Friday, November 30, 2012

Do The Right Thing

I could have done the predictable "Wright Thing" pun with today's header, but that would have been too easy. And it wasn't more about the Mets doing the Wright Thing, it really was about the Mets doing the Right thing.

For the past several weeks, a colleague at work had been asking me, on an almost daily basis, if there was any news on the David Wright contract talks. The inflection in his voice and the frequency at which he asked me might have led the casual observer to believe that I might have been in the room with Alderson and Wright's handlers getting all the inside information on the deal. Obviously, I'm not so well connected, and I'm often skeptical of rumors, so I could only pass on whatever information I knew, which usually wasn't much more than "(shrug) They're talking."

"But...But...You're the author of The Ballclub! You're supposed to know these things!"

No, not so much. I'm so out of the loop I don't even get invited to the Blogger forums the Mets hold from time to time. I'm only able to glean as much as I can from Mike Francesa and Benigno and Roberts. So, for the most part, no news was no news. Until there was news earlier in the week about the Mets basically throwing the kitchen sink at David Wright in order to keep him in New York, with the Mets, and out of the hands of the trademongers, off the roster of a division rival, or, worse, another New York team. To that end, I met the news of the Wright signing this morning with, mostly, relief.

I also wasn't surprised that he signed the deal as it was. Perhaps Wright may have been slightly miffed at the way the money would be paid out, but, let's face it. 7 years and $122 million tacked on to the $16 mil he was already slated to make for 2013 is a nice chunk of change, pretty much as good or better than any offer he would have gotten on the open market. The Mets, clearly wary of driving more of their fan base over the edge after the non-action on Jose Reyes last year, made sure that this wouldn't happen again. The decision, then, was Wright's to make, and whether or not he felt that the Mets were the place he wanted to be for the remainder of his productive career. Sign the deal, and he would almost assuredly become the greatest Mets position player ever. Say no, and he'd basically be stamping his ticket out of town, and perhaps become a bit of a pariah, and yet another indignity on a franchise that has seen nothing but indignity for the past several years. But, logically, there was no way he could turn down this offer, right? His heart always said yes. Ultimately, his head came around.

The move with Wright was the correct one, much in the same vein that the Reyes non-move was the correct one, or at least that's how I see it. I can understand both sides of the argument. The downside to a long contract for Wright (and the current deal will expire in 2020, shortly before Wright turns 38), is that he'll probably underperform during the latter part of the deal. Mike Piazza underperformed during the last couple of years of his long contract. But such is the hazard of maintaining control of a star player past his prime. Wright had to be paid based on his resume, which has been excellent for his first 8.5 seasons. Obviously, he's had his issues over the years, and he was at his best when he was a cog amidst several stars rather than being The Guy. But that doesn't mean that having him is going to somehow bring the Mets down even further than they already were, even in the latter part of his career.

David Wright has never been the singular cause of the Mets struggles. Unlike Jose Reyes, there have never been major injury concerns (Wright's injury problems have generally been of a freak variety rather than something constantly troubling), or questions about his attitude and focus, or the presence of a solid replacement (Anyone who thinks Murphy would have been a good replacement for Wright is out of their mind, the Mets have nobody even close to Wright the way they had Tejada to replace Reyes) and he's probably the last person you'd see getting pulled from a game for not hustling.  When I think about the Mets rebuilding, sure, there have been times I thought that Wright would be among those purged. He'd certainly bring back plenty in a trade. But what he could bring back wouldn't, ultimately, bring the Mets any closer to contention than they would be with him; the problems of the team run far deeper than something one trade would solve.

The money shouldn't be an issue either. With the Madoff issue supposedly done with, the Mets may now be able to start building their payroll up once again. Getting rid of Jason Bay was a nice bit of addition by subtraction, and once Santana comes off the books after 2013, things may finally begin to turn. At least, this has been the big scuttlebutt. It's possible to start off building with trial and error while waiting for the bad money to disappear. When time comes for the Mets to make their move and get serious about improving, there will be solid pieces in place, and they'll be led by Wright, not hindered by his presence. One need only look at the San Francisco Giants as a team that built from within and then struck when the iron was hot. Why, with the necessary improvements, could this not be the Mets in a few years (before you state the obvious, I am indeed abundantly aware of the many reasons why it can't)? You can say what you will about Alderson, but one thing he's not is an idiot. I trust his ability to make the right move, and I think that a more deliberate approach to rebuilding the Mets is probably the wise thing to do. By keeping Wright, Alderson has made sure of not creating a need where there wasn't one to begin with.

