I have to disagree with Alex. While I’m not exactly “geeked” for this weekend’s series against the Mets, I do think this is one of the most compelling subway series match-ups in the now nine year history of interleague play.
One reason is the similarity in the two team’s records. With the Yankees’ loss on Wednesday and the Mets’ simultaneous sweep of the Reds, the Mets are a mere 1.5 games better than the Yanks. That not only reveals the two teams to be very evenly matched, but also marks only the second time in what will now be the fifteen series played between the two teams that the Mets have entered an interleague series with the Yankees with a better record than the Bombers. The previous occasion was in July of 2000, when the Mets were 47-35 to the Yankees’ 42-37 entering the second intracity series of the year. That turned out to be a memorable one, both for the unusual home/away double header that saw the two teams play in both stadiums on a single day, and for Roger Clemens’ now infamous beaning of Mike Piazza. The Yankees won 3 of 4 games in that series and, despite finishing the season with a worse record than the Mets for what remains the only time since 1991, would eventually defeat them in five games in that year’s World Series.
To me, this year is even more compelling than that 2000 match-up, because for the first time the Yankees are not the obvious favorites.
Interleague play began in 1997, when the Yankees were the defending World Champions and, in every season since, the Yankees have had more to lose than to gain from these match-ups with the Mets. As both Alex and I have written regarding the 2000 World Series, the Yankees are generally in a no-win situation when they play the Mets. If they win, they were supposed to anyway, if they lose, well, we Yankee fans will never hear the end of it. Fortunately, the Yankees won the season series in ’97, ’98 and ’01, swept it in ’03, and split it in ’99 and ’02 (with both teams taking 2 of 3 at home both years). It wasn’t until last year that the Mets finally won the season series against the Yanks, coming back after losing 2 of 3 in the Bronx to sweep the three-game series in Queens.
This year, the Yankees finally have something to prove. After opening the season 11-19, even their recent ten-game winning streak was unable to erase doubt from the minds of fans and foes alike as it came against two of the weakest teams in the American League (though note that the A’s just took 2 of 3 from the Red Sox as some of their bats—most significantly Eric Chavez and Jason Kendall—are finally starting to come alive). Meanwhile, the Mets have been inconsistent all year after opening the season 0-5 then winning their next six. Even still, for the first time since that 2000 season, the Mets appear in position to make some noise in the NL East. I, for one, picked them to win the division this year, and while the Braves have risen to the top once again and the Mets are in a Yankee-like fourth place, the Metropolitans are just 1.5 games out of first place.
As a result, it is the fourth-place Yankees, not Willie Randolph’s rejuvenated “New Mets,” who stand to gain the most from a series win this weekend. They’ve been given a bit of a brake in the pitching match-ups, with Pedro Martinez bumped to Sunday due to a cortisone injection in his hip and Victor Zambrano, who had been bumped out of the rotation by the activation of Kaz Ishii (a dubious distinction to be sure), taking his place tonight. Certainly if the two teams split the first two games, Sunday’s Martinez vs. Pavano match-up will be one the Yankees will be desperate to win for numerous reasons which I’ll surely detail should things come to that.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at the Mets team the Yankees will be facing this weekend:
New York Mets
2004 Record: 71-91 (.438)
2004 Pythagorean Record: 76-86 (.469)
Manager: Willie Randolph
General Manager: Omar Minaya
Ballpark (2004 park factors): Shea Stadium (99/99)
Who’s replacing whom?
Carlos Beltran replaces Richard Hidalgo and Shane Spencer
Doug Mientkiewicz replaces Jason Phillips
David Wright inherits Ty Wigginton’s playing time
Jose Reyes inherits Danny Garcia and Wilson Delgado’s playing time
Marlon Anderson replaces Todd Zeile
Miguel Cairo replaces Karim Garcia
Chris Woodward replaces Joe McEwing
Mike DiFelice and Ramon Castro replace Vance Wilson
Pedro Martinez replaces Al Lieter
Kris Benson takes over Matt Ginter’s starts
Kaz Ishii tries to keep Jae Weong Seo in the minors
Dae-Sung Koo replaces Mike Stanton
Roberto Hernandez replaces Ricky Bottalico
Manny Aybar replaces John Franco
Heath Bell and Mike DeJean take over innings from Ober Moreno (minors), Dan Wheeler and David Weathers
Victor Zambrano gets the scraps of what’s left
1B – Doug Mientkiewicz
2B – Kazuo Matsui
SS – Jose Reyes
3B – David Wright
C – Mike Piazza
RF – Mike Cameron
CF – Carlos Beltran
LF – Cliff Floyd
R – Miguel Cairo (IF)
L – Eric Valent (OF)
R – Chris Woodward (IF)
L – Marlon Anderson (IF)
R – Mike DiFelice (C)
R – Pedro Martinez
L – Kazuhisa Ishii
L – Tom Glavine
R – Aaron Heilman
R – Kris Benson
R – Braden Looper
R – Roberto Hernandez
R – Heath Bell
L – Dae-Sung Koo
R – Mike DeJean
R – Manny Aybar
R – Victor Zambrano
R – Steve Trachsel (60-day)
R – Tyler Yates (60-day)
