Amazins' rotation has been impressive, but club is too one-dimensional
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- Sometimes necessity fathers tradition. It did in the 1960s and into the '70s in the Mets' Shea Stadium clubhouse. A kitchen table was positioned in the middle of the room so that players might have a pregame place to play cards and eventually cribbage, open their fan mail, accommodate the many requests for autographs and/or drop their heads to the tabletop to nap.
Eventually the table served a postgame purpose as well. The player who was unofficially recognized by reporters as the determining factor, the difference-maker in the game, would take a seat at the table, and there he would answer questions about his performance, the double play in the seventh, his son's birthday, his choice of deodorant and anything else the assembled horde deemed relevant.
A seat at the table wasn't so much of an honor for the player as it was a conduit for the media. Reporters were able to gather around the table and move close enough to hear a player's responses. Eventually, table time morphed into a rite of passage for players. Craig Swan said he felt he had "made it" after his first table talk.
Occasionally, Bud Harrelson, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee or another position player would be bear witness at the table. But starting pitchers were at the table so often, they earned squatters' rights. On those Mets teams from 1967-80, the starters almost always were the focal points in victory or defeat. When the Mets won, the starting pitcher routinely was recognized as the difference maker; ditto when they lost. In most games, what the position players did or didn't do essentially made no difference. Offensive production was nothing more than a constant -- a modest constant at that.
So it was Tom Seaver at the table one night, Jerry Koosman the next, and, depending on the year, some three-man combination of Swan, Jon Matlack, Gary Gentry, Pat Zachry, Jim McAndrew, Ray Sadecki, Don Cardwell, Dick Selma, George Stone and Nino Espinosa took their seats at the table after games. On the rare day when the offense was the determining factor, Rusty Staub, John Stearns or Willie Montanez would sneak in and say a few words.
The guys who swung the bats were mostly sidebar material.
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The Mets split a four-game series with the superior Cardinals this week, winning 2-1 in 14 innings Monday night and 5-0 on Thursday afternoon. In between were two lopsided losses. And who were the difference makers? Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom in the victories, and Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon, respectively, in the 10-2 and 9-0 losses. And in the game that preceded the Cardinals' visit, Noah Syndergaard was the primary witness. Had the table tradition continued, the five members of the rotation -- and no one else -- would have provided testimony at the Mets' Mesa.
Harvey, like Seaver, is the story almost every time he pitches, and deGrom is almost at that point.
Because he finally walked his second batter and endured his comeuppance, Colon was the story Wednesday night. What else was there to write about a dreadful game without a trace of tension? The same with Niese on Tuesday night. Syndergaard would have been the story, win or lose, because of his newness. But he appears to be the sort of pitcher who will command headlines, and because "pitching is 80 percent" of the game for all teams.
But other and better teams -- the Cardinals, Astros, Tigers, Dodgers -- have offenses that are difference-makers.
Other Mets teams have had quality pitching -- the teams of the mid- to late 1980s, the teams of 1999 and 2000, and those of '05-08, but those teams had formidable batting orders too. They could win 8-6, 9-4 and 7-2 and lose 7-5 and 9-6. In those seasons, the difference-makers varied -- Keith Hernandez, Mike Piazza, Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Pedro Martinez, David Wright, Al Leiter, Ryan Church, John Franco, Benny Agbayani. Those Mets weren't one dimensional.
The current crew is. Aside from the glory days of the 11-game winning streak and the 14-1 flogging of the Brewers on Saturday, these Mets often perform as one-trick ponies. They win primarily because their starter has been stingy and their center fielder brilliant; they lose because the starter -- and/or the middle-infield defense -- has been generous to a fault.
That one-means-to-an-end manner isn't recommended. It usually leads to uneven results -- more losses than victories -- in most cases. The Seaver-Koosman-Matlack combination was extraordinary, a Murderer's Ro-tation. Each member could have been a No. 1 starter with a different team. Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda and David Cone had great depth and were at least comparable.
Harvey, deGrom, Niese, Syndergaard and (next year?) Zack Wheeler haven't reached the level of those rotations. But they have the makings of a group that could also be great someday.
The rest of the team, not so much. It is a shortage of dynamic offensive players that is serving as an obstacle these days. If the Mets are to have a place at the postseason table this year or in the foreseeable future, the shortage must be addressed.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.