To wit, the Mets are still a ways from contention. Several experiments (Thole, Murphy, Duda, the entire Outfield, the entire Bullpen) have either not worked at all or are just barely passable. But there are also really good pieces (Ike, Tejada, Harvey, Niese) in place, and several others that could fall in once they ascend. David Wright, it's now assured, will be here to see it through as well. It's a start.

And that's not even beginning to consider the boost in morale this is for Mets fans.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Great Escape

I suppose, when your defense returns multiple Interceptions for Touchdowns, it doesn't really matter who's playing Quarterback, you probably should win the game. The 49ers defense did this on Sunday, providing the muscle behind the Niners' 4th win in their last 5 games, and Colin Kaepernick's second victory as the starting QB.

That being said, the performance on Sunday in New Orleans wasn't nearly as brilliant as it was against the Bears. Not as brilliant, certainly, but just as effective.

With Alex Smith on the sidelines, helmet on, looking utterly stone-faced, Kaepernick didn't light up the scoreboard like he did against the Bears. Instead, he conducted a game plan that seemed predicated more on the ground than through the air, eschewing several of the deep passes he was able to pull off against Chicago in favor of letting Frank Gore and, before he left with an ankle injury, Kendall Hunter. Or, Kaepernick just ran around and created plays himself. This wasn't the calm, methodical offense that Alex Smith was running, that often seemed content to chew up yards and clock in rather unspectacular fashion. This seemed wild. It looked wild a bit of the time as well. The 49ers used a number of odd formations and weird pre-snap motion plays so often that it appeared that they were outfoxing themselves at times. To wit, the 49ers chalked up 10 penalties, several of which nearly or did kill drives (and also a number that appeared to emphasize a crew of officials with their head buried up the home team's ass).

The result, early on, was that the 49ers only managed one really good drive, their second of the game. Kaepernick's target of choice on this drive was Mario Manningham, who turned a short pass into a 40-yard gain and put the Niners in position for Kaepernick to score on a beautiful read option play that conjured images of Steve Young dashing around. But the Saints responded with a quick Touchdown of their own, something that Drew Brees has made into an art form, and then scored again following a sickening muffed punt from the usually sure-handed Ted Ginn, Jr. This one was just pure disaster. It's hard to tell what happened, but it appeared as though Ginn got distracted by a Saints gunner, and then just gagged. This doesn't happen often to Ginn, but when it does, it's ugly, and two plays later, the Saints had a Touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

Now trailing, with the Saints fans howling and Brees settling in, it was up to Kaepernick to try to rally the 49ers back from behind. This was the same team that Alex Smith carved up twice late in last year's Divisional Playoffs. Kaepernick could not get anything going on the ensuing drive, and trying to rally before halftime ended up throwing a bad interception, an underthrown pass that he seemed ill-prepared to throw. Not good. So, the 49ers could, at best, try to lick their wounds and prevent New Orleans from extending their lead.

This, of course was when the Defense, which has carried this team for the better part of the last two seasons, took over the game. With about half a minute to go in the half, Brees was embarking on another of his methodical two-minute drills. But in the process of zipping off a quick slant to Jimmy Graham, he lost track of Ahmad Brooks, not usually seen dropping back into pass coverage, but fortuitous that he did on this play, because he picked off Brees' throw and cruised 50 yards untouched  for a tying Touchdown that pretty much cut the wind out of the Saints' sails and changed the tune of the game.

Given the ball to start the 3rd Quarter, Kaepernick and the 49ers zipped right down the field, scoring on a Frank Gore Touchdown, and scored again on the ensuing drive when Donte Whitner picked off another Brees pass and ran it back for a score. This one was a beauty. Brees had fired over the middle to Marques Colston. But while jumping for the pass, Colston found himself upended by Dashon Goldson, and the ball glanced off his hands and right to Whitner. Whitner then found himself escorted into the end zone by several blockers, leaping across the goal line while Drew Brees could only scowl and throw his chinstrap.

