New York fans 18 times in season opener to Washington
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- Among the things that will be missed most at Citi Field this season will be pitches thrown by opposing teams. That, friends, is a can't-miss supposition about a team that can and will miss. Thirty years after Dwight Gooden hit town, the consonant Doctor K favored is bound to appear more than 1,000 times in each scorecard used to track the Mets' offensive exploits.
The subtly remodeled scoreboard beyond Citi's right-center field now provides the count as Fenway's Green Monster indicates the count -- with round lights colored green for balls and yellow for strikes. Too often when the Mets are batting, they'll turn yellow.
So it was on Monday afternoon when baseball returned to the Big Citi and the Mets engaged the Nationals that strikeouts were alarmingly prevalent. In losing as they rarely do in Opening Day games, the Mets made 30 outs in 10 innings, 18 via strikeout -- 14 swinging, four looking. The Mets' pitchers were responsible for only one of the 18.
The ninth spot in the order, assigned to Dillon Gee and others, was responsible for two K's. But to the dismay of the thousands gathered, manager Terry Collins and his tandem batting coaches, Dave Hudgens and assistant Luis Natera, the leadoff spot -- assigned to Eric Young Jr. -- totaled four, and the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 spots were guilty of one, three and two, respectively.
The top five spots struck out 11 times in 22 at-bats.
"That's a lot of strikeouts no matter how many innings you play and who's pitching," Collins said.
Eric Young had started in left field because Chris Young, more prone to striking out, had tweaked his quad over the weekend. So the K count could have been greater.
In defense of the offense, there is only this: The Nats' starter was Stephen Strasburg, who can set 'em down with the best of 'em. And he did strike out 10 in six innings. But as effective as Strasburg was, he wasn't anything close to dominating -- Collins agreed with that assessment -- and the Mets scored four times in the first two innings, during which they struck out only three times.
Mets' single-season strikeout leaders
1. David Wright
2. Tommie Agee
4. Dave Kingman
5. Todd Hundley
6. Mo Vaughn
7. Mike Cameron
8. Ike Davis
10. David Wright
11. Ike Davis
12. Tommie Agee
13. Jeromy Burnitz
14. Dave Kingman
15. Darryl Strawberry
In the subsequent eight innings, against four other pitchers, it was clear the Mets were missing something -- not only their bats, but their bullpen. Carlos Torres and Scott Rice, each in need of a strikeout to close out the Nationals' seventh, surrendered successive four-pitch walks to allow a tying run.
And so it was that these Mets, in their not-so-grand re-opening, struggled in ways that had been foreseen by so many observers -- non-contact offense, unreliable bullpen.
In a way, the glut of strikeouts was appropriate. Gooden was in the house to remind us of grander days, when the K's were on the other side of the scorebook. Moreover, the club saluted the late Ralph Kiner in warm and well-presented pregame ceremonies. Kiner had a different sort of Korner 22 years before Gooden arrived.
Appropriate or not, this was no way to begin a season. Indeed, in only one other instance has a team struck out 18 or more times in its first game. The 1996 White Sox amassed 21 but needed 12 innings to get there. The Mets were on a roll when Monday's 9-7 loss ended; five of their final six outs, against Aaron Barrett and Jerry Blevins, were strikeouts. Given two more innings, they might have reached 24.
Not that Monday's performance couldn't have been anticipated. Last season, the Mets and Braves tied for the National League lead in strikeouts, with 1,384, 183 more than the average total for the other 13 teams. Now, if 180-something sounds familiar and also alarming, understand that Curtis Granderson averaged 182 in his two most productive seasons, 2011 and '12, with the Yankees.
And Chris Young has exceeded 140 five times, once when he didn't approach 500 at-bats.
Unproductive outs are less of an issue if they coincide with power production. But no one this side of Jason Bay expects either current corner outfielder to approach his career homer high -- 43 for Granderson, 32 for Young -- while taking their home swings in the big, Big Citi. And attempts to enhance power numbers would likely produce more strikeouts.
So the Mets may be shooting for 1,500 strikeouts. As it was, the 1,384 last season established a club record. Last season marked the eighth time the Mets led the league in strikeouts. Those eight teams produced one winning season and a .422 overall winning percentage. Those teams had multiple flaws, but excessive strikeouts without much home run production was -- and still is -- a formula for trouble.
Of course, improvement can happen.
"We just have to make more contact," Collins said on Monday. "But we also know you can't change what a player is. We have to do a better job with what we have."
Collins might whiff on that one.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.