How to Win With No Relief

The Mets don’t look like a winning team customarily looks. It seems impossible to imagine that a team with a bullpen so unreliable, and utterly devoid of quality performers, could manage to make the playoffs, let alone contend for a championship.

But as the Mets showed again Thursday night in a 7-2 victory over the Nationals, good starting pitching and good hitting can often overcome even a horrible bullpen. And unlike 2007, when the Mets had intermittently effective offense and thin starting pitching, this group excels in both areas. The fact that they trail the division-Phillies by just half a game, and lead the Brewers by 1 ½ games for the wild card with ten games left is no fluke.

New York rebounded from a mini-slump that saw the team drop four of five games by scoring 16 runs against Washington on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The Mets received home runs from Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, and two each from Carlos Beltran and Brian Schneider.

While Schneider is unlikely to provide that kind of power on a regular basis, Reyes, Delgado and Beltran have been hitting this way for much of the season. During the second half, the Mets are 34-23. Reyes has posted a second-half line of .306/.361/.488, Beltran is at .306/.392/.545, and Delgado comes in at .293/.379/.611. David Wright tops them all, even with his recent struggles, with a second-half line of .318/.389/.592.

So that second-half record is no fluke. The Mets have been pounding the ball.

Add to that the advantage of quality starting pitching, which the Mets also have in abundance. Johan Santana, who dominated the Nationals for seven innings, hasn’t lost a game since June 28. His second half ERA is 2.47. He has as strong a case for MVP as any of the four everyday stars.

But just as it isn’t clear which player is the Mets’ offensive MVP, their best starter in the second half has been a dogfight as well. Oliver Perez has a 3.60 ERA since the break, with Pelfrey checking in at 3.71. And both those ERAs are inflated by a single poor start—take away their back-to-back outings against Washington last week, and Perez’s second-half ERA drops to 2.88; Pelfrey’s to 3.36. Santana has the lowest walk rate, Perez the highest strikeout rate, Pelfrey the fewest home runs allowed. All three have been excellent.

The Mets have two other things going for them in their attempt to overcome their bullpen. One is defense. The Mets are extremely strong up the middle, with Reyes and Beltran among the best at their positions, Schneider strong at catcher, and Argenis Reyes providing a strong glove but little hitting at second base. David Wright is well on his way to winning a second Gold Glove at third base, while Ryan Church, had he played a full season, would be in the discussion in right field. Only the Nick Evans/Dan Murphy platoon in left field and Carlos Delgado at first base are poor defensive cogs, and in late-game situations when the bullpen would be deployed, Manuel can simply substitute Endy Chavez in left field—he might be the best defender of the bunch.

And the final shield New York has against the bullpen could well be small sample size. New York has just ten games left to make it to the postseason. Of those ten games, six will be started by Santana, Perez and Pelfrey, all of whom have provided both terrific pitching and length. Should the season come down to a final game, it is Johan Santana scheduled to take the mound. And the bullpen ERA in the second half is 4.99—that means even the New York bullpen won’t regularly give up seven runs over two innings, as displayed Thursday night. Limiting their chances to screw up is key.

If the Mets make it to the postseason, Santana, Perez and Pelfrey would likely get four of five starts in an NLDS series, six of seven in an NLCS or World Series. It may well be that the combination of dominant starting pitching and consistent offense makes the bullpen struggles non-lethal.

And given the relatively small amount of innings, believe it or not, the bullpen could even catch fire (in a good way). There is precedent for such a playoff run. The 1997 Florida Marlins found themselves in the playoffs despite a second-half bullpen ERA of 5.27 in 213 2/3 innings. Setup man Dennis Cook had a 5.17 ERA after the break, and Felix Heredia was a horrendous 7.94—worse even than Aaron Heilman!

That same bullpen posted a 2.07 ERA in the 1997 playoffs over 47 1/3 innings. Felix Heredia posted a 2.08 ERA in 8 2/3 innings. And Dennis Cook? He threw nine shutout innings, picking up two wins along the way. The Marlins needed three or more innings from their bullpen in six of seven World Series games. And backed by five scoreless bullpen frames in Game 7 of the World Series, the Marlins came back to beat the Indians, 3-2.

Along the way they also had to win a 14-11 game, recover from a blown save from closer Robb Nen, saw the bullpen allow four runs in a game twice, and two other times held onto leads when their opponent had the tying runs on base in the ninth. The 1997 Marlins may not have looked to many people like a championship team.

But then, improbably, they were.

How to Win With No Relief