The great parlor game of New York’s 2008 season has been seeing whether a team can overcome criminally negligent pitching out of the bullpen and win a division title. But as the Mets showed Tuesday night in a 1-0 loss, and over their last five games, a bullpen may be overcome—a bullpen and offensive drought cannot. With Philadelphia’s 8-7 win over Atlanta, the Phillies took over first place by ½ game with 12 to play.
Make no mistake, New York’s bullpen is as terrible as ever. New York lost games to Atlanta on Saturday and Sunday despite entering the late innings with leads. On Monday night against Washington, Duaner Sanchez entered a 4-1 game with two outs and no one on base. Three batters later, the Nationals led, 7-1. Over the past five games, New York’s bullpen ERA is 9.00.
But what has been remarkable about the Mets is that the bullpen has provided this kind of support all season long. In the second half, New York’s relievers have pitched to a 4.97 ERA—and eliminate Billy Wagner’s eight innings, with Wagner on the shelf through the end of the 2009 season, and the mark is well over 5. Yet even with the recent slide, the Mets have a 32-23 record since the All Star break, a 94-win pace over a full season.
Instead, it has been the offense that has betrayed the Mets during the team’s longest extended bout of poor play since the beginning of August. Over New York’s last five games, the Mets have averaged 2.6 runs per game against a pair of teams that have been anything but strong on the mound.
Against Washington Monday and Tuesday, New York combined for two runs in eighteen innings. Washington entered Tuesday’s game with a 4.59 team ERA, 14th in the National League. The team’s mark was 4.94 since the break, and their starters’ ERA was 5.47 in the second half. Just last week, the Mets played Washington twice—and scored a total of 23 runs.
Atlanta should have been an easy mark for offense, too. The Braves have an ERA of 4.48, 11th in the National League. But much of the positive in that line was put up by pitchers like Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, both out for the season. The Braves’ team ERA in the second half if 5.85, including a bullpen ERA of 6.45, one that makes New York’s bullpen work look nearly acceptable.
But the men primarily responsible for the New York attack have been in poor form over the past five games. Carlos Beltran is 3-for-17. David Wright is 7-for-19, but four of those hits came in one game. Carlos Delgado, whose resurgence coincided with that of the Mets, is 5-for-21. And Jose Reyes, where all Mets offense seems to begin, is 5-for-21. He had three hits in a single game—that’s the only contest over the last five New York won.
Collectively, a group that contains four members with legitimate arguments for Most Valuable Player in the National League (assuming Albert Pujols is excluded for playing on a non-playoff team) has hit just .256, and even this mediocre mark is misleading–the four players have left 25 runners on base over the past five games.
For proof of how important these primary hitters are, consider that in the past five games, the rest of the team is hitting an even .300—yet New York still hasn’t scored runs. And worse yet, Fernando Tatis, who had reached base seven times over the past four plus games, separated his shoulder Tuesday night and is likely lost for the season.
Even terrific starting pitching can’t overcome largely inept efforts by the team’s best offensive producers, as evidenced by New York’s starter ERA of 2.31 over the past five games. The starters have lasted an average of seven innings in those five starts, too—providing length that the Mets rarely got during the 2007 collapse.
But that 2007 team got plenty of offense down the stretch, posting a 5-12 record over those final, fateful 17 games despite averaging nearly 5.8 runs per game. It was the combination of poor starting pitching and wretched relief pitching that did the 2007 Mets in.
And if the 2008 version is to avoid a similar fate, it is hard to imagine the bullpen that has struggled all year coming in and saving the day. Without a revival of the team’s best offensive players, it will be nearly impossible.