It was not supposed to be this way. The New York Mets had addressed their biggest need in the off-season by re-tooling their bullpen with the additions of Francisco Rodriquez and JJ Putz. They had a core coming back that included David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and Johan Santana. They also were expecting the continued development of youngsters like Mike Pelfrey and Daniel Murphy coupled with the fact that a trimmed down Luis Castillo looked great both at the plate and on the field.
But several things went wrong from the start as the team convened in Port St Lucie in mid-February. First of all, they sent a small city of Mets to the WBC limiting the time Jerry Manuel and his coaching staff had to instill fundamentals during the spring. To have players perform on a stage like the WBC so early in the year would prove to be bad news for the Mets when you consider--David Wright, Oliver Perez, JJ Putz, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran all spent time on the disabled list during the season. And the common thread was they all participated in the WBC--Coincidence? Maybe but I think playing those games curtailed the normal conditioning schedule that most players employ in spring training.
The Mets were also planning the unveiling of their new digs-CitiField--but with that came some issues. The Bernie Madoff scandal had many experts wondering whether the team would have budgetary concerns going into the season and there was public pressure exerted on the team in wake of the Citicorp bail out money. Many people questioned how a company getting bail out money could be allowed to allocate millions of dollars to a long-term deal like the naming rights of a new ballpark.
Still, the Mets broke camp with the feeling they could contend and erase the bad taste of the last 2 Septembers and so many experts felt they could challenge the Phillies for supremacy in the NL East. Even Sports Illustrated hopped on the bandwagon as they picked the team to win it all.
So, the Mets opened their 2009 season in Cincy and things could not have gone better as Johan Santana went 5.2 strong innings while the new Met bullpen threw 3.1 scoreless innings to lift their opening day record to 31-17, tops in major league history. Daniel Murphy had a big day as well hitting a homer and driving in 2 in a tightly contested 2-1 win. After winning 2 of 3 from the Reds, the Mets traveled to Florida where they would experience their first of many ugly defensive moments in 2009.
In the rubber game of the 3 game series, Johan Santana and Josh Johnson dueled in a superbly pitched game which the Mets lost because of 2 unearned runs in the second inning after Daniel Murphy botched a routine fly ball in left field. After the game, the Met ace did not pull any punches when he said, "We have to make plays like that because one game could be the difference in our season." It was the first of many defensive lapses the team would have and a glimpse into the future of the 2009 Mets.
But the Mets came home 3-3 all set to open up their new home in the first-ever regular season game at CitiField tangling with the Padres. After the 2 biggest stars in Met history, Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza threw the ceremonial first pitch, Mike Pelfrey took the mound for the Amazins. And all it took was 3 pitches for the Mets to trail as Jody Gerut hit a fastball into the right field stands and they made it 4-0 with a 3 run second inning. A David Wright home run (one of only 5 homers Wright would hit at CitiField all year)tied it but the Padres scratched out a run as the Mets were forced to watch ex-teammate Heath Bell lock down the game in the ninth.
After splitting their first 12 games, the Mets got swept by the Cardinals in Saint Louis with some poor pitching which sent them into a tailspin leaving them at 10-13 trailing the first place Marlins by 3 games as the Phillies started almost as slowly as the Mets. But just like that, the team rattled off seven wins in a row which put them in sole possession of first place on May 10 after a 8-4 win over the Pirates.
Later that month, the Mets embarked on a 3-city, 10-game road trip that would signal the beginning of the end of their season. The trip started out pretty good with 3 straight wins over the Giants but the injury bug was beginning to creep into the Mets clubhouse. Jose Reyes was experiencing discomfort in his lower leg and Carlos Delgado had a painful hip while Carlos Beltran was playing with a painful knee bone bruise. This left the Met lineup severely depleted even with Gary Sheffield picking up some of the slack and so the Mets left Frisco 21-16 but still in first place before THAT game in Los Angeles.
The date was May 18th and if one day defined the Met season it was this one as the team played perhaps their worst game in team history. I remember sitting with the great Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully who said to me, "Rich I thought we were all in a time tunnel and it was 1962." A tightly contested game went into extra innings and in the 11th, things got really bizarre. Ryan Church scored on a Angel Pagan extra base hit or at least, he thought he scored but Church missed third base and an appeal play overturned the run. Then in the bottom of the inning, Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan let a routine fly drop in because of a lack of communication and then Jeremy Reed, who was inserted at first base because of injuries, committed a throwing error, the Mets fifth miscue of the game, to cough up the contest.
So, the Mets went to Boston in search of a way to right their ship as Jerry Manuel now had to find a first basemen and a shortstop because of the injuries to Reyes and Delgado. The situation was further exacerbated because back up shortstop Alex Cora was also on the injury list and so Ramon Martinez was forced to play out of position at shortstop. Things looked bleak as the Mets pulled into Fenway but their star pitcher and their back up catcher saved the day.
Johan Santana out dueled Dice-K in the opener while the next night, Mike Pelfrey gave up only 2 runs to the high octane Red Sox before leaving the game trailing the game 2-1. But in what might have been a glimpse into the Red Sox future, Omir Santos hit a 2 run homer off Jonathon Papelbon in what was originally ruled a double but was overturned by an instant replay review. Strangely enough, JJ Putz closed the game and not K-Rod as it was revealed that the Met closer was suffering from back spasms so severe he could not even tie his own shoes.
K-Rod's condition was not serious as he was available the next day but JJ Putz clearly was pitching hurt as the velocity on his fastball was down 5-6 MPH and his elbow precluded him from throwing his splitter at all. The series in Boston energized the Mets and they followed it up with a 4 game winning streak that put them back in first place on May 29th. Unfortunately for them, it was the last time the Mets would reside in the division penthouse.
