There is no question it was a nightmare of a first half for the 2009 Metropolitans. After a promising May when the club went 19-9 and sat 7 games over the .500 mark at 28-21, it all fell apart and came crashing down. A disastrous June brought the Mets down to 37-39, and a 5-6 mark in July heading into the break has the team way down in 4th place, 6.5 games behind the rival Phillies.
Looking backwards will not do the team or its fans any good, however. What's done is done, and while the Metsies are in a big hole, the good news is there are still 74 games left in the season. Considering the fact that the Phillies have a stacked lineup, just signed Pedro Martinez, and may be getting Roy Halladay in the coming days, the Mets have their work cut out for them. I figure they will need at least 90 wins to win the division, and probably very close to 90 to even get the wild card. That means they will have to basically go 48-26 in the 2nd half to have a legit shot. That will by no means be easy...in fact it will be a near impossible task. But this is baseball and anything can happen, so there is still a glimmer of hope. Here is what will need to occur for the Mets to make a magical run:
1) Get Healthy!
No one likes to blame problems in sports on injuries, but the Mets have been more decimated by the disabled list in 2009 than any other year I can remember. Three of their four best hitters (Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran) have missed a combined 140 games. The big pick up they made for J.J. Putz to be their set-up man has gone by the wayside, as he had surgery and has not played since June 4. Their projected #3 and #4 starters, Oliver Perez and John Maine, have missed most of the season so far. And on top of that starters like Brian Schneider, Ryan Church, and Gary Sheffield have all also spent time hurt or on the DL, as well as role players Alex Cora, Ramon Martinez, Angel Pagan, Fernando Martinez, and Bobby Parnell. It has been a medical disaster, and if the Mets are going to make any sort of run at the playoffs down the stretch they need to get healthy, and quick.
It would obviously be great if every single player came back and went on a tear, but that just isn't realistic. I think the two most important guys the team needs back as soon as possible are Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado.
Reyes is without question the most dynamic bat in the Mets lineup. He has top notch speed, quick hands, and good power from the leadoff spot. When he gets on base the opponent seems to tighten up in the field. When he scores a run the Mets do nothing but win. And when healthy he is the kind of guy who can play every single day. Alex Cora has been a very good leader and has filled in without complaints every single day with torn thumb ligaments, but he just doesn't have the bat or the speed of Reyes, and the lineup is suffering terribly without him.
When Reyes first hurt his hamstring on May 15 the Mets were in first place by 2 games ahead of Philly and 20-15. Since then they have gone 22-31 and fallen 9.5 games in the standings. This is the single most important injury the team has sustained, and they need #7 back in uniform as quickly as possible. Unfortunately the comeback has been delayed several times, and there is still no real timetable on his return. Reyes is now running and is supposedly pain free, but don't expect to see him back too soon.
Carlos Delgado has not played since May 10 when he went down with a hip injury, one he needed surgery on shhortly thereafter. Without the big lefty in the lineup it is no coincidence the Mets have been dead last in homeruns, hitting just 52 on the whole season. There is no doubt Citi Field is a pitcher's park- one where it takes a real slugger to knock one out. But Delgado is that player the Mets have who has the power to hit 30-plus homeruns despite the cavernous stadium. He strikes fear in every pitcher's heart. He can hit a homerun in any situation at any time. He is the quintessential cleanup hitter, and he is exactly what the Mets need in their lineup right now. Again, the timetable is a little fuzzy on Carlos' return, but he is working out and seems to be recovered from his surgery. The hope is that he will be back on the field by the 2nd week in August. However, it might be too late by then...
Carlos Beltran would obviously help the team tremendously if he came back sooner than expected, as would John Maine, J.J. Putz, Billy Wagner, or really any of the injured players on the team. But it has to happen soon. With the first half behind us there is no more time to "stay afloat." The Mets must begin to get healthy and swim towards the promised land, or they will surely sink.
2) Play Fundamental Baseball
When I saw Daniel Murphy misplay fly balls in left field that cost the Mets multiple games in April I tried not to get too upset and just said to myself, "This is probably as bad as it gets."
