By Anthony Bosco
There has been more enough Mets bashing over the past couple of days, especially when it come to the team’s relief pitching. Sure, Armando Benitez and John Franco cost the team its chance of completing a spectacular second-half run with the Mets loss to Atlanta last Friday night, but I think that blasting them is missing the point.
It is easy to say that no one remembers who finishes second, but the fact that the Mets were even in a position during the final weeks of the regular season to pose a viable threat to both the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies is in itself a small miracle.
While no where near as dramatic as the team’s miracle season of 1969, this year would have gone down as perhaps the most unbelievable comeback in team history, if not the entire history of Major League Baseball.
For more of the season the Mets were mired by a slumping line-up, so-so pitching and the worst luck imaginable. But that all changed during the past month. The Mets, who at one pint this year were the worst team in the National League East, ever worse than Montreal, and spent most of the year behind Florida in fourth place, got within spitting distance of the mighty Braves and no doubt threw a little fear into the perennial division champs.
That the team didn’t make it, however, that they came up short when it seemed they were destined to overcome, will be lost on most everyone. Why? Because New York sports fans, unfortunately, seem to care more about their team winning than the sport itself.
But I have to commend the Mets for making a go of it, for refusing to give up, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Something has to be said for a team that refused to throw in the towel.
Back in June, while visiting my family in Boca Raton, my step-mother had this wild idea that the Florida Marlins were a playoff team this season. And I know what a lot of you are thinking, “She just doesn’t know baseball.” But she does, a lot better than you might think and she probably watched more games this season than most baseball fans.
And while I tried to tell her that there was no way the Marlins would catch both Philadelphia and Atlanta and that the among the remaining teams vying for the wild card, Florida was well behind. she wouldn’t hear it. The pitching would falter, I’d say, the batting order would go cold and, during the dog days of September, they just wouldn’t have enough guns to beat out the Braves and the Phils for the East title.
I don’t know how to speak Spanish — at least not very well — but I am sure she must have hurled a few barbs my way that escaped my rusty bilingual ear.
It turned out I was right, sort of. The Marlins did pack it in after the all star break, but they could have very well have caught both the Phillies and the Marlins. The Mets, who were playing behind the Marlins much of the season, pole-vaulted into third once Florida began to fade and set their sights to the top two teams.
And while I never really believed the Mets would do it, their they were, pushing ahead and making a run. The pitching simply started doing the job, Al Leiter, Bruce Chen, Steve Trachsel, Glendon Rusch and Kevin Appier all pitched better during the second half, while Benitez, Franco and Rick White were the main cogs in the bullpen.
What had been the biggest detriment to the Mets during the first half of the season had been the team’s inability to get the big hit or, more to the point, to hit anything at all.
But that changed, not dramatically, but certainly for the better. Mike Piazza certainly came around during the second half, so much so that he might end up hitting close to 40 home runs, batting .300 and driving in 100 RBIs, something that seemed almost impossible after his uncharacteristically slow start.
Edgardo Alfonso never hit his stride this year, nor did Todd Zeile or Robin Ventura, but new addition Matt Lawton provided a lift, as did Suzuki Shinjo, who proved to be the most consistent outfielder on the team ahead of Jay Payton, who also did not have a great season. Rey Ordonez is not know for his bat, but he had a couple of big hits during the second half and his defense is above reproach.
Role players like Joe McEwing and Desi Relaford made the Mets work in the second half. Both add a different dimension to the team — the ability to get on base, something their teammates were woefully terrible at during the first few months of the season.
But when it came down to it, the Mets just couldn’t get over the hump. two weeks ago, after Leiter pitched brilliantly, Benitez let a three-run ninth inning lead slip away to the Braves. A win and the Mets would have been just 2 1/2 games behind. And then last Friday, Leiter left after eight with a four-run lead only to see Benitez and Franco let the game slip away in the ninth.
With those two losses went the season. And while the bullpen may to blame, they were not to blame in April and May, when the team couldn’t hit water falling out of a boat.
It was a horrible year made tolerable by a late run. Maybe that’s not enough for most Mets fans, but I’ll take it. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, right? Well, the Mets finished pretty darn good.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.