As the team entered June, they were surviving but anyone close to the club could see they were teetering on the edge while the impossible seemed to continue to haunt the team. In the first week of June while in Pittsburgh, a SNY staffer was rumored to have the Swine flu and that sent shockwaves through both the press box and the Met clubhouse. That feeling only intensified when Carlos Beltran was rendered so ill he did not leave the hotel raising speculation that the Met star centerfielder was afflicted with that particular strain of the Swine flu. It turned to be a false alarm but was he first of many "medical reports" the team issued that confused many of the Met beat reporters including myself.
June was a brutal month for the Mets on the field as well as they dropped 6 of 9 games before heading into Yankee Stadium for the first encounter with their dreaded cross-town rivals and on June 12th the team's shoddy defense showed its ugly head once again. With the game tied in the 8th inning, the Mets got a clutch David Wright RBI double off Mariano Rivera to take the lead and so K-Rod strode to the mound, to try to lock down the game.
To Castillo's credit, he answered every question after the game and was very contrite about his misplay. Still, as much as that Dodger loss defined the season, the season officially ended for the Mets on this night. They were never quite the same emotionally after it. The back story of this game included a comment the next day from Yankee reliever Brian Bruney who insisted he was elated this happened to K-Rod. It was something that would precipitate an on-field altercation between Bruney and the Met closer in which Mike Pelfrey and Derek Jeter both restrained K-Rod which precluded it from going any further than a shouting match.
By the end of the month, the Mets had fallen to 37-39 but were still only 3 games off the pace in the NL East and were looking forward to getting some players back after the All Star break. They felt even better after a Mike Pelfrey shutout in Milwaukee and a 9-8 extra inning thriller in Pittsburgh which put them a mere 1 game behind the Phils heading into a Fourth of July weekend series at Citizen Bank Park.
The Phillies dominated a depleted Met lineup minus Reyes, Delgado, and Beltran and outscored the Amazins by a combined 13-3 in a 3 game series that seemed to send the Phils on their way and at the same time, send the Mets down the chute. By the time baseball convened in Saint Louis for the All-Star game, the Mets were 6.5 games back and, despite their promise some injured players would return, many experts figured they were done.
After the break, we all found out the promise of the return of those injured Mets was greatly exaggerated as Reyes and Beltran were both still experiencing a high degree of pain and Delgado had barely begun his rehab. A 4-6 road trip to start the second half put the Mets in a deeper hole as the Phillies found their stride. The end of the month found the team 10 games back of the Phils and for all intents and purposes, they were officially done.
As things cooled down on the field, stories began brewing off the field. Largely because of a scathing article written by Daily News beat writer Adam Rubin about Tony Bernazard, the Mets launched an internal investigation on the embattled team executive. And on July 27th, they concluded that the only course of action would be to terminate him. While announcing that decision to all of us at a press briefing, Omar Minaya stated that Rubin may have had ulterior motives in moving on this story. It was the most bizarre moment I experienced in a season full of bizarre moments. And the story would not die until the team issued not 1-not 2--but 3 apologies for the incident.
As the Mets entered August, there were dead in the water on the field with news that injured players Jose Reyes and JJ Putz had suffered setbacks in their rehab and it appeared highly likely that Billy Wagner would return before any of the other injured players. After a 10-19 August, the team staggered into September at 59-72 assuring them of their worst season in the Omar Minaya regime and after the Rubin incident, criticisms of the Mets general manager abounded in the media.
Injuries continued to plaque the team as Johan Santana, Oliver Perez, and Alex Cora would all require season ending surgeries while Reyes, Delgado, and Putz would never return. Carlos Beltran did come back in September and looked very good which bodes well for 2010. Ryan Church was shipped out to Atlanta in exchange for Jeff Francoeur who provided some offense and became a very stabilizing force in the Met clubhouse.
David Wright, who struggled all year in the power department despite hitting .300, got beaned by Matt Cain in an August game but did return in September. Players like Angel Pagan and Cory Sullivan got extended playing time and Daniel Murphy had a good second half which might land him the first base job in 2010.
But the 2009 season was perhaps the most disappointing in Mets history as heavy expectations were put in place for the team that had the highest payroll in the National League. In fairness to them, they had more of that payroll on the disabled list than they did on the active roster for most of the season. Still, the Mets are missing that special sauce that all teams need to win a title. Players like Santana, K-Rod, Beltran, Francoeur, and Wright seem to have it but they must find that tenacity the Phils have EVERY single day.
Jeff Wilpon promised the team would be active players in the off-season free agent market but a thin market has made that a tough task. Jason Bay and Bengie Molina remain targets for Omar Minaya but they may have to overpay if they want both of them and that may not be the wisest course of action when the 2010 Free Agent class might be considerably deeper than this year's class.
Getting healthy is the best Christmas gift the team could give their fans and all signs point to successful rehabs for Reyes, Beltran, and Santana. Oliver Perez seems to be hell bent on earning his multi-million dollar contract by rehabbing in Arizona instead of going home and that could enhance the team's chances as well.
The division has gotten better as the Braves added 2 proven relievers in Wagner and Saito while the Phils now have the sport's best pitcher in Roy Halladay. But baseball is a strange game and things change in a hurry and we have all learned that from the last few baseball seasons. There is however one thing we are all sure about--no group of people in this city will be more happy to say goodbye to 2009 and see the ball drop than the New York Mets. Because 2009 was a nightmare that refused to end and maybe turning the calendar to 2010 will be the best thing to happen to the Mets all year.