The Mets have the best record in the National League, 3.5 games better than the Cardinals, lead their division by 11 games over the Phillies, and are two games better than the crosstown Yankees. Of course the Metropolitans play in a weaker league and a far weaker division than the Bombers. Still, when these two teams faced off in Shea Stadium in late May, they played a trio of one-run games and the Mets took the series two games to one having outscored the Yankees by a single run. It was every bit as close as that sounds, with the first two games being decided in the victor’s final at-bat and the third ending with the tying run on base.
At the time, the Yankees were at their most banged up, with Jorge Posada and Kyle Farnsworth unable to participate thus reducing the available roster to 23 men. Since then both teams have jettisoned the dead weight from their rosters (though Robinson Cano’s injury has reinstated some to the Yankees’), the Yankees releasing Scott Erickson and designating Aaron Small for assignment, the Mets designating Jose Lima, trading Jeremi Gonzalez, Kaz Matsui and Jorge Julio, and, for good measure, releasing Bartolome Fortunato, the other pitcher obtained in the Kazmir trade who, like Victor Zambrano, had been placed on the 60-day DL following Tommy John surgery.
As a result, the Mets that the Yankees will face this weekend, despite their just-concluded sweep at the hands of the streaking Red Sox, are a better team than the one the Yankees saw in May. The Mets have the second best offense in the National League, led by old Yankee-killer Carlos Delgado, 23-year-old David Wright, who is one big postseason away from rivaling Derek Jeter as the city’s biggest sports star, Carlos Beltran, who is serving up crow to his doubters daily by having the best year of his career, and Jose Reyes, who’s finally drawing walks thus becoming a weapon rather than a liability in the lead-off spot. To that tremendous core, they’ve added Jose Valentin at second base, slugging .529 in place of Kaz Matsui’s .200/.235/.269 performance, pushing Xavier Nady’s .497 slugging all the way down to the seventh spot in the order.
The Mets also have the second stingiest pitching staff in the NL, trailing only the Petco-assisted Padres. Tom Glavine, experiencing a Mussina-like resurgence, and Pedro Martinez give them a pair of Hall-of-Fame aces in the front of their rotation, both of which the Yankees will be fortunate to miss this weekend. Meanwhile the Mets bullpen has been the best in baseball, posting a staggering 3.19 ERA with only frustrated starter Aaron Heilman currently sporting an ERA above 2.80. Yes, even Darren Oliver has pitched well this year, posting a 1.02 WHIP and a 2.45 ERA as the long man in the pen.
Incidentally, I find Heilman’s to be an interesting case. Originally ticketed to be the fifth starter, he was passed over for the job by Willie Randolph in favor of rookie Brian Bannister despite a 1.59 spring ERA. As the primary set-up man in the bullpen He posted a 1.42 ERA through May 22, during which span he was twice passed over for openings in the rotation when injuries to Bannister and Victor Zambrano lead to the desperation employment of Jeremi Gonzalez and Jose Lima because Randolph claimed that Heilman had become too valuable in his role to move out of the pen. The Mets finally came to their senses, releasing Lima on May 20, but instead of relenting and moving Heilman to the rotation, where he’d both be most valuable and most happy, they reached down to double-A to promote Alay Soler. Since then, Heilman has posted an 8.66 ERA.
Tonight the Yankees send Mike Mussina, who won a tense duel against Dontrelle Willis his last time out, to the mound to face old Yankee warhorse Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. El Duque, who last (and first) faced the Yankees as a member of the eventual World Champion White Sox last year was traded to Arizona this winter in a package for another ex-Yankee Javier Vazquez only to return to New York just days after the last meeting between these two teams in exchange for misbegotten Kris Benson trade booty Jorge Julio. Since then he’s made six starts for the Metropolitans, the best being a three-hit complete game against his ex-teammates in Phoenix and the worst being his last, when he was sent packing after surrendering six runs while getting just five outs in Toronto. Sounds about right from the fiery Cuban with the Milk Dud head. His starts are like a box of chocolates. Indeed, his style is much the same, hitters never know what they’re gonna get, how hard, or from what angle. With Moose working his Bugs Bunny change and Duque always a threat to lob in an eephus, tonight’s match-up should be a lot of fun to watch, no matter who comes out on top.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the ’80s, the Mets are threatening the Yankees’ grip on the back pages (remember, the Yanks were repeat Champions entering the 2000 World Series while the Mets were considered serial chokers). These three games could go along way toward reestablishing order should the Yankees prevail in a convincing manner. On the other hand, if the Mets take the series, clinching just their second season series victory over the Yankees in the now ten-year history of interleague play (the other coming in 2004), los nuevos Mets just might wind up painting the town orange and blue all over again.