By Mike Steffanos
There is a nice feature on Willie Randolph by Mike Vaccaro in today's New York Post. Vaccaro does a good job of emphasizing Randolph's biggest strength as a manager -- convincing his team that they're winners. I think Willie is getting a lot better at handling his pitchers this year and other strategic moves, but it's the confidence that he instills in the team that will always be his largest contribution.
I remember last season, after the Mets went into that horrible funk at the beginning of September. We'd seen so many times recently that when a Mets team fell out of contention they'd pack it in on the season. I was as surprised as anyone when it didn't happen last year, when the Mets actually came back and played good baseball and finished strong. After being swept by the Nationals in a 3-game set on September 15, the Mets were out of all but the most remote numerical chance of making the playoffs. They had the Braves rolling into town, looking to deliver the final coup de grâce on another lost season in Flushing.
The Mets surprised everyone by taking 2 of 3 from Atlanta, at least sending a message that they didn't exist to be the Braves' bitch anymore. They ran off a 12-4 streak to end the year. Sure, many pundits dismissed this as too little too late, but I saw this as a sign that there really was a changing of the guard. There was a new sheriff in town, and for all of his faults he really did seem to change the mentality of the ballclub. I've written quite a few positive things on Randolph since then, and almost always get questioned on how I could be so supportive of "Clueless Willie." The simple answer is because he really has changed the mentality of the team from losers to winners. Sure, he may cost them a game or two with a questionable strategic decision, but I'll guarantee the team wins more games because of him than they lose. And yes, I already know some of you don't agree with me.
I've also noticed that Mike Pelfrey bounced back with what is probably his best outing since being promoted to Binghamton: 7IP, 1R, 2H, 11K, 3BB. As quoted by the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin's Brian Moritz, Pelfrey attributes his success last night to effective use of all his pitches -- his changeup and curve along with his electric fastball:
I was throwing all three pitches for strikes. Before I got to pro ball, I didn't need to throw my offspeed pitches, I just used my fastball. But the more I throw (them) in games, I get more comfortable with them because I'm throwing them more.
Pelfrey threw his fastball most of the time in college, and it was good enough to dominate hitters at that level. His other pitches were only fair, and he never had to learn how to throw them consistently for strikes. As good as his fastball is -- and it has both velocity and movement -- it won't be good enough to win at the major league level without effective off-speed pitches to get batters off it. In his Surfing the Mets Minor League Report, Adam Rubin alludes to Pelfrey's efforts to develop his other pitches:
Mets special assistant Sandy Johnson joined superscout Bill Livesey in watching Pelfrey pitch last night. Observers of recent performances say Pelfrey still needs to work on his breaking pitch, which is in-between a slider and curveball. Pelfrey said he's trying to improve the plane on the pitch, getting it to act more like a true curveball. "I feel like I'm getting better every time I go out there," Pelfrey said. [my emphasis]
As tempting as it must be for Omar and company to reach down for Pelfrey, who already possesses a better fastball than anyone but Wagner on the current roster, they obviously feel that the longer they can leave Pelfrey in Binghamton, far from the red-hot glare and pressure of New York, the better he will be equipped to succeed at the major league level. The Mets, from their top management on down to Willie and the coaches, are doing a great job of weathering the storm of all the injuries to the pitching and stopgap measures they had to take. They will not be rushed into premature promotions or foolish trades that will hurt the team down the road at least as much as it might help them this year. Omar really seems to have surrounded himself with some good people, from Tony Bernazard on down, that seem to care about winning ballgames more than winning pissing contests with each other.
The Mets have been run so poorly for so long I still occasionally find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop -- for them to do something stupid, embarrassing or just plain foolish. Can it really be true that, at long last, they have finally got it right?
This posting is being discussed in the MetsMerized Mets Talk Forum.