The game was still far from over, even at 28-14, given the quality of the Saints and what they had done in San Francisco last January. They quickly scored a Touchdown to trim the lead, and after the 49ers couldn't move the ball, had another opportunity. But once again, the 49ers defense rose up, aided by a rare penalty on the Saints and a key sack from Aldon Smith. The Saints were forced to punt and pinned the 49ers back at their own 6 yard line. But Kaepernick, whose scrambling ability allowed him to escape this game without a sack, led a masterful drive that spanned 16 plays and ate 9:28 off the clock, ending with a David Akers Field Goal to extend the lead to 10 and, for all intents and purposes, finish off the Saints.

The Saints were forced to throw and throw some more, and the 49ers dug in and let their defense finish out the job, a steely 31-21 win on the road against a difficult opponent. The win moved the 49ers to 8-2-1, extended their division lead to 2 and a half games over Seattle and once again served notice that the 49ers can win no matter who's taking snaps.

 Jim Harbaugh still seems mum on the subject, as do many of his players. Kaepernick, for right now, appears to be the answer. He has mobility and arm strength that Smith lacks, and it appears that the 49ers can open up their offense more with him at the helm. That's not to denigrate the progress Smith has made to get to this point, but then again, you had to always wonder when Smith's wheels would come off. You worry about this with Kaepernick, too, and how he will handle adversity, but if nothing else, he seems like the kind of player who can Make Things Happen, even in difficult situations. The Smith vs. Kaepernick situation seems as though it won't go away for the remainder of the season, but if the end result is that the 49ers keep winning games, it really doesn't matter who's back there.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Where's This Been?

It wasn't until Monday morning that it was confirmed, officially, that Alex Smith's concussion from last week's mess of a game against the Rams would keep him out of last night's game against the Chicago Bears. The starting QB, thusly, would be Colin Kaepernick, making his 1st NFL start against the Chicago Bears, they of the 7-2 record and top-ranked defense in the NFL. The Bears had, to this point in the season, been having the kind of year the 49ers had last year, winning games with a strong running game and a stifling defense that forced bushels of turnovers. Their Quarterback, talented headcase Jay Cutler, however, was sidelined with a concussion of his own, leaving them to start their backup Jason Campbell, who was last seen throwing interceptions for the Redskins, or getting sacked for the Raiders. Nonetheless, on a level playing field, Campbell appeared to have an edge, if for no other reason than he was the guy with experience, not the guy making his 1st start against a tough defense. I admired Kaepernick's pluck, particularly when forced into action last week, but I was skeptical as to how well he'd fare against a swarming defense like the Bears. It seemed to me we were in for one of these hideous 13-9 games, where all anyone could do was kick Field Goals or throw interceptions, and running backs would grind out tough yards.

Then, of course, the game started and Colin Kaepernick turned into Steve Young, while Jason Campbell turned into Craig Whelihan.

It wasn't so much that Kaepernick sort of got comfortable and found himself as the game went on. Kaepernick started the game like he was shot out of a cannon and never slowed down. The 49ers zipped right down the field on their first drive. They stalled once they got inside the Bears 20, but David Akers' Field Goal got them an early lead. The Bears responded by going 3 and out, punctuated by the first of 5 Aldon Smith sacks on 3rd down. The 49ers next drive appeared headed nowhere after Frank Gore was stuffed for a 6-yard loss on 2nd down, but on 3rd and long, Kaepernick stood up against a blitz and zipped a deep pass over everyone, perfectly on target to Kyle Williams for a 57-yard gain. One play later, Kapernick zipped another pass in to Vernon Davis for his first career TD pass, and the rout was on.

The tone had already been set. The Bears could not sustain any kind of offense behind Campbell. The 49ers, always tough against the run, didn't allow Matt Forte any kind of meaningful yardage, and the Bears Offensive Line appeared to not have shown up at all, because Campbell was constantly pressured, scrambling, or sacked. Campbell was sacked 6 times, 5.5 of them courtesy of Aldon Smith, the final half to Justin Smith. Twice, Campbell was intercepted, and both times the 49ers converted these turnovers into points.