R – Bartolome Fortunato
L – Felix Heredia
R – Ramon Castro (C)
S – Jose Reyes (SS)
R – Mike Cameron (RF)
S – Carlos Beltran (CF)
L – Cliff Floyd (LF)
R – Mike Piazza (C)
L – Doug Mientkiewicz (1B)
R – David Wright
S – Kaz Matsui (2B)
Assembling a solid outfield has been something the Mets have been unable to do since their World Series year of 2000. Last year’s Floyd-Cameron-Hidalgo arrangement (GPAs of .274-.263-.249 respectively, Hidalgo’s figure as a Met only) was the first time all three starters slugged above .400 since the NL Champion trio of Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton and Derek Bell (.295-.260-.262 GPAs respectively, Bell was replaced by Timo Perez, .267, in the postseason). Since then, the Mets have run through a laundry list of bad outfielders including Roger Cedeno, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Jeromy Burnitz (post-Milwaukee edition), Alex Escobar, Darren Bragg, Tony Tarasco, Raul Gonzalez, Esix Snead, Brady Clark, Mark Little, Gary Matthews Jr., McKay Christiansen, Jeff Duncan, Prentice Redman, Matt Watson, Brian Buchanan, Super Joe McEwing, and Yankee cast-offs Shane Spencer, Karim Garcia, and Gerald Williams. They also got 48 games of some of the worst baseball Matt Lawton has played in the major leagues after which they sent him to Cleveland for the corpse of Roberto Alomar.
This year, however, they’re swimming in outfield talent. Floyd has thus far been healthy, crushing 11 homers and whistling a .298/.363/.573 (.307) tune. Beltran has thus far underperformed (.273 GPA, one for three on the bases, shaky defense), but has a tendency to start slow and should heat up. Meanwhile, rookie Victor Diaz hit .294/.423/.541 (.326) despite some shaky defense while Mike Cameron started the season on the DL, but rather than trade Cameron after activating him, the Mets sent Diaz to triple-A and Cameron has since hit a mind-blowing .386/.500/.773 (.418) over the past two weeks.
The Mets are also basking in the glow of the arrival of third-base prospect David Wright (7 homers, .298/.383/.511 – .300 GPA). Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Fourteen major league seasons behind the plate are doing their usual number on Mike Piazza, who is continuing the now five-year decline he started at age 32. Neither half of the much hyped middle infield combo of Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes is getting on base more than 29 percent of the time, nor slugging above .400, while Reyes is getting caught stealing in a full third of his attempts and both are playing dreadful defense. Finally, Doug Mientkiewicz, despite already matching his total of six homers from last year, is otherwise hitting like 2004 (.234 GPA) rather than 2003 (.289). That said, Piazza, Matsui and Reyes have all been hot the last week, though Matsui has the only homer of the bunch and the infielders have combined to walk just twice in that span.
In the rotation, Pedro Martinez has been exactly what the Mets had hoped for, going 4-1 with 10.77 K/9, a 0.73 WHIP and a .154 opponent’s batting average. Kaz Ishii has been stingy enough with his hits and homers to make his 5.4 BB/9 less of an issue than they should be. Twenty-six -year-old Aaron Heilman has been a pleasant surprise in the wake of Steve Trachsel’s back injury and Rick Peterson’s inability to deliver an improved Victor Zambrano, even if he has been somewhat inconsistent. Kris Benson seems to be rounding into shape after being disabled with a strained pectoral muscle early in the year. That just leaves Tom Glavine, who despite the occasional strong outing, is looking cooked at age 39, still 35 wins short of 300, which makes it worth mentioning that the soon-to-be 28-year-old Jae Wong Seo has looked strong in three fill-in starts. In the worst of the three, Seo allowed three solo homers, but those were the only hits he allowed in five innings of work. Meanwhile, he’s struck out 14 men in 18 innings against just three walks.
The Met bullpen has been surprisingly strong thanks largely to an amazing 1.77 ERA, 9.74 K/9 performance from Roberto Hernandez as the primary set-up man to Braden Looper (ten saves, two blown). Sophomore Heath Bell has been confirming the strength of his 2004 performance, and Japanese import Dae-Sung Koo, whom many though the Yankees were going to sign to be their LOOGY this season, has held the wrong-handed to a .182 average with just one extra base hit while averaging just two outs per appearance. Unfortunately, righties are lighting Koo up (.316 GPA) and he’s averaging more than three batters per outing due to both that and his troubling walk rate of 8 men in 12 innings pitched. Still, used correctly Koo along with Bell and Hernandez give the Mets a strong trio of short relievers to set-up Looper.
As Alex said, tonight we get Kevin Brown against the spot-starting Victor Zambrano who, you may all remember, famously lead the AL in walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen in 2003. Last year he again lead the AL in walks and was second in HBPs despite being dealt to the Mets at the trading deadline for Scott Kazmir, who outdueled his would-be teammate Pedro Martinez just two weeks after the trade. The amount of bad karma surrounding these two pitchers could reach critical mass if they both falter tonight.