What a difference a week and a half makes. On April 19th the New York Mets came home from a miserable road trip, the only highlight of which was not blowing a 20-inning game against the St. Louis Cardinals that remained scoreless for the totality of two whole games. They were 4-8, had lost each series 2-1, Jose Reyes was back but ineffective, and the malaise that engulfed the Mets in 2009, and the later months of 2008 and 2007, seemed like it would never be lifted.
The Mets took the field against the Chicago Cubs that Monday night and everything changed. Much ballyhooed first base prospect Ike Davis got the call-up, replacing Mike Jacobs, whose position in the batting order became a black hole of outs. Davis didn’t just add timely hits and one base percentage to the Mets lineup, he provided the team with a spark of energy that hadn’t been seen since Reyes was on all cylinders. Davis has already out-produced Jacobs in hits (11-5), walks (5-3), doubles (3-1), RBI (6-2), and runs (5-1). He looks right at home in the sixth spot in the order, providing David Wright with some much needed protection. And his mammoth first-career home run reached the Shea Bridge out in right field. In a lot of ways at the plate, he’s a lefty version of Wright.
Three games into the home stand, the Mets made another much rumored change. With Reyes playing himself back into shape, Mets manager Jerry Manuel was comfortable enough to bat Reyes third in the order, moving Angel Pagan to leadoff and Wright down to fifth, where he is best suited to bat. In his six games batting third with Jason Bay as protection, Reyes has seen dramatic improvement in his average, slugging, and on-base percentage, and has already scored more runs. It won’t be a permanent move for Reyes, he is surely going to move back to leadoff when Carlos Beltran comes back, but right now it’s the best spot for him to bat for this team. Wright was struggling immensely batting third and Jeff Francoeur is too much of a free-swinger to bat him that early in the lineup. Pagan and Luis Castillo are capable of getting on base to set the table for Reyes, who has Bay, Wright, Davis and Francoeur to provide the meat of the lineup a little further down in the order.
The biggest reason the Mets had their best home stand since 1988 (aside from the sloppy and uninspired play of Cubs, Atlanta Braves, and especially the Los Angeles Dodgers led by Matt Kemp) was the pitching, both the starters and relievers. Johan Santana has been his usual self, and the Mets can only go as far as his left arm will take them.
But the Mets pitcher with the best April by far was Mike Pelfrey, who started the season with questions as to whether he can be a decent middle-of-the-rotation starter but has shown he has the stuff to be a co-ace next to Santana. Pelfrey has demonstrated command of all his pitchers and has been able to pitch around jams when he doesn’t have his best stuff. In the past Pelfrey was doomed by the big inning that would slip away from him, which he has been able to turn around early this season. His start against Atlanta was a perfect example. He clearly was not at his best on that rain-soaked night, but he was able to battle around his mistakes and keep runners from crossing the plate, earning a rain-shortened 1-0 win.
Young lefty Jonathan Niese has also come around to be the pitcher the Mets brass expected him to be. His 0-1 record isn’t impressive, but he has pitched much better than that, improving with each start. His biggest problem is his pitch count (which is a problem for the entire staff, the Mets lead the majors in walks and strikeouts) but that should work itself out as Niese improves. The home stand saw improved performances by John Maine and Ollie Perez, but they are battling it out to be the weak link in the rotation. Perez started the only loss of the home stand, and leads the Mets in walks. Maine got shellacked in his first few starts, but has been improving. He needs to find a way to stay healthy if he is going to stick around.
The Mets bullpen, often beleaguered the past few years has turned the corner to become one of their strengths early in 2010. Fernando Nieve and Pedro Feliciano have provided a great righty-lefty combo as setup men to Francisco Rodriguez, who hasn’t gotten a lot of save chances but has been lights out. But the unsung hero is 35-year-old rookie Hisanori Takahashi, a long reliever that has been effectively able to relieve Mets starts when their pitch counts get to high and keep batters off the scoreboard. He picked up two wins on the home stand, pitching three innings of out of the pen each time in relief of Maine and Perez respectively. Those performances have some questioning if he should move into the rotation, but the Mets need him to come out of the bullpen for just those types of situations. The bullpen has been an Achilles Heel for the Mets in the recent past, so it would be wise not to mess up a good thing now.
This weekend will be the big test for the Mets as they face the two-time National League champion and hated NL East rival Philadelphia Phillies in the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies have derived much pleasure from beating the Mets the past three seasons, and if the Mets are going to have any success in 2010 they will have to get through Philly. Pelfrey will face his biggest test of the season going head-to-head against Roy Halladay, who in just a month is already trying to etch his name on the NL Cy Young award. If the Mets can take two of three over the weekend, Mets fans will be in heaven. There are still five long and potentially torturous months ahead, but for now its great to see that these are not the Same Old Mets.