When I was a small child, the Mets were contenders every year. From age four through age eleven – with the slight blip of 1974 – the Mets were always in the hunt for the division, almost guaranteed to finish over .500. Everyone knew why: pitching, of course. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack at the top of the rotations, complemented at points by Nolan Ryan, Gary Gentry, George Stone, Ray Sadecki and a rookie or two here and there were the formula to keep Shea Stadium humming. But you know what? They wouldn’t have been anything without the guys behind them.
Great pitching is a marvelous thing, but great pitching ain’t great without at-least good defense. The hoary truism goes that it takes all nine guys on the field to win. Seaver, Koosman, et al all benefitted from having a Jerry Grote behind the plate, a Bud Harrelson at shortstop, a Del Unser in center field. It was a hallmark of those Mets, as clear an identity as Mr. Met or Bob Murphy. The writer Roger Angell called their defense “proud and famous.” The plays were crisp, the players nearly always in the perfect position to make the proper play. Without that staunch defense – as was the case in 1974 when injuries took their toll on both the starting staff and position players – those teams didn’t have enough offensive moxie to make up the difference. The pitching was great; the defense was crucial.
Fast forward to modern times. Everybody knows why the Mets are and have been sub-.500: the bullpen. But I gotta tell ya, this ‘pen and this starting staff would look a helluva lot better if they had a few more people who could actually, y’know, catch the ball. Let’s take a recent case-in-point. Tuesday night, the Mets scratched out a run in the second on nothing more than a base hit and a double off Tim Lincecum. Starting off the bottom half, Jordany Valdespin misjudged a medium fly and it fell in front of him. Justin Turner – giving David Wright a breather at third base – was playing far in for a bunt and had Marco Scutaro whistle a double between him and the bag. Matt Harvey then walked Brandon Belt. Justin Christian dribbled a spinner in front of the mound and Harvey was able to get the force at home. Brandon Crawford followed with a two-hopper to second. Daniel Murphy gave Ruben Tejada a perfect feed. Tejada got the force, but rushed the throw. The ball sailed into A T & T Park’s ample foul ground and two runs scored. The Giants tacked on a couple more and the Mets had a 4-1 loss, Harvey’s first in the majors. Obviously, it never should have gotten that far: Valdespin makes a clean catch, Turner is playing normal position and Christian’s come-backer is the final out, with a man stranded at first.
This was not the first time, either. I can think of two games in Washington when very late leads were done in by ham-fisted defense. Yes, the bullpen needs to take its share of the lumps, but they wouldn’t be nearly as lumpy if they had some competent glove work behind them. On the “Top Ten” list of things that the Mets have looked for the last few years, defense has seemingly been number eleven. Clearly, it is time to put the ability to field one’s position on one of the front burners.
If for nothing else, for the sake of all our digestive systems.