Sunday, April 8, 2012
Tales of one city: Mets own New York!
By David Schoenfield
The Mets are off to a 3-0 start after sweeping the Atlanta Braves to start the season.
Hey, it's only one weekend but for one weekend New York Mets fans can rejoice in a simple statement of fact: the New York Yankees are 0-3 and the Mets are 3-0.
The Tampa Bay Rays' sweep of the Yankees was an important statement for the Rays, a team that has a brutal April schedule. The Rays follow up their series against the Yankees with a nine-game road trip to Detroit, Boston and Toronto, series at home against the Twins and Angels and then a three-game series in Texas. Not until they travel to Seattle and Oakland from April 30 through May 6 do they get an "easy" week. The Rays started 1-8 a year ago and managed to quickly dig out of that hole (they were 15-12 by the end of April), but this April schedule is a stiff challenge.
Jeremy Hellickson, everybody's favorite pitcher to regress to the mean in 2012, did exactly what he did in 2011: Limit hits even though he didn't strike out many batters. Pitching on his 26th birthday, Hellickson took a three-hit, 3-0 lead into the ninth. After walking Nick Swisher on a 3-2 pitch with two outs -- his 118th pitch of the game -- Joe Maddon finally brought in Fernando Rodney for the final out. Hellickson walked four and struck out four but the top three hitters in the Yankees lineup (Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano) went 0-for-11). As somebody wrote on Twitter, "Nobody induces more line-drive outs than Hellickson."
That was a knock against Hellickson's low average on balls in play in 2011 -- his .224 average was the lowest by a starting pitcher since 1988. But it's also a credit to Maddon and the Rays' defensive alignments. No team shifts and moves more on the defense than the Rays. You saw this result in several outs over the weekend, whether it was Mark Teixeira lining a ball to the second baseman playing in shallow right field or Alex Rodriguez grounding a ball over the second-base bag only to have the second baseman perfectly positioned.
Maddon will also move his players all over the batting order. Outside of Desmond Jennings in the leadoff spot and Evan Longoria in the three-hole, you never know how they'll line up. Carlos Pena hit second on Sunday and hit a third-inning home run off Phil Hughes. The Rays' lineup looks much stronger against right-handed pitching with southpaw power bats in Pena, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott. Teams would be wise to try and line up their left-handed starters against them.
Meanwhile, Joe Girardi looked like a kindergartner trying to take the SAT compared to Maddon. His intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez on Friday backfired when Pena hit a grand slam. He played Eduardo Nunez at shortstop on Saturday and his first-inning error led to two unearned runs. Look, Jeter will have to take days off throughout season and while you can understand the desire to sit him on turf, it's also just the second game of the season. Shouldn't Jeter be sitting against the Twins or Mariners or Orioles and not the Rays? And keep in mind that Nunez isn't any better on defense than Jeter; his Defensive Runs Saved in 2011 was minus-8 in 386 innings; Jeter's total was minus-14 in 1047 innings.
With Swisher battling a sensitive hammy, Girardi also put Raul Ibanez in right field on Sunday. This is akin to playing a fire hydrant out there. With two outs in the first Joyce blooped a ball to right field that should have been caught. Ibanez misplayed it into a triple, allowing Longoria to score the game's first run.
The Yankees travel to Baltimore on Monday, with Ivan Nova facing Brian Matusz. Nova had a rough spring, giving up 31 hits and five home runs in 22.1 innings, although he did have a 17/3 SO/BB ratio. The Yankees are 0-3 and while it's fun to pretend they are panicking, that's not really the case. This series was more about Tampa Bay doing everything right. But it is the Yankees, and when they start 0-3 that's not how most fans will view it.
* * * *
As for the Mets, they completed their sweep of the Braves as Jonathon Niese took a no-hitter into the seventh. The Mets nearly blew a 7-0 lead but held on for the 7-5 victory as Frank Francisco picked up his third save.
I watched a few innings of this game and one thing the Mets' hitters do is work the count very well. Atlanta starter Mike Minor threw 104 pitches in just five innings. On Saturday, Jair Jurrjens threw 102 pitches and didn't get out of the fifth. Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy may not have a lot of power at the top of the order but they're pesky, make you throw strikes and should go a nice job of getting on base. On Saturday, each saw 23 pitches in five plate appearances; on Sunday, they saw a combined 40 pitches as Tejada went 4-for-5 and Murphy 2-for-5.
It's easy to forget, but the Mets did lead the NL East in runs scored in 2011 -- despite playing in Citi Field. They did this with a lot of a patience as they led the NL in walks drawn. Yes, Jose Reyes is gone and Carlos Beltran was part of that production, but the Mets don't have any easy outs in the lineup. All eight regulars (Andres Torres landed on the DL with a calf injury after the season opener) are capable of posting a .340 OBP and that means the Mets could once again end up leading the division in runs.
Like the Rays, the Mets face a tough April: Washington, at Philly, at Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, at Colorado, at Houston. Let's not overreact to three games and declare the Mets contenders, but I don't believe they're the 95-loss team that many fans believe. The Mets drew 27,855 on Easter Sunday, 14,000 short of capacity. It will take more than a 3-0 start to turns Mets fans into believers, but at least they can spend a few days having fun at the Yankees' expense.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.