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Clutch Defense and Bullpen Help Mets to Series Victory

Mike SteffanosThursday, July 20, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

Mets 4 - Reds 2 (10)

You'll have to excuse Jose Valentin if he seems to think the New York Mets already have a pretty good second baseman for 2006. Personally, I'm not inclined to disagree with him. Valentin contributed two terrific defensive plays as the Mets sidestepped disaster for much of the evening en route to a clutch win over Cincinnati.

The 2 hour rain delay in the second inning last night put the Mets bats to sleep, and they seemed to remain there for most of the afternoon. Floyd and Delgado took Bronson Arroyo deep with solo home runs, and other than that the Mets could muster few threats against the Reds right-hander. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine was able to cruise through the first four innings, keeping the Reds off balance thanks to increased use of an effective curve ball.

As has been the case so often since Glavine came back down to earth a month ago, that effectiveness began to slip in the fifth inning. Royce Clayton and Jason LaRue both hit the first pitch they saw for singles, and Arroyo was able to successfully sacrifice them to second and third. Glavine fell behind Ryan Freel, who drove a 3-1 pitch out of Cliff Floyd's reach for a game-tying double. Glavine was able to escape the fifth without further damage, but fell right back into trouble in the sixth.

Rich Aurilia led off with a single, and Edwin Encarnacion hit a ground-rule double that a fan interfered with at the left centerfield wall. Willie showed faith in Glavine by staying with him despite right-handers coming up and Bradford warming up in the 'pen. Brandon Phillips chopped a grounder to the right side that Jose Valentin got a great jump on and made an acrobatic throw to nail Aurilia at the plate. Royce Clayton hit a soft comebacker that Glavine made a nice play on, freezing Encarnacion at third. Glavine intentionally walked Jason LaRue to face Arroyo, who tried to catch the Mets with a bunt. Glavine made another fine play, barehanding the ball and getting it quickly to Ramon Castro who eschewed the force play for some reason and tagged Encarnacion for the final out.

Willie sent Glavine out for the seventh hoping to build on that nice escape in the sixth, but again Glavine fell into trouble. Freel doubled leading off the frame, and Chris Denorfia sacrificed him to third. Glavine walked Dunn and Aurilia, both on 5 pitches, and Willie had seen enough. Bradford came in to a bases-loaded situation and was able to pull a Houdini act by striking out left-handed pinch hitter Scott Hatteberg and inducing Phillips to ground out to Wright.

Heilman came in for the eighth and got burned immediately by a Royce Clayton bloop single. LaRue sacrificed, with David Wright making a high throw to Valentin covering first, but Valentin was able to make a nice play to save Wright. Heilman got Javier Valentin (hitting for Arroyo) and Freel on ground outs to Wright to emerge unscathed.

The Mets wasted a David Wright double in the top of the ninth, and went back into the tightrope act in the bottom of the frame when Pedro Feliciano walked leadoff batter Chris Denorfia. Feliciano was able to strike out Adam Dunn, and then Denorfia attempted to steal second with Aurilia at the plate. Valentin made a terrific play, covering second, blocking the plate with his leg and fielding a one-hop throw to the shortstop side of the bag and tagging out Denorfia for the second out. Aurilia worked a walk off Feliciano, but he struck out Scott Hatteberg to put the game into bonus frames.

Up to that point, the Mets had managed few scoring opportunities while the Reds squandered several -- with some help from clutch Mets pitching and great defense. The newly acquired Gary Majewski took over pitching duties in the ninth and retired Castro for the first out. When he induced a soft fly ball from pinch hitter Xavier Nady near the right field line it looked like the Mets would go quietly again, but right fielder Denorfia made a huge mistake by calling 2B Phillips off a play that he seemed to have and then failing to come up with a diving catch. It looked like Majewski might escape when he struck out Reyes looking for the second out, but Endy Chavez laced the first pitch he saw down the left field line for a run-scoring double. Lefty Kent Mercker came in to turn Beltran around, but Beltran pulled a double down the line to easily score Chavez with an insurance run.

