Commentary

N.Y. Mutts keep fetching wins

Mismatched lineup heads into cross-city rivalry wagging its tail

Updated: June 7, 2012, 3:15 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Their name is the Mets. They should be called the Mutts.

They don't listen when people tell them they're a defense-poor, bullpen-deprived team haunted by decades of bad mojo and a payroll that's been gutted because of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Last season they shrugged at the news that their owner, Fred Wilpon, derided their best everyday player as "a good kid" but "not a superstar" -- then smiled when the same guy, David Wright, hit .400 for a month this season despite having to grip the bat with a broken finger.

[+] EnlargeJohan Santana and Terry Collins
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesTerry Collins congratulated Johan Santana after a shutout against the Padres.

The Mutts have gotten nothing once again from $16 million-a-year outfielder Jason Bay, who once again is coming off the disabled list. Against all reason they refuse to bail on Ike Davis, who is supposed to be a slugging first baseman, even though he's struggling to hit .170. They lost National League batting champion Jose Reyes to the Marlins without even making a contract offer but did pick up comedian Bill Maher as a minority owner over the winter, a move befitting a team that was predicted to be a joke.

And yet, somehow these Mets just win. They win with (sometimes despite) a third-string shortstop whose name could be mistaken for a Zydeco band (Jordany Valdespin? Doesn't he play accordian?) and a good stick/iron-gloved second baseman in Daniel Murphy, whose new handle is Murph-E. They win because they've been carried by Wright and an idiosyncratic starting rotation that features one man coming off serious shoulder surgery (Johan Santana), another pitcher who held ex-teammate Carlos Beltran to a promise to pay for his offseason nose job (Jonathon Niese), and 37-year-old R.A. Dickey, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in January and gave serious thought to becoming an English professor before reviving his big league career in 2006 by teaching himself a knuckleball. Before that, he threw a hard forkball he called "The Thing."

Now look: The Mutts rolled into Washington this week to battle a Nationals team led by bonus babies Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper for first place in the NL East, knowing a weekend Subway Series against the Yankees awaited them after that. They began play on Thursday five games over .500, and with the same amount of wins (31) as the Yanks, but nobody thinks it's going to last. Which doesn't matter to the Mets, either. Because very little of this was supposed to happen in the first place.

"This is a movie," Mets manager Terry Collins told his pitching coach, Dan Warthen, on Friday.

Collins was talking about the way Santana -- who is coming back from an iffy shoulder capsule procedure that few big leaguers have completely rebounded from -- kept mowing down defending champion St. Louis inning after inning on the way to the first no-hitter in the Mets' star-crossed, 50-year, 8,019-game history.

But Collins could've been referring to this entire season.

One of the reasons the 61-year-old Collins clicks so perfectly with this Mets team is he's one of the Mutts.

After an ugly flameout with the Angels in 1999, Collins was derided as too high-strung to manage in the majors again. Eleven years passed before the Mets promoted him last season from minor league field director. It's a rap that's turned out to be the second-worst call on a New York skipper since the Yankees' hiring of Joe Torre was mocked by the local tabloid headline "Clueless Joe."

Collins' spitfire attitude is one of his best traits, not his worst. He's been a straight-talking, tub-thumping godsend to this Mets team at the most difficult juncture in franchise history. And team president Sandy Alderson, whom baseball commissioner Bud Selig sent in to clean up the Mets' toxic mess, made an inspired and unorthodox decision in hiring him.

Collins cracks the whip and mutters out loud when these Mets screw up, and he chokes back tears and croaks out compliments in a trembling voice when they make him proud. He preaches attitude as much as X's and O's, and says contrarian things like "not just anybody can play here" when -- there's just no nice way to say this -- the harsh truth is most of the 2012 Mets are nobodies or somebody else's cheap castoffs. Miguel Batista? Josh Thole? Justin Turner? Their unreliable closer, Frank Francisco, was let go by Toronto. Setup man Jon Rauch was, too. But the Mutts' attitude is "So-o-o … what's your point?"

If the Mets had any kind of bullpen at all or even a budget to patch the problem, they'd probably be five wins better already.

But what they do have is their holy trinity of Collins, Wright and Santana. And they have this uncanny team trait for finding ways to win.

