By Mike Steffanos
Mets 4 - Astros 3
As my friend my friend Shari from Take the "7" Train points out, there are two El Duques -- one that is very good, and one that is very bad -- and you're never sure which one you're going to get for any given game. We were treated to a bonus today. While FOX was trying to make some hay about both Orlando and Livan Hernandez pitching on the same day, Mets fans got to watch both Orlandos in the same game.
The crappy El Duque showed up for the first inning. He struggled to control his pitches, walking 100-year-old Punch and Judy hitter Craig Biggio to open the frame, then grooving meatballs to Lance Berkman and Preston Wilson to dig a deep hole for himself. When Adam Everett of the .321 slugging % for the year hit a one-out double in the second, I thought we might be in for one of El Duque's "out in less than 2 innings" performances. He struck out opposing pitcher Brandon Backe and got Biggio to pop out, and by the time the third inning rolled around the "other" Orlando decided to show up.
After a 1-2-3 third, Hernandez got into trouble in the fourth on Jose Reyes' error and a single by Luke Scott with no outs. He induced a double play grounder from Brad Ausmus and struck out Everett, and cruised through the next three innings with little drama.
Meanwhile, the Mets got one run back in the bottom of the first on Delgado's sac fly. They managed to get the first two runner on in the fourth when Delgado walked and Cliff Floyd singled, bringing up Xavier Nady. Nady fouled off some sliders on the outside of the plate, then Backe backed him off with an inside fastball. Probably figuring Nady would be looking for another slider outside, Backe tried to front-door one on the inside corner, where you start it at the right-handed batter, he gives up on it, and it breaks back to the inside part of the plate for a strike. Not a bad idea, despite what two ignorant FOX announcers said afterwards, but he missed and the pitch drifted back over the heart of the plate -- the biggest danger in throwing that slider. Nady crushed it for a 3-run homer, and that was pretty much it for the Mets' offense for the rest of the afternoon. Would a one run lead be enough?
El Duque did his part through seven, and then Duaner Sanchez came in to pitch the eighth. After making the point that scouts had reported that Sanchez' velocity had been down lately, neither Joe Buck nor Tim McCarver bothered to notice when he tossed a couple of fastballs at 95. They were probably too excited from their in-booth interview with Meatloaf earlier in the afternoon. Anyway, Sanchez allowed only a one-out single in pitching a scoreless eighth, the Mets squandered a chance to pad the lead when both Cliff Floyd and Chris Woodward looked at strike three, and it was up to Wagner to nail down the game.
Wagner came in with both a very good fastball and the best slider he's had in a while. He went 2-2 on Preston Wilson, and then struck him out with high heat. Luke Scott hit a weak fly to Carlos Beltran, and then Ausmus singled on a ground ball up the middle Wagner got a glove on and should have had. He redeemed himself by getting Everett to ground into a 6-4 force for the final out and his 20th save on the year.
Thoughts on the game
Will the real Orlando Hernandez please stand up? I didn't think he had a prayer of pitching well today after Everett hit that double in the second. He really was like a different pitcher after that. He was very effective with his fastball today, keeping the Astros hitters off-balance when they tried to sit on his breaking stuff. Here's the numbers on Duque since June:
It appears a safe bet that if you can coax El Duque through the second inning he will get you through seven. Certainly, those bad starts against Toronto and the Cubs are worrisome, but in the case of the Cubs game he had some excuse in that he hadn't pitched in 11 days. I know there is concern about Hernandez, but he's made it through seven in 4 of his last 6 starts. Who else has done that for the Mets? I wish some of the "good" Orlando would rub off on Tom Glavine.
Wish Reyes would settle back down and stop striking out on sliders in the dirt. Seriously, he's looked like the old Jose since coming back from the hand injury. I don't know whether he is anxious from too much idle time or just struggling to get comfortable again at the plate.
Speaking of "comfortable again at the plate", Delgado had a sac fly, a solid base hit and took a walk. He's starting to look like the guy who was worth what Omar gave up to get him. If we can get both Delgado and Floyd going well at the same time this could be a very frightening lineup.
Willie did the right thing in sitting David Wright down and giving him the day off. He's been scuffling a little and had struck out twice in both of his previous games.
I know some Mets fans are less than enamored with Xavier Nady, although I don't understand why. He has shown the potential to be a legitimate power hitter in this league, is starting to look better in RISP situations, and has been adequate defensively. He's playing with a broken bone in his wrist and still hitting important home runs. Hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup for most of the season he has 14 HR and 38 RBI in 244 at bats. He's been getting better hitting the ball the other way, and even Keith Hernandez -- who could be tough on hitters -- has been complimentary towards X-Man's improving offense. I like the kid, and think he has the potential to hit 35 home runs down the road.
Make no mistake about it, there is a penalty when your team starts to improve: more games on FOX. The network that brings you one low-class reality show after another doesn't feel as if a baseball game is entertaining enough in and of itself. They need to have constant annoying in-game interviews, impromptu performances, and just endless graphics and garbage intruding on what should be the product. Enough has been made of Tim McCarver, who at one brief point in his career was a breath of fresh air, but has long been reduced to being just an annoying parody of himself. The real tragedy in my eyes is that some consider Joe Buck an "elite" baseball announcer. To borrow from Lloyd Bentsen: I've listened to elite baseball announcers, I've watched elite baseball announcers, and dickhead, you are no elite baseball announcer. The elite ones always make the game the star, but you're too busy trying to be witty. Jerk.
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