Defensively, Kaepernick punched the Bears in the face early, and they never made any kind of adjustment. Though it appeared early that the 49ers would keep things simple for Kaepernick, they eventually opened up their offense once they got ahead. Unlike Alex Smith, Kaepernick has the ability to scramble away from a pass rush, which everyone knew, but Kaepernick also has a much stronger throwing arm than Smith. On the 49ers 3rd possession, Kaepernick zipped a pass in to Randy Moss. The pass appeared to be dropped by Moss, but on closer inspection, Moss didn't drop the pass so much as it jammed one of his fingers badly enough that he came out of the game wincing and shaking his hand. Not something you see out of Alex Smith's passes. But, perhaps, Kaepernick's signature moment would come on his final Touchdown pass of the night. The 49ers first drive of the second half started with Frank Gore doing what he'd done all night: rip off a punishing run, this one for 11 of his 78 yards, followed by Kaepernick throwing a short pass to Mario Manningham that ended up going for 37 yards. On 3rd down, Kaepernick was forced to scramble around. His primary receivers covered, Kaepernick began to roll out to his left. Someone would have to break open, or else he'd have to run it himself. Just as 3 Bears began to converge on him, Michael Crabtree broke open towards the back of the end zone. Kaepernick lofted a perfect pass right into Crabtree's hands for the game-icing Touchdown. The rest of the game was mostly academic. The defense continued to step on the Bears throats, and the end result was a dominant 32-7 victory in the kind of effort that the 49ers haven't always displayed, but showed just how good they're capable of being.

After the Tie last week, the 49ers were beginning to lose the luster that they'd built up last season. Their defense, which was great last season, now was merely looked at as "Good, but with great talent." This performance, perhaps, re-elevated them to great status. But it remains to be seen whether or not this will carry over. The 49ers have an excessively tough matchup next week on the road against the New Orleans Saints. Not only is this a test for the Defense, but Kaepernick played so well and the transition to him in the offense was so seamless that, perhaps, there's a bit of a Quarterback controversy. Alex Smith may have found himself Wally Pipped if he returns and is ineffective. Obviously, you don't know how Kaepernick would fare over the long haul, but if he hung in and had an outstanding game against a really tough Bears defense, he certainly seems to be well-equipped for the job. Regardless, having a solid backup QB is a luxury in the  NFL, and the 49ers certainly unleashed theirs in impressive fashion last night.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Coronation

The Year of Dickey reached its culmination tonight when the news was announced that R.A. had indeed won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award. Certainly, his credentials for the award were never in doubt. Dickey led the NL in Strikeouts, Innings Pitched, Complete Games and Shutouts, and was second in ERA and Wins. None of the other two finalists, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez, had the same combination of numbers in their favor. What was left to question was whether or not the voters would look at the numbers, and Dickey's importance to the Mets, and even the journey he took to get to this point, rather than the fact that he did what he did while throwing a supposed "gadget" pitch.

The answer was yes. Resoundingly. Though speculation ruled the day until Dickey was announced as the winner, the truth was that the vote wasn't even close. Dickey took home 27 of 32 first place votes to win with ease, the same kind of ease in which he breezed through most of the National League this past season.

Dickey's Cy Young was not just a victory for him. It was a victory for Mets fans everywhere. Dickey had become a most unlikely fan favorite, after being an afterthought two years ago. Dickey had become a folk hero with Mets fans, the guy who had been scoffed at and tossed aside by multiple teams, but, given one final chance with the Mets, managed to turn it all around. Dickey knew this, he understood it, and he acknowledged it, and the fans, and his teammates, responded by rallying around him. In his acceptance speech tonight, Dickey once again acknowledged the fans, noting how they came out in droves to will him to his final two victories this season. Dickey wasn't the first Met to win 20 games, he wasn't the first Met to win a Cy Young Award, and he wasn't even the pitcher to delivered the Mets first No Hitter this season. What he was, was the ultimate underdog that blossomed into an Ace. Mets fans have taken to guys like that forever. And in 2012, he won those 20 games, something a Mets pitcher hadn't done in 22 years. He didn't throw that No Hitter, but he did throw back-to-back 1 Hitters. He went a month without allowing an earned run. He was an All Star. And now, he's won that Cy Young, the first time a Met has won a major Postseason Award in 27 years.

