Elster's World

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Baseball's Winning Formula

I was watching the Mets 2-1 defeat of the Washington Nationals and it struck me (once again) that this year’s version of the Mets just feels different. There is just something about this team that makes it different than some of the disasters of years past. What is that extra something? Let’s break it down:

- Chemistry. It is impossible to discount the importance of team chemistry to building championship teams in any sport. With rare exceptions (the Kobe/Shaq Lakers and any Yankees team from the last decade), successful teams have great chemistry. The Red Sox “idiots” certainly had it, as did the Patriot teams (running out of the tunnel as one team at the Super Bowl in 2001). And this Mets team has it too. They are cheering for one another. They have intricate seven-step handshakes after homeruns. They a lot. I eve saw Kaz Matsui smile the other night with Jose Reyes. And that dude hasn’t broken a smile in two plus seasons in America. When you genuinely like the guys in the clubhouse, it affects how you play as a team. And when you play as a team, it translates into victories.

- Leadership. You cannot discount the importance of team leaders. When the Mets signed Julio Franco to a 2 year deal despite the fact that he was FORTY-SEVEN(!!!) years old, people scoffed at General Manager Omar Minaya. But the Franco pickup has been nothing short of brilliant. Wouldn’t every team in the league want someone on the bench who ostensible is another coach, only this coach can also pinch hit and steal a base or two? Isn’t that what Franco is? Not only has he won games with his bat, he beautifully diffused what could have been an ugly situation when Carlos Beltran refused to come out for a curtain call after previously getting booed by fans earlier in the season, but watching him interact and teach young kids like Reyes has been great to see. These kinds of “little things” simply cannot be overlooked.

- The difference that a solid bullpen makes. When a manager knows he can give the ball to his bullpen and not have to worry about an implosion, it makes everything easier. It has a domino effect: There’s no need to keep a clearly tiring starter in too long. There’s no need to over-rely on one set up guy (the Mets can go with either Aaron Heilman or Duaner Sanchez and his funky glasses). And, most importantly, when you can give the rock to Billy Wagner and his sub-1 ERA, you know that the game is pretty much over. What a pleasure as a fan it is to know that if the Mets are up in the last inning, you can breath a sigh of relief. While for the most part Armando Benitez was a pretty good closer, you knew that in the heat of a big game, he was going to fall apart like a 1975 Ford Pinto. It was a given. The bigger the spotlight, the fatter the grooved fastball would be. But with Wagner it’s different. The other night nursing a one run lead against the Braves, Chipper Jones led off the ninth inning with a playable grounder to David Wright that was booted for a cheap base hit (should have been Wright’s sixth error of the young season). In years past that would have been it. Braden Looper and his insane grin would have given up a mammoth 2-run homer to Andruw Jones on the next pitch and it’s game over. Instead, Wagner shut the door, preserving the win and a series victory in Atlanta.

- A thumper in the middle. The last time the Mets had real thunder batting fourth (a healthy Mike Piazza), they went on to play in the World Series. Since then, they have had pretenders batting fourth (an unhealthy Piazza, Cliff Floyd). This year, the Mets acquired Carlos Delgado, a true clean up hitter, and he has not disappointed. Last night, he hit his tenth home run of the season, tying the score against the Nats in a game the Mets need to be winning. I still say that with a healthy and productive Carlos Beltran, the Mets have the scariest 3-7 lineup in the league with Beltran, Delgado, Wright, Floyd and Xavier Nady. Thunder like that means runs. Runs plus pitching equal wins.

Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball and you hit the ball. Those are the tangible elements. All teams can execute the tangible elements (to varying degrees of success). The teams with the intangibles are the ones who make the playoffs.

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