When I saw Ryan Church miss 3rd base in the top of the 11th inning in Los Angeles, and then watched the team make two terrible defense gaffes in the bottom half to cost the team another win, I DID get angry, but said to myself, "At least this will be as bad as it gets."
And then on that fateful night on June 12, as I sat in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium in silence as hundreds of evil Yankee fans berated me with delight after Luis Castillo dropped the easiest of pop-ups and turned a Mets win into a Yankee victory, I looked to the heavens and screamed, "Please, let this be as bad as it gets!"
The Mets have been a flat out joke when it comes to fundamental defense, base running, hitting, and every other aspect of the game learned in Little League. And while I don't get on Jerry Manuel too much, in this case the onus lies directly on him. With the lineup as weak as it is, the Mets simply cannot afford to make many more unforced mistakes in the 2nd half. There needs to be better communication, better fielding, better throws, and much more focus than there was the first 3 and a half months of the season. Having the team practice pop-ups before the game last week may have been embarrassing to the players, but to me it was simply a good start. Let's see more of that the rest of the year, and maybe it will translate to the games.
3) The Jeff Francoeur Factor
I will admit I was not a big fan of this trade when I heard about it. I always thought Ryan Church was a solid ball player, and Francoeur has been awful the past year and a half. But still, there is the possibility of the move working out in a big way if things turn around for Frenchy.
Church is 30 years old, and most likely will never hit more than 25 homers, drive in more than 90 runs, or hit over .290. Francoeur on the other hand is only 25, and has previously put up monster numbers. He has driven in 100 runs twice already in his career, he hit 29 dingers in 2006, and still has untapped potential. Whether he ever achieves that potential in New York is going to be the difference in making the trade a good one or a bad one. Taking one or two pitches this year would be a good start...
4) Consistent Starting Pitching
Clearly the Mets would be a much better team if they got their big bats back in the lineup. But I don't think we can count on that, and I think it is pretty likely that the offense will rank at the bottom of the barrel in many run producing categories all year.
With that being said, the responsibility relies on the pitching to perform up to and above expectations. Johan Santana must throw like he did in April and May, not like he did in June. Mike Pelfrey has to regain his form from the 2nd half of last year. Livan Hernandez needs to snap out of his funk. Oliver Perez needs to wake the heck up and earn his 12 million dollars, or at least do the best he can. And when John Maine comes back he needs to stay healthy and go after hitters with his stuff instead of dancing around the plate. In the meantime whoever fills in, whether it is Fernando Nieve, Jon Niese, or anyone else, must be on their game.
Every one of the Mets starters this year has shown flashes of dominance (except Ollie), but now it is time for consistency. No one can afford a couple of bad starts in a row, because the hole the Mets are in is just too deep.
5) Dominate the Division...And Hope for a Little Luck
The toughest part of making a run from 7.5 games out of 1st is the fact that even if the Mets play excellent baseball the rest of the way they STILL might not make the playoffs. They are behind 3 other teams in their own division, and trail 7 teams in the wild card race.
If the impossible is to happen, not only will the Mets have to win a lot of ball games, but all those teams in front of them will have to go through a slump of some sort. The only way the Mets can control that at all is by dominating the teams ahead of them when they face off; most notably their NL East rivals. Here is a breakdown of the remaining matchups against their divisional foes:
Atlanta Braves- 12 Games Remaining (6 home, 6 road)
Washington Nationals- 9 Games Remaining (3 home, 6 road)
Florida Marlins- 9 Games Remaining (3 home, 6 road)
Philadelphia Phillies- 8 Games Remaining (4 home, 4 road)
If the Mets can win 6 out of the 8 games they play against Philadelphia it would chop 4 games off the lead, which as of now would make it a manageable 3.5 game difference.
If they go 6-3 against both Florida and Atlanta it would make up the difference with those teams and put the Mets in 2nd place, assuming all 3 teams play even baseball the rest of the way.
And if they can take care of business and dominate the lowly Nats, by going say 7-2 or 8-1, then that would put them in pretty good shape overall.
Of course, for all these things to happen it would take a long, continued stretch of great baseball and a little bit of luck. But let's be honest, the team definitely needs both of those things to have any chance at October baseball in 2009...