It was a victory for the Knuckleball, and for every Knuckleball pitcher that didn't win a Cy Young Award because nobody took them seriously. A lot has been made about how Dickey had revolutionized the Knuckleball, and while he certainly put his own spin on the pitch, he learned the craft from the many pitchers who had thrown the pitch before him. Taking the knowledge he received from people like Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro, Dickey embraced it and ran with it. The 2012 season was the culmination of everything he'd learned and everything he'd put into learning the Knuckleball. Once he mastered it, his performances became almost symphonic. Dickey throwing the Knuckleball was like watching Barry Sanders dance through a field of defenders, and the result, generally, was the same. And if nobody took the Knuckleball seriously before, well, they had to now, because Dickey had made it impossible to ignore.

Can you imagine? The twists and turns his career and life have taken have been well-documented, but you couldn't have written a script like this. I don't know if Dickey will be on the mound on Opening Day 2013, but the ovation he's going to receive that day is going to be monumental.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fine Mess

So, uh, That Happened.

The Tie Game in the NFL is rare enough that many don't seem cognizant of the fact that it can happen, and sometimes, it actually does. It's rare, I believe there have only been 4 such games in the NFL in the last 20 years, and the 49ers hadn't had one themselves since 1986. But in a game that proved so batshit crazy and out of whack, I suppose it's appropriate that this game ended in the rarely-seen and often-ridiculed tie game.

This didn't appear to be the 49ers game from the get-go. Being a West Coast game, it wasn't on TV in New York, and so I was relegated to streaming audio on my phone for the majority of the afternoon. The 49ers and their division rival Rams (who are sort of the Braves to the 49ers Mets in my eyes), a young, spunky team that's about a year away from being a major headache, jumped from the gates and punched the 49ers in the face early, both literally and figuratively. First, they strung together a pair of drives conceived mostly by pounding Steven Jackson down the 49ers throats and Sam Bradford then throwing it over their heads when they weren't expecting it, ending up in the end zone both times, leaving the 49ers both stunned and down 14-0 to an opponent that most figured they would pound easily. The defense looked out of sorts and the offense wasn't doing much.

The 49ers finally started to wake up late in the 1st quarter, and began to slowly inch their way down the field and back into the game. Alex Smith, who was off to a sharp start once again, hit Michael Crabtree on a long 3rd down play that brought the 49ers within inches of a 1st down. As is the case in close situations, the officials measured the distance the 49ers needed for a key 1st down. But for some reason that will probably remain a mystery, the clock was never stopped. The radio announcers didn't even notice it. 72 seconds ticked off the clock without anyone paying attention before the officials determined that the 49ers were a yard short, and were faced with a 4th down that they certainly had to go for, which they did and converted. By this point, Smith had already taken a shot to the head from a Rams defender on a scramble. So, not only were the officials dazed from their mistake, Smith was dazed from the hit. Nonetheless, Smith remained in the game long enough to complete the drive, which ended in a Michael Crabtree Touchdown to make the score 14-7. But not only was Smith concussed on the drive, apparently he couldn't even see straight, and he had to be removed from the game.

With Smith now sidelined, Colin Kaepernick was forced into action. Kaepernick, who to this point had seen action solely as a Wildcat option, wasn't exactly well-prepared for extended action. He had to get his act together and quickly. The 49ers offense seems well-tailored for Smith's strengths, but not so much for Kaepernick, who specialized in a pistol-type offense in College that allowed for him to run around alot rather than throw. With the 49ers behind, this appeared a recipe for disaster. Kaepernick scuffled for the remainder of the 1st half. Fortunately, the 49ers defense set out to stop the Rams where they were, and so the score remained 14-7 until late in the 3rd Quarter, when the Rams eventually cobbled together a drive that ended in a Field Goal to make the score 17-7.

