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Friday, July 23, 2010
Rocky road trip leads to tough questions

By Adam Rubin
ESPNNewYork.com

LOS ANGELES -- The chatter about New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel's job security had reached a high-enough pitch that GM Omar Minaya offered an unequivocal vote of confidence before Thursday's series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He's our manager, and I see him being our manager," Minaya said.

But on a day the Philadelphia Phillies fired their hitting coach, Milt Thompson, who presided over back-to-back pennant winners, Mets hitting coach Howard Johnson understands curiosity over the entire staff's security is inevitable. That's especially the case when the Mets, after a 2-0 loss to the Dodgers on Thursday, have now gone 17 straight innings without scoring.

The Mets have a 1-7 record and have been shut out three times while mustering only 15 runs in the second half of the season.

Omar Minaya
Omar Minaya answered questions about manager Jerry Manuel's job security before Thursday's game in Los Angeles.

"You know what? It's part of the job," said Johnson, a wildly popular member of the '86 Mets, who has served as the team's hitting coach since succeeding fired Rick Down on July 12, 2007. "I think at this level you get hired to get fired at some point. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but you deal with it. That's the reality of sports. We're trying to set a standard here and we've scuffled. Hey, this organization has been solid. I don't feel any pressure that way or anything like that. It's nothing like that."

After going scoreless for eight innings against Arizona's woeful bullpen Wednesday and losing in the 14th inning to get swept out of the desert, Manuel sat Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran and Rod Barajas in the series opener at Dodger Stadium. The Mets proceeded to produce only five hits in eight innings against Los Angeles right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and then were overwhelmed by a dominating Hong-Chih Kuo in the ninth.

That wasted a solid pitching performance by Hisanori Takahashi in what Manuel bluntly stated was a make-or-break appearance. Had Takahashi tanked, he would have been reassigned to the bullpen. Instead, after limiting Los Angeles to two runs on three hits and two walks in seven innings, the Japanese left-hander will remain in the rotation and face the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday at Citi Field, the manager indicated.

The hitting issue will try to further be resolved Friday, when the slumping Bay takes part in an early hitting tutorial with Manuel and Johnson.

What's going on with the silent offense?

"The hardest thing is making sure everybody tries to stay positive, and finding good things out of the game," Johnson said. "Even though you're struggling as a group, you've got to find the positives. That's what we're struggling to find right now. But, you know, some of the pieces are there. We're trying to come back from guys being hurt for a long time -- [Luis] Castillo and Carlos [Beltran]. We're kind of trying to find our way again. It's a process, and hopefully we get this thing turned around soon."

Johnson said the problem in the finale in Arizona, when the Mets were one-hit over the final eight innings by the Diamondbacks relief corps, partly had to do with players trying to do too much and "trying to end it with one swing too many times."

As for what is now a three-year run as hitting coach -- a remarkably long stretch for an organization that recently had a revolving door of people in that role -- Johnson suggested consistency of voice pays dividends.

"I think it helps to have a similar face around, and guys who have been through it a little bit," HoJo said. "Seeing these guys mature through the minor leagues and stuff, I think it does help to have some continuity."

Johnson survived two years ago as pitching coach Rick Peterson and first base coach Tom Nieto were swept out with Willie Randolph in that 3 a.m. firing in Costa Mesa, Calif. He had detractors at the time, but ownership particularly valued him and his roots.

"I don't remember that day thinking 'something is going to happen,' because it's happened before where the front office has made trips to find out answers to some questions," Johnson recalled. "But there was a lot of buildup prior to that. That's a tough thing. I remember that day. Everybody was kind of waiting to hear what was going on. But it wasn't anything that affected the way we prepared."

No one has suggested anyone is in imminent jeopardy. And Minaya did expressly say Manuel is secure.

Of course, the GM's vote of confidence reminded one ESPNNewYork.com follower on Twitter about the dialogue between Superman and Lois Lane in that 1978 classic movie.

Minaya can offer all the support he wants for Manuel. The reality is their fates are linked, and jointly rests in the hands of chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

"I've got you," the superhero says after catching Lane midair in the movie.

"You've got me?" Lane replied. "Who's got you?"

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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