Marty Noble

Mets need infield D to mirror offensive prowess

Mets need infield D to mirror offensive prowess

NEW YORK -- The Mets are six months removed from the time when the defensive shortcomings of their middle infield were a popular topic, but essentially harmless. But what happened in Port St. Lucie, Fla., at Spring Training, did not stay there. So, after playing 147 games -- and winning 84 of them -- and moving so close to a first-place finish that their magic number and Gary Carter's uniform number are one in the same (8), the Mets are still in the same fix. Their defensive alignment and their batting order are at odds.

To achieve their most reliable inner defense, they must sacrifice a big chunk of offense. To send their most potent lineup into battle, they must compromise their defense in a perilous way.

It is remarkable that, at this point -- after months of ups and downs and ups, tears, innings limits, canaries, spinal stenosis and Yoenis Cespedes -- that the issue remains unresolved. Nearly so remarkable is that Game 147, which came to be known Friday night as Mets 5, Yankees 1, underscored the issue and seemingly brought the Mets no closer to a resolution.

The outcome of Game 1 of this intriguing, intracity, Interleague interlude was determined by the Mets' ability to play the Yankees' game better than the Yankees played it. Consider this: The Mets hit three home runs -- the first by Lucas Duda in the second inning; the second by Daniel Murphy in the sixth; and the third by pinch-hitter Juan Uribe, with a runner on base, in the seventh. Moreover, the Mets' bullpen performed well.

The Yankees' run, scored in the first inning against Steven Matz, was the result of a leadoff walk, a well-placed single and a sacrifice fly. That's how the Mets did things in 2015 BC (Before Cespedes). And the Yankees' bullpen, for one night at least, had the characteristics of the bullpen that cost the Mets a postseason appearance in 2007.

The Mets scored twice in six innings against Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees' primary weapon in a lineup that excluded Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, and three times in 1 1/3 innings against Tanaka's successors, Chasen Shreve and Branden Pinder.

Hardly obscured by those developments were misplays at shortstop by Wilmer Flores in the sixth inning, when the score was tied at 1 and after the Yankees had put their leadoff batter, No. 4 hitter Chris Young, on first base. Greg Bird hit a ball with double-play intentions to the right side. Murphy handled in cleanly and his toss to Flores was true.

Also true and abundantly clear was that Flores still lacks reliability as a shortstop. His throw to first was high and well off the bag. Equipped with Kareem's wingspan and Serena's racquet, Duda would have been challenged to reach that throw.

After an infield out moved Bird to second, Didi Gregorius hit a routine ground ball almost directly to Flores. After not charging the ball, Flores inexplicably took his time releasing his accurate throw. Gregorius was safe.

Mistakes of that nature often prove lethal in postseason games, when the margin for error is so thin that it has no other side. They can't happen. They don't happen with teams of legitimate postseason caliber. They might not happen so frequently with Ruben Tejada playing short.

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Hours before the game, Mets manager Terry Collins had spoken of what his eyes will follow in the final days of the regular season. One of his targets will be how his guys deal with the anxiety and intensity that comes with Games 163 and beyond. The manager stopped short of saying that he was holding auditions for postseason play, but he made it quite clear that how players respond to the pressurized atmosphere of these Subway Series games will be factored into his thinking when he creates an October lineup.

Collins said that he saw little that suggested Flores had been affected the importance of the game and the uniforms of the opponent. Some people saw more. Instead, he noted that Flores regularly takes too many steps between fielding a ground ball and making his throw.

"We've been working with him the whole year," Collins said. 

And 147 games into it, Flores still is too-often guilty of baseball traveling. So what is it that can be done at this juncture?

Collins never denies that Flores is a better second baseman than Murphy, and that he's more comfortable at second than at short. And it goes without Collins saying it that Murphy is as critical to the batting order as his defense is dangerous to the Mets' well-being.

With the many machinations at the non-waiver Trade Deadline that made the Mets a vastly improved team, nothing was done to fix what was broke. So, when the team reaches the playoffs, Collins will be forced to manage with his fingers crossed -- the signal for the Mets pitchers to pump out the strikeouts and rely less on defense.

But strikeouts demand more pitches, and the Mets are pitch-count fanatics, and Scott Boras said, and...

The Mets also are the first-place team in the National League East, with a chance of catching the Dodgers for the fourth-best record in the league. With 15 games to go and a magic number of 8, Collins is confident that, "It'll all work out." And he's been right more times than he's been wrong.

Marty Noble is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.