MLB dream and teaching these young cats, retreads and pot luck players how to win.