By Mike Steffanos
Mets 11 - Braves 3
Just in case the Atlanta Braves didn't get the message last night, the Mets repeated it loud and clear this afternoon: you're playing for the wildcard, Sparky. Orlando Hernandez absolutely dominated the Atlanta lineup, overcoming defensive lapses by the left side of his infield to keep the Mets in the game until they swatted Tim Hudson out of the game with a 7-spot in the sixth inning that was capped by Carlos Beltran's second home run. By the time the dust settled, the fiction of the Braves chances of overtaking the Mets had to be painfully obvious, even to them.
The Mets got off to a fast start against Tim Hudson in the first inning when Beltran smashed his first home run, a 2-run blast with Lo Duca on base. The Braves were able to get one of those runs back in their half of the first when Hernandez plunked Brian Giles leading off. Giles advanced to third on David Wright's throwing error on Renteria's tailor-made double play ball and scored on an Adam LaRoche sac fly. The Mets scored off Hudson again in the second when Endy Chavez tripled home Jose Valentin. Again the Mets defense betrayed El Duque when Reyes tried to rush a play on a potential double play ball in the Braves half of the second and booted it for the Mets' second error. Brian Giles' 2-out single drove home the second and third unearned runs of the game for the Braves and tied the game 3-3.
Hudson stiffened up for the Braves, allowing the Mets no runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings. El Duque was even better, retiring 17 consecutive Braves from Renteria's fly out to end the second through Todd Pratt's ground out leading off the eighth. The Mets ended the suspense in the top of the sixth. Wright walked with one out and Floyd followed with a single. Hudson wild-pitched both baserunners over, and then had to intentionally walk Jose Valentin to load the bases and set up a double play. Endy Chavez foiled that strategy with a single to right that plated Wright and Floyd. It looked like Braves second baseman Marcus Giles should have been able to make a play on the ball, but he went after it awkwardly and could only wave at it. Valetin advanced to third and Chavez to second on an unsuccessful throw home by Francoeur.
The Braves brought the infield in against Orlando Hernandez, who had never driven in a run in a career spent mostly in the AL. Hernandez bounced a single up the middle to raise his lifetime total to 2, and put the Mets up by 4. Hudson retired Reyes for the second out, but when he walked Paul Lo Duca on 4 pitches Bobby Cox replaced Hudson with Chad Paronto. Carlos Beltran crushed an 0-1 pitch for a 3-run homer that put the Mets up 10-3.
El Duque pitched through the eighth, and after the Mets tacked on a run in the top of the ninth, Chad Bradford nailed it down for the win that dropped the third place Braves a full 14 games behind the Mets.
Thoughts on the game
While El Duque was stating his case in the third starter sweepstakes, Barry Zito was giving up a grand slam in Oakland's game. Meanwhile, look no further than Tim Hudson for a pitcher who was supposed to anchor a pitching staff and has disappointed. For some reason, when people debate giving up top talent to rent Zito, no one seems to consider Zito coming to New York and pitching poorly for 2 months. Hudson was supposed to provide the Braves with another ace in the rotation; instead, his record dropped to 8-9 and his ERA has ballooned to 5.25. This was the ninth consecutive start Hudson has given up at least 4 runs. We all thought he was a great pickup for the Braves, just some food for thought.
Let's update what El Duque has done for the Mets since the beginning of June.
While conceding that those two 1.2 inning outings are troublesome, I pointed out after that loss to the Cubs that you had to at least consider the possibility that an 11-day layoff contributed to Hernandez' control problems that day. When you look at the 2 games before and the two games after, you have to be cautiously impressed with this ancient warrior. He throws strikes. He pitches deep into games. He strikes out batters. He faced the grinning jackass Atlanta centerfielder -- who has owned Mets pitchers in the past -- 3 times and embarrassed him with 3 strikeouts. Jones wasn't even close to hitting a ball hard against El Duque today.
I would make the argument that Orlando Hernandez, despite those hiccups against Toronto and the Cubs, has been the Mets best pitcher for the last six weeks. While Pedro has been out, Glavine has struggled and Trachsel has been Trachsel, El Duque has been surprisingly good. Again, I can't completely wipe away those 2 bad performances, but if you give El Duque the lead, he knows what to do with it. I find him so much easier to watch than Trachsel now, it's not even funny.
I think a rotation of Pedro, Glavine, Hernandez, John Maine and Trachsel is pretty good right now. I'd send Pelfrey back down to keep him on turn, ready to bring him back up to replace Trachsel if he continues to struggle.
Lo Duca goes 4-4 in a big game for the Mets, playing a day game after a night game. Intelligent use of Lo Duca and Castro by Willie Randolph seems to be nipping that late season Lo Duca offensive collapse in the bud.
Beltran's 2 home runs and 5 RBIs led the offense, but Endy Chavez contributed a pair of hits and 3 RBIs as he continues to be one of the most valuable tenth men in Mets history.
Atlanta writers liked to point to the starting rotation as their strength and the Mets Achilles heel. How's that worked out for you?