Mets fans might be forgiven for having unsettling flashbacks when New York took a 6-2 lead in the fourth inning of their first game of the season. Even during the horrendous 5-12 finish last year, the Mets had plenty of early leads—seemingly losing their advantage in the middle and later frames.
But Opening Day, a 7-2 victory for New York against the Florida Marlins, was an encouraging demonstration of why this year might be different. Between Johan Santana’s excellence, the depth of the retooled bullpen and Willie Randolph’s grasp of platoon splits, the Mets looked like a team that knows, at last, how to put a game away.
They bunched six runs together in the fourth inning, giving them the sort of lead that they made a habit of throwing away last season, especially late in the year.
Pretty quickly, the Marlins got a couple back. Santana had retired the first nine Marlins in order, but walked Hanley Ramirez after a strike down the middle was called a ball by umpire Rick Reed. Three batters later, Santana’s one mistake pitch, a slider up, was deposited by Josh Willingham into the left field seats, and the score was 6-2.
With one out in the fifth, Luis Gonzalez singled off of Santana, and Matt Traynor worked out a walk. But Santana did not wilt. He struck out the pinch-hitter Jason Wood on sliders and change ups. Then he fanned Hanley Ramirez, Florida’s best hitter, on three straight fastballs. He went on to strike out the next two hitters for good measure, on his way to a total of eight strikeouts over seven innings.
With the middle innings out of the way, Willie Randolph showed that 2007 may have taught him something about managing a bullpen. With a four-run lead entering the bottom of the eighth, Randolph summoned newly acquired Matt Wise. Wise is a right-handed pitcher who is more effective against lefties, with a .224 batting average against, but he holds righties to a respectable .261. He can and likely often will be used as an inning bridge.
Wise was not hit hard, but allowed a pair to reach base, bringing Mike Jacobs to the plate. But Randolph had warmed up Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa earlier in the inning.
In came Schoeneweis, the lefty-killer, to face lefty Jacobs. Schoeneweis, who gave up a .316 BAA to righties, .204 to lefties last season, induced a harmless groundout.
So many times last year, Randolph would then leave Schoeneweis in to face the righty, this time the dangerous Josh Willingham. Or he would have gone to Aaron Heilman, as he did so many times before burning him out late in the season. Instead, he went with Jorge Sosa, who has a BAA of .326 when facing lefties—a paltry .202 when pitching to righties. Willingham struck out on a 3-2 slider.
Schoeneweis and Sosa were not trusted relievers last season—principally because Randolph had set them both up for failure. Used correctly, Randolph can lean on both of them. And with Wise added to the relief options, and better starting pitching shortening games, they should be an effective weapon all year.
“I wanted to take advantage of the match-ups we had,” Randolph said during his postgame press conference. “We’d talked about it before the game.”
You wonder why they couldn’t have had this discussion last year.