Thursday, June 02, 2005

Mets musings

Ponderings from behind the keyboard. . .

What's the over/under on Aaron Heilman taking a job in the Mets' starting rotation? My optimistic side hopes it's sooner rather than later, but my realistic side tells me the more time passes, the deeper he digs himself into the long reliever pigeon-hole. Every winning team needs a strong long-man, and Heilman certainly has looked the part, but his early-season success as a stopgap starter earned him the right to a few more starts.

Victor Zambrano and Kaz Ishii, no doubt, will continue their off-again, on-again adventures. Willie Randolph has already made it clear he's going to stick with those guys (and he sort of has to, based on whom they were traded for), so it may depend a lot more on injuries than it will on the performances of Ishii, Zambrano, or even Heliman himself. Over/under: July 15, two weeks before the trade deadline.

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It's been a strange couple of months for the Mets' lineup, which seems to get hot and cold on almost daily basis. First, Cliff Floyd was hot. So was Doug Mientkiewicz, for about a week. Then Mike Piazza had a couple of "Piazza-like" games. Then Mike Cameron came back, and he got hot. Now David Wright is hot, although he's starting to cool slightly. Jose Reyes has had some terrific games, but almost as many clunkers.

Carlos Beltran is even harder to figure. As bizarre as this sounds, the one player to whom I can best compare him is Alex Rodriguez. He's got tremendous talent -- a transcendent five-tool player -- and has put up great (or, at least, very good) numbers, but for some reason hasn't found his place with the fans yet.

Fans always expect more from free agents who breeze into town with big hoopla (see: Giambi, Jason; Glavine, Tom). We're are never as forgiving to hired guns as are to homegrown stars like Derek Jeter or Reyes. However, I would be remiss not to go to bat for Beltran, who was booed after going 0-for-4 and leaving four runners in scoring position Tuesday night.

Beltran's defense has been the one key aspect that has gone, it seems, almost completely unnoticed. He's gotten a few ovations for strong throws from the outfield, but it's his intimidation factor that makes him an almost nightly force for baserunners to cope with.

Example: In Wednesday night's game, the Mets led 2-1 with two outs in the ninth inning. Pinch hitter Tony Clark singles, then Alex Cintron follows with a shot to center. Beltran fields the ball quickly and fires it in. Clark, the potential tying run, does not even try to advance to third. In that situation in any of the past, oh, 43 years, Clark is probably on third base.

I don't need to tell any knowledgeable fan the significance of keeping a tying run off third. It's good, fundamental, winning baseball. That's what Beltran brings to the Mets, and that's why he'll be a great influence to players like Reyes and Wright, who certainly have a lot to learn before they can ascend to the his stratospheric level.

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Did a quick check of the All-Star voting yesterday and discovered the Mike Piazza was the leading vote-getter for NL catchers. Mike's a good man, but this only strengthens every argument against allowing fans to vote for All-Star selections. I suppose I shouldn't get so bent out of shape about it, since the MLB All-Star game is about the fans, after all, right?

But more than anything else, it's a popularity contest. Piazza, batting .249 with 6 home runs and 26 RBIs, is having, by anyone's valuation, the worst season of his career. I've never had problem with aging stars playing in All-Star Games, but at what point do you have to try to be fair to others who have earned the right to start the game?

I'm probably overreacting. But one last note before I move on: Two of the other top vote-getters at their positions -- Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen -- are currently injured and probably won't even play in the game. And Tino Martinez leads all AL first baseman by nearly 100,000 votes... *shrug*

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Dae-Sung Koo is on his last legs with the Mets. There's no denying that now. Koo's struggles have brought about Omar Minaya's first real challenge of the 2005 season. He's got a surplus of starting pitching and outfielders, and no reliable lefty reliever anywhere in the system. How he molds and reshapes that group could have a significant impact on the rest of the season.

Check back on Newsday.com tomorrow afternoon, when I'll talk to Newsday's Dave Lennon about Minaya's plans for the team this summer, as well as some possible trade candidates at relief pitcher. Perhaps he can shed some light on the critical moves the Mets are bound to make over the next two months.

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Speaking of lefty relievers, it seems that John Rocker has finally corrected the control problems that plagued him early in the season with the Long Island Ducks. But the Mets would never sign him, would they? Well, you'd be surprised. Stay tuned...

E-mail Mike Casey at michael.casey@newsday.com

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A fun year to be a Yankee fan

June 1, 2005. Fourth-place Yankees.

Wow! There are two sentences you never expected to hear in that order. At least in the post-1994 era, back when the Yankees were running away with American League before the strike delayed Don Mattingly’s first playoff appearance another year.

Speaking of 1995, didn’t the Yankees win 25 of their final 31 games that season to capture the AL wild card? Yes, I believe they did.

Ever since, Yankee fans developed a sense of playoff entitlement, never once considering that the team might struggle along the way.

Have a heart, people. Even the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls lost 10 games. And they had MJ, who cannot be compared with A-Rod, simply because baseball does not allow for one-man dominance the way basketball does.

The 2005 Yankees might just be the most exciting team since 1998. That team won every night and it was relatively new to see such domination. Following them in 1998 meant staring at the box score in amazement over another Yankee win and another six-game win streak and another Tino Martinez home run and another Paul O’Neill punching of a water cooler because he only went 3-for-4.

In the years afterward, the Yankees beating everyone up became passé. Sort of like when that new song you love hits the radio. You buy the single, listen to it 32 times in a week, then get tired of it.

That’s what the Yankees have done to baseball. Every year, they are the favorite to win. Every year, they add another few million to the payroll, making it that much harder to root for them.

And I’m a Yankee fan!!!!

But I remember the 1991 pitching rotation, which included Wade Taylor. ‘Nuff said.

I remember 1985, when the Yankees had to go into Toronto and sweep to win the AL East. They won the first game, lost the second, and then Phil Niekro earned his 300th win on the final day of the season.

That was exciting.

And so is 2005. Who knows what will happen? As Yankee fans, we must now monitor Baltimore, Boston and Toronto. And whoever thinks the Orioles and Blue Jays will falter, you may be right, but it’s June 1 and we’re still talking about them. No one expected that.

Now we don’t know what to expect. Kevin Brown could pitch a good game. Or, he could just pitch like Kevin Brown. We don’t know.

Randy Johnson might strike a few people out. He might even serve up three bombs. We don’t know.

A-Rod could hit three homers, or make three errors. We don’t know.

Which makes being a Yankee fan fun again. The Orioles and the Red Sox wrap up their three-game series on Wednesday. Yankee fans must hope against a sweep. That’s the best case scenario right now because there’s no sign of the Orioles slowing down. Not with that lineup. Plus, they’ve stunk up the joint something awful in recent years, so any little bit of success means a lot to hungry players.

The Red Sox aren’t going away, either, even if Curt Schilling doesn’t pitch again this season and Johnny Damon keeps running into walls. So long as the Yankees refuse to intentionally walk, pitch around or brush back David Ortiz, the Red Sox will remain a half-game ahead of the Yankees.

Every game from here on matters. They’re all important because, even though the Yankees won 16 of 18, they also lost 19 of 30.

It should make for an exciting summer. Unless, of course, you became a Yankee fan in October of 1996.

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