The Mutts are harder to kill than crab grass. They just keep coming back, back, back at you like a bad case of whooping cough. They don't have pedigrees but they go after wins like dogs after a ham bone.

The Mets don't hit as many home runs as they were expected to; they just seem to get them when they desperately need them. They also don't make excuses for what could be the stultifying weight of their recent past, or the demoralizing knowledge that if they spring leaks, no help is likely to come from anywhere but Triple-A. Why? Because Collins won't let them. "Ain't going to happen," he says.

Collins actually has the Mutts believing they can win as-is. From the start of spring training, he insisted this team had a chance to "surprise" people. He ignored how even with Reyes and Beltran still on the team, the injury-riddled Mets finished 77-85 last season, 25 games out of first place. He sold this simple storyline for 2012 instead: "If we pitch, we'll win," Collins declared.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDavid Wright has powered the Mets' offense.

And damn if he hasn't been right so far.

"He's our spark plug," Scott Hairston told the New York Post earlier this week.

"We're getting to the point we can't wait to get to the ballpark. … we can't wait to take the field," Thole added.

"I love playing for him," Wright has said.

Once Collins set the perfect emotional pitch coming out of spring training, two highly unusual things happened to keep the magical thinking going: Santana's no-hitter and a dugout shouting match between Collins and Wright.

Wright, a homegrown star who hasn't been seen as a fiery leader during his Mets career as much as just their best player, became uncharacteristically demonstrative -- and livid -- when Collins yanked him for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning of a game the Mets were losing 8-0 to Milwaukee on May 15. Mets reliever D.J. Carrasco had just drilled Milwaukee star Ryan Braun in the back, and Collins refused to risk letting Wright get plunked in retaliation or suffer anything that might derail his season. He told Wright so as the two of them screamed at each other in full view of everyone. Wright threw his helmet, pointed a finger in the manager's face, and then stormed off, still shouting.

"Somebody's going to wear a pitch, and it ain't going to be YOU!" Collins roared.

"If somebody's going to be hit, I WANT it to be ME," Wright raged back.

And an already close Mets team grew even tighter.

"Refreshing," Dickey later told reporters.

Bonding as that incident was, Santana's no-hitter was the bolt-from-nowhere feat that has left the Mets franchise daring to believe perhaps it finally has turned an important psychic corner.

The cosmic significance of seeing nothing go terribly wrong, for a change, is probably not as appreciated outside of New York as much as it was noted within the city. For once, the beleaguered Mets were no longer a punch line or fate's piñata. Santana blanked the defending champs and a pivotal call actually went for them, not against them. In the sixth, Beltran slammed a sharp hit down the left-field foul line so hard that chalk flew up, only to see umpire Adrian Johnson call the ball foul.

He said "Foul?"

Really?

Everyone stopped. Blinked. Recalibrated. The game resumed.

But the fact that the call went against Beltran felt karmic. Mets fans have never forgiven him for taking a called third strike to end Game 7 of their 2006 NL Championship Series against this same St. Louis team. It felt like something magic was in the air, too, when Queens-raised Mets fan Mike Baxter ran into the outfield wall to steal a hit from Yadier Molina, who slayed the Mets with the go-ahead homer in that same NLCS.

Baxter ended up on the DL with a bad shoulder. But Santana went on to finish off the no-hitter, saying screw the pitch count, though it took him 134 pitches. Since then, nothing about the Mets has felt quite the same. Like the conflagration with Wright, seeing all of that -- Santana's determination, the sight of Collins right there in the mix with him, telling him, "You're my hero" when he refused to come out, but publicly second-guessing himself later -- pulled an already close Mets team even tighter.

They care about winning. And each other.

Heading into Thursday's series finale against Washington, the Mets were only 3-3 since Santana's no-no. They slipped from a tie for first to just off the pace in the four-way fight for the lead in the National League East. During Wednesday night's sloppy 5-3 loss, the Mets' own sports network, SNY, cut to a shot of Collins in the dugout with his mouth blurred to protect viewers from lip-reading what he was muttering after Murph-E committed two more errors. Still, no one will be surprised if the Mets bounce back and claw and fight until they sweep the fat cat Yanks this weekend in their own park.

It's a movie, all right. It's what happens when "The Bad News Bears" become grown men.

Revenge of the Mutts.

Coming soon to a stadium near you.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.