Billy Wagner came in for his first save opportunity since July 9 and did not disappoint. He got Phillips to ground out to Reyes, and then came back from a 3-0 hole to blow Royce Clayton away. He finished the job by smoking Larue on 4 pitches for the final out.

Thoughts on the game
The Mets seemed to have that game well in hand until the rain came last night, and then saw it slip away. The Reds had to feel that same frustration today as they saw opportunity after opportunity slip away, and fell victim to some clutch pitching and great defense. After the Reds tied the game it seemed that every time the Mets needed to make a big pitch or a gutsy defensive stop they were right there. Cincinnati left 12 runners on base for the game, and it felt like more.

I never, ever thought Valentin could take the second base position and do this kind of job with it. If he isn't getting a huge hit, he's making a nice play in the field or making a smart, veteran baserunning play. He's a pro, and I'm sold on him for 2006. We'll worry about replacing him this winter.

Chavez has provided the Mets a clutch bat to go along with his defensive and baserunning prowess. Like Valentin, I am no longer surprised when he does well, as he has earned my respect as one of the finest fourth outfielders the Mets have ever had. Speaking of a solid bench, Ramon Castro was 2-2 in gunning down attempted base stealers.

Glavine was upset with the home plate umpire on some close pitches in the fifth, sixth, and seventh. He had a gripe on a couple, but it's funny how when he was pitching well he didn't worry about the umpire's strike zone as much. Today was a step forward for Glavine over the last few starts, but he still has a long way to go. He simply has to prove he can pitch effectively into the seventh again if he is really to be the guy you want starting the second game of a playoff series. He also had only one strikeout and four walks today. He's lost the ability to put away hitters, and is trying to make too-perfect pitches again.

Bradford, after enduring a short slump, has been good again lately, and great tonight. He has a knack for making clutch pitches under pressure.

Heilman had a nice inning, being hurt only by a soft hit on a very good pitch. Feliciano startled me by walking 2 batters in an inning after walking only 8 all year. Still, he made some nice pitches to Dunn and Hatteberg.

Wagner, despite bringing up my stomach acid when he fell behind Clayton 3-0, was very good today, and really does seem to have turned a corner. Maybe he's not the Billy Wagner he was in his absolute prime, but is no longer looking like he is lost on the mound as he did in May and part of June. Maybe he could even manage to put together a nice string of games and allow Mets fans the rare opportunity to feel somewhat relaxed in the ninth inning of a close game.

This game is being discussed in the MetsMerized Mets Talk Forum.

Box Score

Comments (5)

With all the talk of Abreu, what would become of Nady for the balance of this year? And unless they trade Milledge for Abreu or a hurler, that would be a very congested outfield in 2007. $37 million is a lot of scratch for a team that scores a lot of runs. A southpaw starter is far more valuable for this team.

The best observation of why this team is doing so well does not sit with the regular lineup. Beltran, Wright and Reyes were all supposed to do well. Nady and LoDuca have pretty much done as expected. Certainly, Delgado and Floyd have underperformed to this point. The real story has been Valentin, Chavez, Feliciano, Sanchez, Bradford and Franco (in that order), all of whom were brought in over the winter as role players and have far exceeded expectations. Where would the Mets be without any two or three of them? Probably 5-8 games over .500. Kudos to Omar and his staff.

While Willie handles his players with some panache, he could certainly do a little more with the batting order to get Floyd and Delgado hot. How about this lineup:


Just for a week or two, it would really give both lefties a chance to prosper, especially Floyd, whose speed and bat control in the three-slot could be a plus. And LoDuca hitting behind Valentin could also be a winner, while taking advantage of Valentin's very slick baserunning abilities.