By this point, I'd begun to get disgusted. The 49ers had been mostly sleepwalking through the game, hung over, perhaps, from playing 1 game in the last 21 days. I'd made mention about the 49ers inconsistencies this season, and to that point it was rearing its head at the worst moment. The ferocity they'd shown often in 2011 hadn't been quite so prevalent in 2012, and now it appeared it was beginning to cost the 49ers games and, more troubling, position in the standings. It's the kind of bluster that one might have come to expect out of a team like the Jets, that thinks it's better than it actually is. But the 49ers are that good, or at least they should be. A lot of sloppiness this season has, at times, cost them, but often they've been good enough to overcome it. At 6-2 halfway through the season, they have to have been doing something right. Sunday, if nothing else, they were helped by the Rams costing themselves with a number of penalties. Still, they trailed by 10 going into the 4th quarter, and embarked on a drive that nearly ended twice on fumbles by Kaepernick that the 49ers were fortunate to recover, but managed to keep alive long enough for Kaepernick to do what he does best and scramble for a Touchdown to bring the 49ers within 3 points. An Isaiah Pead fumble on the ensuing kickoff gave the 49ers the ball back immediately with great field position, and Frank Gore blasted through for another Touchdown that finally put the 49ers ahead 21-17 with 8 minutes to go. Finally, after all that, it appeared the 49ers got their act together and would pull out a win that would be rather impressive considering all that had gone on.

Not so fast. The crazy was just starting.

The Rams embarked on one of these creeper drives, where they just sort of inched down the field and used up a lot of clock, rather than go for the Grand Slam. When they stalled, they responded with a trick play, a fake punt that caught the 49ers off guard and allowed the Rams to continue to inch down the field and eventually score the go-ahead Touchdown with 1:13 to play. So, after all that crap, the 49ers had to try to come back again. Whether Kaepernick had it in him to lead another rally remained to be seen.

The answer was, yes he did. The game started to slow down for him just enough for him to make a few scrambles, complete a few passes, and even preserve enough clock for Frank Gore to rip off a couple of runs as the 49ers somehow managed to pull off the counter-miracle and kick a game-tying Field Goal as the clock expired.

By this point, the game had extended long enough that Fox had now switched from the concluded Cowboys/Eagles snoozefest to this game. The 49ers hadn't played a regular season Overtime game in a few years, so this was their first under the new Overtime Rules. This was almost moot when Bradford hit Danny Amendola for an 80-yard pass on the first play in Overtime, a Touchdown only prevented by a hustling tackle by Donte Whitner. But, true to the form of this game, the play was called back thanks to an Illegal Formation penalty on the Rams. Given the break, the 49ers stopped the Rams, and Kaepernick went back to work, moving the 49ers smartly down the field and into David Akers' range for a winning Field Goal. Unfortunately, Akers missed the Field Goal, a 41-yarder that he probably should have made. But, given the way this game was unfolding, why should he have made it (Another troubling problem—Akers, who had been so sure-footed all year last year, missed his 6th Field Goal of the season, many of them of the eminently makeable variety)? Given a reprieve, Bradford set out to make the 49ers pay. Their kicker, Rookie Greg Zuerlein, had already made a name for himself thanks to his ability to bomb long Field Goals. The Rams drive stalled and Zuerlein was sent out for a 53-yard Field Goal. The 49ers, out of Time Outs, couldn't ice him. The only thing left to chance was getting the snap off in time, which, again, true to the form of this game, the Rams were unable to do, in spite of the fact that they had a Time Out. Zuerlein made the kick, but the Delay of Game penalty forced him to kick again, this time from 58 yards, and Zuerlein missed wide right.

By this point, much of the Overtime clock had ticked away. There were barely 2 minutes left by time the 49ers got the ball back, and now it was going to take some kind of broken play or a turnover to give either team a chance to win. The 49ers took a bizarrely conservative approach to their next possession, which surprisingly went nowhere and ended with a punt. The Rams could muster little more, advancing only thanks to a holding penalty on Patrick Willis before stalling, wasting time after a completed pass, and having more time wasted by the officials on a botched spot. They also got flagged for another delay of game. I could do nothing but throw up my hands. Neither team could get out of their own way, and neither team was going to win the game. Bradford threw one final completion, fittingly about 60 yards shy of the end zone, and this shit show had come to its ridiculous conclusion.

