LADIES & GENTLEMEN, YOUR FIRST PLACE NEW YORK METS
Why do I have to start doing this, you ask? Well, I'm not only a Mets fan, but a Jets & Rangers fan as well. That enough explanation?
My nightmare goes something like this: The Mets play out the string in September, continuing to demolish their poorer sisters with Tagg Bozied playing first, Oliver Perez tossing the Met's first no-hitter (hat tip to Toasty Joe there), Julio Franco becoming the oldest player to hit for the cycle and ground into 2 double plays in the same extra-inning game, all that fun stuff. And they win 105 games, run away with the NL East by 22 1/2, monopolize the post-season awards, and then lose in three straight to whichever 82-80 team managed to get hot for the last 4 games of the season.
And it's keeping me up nights, I tell you! As any Met fan worth his historical salt knows, our boys pulled that same shit on the juggernaut known as the '73 Reds. An historically powerful team, coming off two World Series appearences in 3 years, just two seasons away from back-to-back titles that put them in the pantheon. Bench, Morgan, Rose, Perez. And the Mets, off the strength of a late season hot streak, carried their pathetic 82-79 record into Riverfront and knocked the Reds out of the post-season.
But is this typical? Expected? Normal? Well, I decided to find out. Sort of. I looked at the post-season for every year since baseball went to the current 3 division/4 teams per league playoff format. I looked for all instances when the wild card team faced the team with the league's best record. This, as you'd expect, happens almost every year, the only exceptions being those seasons when the best record & the wild card come from the same division (in other words, if the Phils earn the WC, they can't face the Mets in the first round). And finally, I isolated those years when the WC team defeated the team with the best record, so I could see the probabilities, as well as identify any patterns such as an especially hot (or cold) team coming in, or overly unrepresentative records versus run differential.
So how many times has the wild card beaten the team with the best record since 1995? 4 times. The '96 Orioles, the '02 Angels, their World Series opponents the '02 Giants, and . . . as you all know, the '00 Mets. Let's look closer, shall we?
1996 Orioles: As we'll see, this is actually the only situation that truly meets my Fear Scenario, where a wild card squad beats a significantly superior foe. Davey's O's finished the year at 88-74, well behind the Yanks. Their pythagorean record? An even more unimpressive 85-77. Even with the '96 AL's league-wide ERA of nearly 5.00, the Orioles runs-allowed figure of 903 is jaw-droppingly bad. That said, the pitchers who actually compiled that gawdy number read like an impressive staff: Mussina, David Wells, Scott Erickson, Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell, Arthur Rhodes, Randy Myers. What do those guys have in common, other than the fact that they all seemed to pitch in New York? Playoff experience, and playoff success. Lots of it, in fact. Just thumbnailing it, it looks as if only Rhodes and Mussina have ringless fingers from that bunch.
Anyway, they met the Indians in the playoffs, and knocked them out 3-1. The Indians, the team that went 99-62, with a 96-65 pythagorean record, finishing 14 1/2 games ahead of the White Sox. The team that went to the Series the year before, and went again the next year. With Manny, and Thome, and Belle, and Vizquel, and Lofton. But, despite a superior ERA, also a team with a patched-together staff of over-the-hillers like Herschiser, Dennis Martinez & Jack McDowell, plus journeymen like Nagy, Ogea, Assenmacher, Shuey, & Plunk.
And, unsurprisingly, the O's scored 25 runs in 4 games. Next stop, Jeffrey Meier & the Bronx. (Literally, look what's next . . .)
2002 Angels: Flatly stated, they were the best team in the majors in '02, and their title was anything but a fluke. So beating the Yanks is not really a shocker, even though both teams streaked into the playoffs off excellent Septembers. The Angels finished the year in second behind the A's (owners of that ridiculous 20 game win streak), but with a 99-63 record, and the major leagues' best pythagorean record, at 101-61. While the Yanks were nothing to sneeze at with a 103-58 record (and 99-62 pythag), the Angels had the better pitching, yielding 53 fewer runs, off the strength of their deep & talented bullpen: Percival, Weber, K-Rod, & Donnelly. As I remember, after game one the Angel's bulpen was lights-out, and Yankee pitching got rocked (with Wells taking the worst of the beatings) to the tune of 31 runs in 4 games. Ouch.
Unless, like me, you're a Yankee-hater and it's not "ouch," but "yee-haw!"
2002 Giants: Different league, same story. The 95-66 Giants faced off against the 101-59 Braves (the other ML team I loath; ohhh, it was a good October despite my own team's pathetic record). But two things told a different story. First, the great team in question was the Braves, well in the midst of their historic playoff woes. Second, that ancient Greek mathematician. The Giants had the better pythagorean record, 98-63 vs the Braves' 96-64. Not a significant gap, but clearly we didn't have the type of mismatch the Mets'll be facing in round one.
2000 Mets: Not much to review here, I suppose. The Giants ran away the NL West that year, winning the division by 11 games, on the strength of an NL best 97-65 record. They were legit, too, with an identical pythagorean record. The Mets, you'll recall, cruised into the playoffs, locked into second place in the division and holding a huge WC lead for most of the stretch run that year. Their pythagorean record was an unimpressive 88-74, even though they won 94 games.
And we all know what happened. Bobby Jones pitched the greatest game of his life, Edgardo Alfonzo hit everything thrown to him (including 110 MPH fastballs from Robb Nen), Benny Agbayani & Timo Perez forgot they sucked, Shawn Estes forgot how to run the bases (and then got hurt), and John Franco donated his wife to the home plate umpire before game 2 in PacBell. This isn't quite '96 AL or '73 NL, but the Mets weren't as good as the Giants. Not even close.
But, again, the pitching. The Giants rotation of Estes, Ortiz, Livan & Reuter was bad. No other way around it. While Jones, Hampton, Leiter & Reed won't earn its own wing in Cooperstown, they were better than the stiffs the Giants threw out there. And, the Met bullpen in '99 & '00 was both deep and talented. Wendell, Cook & Franco as set-up man was very strong. Armando blew game two, but Nen blew game three at Shea. And the Mets won their blown game, the Giants lost, partly due to bullpen depth.
Whew! So what does this all mean? As usual, I have no freakin idea. But I have a few thoughts. The teams that lost to far worse opponents in the opening round seem to have had poor or shaky pitching. The real weakness on the Mets staff (the staff that leads the NL in ERA, by the way) is starter depth, which matters less in the post-season than it does in the regular season. If Pedro & Glavine are ok, the depth of the Met bullpen should carry them to the LCS against whatever team they face.
Because the Mets can hit a little too.
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A few very brief Random Thoughts from last night's game, and then I'll leave you for the day:
1. The Bulging-Eyed Fish Known as The Kazzer: He stole as many bases in the first 3 innings of last night's game (2), as he stole in 38 games for the Mets this year.
2. Jose Reyes: His slugging percentage (.494) is only 24 points lower than Wright's.
3. Endy Chavez!
Just because. And finally . . .
4. Los Dos Carlos: Señor Delgado is hitting 267/364/558. Pretty good, huh? In the same number of at-bats (439), Señor Beltran has 6 fewer singles & 1 fewer triple (!), but . . . 10 more doubles, 6 more homers, 10 more walks, 15 more RBIs, and 30 additional runs scored! The Beltranator has been that much better than pretty good.
So either Phat Albert starts catching up with Big Ryan in homers, or his team better start winning some more. Otherwise, I think a pretty piece of hardware may be making its first-ever appearence in Queens this November. Just after an even more impressive piece makes its third-ever appearence a few weeks earlier.