It was easy to think back to New York’s epic collapse in 2007, when the Mets lost a seven-game lead with seventeen left to play, after New York lost to the Phillies on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The results allowed Philadelphia to move within a game of the Mets, before the series conclusion on Sunday night.
But from start to finish, the Mets showed in their 6-3 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday night that however the season turns out, their 2008 club is a different model from last year’s.
Most obvious among these differences is the presence of Johan Santana, who entered the night with an ERA at Shea Stadium of just 1.99. Santana was dominant in the first half—in the second half, he has been even better. Santana gives the Mets quantity as well as quality, pitching into the eighth inning Sunday night for the fourth time in his last ten starts. In 2007, the Mets had three pitchers do that in the entire month of September.
But the differences showed themselves as early as the first inning, when the Mets responded to Philadelphia’s first inning run with three of their own. With one out, Ryan Church singled, one of his two hits on the night. Flash back to 2007, and Church was also hitting—but for the Nationals, in three September victories over the Mets. Church had a pinch-hit home run against New York on September 17, two hits and two RBI on September 24, and his grand slam against the Mets provided the final margin in Washington’s 9-6 victory on September 26.
Two batters later, New York had a run and two runners on for Carlos Delgado, who promptly singled in the pair to give New York a 3-1 lead it would not relinquish. And while it is easy to forget within the turmoil of last year’s collapse, Delgado was not a part of much of it, with an injury keeping him out of action from September 4 to September 21. That was far from an inconsequential loss for the Mets—Delgado was a very effective offensive player for New York in 2007’s second half, posting a .285/.375/.469 line following the All Star break.
While that is short of the .284/.380/.574 second-half line in 2008 that has catapulted him into National League Most Valuable Player discussions, he was a critical bat that might have made the difference during last year’s stretch run. That became more obvious as the night went on, and he hit not one, but two home runs to help pad New York’s lead.
In the eighth inning, Jerry Manuel showed once again why his replacing Willie Randolph as manager makes an enormous difference when the Mets play critical September games. With a 5-2 lead and one out in the eighth inning, Santana gave up a double to Jason Werth. Up stepped NL home run leader Ryan Howard, a lefty. Who did Manuel bring in to pitch to Howard? Lefty Pedro Feliciano, who grounded him out. Manuel then turned to righty Brian Stokes to retire righty Pat Burrell and end the inning.
Seems simple enough, but the Mets lost many games, particularly to the Phillies, down the stretch in 2007 when Randolph failed to play the percentages. In late August, Randolph let righty Guillermo Mota pitch to Howard in an extra-inning game. Howard homered as closer Billy Wagner and lefty specialist Scott Schoeneweis sat unused in the bullpen. Even as late as September 16, Randolph let righty Jorge Sosa pitch to Greg Dobbs, who cannot hit lefties, with the bases loaded while multiple lefty relievers were available to him. Dobbs’ grand slam was the difference in a 10-6 Philadelphia win.
The ninth inning showed another difference between the two seasons. Billy Wagner had attempted a simulated game earlier in the day, but the pain from his elbow injury was too great to overcome. So while Randolph had a legitimate closer, the Mets relied on Luis Ayala, a serviceable reliever, but not a pitcher on Wagner’s level. But while on so many occasions Randolph would not have other options warming up, even when he turned to pitchers that had struggled for months, Manuel had both Joe Smith and Al Reyes, a pitcher who hadn’t thrown for the Mets all year, waiting in the wings.
Ayala, like Church, played well down the stretch in 2007—for the Nationals, against the Mets. Ayala threw three scoreless innings in three September Washington wins over New York, even earning the save on September 26. In 2008, Ayala ended the game by striking out Jimmy Rollins, leaving him hitless for the game. Last year, Rollins had a hit in the final eight games between Philadelphia and New York—and the Phillies won all eight of them.
The Mets have now eliminated Philadelphia’s last chance to gain ground directly, but new and potentially deadly flaws may still doom the Mets—and their margin for error is smaller. Luckily, this is a different cast of characters. They have reason to hope for a different result.