Francisco navigates ninth to close out Mets' win

Francisco navigates ninth to close out Mets' win

Francisco navigates ninth to close out Mets' win
NEW YORK -- The game was mostly in hand by the time Frank Francisco began jogging from the bullpen toward the mound, slowing to a walk at the lip of the infield dirt. When Francisco's name rang out over Citi Field's public-address system, the few thousand fans left in attendance booed him. When he allowed a leadoff single, those jeers rained down louder.

Earlier Monday, Francisco's manager had given him a public vote of confidence as closer. But as Francisco worked in the Mets' 3-1 victory over the Brewers, setup man Jon Rauch warmed beyond the right-center-field wall. Whatever confidence Terry Collins had in his closer waned somewhat in the face of a potential loss.

But Francisco did not crack. After putting three of the first four batters he faced on base, he struck out Brooks Conrad looking on a belt-high fastball and retired pinch-hitter George Kottaras on a well-struck fly to right. Francisco did not save this game so much as he survived it, but on this night the Mets were happy enough with that.

"It was a little stressful," Collins said. "Probably a little more for him than for me."

Francisco was, in many ways, pitching for his job. Given a three-run lead heading into the ninth, the closer struggled to such an extent that his backup began warming and his manager began worrying. In the dugout, Collins privately resolved to remove Francisco for the game if he let a fourth runner on base.

It never reached that point, nor did Francisco expect it to. Give him that credit -- if nothing else, Francisco is as outwardly confident as they come.

"I care about the game, but you can't be nervous," he said. "You've got to go and trust your stuff. If you can't do that, you cannot pitch at this level."

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke offered a different perspective on Monday's game, ignoring the contributions of Francisco, ignoring his own team's late rally, ignoring Ronny Cedeno's suicide squeeze in the sixth inning and focusing instead on Miguel Batista. Pitching through a groin injury, the veteran starter blanked Milwaukee for seven innings in what was easily his best start of the season.

"You need to get it early," Roenicke said. "When you have chances early, you need to get to the starter. All of a sudden, that confidence that he has isn't there anymore, and then you have a chance to get a bunch of runs off of him."

On this night, nobody scored runs in bunches. The Mets plated theirs on Daniel Murphy's RBI single off Yovani Gallardo in the first inning, and on Cedeno's squeeze in the sixth. Calling that play from the bench only after seeing Cedeno fake a bunt attempt earlier in his at-bat, Collins reaped the benefits when his shortstop deadened the ball between the pitcher's mound and first-base line, allowing Murphy to score from third.

"The squeeze is tough," Cedeno said. "I was just trying to get my bunt down."

The Mets scored once more on an error in the eighth inning, bringing Francisco to the mound with the weight of context on his shoulders. A day earlier in Miami, he blew a two-run lead, was pulled by Collins and later ejected by an umpire on his way off the field. Three days earlier, Francisco gave up as many runs (two) as he recorded outs, blowing his second save in 10 chances.

Such was the downward trend for Francisco, who entered Monday's play having allowed at least one run in eight of his 16 outings. That he made it nine of 17 was not a popular topic of conversation in the postgame clubhouse; the Mets were more interested in Francisco's ability to bail himself out of a self-made jam.

"You guys haven't seen Frankie at his best," said Batista, who opposed Francisco regularly in the American League West earlier in his career. "I'm not worried about Frankie. I know that as soon as he gets his rhythm, you guys are going to see how he can abuse people."

The Mets hope that happens sooner rather than later, lest their most troubling trend of last season -- an inability to finish off games -- resurface regularly in 2012. The Mets signed Francisco on the hope that he could help reverse that, and yet so far, only the opposite has come to pass.

Thus, the boos, which Francisco claims he "loved."

"You know why?" he said. "Because later on, they're going to clap for me. I promise you that."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.