By Mike Steffanos
With the Phillies rolling into town tomorrow for a three-game series, the question arises as to which team is the favorite to capture the NL East with 63 games to go.
The fashionable choice would be to pick the Mets, but I'm not going to let the last couple of weeks talk me into that. If I line up the Mets and Phillies, I'm hard-pressed to find an area in which I think the Mets are substantially better. The Phillies have outscored them, outpitched them and outfielded them. And you can look that up. I'd take the Phillies' lineup and bullpen over the Mets' lineup and 'pen. And while the Mets may have better starting pitching, the Blanton trade and those never-ending Pedro Martinez questions have narrowed that margin considerably. The Phillies haven't played well for a month now. But the Mets have enough age, health and chemistry issues that I'm still picking the Phillies to win the East. Disagree? Go right ahead. That's what we're here for.
Glad to hear the Mets have become the "fashionable choice" again, since it seems to me it's still fashionable to bash them (and rightfully so) for their inconsistent and indifferent play over most of the past year. As a commenter to NJ.com's post points out, Stark is from Philadelphia and hardly an unbiased pundit in this matter.
As much as I'd like to completely bash Stark on this one, I think the jury is still out on this race. I will agree with him that the Phillies have the superior lineup, and their bullpen has outperformed their Mets counterparts rather substantially. I do think the Mets have a big advantage in starting pitching if John Maine can remove his head from his butt and Pedro keeps it together, but no one will accuse this Mets starting rotation of being the sort of dominant group that can carry a team long-term.
Frankly, the biggest question to me is whether the Mets can sustain the really sharp play they had pre-break. It wasn't really there in Cincy this past series, which is why the Mets were lucky to split. That was a huge disappointment to me and to other fans I've talked to.
The Mets proved last season that they're not the type of team that can overcome indifferent play by overwhelming opposing teams with talent. While both the Mets and Phillies have had their problems this season and the Mets have won all three series so far, I still think the nature of last season's collapse and 2008 first half struggles leave the Mets with something to prove against their opponents from down the turnpike.
Moreover, I see the Marlins continue to overcome their own deficiencies with a determination and gameness that we only have seen from the Mets recently. Baseball is a game for those with long attention spans, and if the Mets can't bring their A game most of the time they will not get it done over the last two months of the season.
We've heard some of the Mets players, including David Wright, insist that the Mets were a "great team" that simply wasn't playing to their capabilities. I like David, but he's wrong. This is a good team that can be a solid contender if they do the little things right. Doing those little things right is what earned them a 10-game win streak and a new chance at making the last season at Shea worthwhile. It was gone for most of this weekend, and it showed. The Mets can't afford to believe they can turn it on and off at will.
Look, I know some fans get mad when they read something like what Stark had to say, but I could honestly care less. Last season I read one pundit after another who thought that the Mets would get it together and hold on to win the division. You don't win or lose based on the consensus of pundits.
If the Mets can get a healthy Ryan Church back they probably have enough offense to compete. The bullpen had some hiccups in Cincy, but they really have been much better in July than earlier in the year. If Wagner can hold it together they're good enough to win with. Same with the starters, especially if Maine figures it out.
Bottom line, in an NL eastern division that has no great teams, if the Mets take care of their own business they can win it. After yesterday's game, Jerry Manuel acknowledged that the Mets had won, but had not played winning baseball. He went on to say that they couldn't afford not to play winning baseball against the Phillies and Marlins if they hoped to win this division. I think that holds true for whoever they face in the final ten weeks of the season.
Marlon Anderson looked really bad on that Ken Griffey fly ball he lost in the sun. Defense has never been his forte, but he usually managed to hold his own when he's in there.
A brutal April and May have pretty much ensured that a part-timer like Marlon won't put up good offensive numbers for the season. He also has a lingering leg injury that I'm told is similar to what Scott Schoeneweis dealt with last season. Remember all of the huge late inning hits he had last year that were squandered when the bullpen gave it up? In only 69 AB with New York last season Anderson drove in an astonishing 25 RBI while hitting .319/.355/.551. Longer memories, please, people.
Pinch hitting is one of the toughest jobs in sports, and Anderson is one of the best in the game, despite this year's struggles. He's also tried to be a leader of this team, which Marty Noble documents in this story.
I like Marlon Anderson, and I still think he can play a positive role in this season if he gets hot. Moreover, he's signed through next season, so those who think he should be released are not being realistic. It's not that easy to find productive bench guys, anyway.