Francisco Rodriguez did not evoke visions of Neil Allen Saturday night. He was simply Francisco Rodriguez, the closer we hoped we’d be getting when he was signed in December 2008. Ever since trying his hardest to blow the final game in San Francisco, that’s pretty much been the K-Rod we’ve received.
The Mets’ 1-0 gem included Frankie’s seventh appearance since the afternoon Phil Cuzzi went to sleep by the bay. In that span, he’s faced 28 batters and retired 25 of them. He’s allowed no runs of his own, nor have any of the four runners he’s inherited scored.
Maybe the best 28-batter performance since Armando Gallaraga.
Johan Santana’s aborted cruise to history (yeah, I thought he’d keep the no-hitter going long enough for its demise to be crushing rather than incidental when he lost it) had grown a bit choppy by the eighth, though it wouldn’t have been my first thought to take him out with runners on first and second and one out. Aside from removing your ace pitcher, you were depriving yourself of one of your best gloves. Johan’s quick fielding — nailing Jimmy Rollins at third on Polanco’s bunt — was one of the reasons Philly’s rally was 90 feet farther from happening than it could have been. K-Rod, on the other hand, is not known for fielding his position…or being anywhere near his position after he’s pitched.
Perhaps because it worked, it goes down as the equivalent of a gutsy call by Jerry Manuel. When the manager came out to make a switch, I was thinking, “Gosh, I hope this is Manny Acosta and no one else,” since Acosta’s been pretty good and everybody else pre-ninth has been dreadful. No, instead it was Frankie, the titular main guy, coming on in the eighth of a game that would either kill our season right there or save it for more day.
Not really that gutsy in retrospect, but a good call. No screwing around with eighth-inning roulette. The only guy I trusted in that role this year was Jenrry Mejia, and that was in March, when he was being talked about in theory as an eighth-inning setup man. Nieve, Feliciano, Igarashi and Parnell all did OK for a little while before imploding. After losing three of four to the division rivals directly ahead of us, this was no time to spin the wheel again.
Thus, Johan’s beauty was passed along to K-Rod, and K-Rod did not give it harrowing makeover. The recently inserted Ike Davis took care of Mike Sweeney’s soft liner and then (following one careful walk to Jayson Werth) handled the recently recalled Ruben Tejada’s shaky toss from second of Ross Gload’s grounder. Tejada can be excused since he made three very fine plays in the course of the evening.
An uneventful ninth followed, both halves. It would be nice if the Mets could do something with a lead besides let it hang in the wind and dare it to be taken, but Saturday night we had Santana and Rodriguez, each earning his immense keep, so no sense wasting resources on premiums for insurance runs, I guess.
We had Jeff Francoeur, too, making like Rasputin and refusing to die easily as a starting player. Every time it’s mentioned that Jeff Francoeur will no longer be the everyday right fielder, Frenchy seems to respond with an important home run (three of them in the past eleven games, anyway). It’s not really pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes, but whatever it takes to get something out of Francoeur is appreciated.
Just as Jerry made what seemed like a gutsy call with Rodriguez for a decelerating Santana, Minaya (or whoever told him to do it) was right in jettisoning Alex Cora and replacing him — and essentially Luis Castillo — with Tejada. Ruben is too smooth, skilled and full of life to be held back by a technicality like doesn’t much hit yet. He’s one of those rare players to whom if I were managing I’d say, “You’re in my lineup every day, I don’t care what you do with the bat.” Easy to say after a rousing 1-0 win, but I mean it. That infield is transformed with him at second and he looks long-term like he’ll be more than a five-hour energy shot.
Fernando Martinez in for Francoeur (by way of the optioned-out Jesus Feliciano) is a move worth trying, too, if just to get an idea of where Wonderboy stands these days. How is he only 21? I’m sure I’ve been hearing about him since the days of Victor Diaz (probably because I have — he was signed at 16). Just as the Mets know what they had in Cora and are saddled with in Castillo, they’ve likely figured out Jeff Francoeur’s core competencies aren’t suddenly evolving, two opposite-field home runs this week notwithstanding.
Does inserting Tejada full-time and Martinez as at least the lefty half of a platoon imply the Mets are giving up on their chances for 2010? I don’t believe that. Castillo’s return didn’t electrify them. Francoeur’s stubborn refusal to be anything but Francoeur didn’t prevent a brownout. And Cora…great guy, I’m sure. They obviously didn’t want his option to vest and maybe it sunk in that projecting him as a future manager/coach/GM wasn’t helping anybody here win a single ballgame in the dwindling present.
It will be exciting when the Mets field a lineup that includes Thole, Davis, Tejada, Reyes, Wright, Pagan and Martinez. Seven homegrown players, all under 30, most with a significant ceiling they’ve yet to approach. It will be exciting when those games start, even if it might feel frustrating nine innings later. As beautiful as Davis has been, he’s struggled a lot in the second half. Thole is still learning (aren’t we all, I suppose, but he’s still learning while we need our team to be winning). Fernando Martinez is no polished gem, which is understandable in the abstract. Angel Pagan took until now, his eleventh professional season, to grow into a top-notch everyday hitter and outfielder. We love Angel this year. We were hiding our eyes and banging our heads into walls over him last year.
There’ll be some losses in which these kids drive us crazy from their state of unreadiness from now to the end of the season, but there’ll be some wins when they excite us no end. And it’s not like the chemistry professors Cora, Barajas and Francoeur were necessarily stirring up victories in their clubhouse laboratory, no matter what great guys I’m sure they all still are.
I’m not one for automatically dancing for joy at the sight of youngsters getting at-bats, just as I don’t immediately recoil because a veteran with some mileage showing is given another shot. Depends which youngster and which veteran and what the circumstances surrounding their activity are. But right now, with the Mets as fringe a factor in the playoff picture as they could be, it feels right to veer to the new and see where it goes.