The trade of Keppinger for Gotay certainly solidifies Valentin as the second baseman for this year. There is nothing else in the system since Anderson Hernandez is not ready to hit major league pitching. Now, there are at least two B-grade prospects for the future. Short of a major collapse or injury to Valentin, this guy has to be the one to beat next year, not the one to cast away. Jose Valentin is putting on a show for Mets fans and we hope they appreciate it.

I have mixed feelings about Atlanta in the playoffs, one is that it scares me to think of facing them and their record of past years against us and second I feel it's time to show them whos boss and bring them on. If we do play them, I will order a case of tums and my wife will lock me in my room to watch it,tied to a chair so I don't hurt myself or anybody else untill it's over....We are on the same page about Valentin and Chavez. Good job O MAN.

You are ready to hand second base to Jose Valentin for the remainder of 2006. I'm ready to sign him on for another year.

Taking a casual look at various middle infielders and how they aged, one sees that Jeff Kent was still plenty productive in his age 37 season, while Omar Vasquez is still chugging along as he approaches 40. So, I concede that Valentin is not Jeff Kent, or Other People's Jeff Kent; looking at the next level of players, there's Jim Gantner and Chris Speirs, both of whom were about as good as they ever had been at 37. It has been known to happen.

Then on the other side of the coin one finds two ex-Mets, Robbie Alomar and Willie Randolph, who hit the wall right about at Jose's present age.

I don't know; watching the horrorshow that has been second base in recent times at Shea, I'm just not so anxious to roll the dice again tomorrow, not when we have a player who certainly seems to have all of his game intact. Can Valentin withstand another season of aging? He's obviously in great shape, with the body fat index of a salamander. He is a GOOD offensive player, and on the bases and in the field he has decent range plus great baseball instincts; a sort of Wally Backman with power who can hit the leftys. Tell you, the Mets would miss that production.

Not to mention what my wife calls his pornstar good looks.

I'd bring him back, and if it didn't work out, I think we'd still have gotten good value for money spent, simply from what Jose has done this year. I wouldn't ordinarily justify a signing in that fashion, but I'd make an exception here; Valentin has been that good.

Sorry to be such a chatterbox, but I had a bit more to say. Last one today I promise.

Many folks have rightly attributed much of the Mets success to its bench players, and I readily concur. But what I really love about the Mets' bench this year goes deeper than the simple productivity of the players; it's more the variety of talents of the bench players; the different looks that those players give the team.

Your slugging leftfielder goes down with a bum ankle? Plug in a contact hitter who is also a defensive whiz. Your right fielder is fielding a pain in his tummy? Bring up Milledge, and combined with Chavez, you suddenly have what is probably the fastest outfield the Mets have ever fielded, with the guns to match. Suddenly your opponent's fly balls are more likely to be caught; what worked before doesn't work any more.

It's a different look you are presenting with a bench like the Mets, and a very different alternative to stocking a bench with Orsulaks and Heeps. It is almost like having two opposing philosophies of baseball residing on the same team, a little ball team living within a wrecking crew.

On the days you rest your nimble, contact hitting catcher, you play his power hitting backup with the strong arm. If your lefty first baseman needs a blow, bring in the canny greybeard righthander who is likely to pilfer an unguarded base.

Even the bullpen benefits from a multiplicity of looks; there's not too much duplication out there. Bradford, Sanchez, Wagner, Heilman? No two are even remotely alike. I sort of miss Henry Owens, though; THAT was some motion he had.

It's a big part of the Mets' success, methinks. How do you fashion a game plan against a team that does everything? And it has certainly been fun to watch.

Dave, I agree with you about Valentin being the one to beat next year, but he will be 37 in October, and perhaps better suited for the bench/part time role he was signed to play. In any case, I think the really knowledgeable fans appreciate this guy.
Rev, relax -- Atlanta had a hot streak early in the year and then collapsed. Everyone wants to anoint them as being "back", but I'm not convinced.
DD, say as much as you want here. I've never deferred to brevity in my own writing. They can certainly take a shot with Valentin next year, and at worse use him off the bench. As for your take on the bench, I agree with you completely.

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