The Tie Game in the NFL is rare, indeed. It's incongruous and doesn't make much sense. When it happens, it's usually met with head-shaking and sometimes ridicule. Usually, when a tie happens, it's because of exactly what we saw happen yesterday: Both teams slug it out for 4 quarters, and by the time Overtime rolls around, the teams have exhausted whatever useful Football they have in themselves. There's also usually a key injury somewhere, and we have yet to see what Smith's status is going forward. I suppose the tie helps out the 49ers much more than a loss, but how the hell do you sum up a tie? I could only come away thinking "What the hell kind of game did I just subject myself to?" I'd have to imagine most 49ers fans feel the same way. It's better than losing, I guess, but then again, the 49ers are supposedly clearly better than the Rams, and the best they could muster was a Tie, and a difficult Tie at that. It doesn't make me feel confident going forward, particularly with a Monday Night matchup against the Bears and their similarly injured Quarterback Jay Cutler next week.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 2005

Part 44 of our 50-year Mango tree...
What is it: 2005 Topps #575, Pedro Martinez

What makes it interesting: YUCK! the '04s were bad enough, so of course Topps went out and made it even worse when they vomited up this '05 crapfest. Rather than the team name on top, they've emblazoned the player name across the top (which is especially bad when your last name is "ISRINGHAUSEN" or "MIENTKIEWICZ"), and topped off this shit stew with sideways names on the side. Awful, awful awful all around.

The Mets were pretty awful, too, when Pedro Martinez signed with them on December 17th, 2004. After already establishing himself as a Hall of Fame-caliber talent and a Met Killer in his days with the Expos, Pedro Martinez was fresh off being a part of the Red Sox first World Series Championship in 86 years. A multiple Cy Young Award winner, Pedro was still capable of being the dominant badass he was for so many years when he was healthy. Problem was, he wasn't always healthy. Though just 33, Pedro had plenty of mileage on his arm. The 4 year contract he received was risky. But it was worth it. By going the extra yard for Pedro, Pedro brought his star to the Mets and new General Manager Omar Minaya, and opened the door for other big-name Free Agents to want to join him. Within two seasons, Minaya had re-made the Mets roster from also-rans into frontrunners, and Pedro's arrival was what kicked it off.

The Mets got off to a disastrous 0-5 start in 2005 before Pedro threw a complete game to beat the Braves for their first victory. The next day, fans at Shea Stadium for the Home Opener greeted him with a minute-long standing ovation. Later that day, a mechanical sign in Center Field got stuck while displaying a photo of Pedro. Cameras then caught Pedro in the dugout laughing and dancing and hamming it up. Pedro was a magnificent showman just as much as he was a magnificent pitcher. Pedro's starts were met with the kind of enthusiasm not seen since the days of Dwight Gooden. In one stretch in June, Pedro was on the mound when the sprinklers went off mid-game at Shea, he then nearly no-hit the Astros, and then threw 8 innings en route to beating the Yankees. In September, Pedro also shut out the Braves. Pedro stayed healthy all year in 2005, and the end result was 15 wins (that could have been more), a 2.82 ERA, a league-leading WHIP of 0.95 and 208 strikeouts in 217 innings. Mets fans were in love.

2006 started off just as well for Pedro. He won his 200th career game in April, and started the season 5-0. But unfortunately, though the Mets stayed hot, Pedro seemed to fizzle out with a number of no-decisions. He pitched well, though, and his efforts included a duel with Arizona's Brandon Webb that remained scoreless until the 13th inning. Pedro was selected to another All Star Game that year, but by that time he found himself on the DL after injuring his hip in Florida. Martinez found himself on the DL again in August, and over the second half of the season had generally been ineffective. Nonetheless, most figured he'd be around come the playoffs. But this was not the case. After three very poor starts in September, Martinez was diagnosed with a torn Rotator Cuff, ending his 2006 season, and putting his 2007 season in serious jeopardy. This was the kind of injury the Mets feared when he was signed, but nonetheless, it remained a risk worth taking. The loss of Martinez loomed large, as the Mets scrambled to line up their starting rotation through the Postseason.

Without Pedro in 2007, the Mets got off to a hot start and then sputtered their way through the Summer. Pedro didn't make his season debut until September 3rd, and only made 5 starts. But he made them count, going 3-1, only losing his final start to the Cardinals after pitching his heart out for 7 innings while his teammates could score no runs.

