Good luck outguessing baseball: After kicking the ball around and losing two out of three to the Nats and then getting kicked around by the Yankees for a horrifying sweep, the Mets absolutely flattened the Tampa Bay Rays for a sweep of their own, turning an imminently horrific 1-5 road trip into a respectable 4-5 affair. They did it with booming hitting, mostly OK defense, mostly good bullpen work, a ridiculously dominant performance by R.A. Dickey, bad defense for the other guys and pretty much every advantage one can grab in winning a baseball game. The Rays walked away from Ben Zobrist’s final called strike three looking shellshocked, and with reason.
Johan Santana still doesn’t look good — he was missing his spots, and only some very effective pitching from Jon Rauch prevented Johan’s final line from looking a lot like it did following that mess in the Bronx. The narrative that we sold Johan’s shoulder for a no-hitter will continue to be explored unless or until Johan returns to his generally effective pitching of April and May; I’m certain it will rear its head in these parts again. For now, though, it’s something worthy of idle wondering rather than active worrying.
If your taste runs to active worrying (and you’re a Mets fan, so you’re at least acquainted), you’ll want to consider the defense, again. Ike Davis botched a pickoff of B.J. Upton, leading to a run. Then, with a 9-5 lead in the ninth and two outs to go, Omar Quintanilla inexplicably tried to race Desmond Jennings to second base instead of taking the 26th out at first. Fortunately, the bats had enough juice in them to make up for all that: Kirk Nieuwenhuis went deep twice, David Wright was on base four times, Davis reached base three times and even Jason Bay, the Charlie Brown of the gang, hit one out.
The Mets may not continue their winning ways; if I had to bet I’d wager that they won’t, as I suspect their ineffective bullpen and porous defense will do them in. Which won’t necessarily make the year a failure — not if some of the young Mets make the transition from prospects to pieces, if the minor-league arms keep developing, and if the financial future remains brighter than it’s been. (And hell, even if that looks iffy, we got a no-hitter. We’ll always remember 2012 fondly for that.)
Speaking of the financial future, Bay’s recent injury makes it unlikely that he’ll reach 500 plate appearances this year, which would turn his ridiculous $17 million Omarpalooza vesting option in 2014 into a $3 million buyout. (Well, unless he collects 600 PAs in ’13.) The Mets will also almost certainly buy out Santana’s 2014 $25.5 million deal for $5.5 million. Spending $8.5 million to have two players go away (accompanied, for Johan at least, by our devout thanks) is expensive, but it beats spending $42.5 million to watch them give you what would almost certainly be a lot less value than that.
So those are reasons to be hopeful, even while we search for a shortstop and hope Rauch has more days where he nods at Twitter praise instead of retweeting venom. The season will ebb and flow, with good days and bad — that’s the game. But I can think of another bright spot here: The Mets are doing more with less, I think, because they’ve bought into Dave Hudgens’ smart, patient approach to at-bats. They work counts, spoil pitches, tire starters out, and wait to take advantage of the diminished stuff brought about by elevated pitch counts or the less-effective arms of middle relievers. They did it to Alex Cobb on Tuesday night, to David Price yesterday (not that Dickey needed much help) and then to Jeremy Hellickson today.
Take the top of the fourth, 32 pitches of torment for Hellickson. Bay led off, looked at three balls, then flied out on a 3-2 pitch. Josh Thole grounded out on a 1-0 pitch, but Quintanilla then battled Hellickson through a tough nine-pitch at-bat, including four fouls on 2-2. He reached on an infield hit, then scored on Nieuwenhuis’s homer off a 1-2 pitch. Hellickson then hit Jordany Valdespin in the foot with an 0-1 pitch. He was clearly crumbling, and Joe Maddon started stalling. Wright then worked Hellickson for eight more pitches, yet another sign that the anxious, wildly swinging Wright of previous Citi Field seasons has been banished. Wright walked, and Maddon left Hellickson in against Lucas Duda. Faced with a tired, frustrated pitcher, Duda turned the game plan on its head, sensing that Hellickson might try a get-me-over pitch that would give him a 0-1 advantage and a better chance at escape. It was the right time to be aggressive, and Duda blasted Hellickson’s first pitch off the center-field wall. It was the last pitch Hellickson would throw.
There will be good days and bad, sure. But being smart is about as close to slump-proof as one can get — and with bats in their hands, so far the Mets look pretty smart.