April 29, 2010

Something Worth Rooting For

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With only two weeks left before Slope Day it’s come time for every Sun columnist to write what has become known as a goodbye column. Since this is only the second installment of Off the Wall, I’m not exactly in a position to be saying goodbye and thanking all who have made this journey possible. But I will take a page out of the goodbye column handbook and do what every other departing Sun columnist has done these past few weeks — talk about whatever I want. So instead of hiding my individual biases and talking about the NBA playoffs, the NFL Draft or some other topical sports subject, I’m going to talk about what I know best — the New York Mets.

Ever since Carlos Beltran was unable to lift his bat off his shoulder in game seven of the 2006 NLCS, Mets fans have had very little to cheer about. From the embarrassing collapses of 2007 and 2008 to last year’s disastrous injury-riddled campaign, life as a fan of the boys from Queens has been anything but easy and 12 games into this season it seemed as though things hadn’t changed a bit. However, the transformation that this team has undergone over the last week and a half has made even the most skeptical of observers wonder if this is the year that all of the suffering ends.

Over the last 10 games the Mets have gone 9-1 and gone from the outhouse to the penthouse, entering today’s three-game series with the Phillies a half-game ahead in the NL East standings with a record of 13-9. Entering the season you were hard-pressed to find a pundit who didn’t pick the Phillies to win the division — and those who didn’t select Philly certainly weren’t counting on the Mets to dethrone the defending National League champs. But a lot has changed since the beginning of spring training, and for the Amazin’s the catalyst for success has been rooted in a surprisingly impressive pitching staff and a youthful and energized starting lineup.

When the Mets opened the 2010 season they featured a pitching staff that included Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez and 10 question marks. Today this staff ranks third in the majors with a dazzling 3.06 team ERA and leads the league with four shutouts and 183 strikeouts through only 22 games. The youth movement headed by starter Jon Niese (23) and reliever Jenrry Mejia (20) combined with the resurgence of Mike Pelfrey — currently sporting a 4-0 record with a 0.69 ERA — has helped produce a group of pitchers willing to attack the strike zone, unlike the shaky Mets pitching staffs of the previous three seasons. Over the team’s last 10 games no starter has allowed more than three runs in any outing, compiling a staff ERA of 2.09 over that stretch.

Despite the tremendous success the team’s pitchers had during the 10-game home stand, it’s difficult to ignore the greatest change that has coincided with the team’s success: the promotion of rookie first baseman Ike Davis. The 23-year-old crown jewel of the Mets organization has been nothing short of spectacular in his 10 games with the big club. Davis is hitting .355 with a homerun and six RBIs in just 31 at-bats, and has rejuvenated the lineup since being slotted into the sixth spot in the order. The team’s new lineup, which features center fielder Angel Pagan in the leadoff spot and shortstop Jose Reyes in the three hole, has lengthened out the team’s power and made getting a quality start a tall order for opposing pitchers. Since manager Jerry Manuel employed the retooled batting order, the Mets are 6-0 and have scored an average of five runs per game.

Now I’m not bold enough to predict a division championship just because of an impressive 10-game stretch, and I won’t even guarantee that the team sweeps the Phillies this weekend. What has transpired over the past week and a half transcends wins and losses. The fact that Mets fans have a team that is fun to watch and is composed of a group of players who clearly enjoy playing the game of baseball day in and day out is in itself something worth rooting for.

Original Author: Evan Rich