After the dust settled from 2007, Pedro was still around for one more season. With Johan Santana aboard, Pedro was no longer counted on to be the Ace, which was probably a good thing since Pedro just wasn't at that level anymore. Nonetheless, an aging Pedro was still better than most, and Pedro was more than happy to be 1A to Santana's 1. But the real question was if he could just last the season. Turned out, he couldn't even last his first start, injuring his hamstring in the second game of the season and not returning until June. Valiantly, Pedro finished out the season, often making it through starts with less than his best stuff and relying on his guts and his brain rather than his stuff. This mostly resulted in losses and no-decisions, often because the Mets porous bullpen would cough up the lead that he'd leave with. As the season wore down to its frustrating end, Pedro was on fumes. He lost three straight games in September before his final start on September 25th. With the Mets in desperate need of a win on a rainy Thursday Night, Pedro took the mound for what would ultimately be his Swan Song with the Mets. Though he gave up 3 runs in the 1st inning, he eventually settled down and gutted his way into the 7th inning, long enough for the Mets to tie the game. With 2 men on, Pedro was removed from the game. As he always did, Pedro tapped his chest and pointed to the sky as he walked off the mound. The fans, sensing that this might be the last time they'd see him with the Mets, rose in appreciation. As he approached the dugout, Pedro held his arms high and waved them around Shea, saluting the fans who had been so appreciative of him and everything he brought to the team in his 4 years here.

Then, Ricardo Rincon came into the game and gave up a 3-run Home Run on his first pitch. But the Mets won the game. But we know how it all ended.

In his 4 seasons with the Mets, Pedro Martinez was 32-23 with 3.88 ERA and 464 Strikeouts. But his contributions to the Mets clearly went far beyond the stat sheet. Bringing Pedro Martinez in made the Mets relevant again and signaled the beginning of one of the more interesting, if ultimately unfulfilling eras in Mets history.

Card back:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Long Road Back

One of the albatrosses the Mets faced this off season was how the Mets were going to move forward and rebuild their roster into something respectable while being stuck with Jason Bay and the $16 million he was owed for 2013 (not to mention the vesting option for 2014 that picked up with 600 plate appearances). If nothing else, having a serviceable chunk of payroll tied up in Bay, basically a complete lost cause at this point, really hamstrung the club from being able to do anything noteworthy. Mets fans, or, at least Mets fans who knew what was what, knew that the Mets were stuck with Bay through this season, and once he was off the books, the Mets might finally be able to move into attack mode.

That said, I was still somewhat surprised to hear that the Mets and Bay had come to a mutual agreement to dissolve the remainder of his contract, primarily because it's rare that a player will walk away from sure money, particularly when he's coming off as poor a 3-year run as Bay has had. To say Bay needed a change of scenery is probably being excessively kind, but the fact was that no team would have been willing to trade for Bay and his contract at this point. But it made even less sense to bring Bay back. You can say a lot of things about Jason Bay, but he's not stupid. Yes, he leaves the Mets after 3 years that saw him hit .234 with 26 Home Runs and 124 RBI. But he also had 4 30+ Home Run seasons before coming to New York. Some team out there will probably give him a shot, which is probably all he wants, just to try to re-prove himself, just as much for his own psyche as much as for that of whoever will take a chance on him.

These addition-by-subtraction moves aren't much for headlines, but it's something in the right direction, if nothing else. Jason Bay couldn't exist with the Mets anymore. That was blatantly obvious. It's disheartening, because this seemed like the right signing at the time, and a smart, professional guy like Bay appeared to be what the Mets needed. Bay can't be faulted for loafing or not trying, because it's clear that he was. Bay nearly decapitated himself running for fly balls on multiple occasions, often resulting in stints on the DL rather than moments of glory. It wasn't supposed to end up like this. Surely, someone with Bay's track record couldn't just lose it completely. But he did. And now his time here is, mercifully, over. Both sides are free to move forward. And Mets fans now don't have to wonder what the hell the team is going to do with Jason Bay. Now, we can wonder about what the hell Sandy Alderson is going to do with the $16 million he's not paying Jason Bay.