By Mike Steffanos
Mets 10 - Cardinals 0
I liked Willie Randolph's comments after last night's game, as quoted by Mike Vaccaro in the NY Post:
"We know we're good," Randolph said last night, refusing to betray whatever contentment may have been bubbling inside him. "We came to play knowing we can't change history."
And that's the point, really. Nothing changes the fact that the Cardinals won last October. I don't see the Mets sweeping the opening 3-game series versus the reeling Redbirds as some sort of vindication or revenge, but rather the opening salvo in a brand new war. Last October is now history, and the club is back to taking care of business in their effort to write a happier ending this October.
The Mets pitching got off to a good start, and that's important as the staff creates their identity for 2007. John Maine is still not a finished polished major league starter, but he is obviously making strides. That's all you can ask from young pitchers. Last night Maine built off what he and Rick Peterson worked on all spring, keeping the ball down and using his off-speed pitchers to get the hitters off balance. We can only hope to see Oliver Perez continue that. It won't always look as easy and as good as it did last night for the Mets young pitchers, but it was a huge step in the right direction.
I know I'm quite late to the party with this recap, but here are a few thoughts on the game and the series.
You're never as bad as you look when you're slumping, but the Cardinals don't have the look of a legitimate contender this year. Frankly, if Carpenter has injury issues that persist, I don't see this club being competitive at all. They'll be better when Juan Encarnacion returns, but Jim Edmonds looks like he could be close to done. The lineup isn't all that strong around Pujols and Rolen, and Preston Wilson looks like he needs a walker in the outfield. They may turn it around and be viable contenders in an uncertain NL central, but I wouldn't be shocked if they lost 90 games this season, either.
What impressed me about Maine last night was more than just his location and the effective off-speed pitching. I liked that after running into his first trouble in the fifth -- walking Edmonds after Rolen singled leading off the inning -- Maine sought out Tom Glavine in the dugout and was talking to him after escaping the inning. Also, when Maine ran into some difficulty, rather than seeing last year's deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes you saw determination. You have come far, Grasshopper.
After Willie Randolph was hired as manager in 2005, an emphasis was placed on defense for a club that had traditionally been guilty of sloppy play in the preceding years. Up to then, Cliff Floyd had been seen as a defensive liability in left field. In 2005, the overall emphasis on defense made him work hard to pick up his game. Earlier in the spring, Moises Alou commented on the team's defense and how hard they work at it. Moises made a really nice play on a ball last night, and had that diving catch in the opener. While there will be no gold glove for Alou in 2007, don't be shocked if he gives the club the same surprisingly decent leather that Floyd provided. Alou is no burner at 41, but he's an athlete and he knows how to play. A team concept that stresses defense has a way of pushing everyone to pick up their game.
Speaking of old OFs, Shawn Green has looked okay so far. I think he actually has a chance of contributing in 2007. He needs to forget about HRs and continue to hit the ball hard the other way. If he does that, enough HRs will come. I think both he and Alou will require days off to stay fresh, and Milledge is there in the background should either falter or get hurt. I like the way Green's left-handed bat balances the lineup, and if he could recover enough of his old stroke to hit around 20 homers, he could really help this team.
Finally, Ambiorix Burgos showed what he could do when he keeps the ball done. When he is overthrowing his ball flattens out and he tends to leave it up in the hitting zone. Straight, belt high fastballs over the heart of the plate tend to become souvenirs for fans in the outfield bleachers. When Burgos keeps that ball down in the zone it has a ton of movement and is extremely difficult for even good hitters to drive. Also, when Burgos gets ahead in the count he can use that great slider as a strikeout pitch. While this kid is a project that may or may not pay off, what I don't see from him is that tendency to hang his head and sulk when things don't go his way, and that's a positive sign. He could be a really important piece of the bullpen puzzle if he drinks the Rick Peterson Kool-Aid. Conversely, he could be spending his free time on Bourbon Street if he stubbornly strives to be a thrower.
P.S. - Congrats to all of you out-of-state Mets fans with cable tv.