By Mike Steffanos
Cardinals 9 - Mets 6
NLCS tied 1-1
As regular readers know, I was at the game last night. It was a great game up until the final outcome. I was disappointed, but not totally destroyed by the loss for a few reasons which I'll share with you here. First, let me share some of my general observations.
John Maine was bad last night. To my eye, and I'm certainly not a major league pitching coach, his mechanics just seemed really off. Even when he was warming up between innings, he was all over the place. It was too bad, because with the Mets doing damage against an ineffective Carpenter, even a mediocre John Maine might have been good enough. The kid needs to bounce back and give a better account of himself next time. Having said that, I'm not quite sure that anything that happened last night was a big shock. We understood going in that starting pitching was our greatest weakness, and sometimes the bullpen isn't going to pull one out for us. I felt all along this was going to be a much more difficult series than some were portraying it.
Winning last night would have put the Mets in the driver's seat. It was incredibly disappointing that they didn't hold on, and that Delgado's game was wasted. But this is how playoff baseball usually goes. This team is learning how to play in the post-season, and one of the lessons is bouncing back from a tough one. While it was nice to win the first 4 games, now the team is faced with serious adversity. Their bullpen was used hard for the last two games, and they are sending Steve Trachsel and Oliver Perez to the mound for the next two. This is the situation where unexpected guys have to step up and be heroes. If the team can't respond to the severe challenge ahead of them, this can go really badly and they could be going home soon.
The Mets had a tough hand to play when Pedro and Orlando Hernandez went down, but it's the only hand they have. A game like last night was bound to happen sooner or later to a team that finds itself so short in starting pitching. I'm curious to see how they respond, and wonder if it isn't a good thing in the long run to be really tested. In any case, tested they will be. As grim as some want to paint this situation, the Cardinals may have momentum, but they have their own problems, too.
The Mets have come this far by finding a way to make their playoff games play to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. I think as a team that they are going to have to pick it up a notch if they hope to continue that trend. I think that they can, and certainly hope that they will. You can beat last night's game to death looking for whom to blame if you will, but I'm more interested if a team that was resilient all season can find the recipe that allows them to bounce back again.
Albert Pujols Exposed
I haven't followed Pujol's career that closely, but I've certainly watched him in post-season play and read a lot about him written by the national baseball scribes. The opinion that I was fed was that he's a great player who respects the game. While the first part is undoubtedly true, the second part has proven to be fiction. While being rude to reporters is one thing, disrespecting a future Hall of Famer on the other team, no matter what the circumstances, is simply unforgivable. Pujols post-game remarks about Glavine, which he refused to retract, tell you all you need to know about this surly, classless individual. When he's on the big stage, he doesn't have the protection of a small, friendly St. Louis media.
From what I've been reading, Pujols has a lot of Barry Bonds in him when it comes to media relations, but make no mistake -- despite the fact that everything Bonds does is national sports news, I don't remember one instance of Barry Bonds ever showing that type of disrespect to another player. So congratulations, Albert, you're in a [lack of] class by yourself. If Bonds had said something like this, or Pujols was a New York Met, this would have been a much bigger story nationally. As it is, shed no tears for Tom Glavine, who is both an all-time great ballplayer and a fierce competitor, yet still manages to conduct himself with class. He doesn't need any approval from Albert Pujols.
Tony La Russa
Albert's manager likes to talk a good game about respecting baseball, but of course he chose to absolutely defend his player yesterday. Hey, managers do that, right? La Russa carried it to the level of chastising reporters. This is from Michael Morrissey's NY Post story:
"You get a guy who's a hot competitor," La Russa said before the game. "As soon as it's over, he's not happy about losing. So he makes a statement. It's not a good statement. Glavine deserves credit. Now it gets blown up like he's some kind of disrespectful pro."
Yet Pujols' comments were disrespectful, not to mention nearly unprecedented at this stage of the playoffs. Savvy players know not to insult, hence fire up, the opposition. But La Russa reportedly shouted, "No!" when asked if his right-handed slugger should know better.
"You guys should know better than to make a big issue out of it," he reportedly said. "This guy's a great pro. That's what the answer is, use some common sense."
Can you tell La Russa used to be a lawyer? In any case, none of this breaks my heart. Stuff like this makes it easy to root against Pujols, La Russa and the Cardinals. I'm not the kind of fan who needs to work up a rabid hatred of the other team, but it does take it up another level when you can root against a legit bad guy. Thank you, Albert. No, it's not the greatest crime in the history of humanity, but it's fun when they give you a real reason to dislike them. Meanwhile, Cardinals fans will simply choose to ignore these unsavory details, as fans understandably do. Since they tend to be somewhat self-righteous at times (I met a nice middle-aged couple on a plane a few years back who were Cardinals fans, and when they found out I was a Mets fan, the woman incredulously wanted to know how I could root for "that unsavory bunch"), I imagine they will follow La Russa's lead and blame everyone but the man who made the statement, and then refused to modify it the next day. Welcome to moral ambivalence, folks. Pond scum, indeed.
While I was at Grand Central Terminal waiting for my late train out of there, I called my 72-year-old Mom to comfort her. She kept asking me "what are we going to do with Billy Wagner?" It was the same question in the same tone of exasperation that she used to ask about the dog that peed on the rug or ate the cable box. So in effect, the question provided the solution -- Willie Randolph needs to drag Wagner out to the pitching mound, rub his nose in it, yell "bad boy!", and hope that is an effective way to prevent a reoccurrence of that transgression. Sure, it never really worked -- the dog has no idea why you're doing that to him -- but it helps the person doing the scolding burn off some of their own frustration with the offender.
I've reconciled long ago this season that Wagner was not the shut-down type of closer Mets fans have longed for to erase the memories of many spectacular collapses from the gifted but flawed Armando Benitez. Wagner has lost enough speed and movement off his fastball that his margin for error has gotten smaller. He needs to locate and throw his slider enough to keep hitters off balance. I read in some of the tabloids that he "imploded" last night, but that was not the case. We're not talking the ninth inning against the Yankees. We're talking a guy who lacked command and couldn't get away with it. Wagner wasn't good, but it was a physical problem.
When he was throwing triple-digit heat, he might have gotten by with bad location, but not any more. He was 95-96 on the stadium gun last night. He's saved many games this year, and finished things on a nice streak. He's closed out all of the 4 playoff wins so far -- making us sweat, yes, but closing them out nonetheless. My attitude towards Wagner now is simply that he is what he is -- a guy who is still one of the best closers in the game, but certainly no sure thing. He reminds me a lot of John Franco when he was in his prime. I appreciate that, like Franco and unlike Benitez, Wagner is tough-minded and a standup guy. Unfortunately, as when Franco was closing, I find myself covering my eyes in fear at times when Wagner is trying to nail one down.
What to do tonight
Same as always: root like hell, and don't let the bastards get you down.