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Playing With Fire

Sure, it was crushing.

But this game, unfortunately, was lost on Saturday night.

Sure, one might say that the Mets squandered the lead twice in this game – and that it's hard to lambaste the team when the starting pitcher went fewer than five innings because of an injury – but this one was really over Saturday night.

You might remember Saturday night's - well, maybe Sunday morning's - Mets game, a 14-inning thriller chock full of comebacks, contributions from journeymen, and guys on base (even if the Mets couldn't drive them in.) They lost, 10-8, to the Cardinals, when a dog-tired Aaron Heilman served up a two-run shot in the top of the 14th to Albert Pujols. He's good.

That game, in which the starter, Brandon Knight, only went five innings, really set the tone for tonight's matchup. For, you see, that game taxed the Mets' most effective reliever of late, oddly enough Aaron Heilman (in fact, this space hammered him for an almost identical incident last year).

Heilman, with Duaner Sanchez's arm acting like it's in a Miami cab, Pedro Feliciano turning into a rancid pumpkin (in July, batters have been hitting .409 against him, and he's already served up more homers this year than he has in either of the past two), and Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis only ROOGY and LOOGY at their bests, and Carlos Muniz and Willie Collazo being Carlos Muniz and Willie Collazo is now this pen's non-Wagner ace, or N.W.A. (I am sure I am the only one who finds this joke funny.)

Heilman, though, was treated on Saturday like Darren Oliver in 2006, or Aaron Sele of 2007 - he was the LONG MAN. And as the LONG MAN, one takes a pounding, knowing that he will not be called upon to pitch night after night. This individual may even have more than a week between appearances - which is not a bad thing, given that the infrequency of work for a long man means that starters are going deep into ballgames and that the Mets are taking care of things in regulation.

It's not hard to notice, though, that this bullpen, under Jerry Manuel, has contained no such figure. There are two situational pitchers, a closer with an iffy shoulder who occasionally has trouble controlling his slider and his mouth, a righty who spent more than a year out of baseball and is trying to find his gas, a lefty who appears to have hit some sort of wall after two years of nonstop contributions, and the warm body who knows the MSY (N'Awlins Airport) to LGA flight quite well. There is no once-great (or, well, for Sele and Oliver, once-average) starter who occasionally will be asked to make a pseudo-start if the game goes into extras or a starter can't give the team much.

Let me reiterate: this team has no long reliever.

Now, I titled this missive "Playing With Fire" because I do not believe this has to be the case. Jerry Manuel could, quite easily, designate Carlos Muniz his long man. Muniz would not make brief appearances early in ballgames, as he has been doing of late, only to give back leads. I know it hurts, Carlos, but it's something vaguely resembling the truth.

But would you believe me if I told you that Muniz, who has allegedly been the long man this season, has made no appearances of more than two innings? Not one.

Jorge Sosa, who was supposed to fill that role - before being released, made only one such appearance, in the second game of the season! Tony Armas, who might have been that player, made two appearances of less than two innings before being placed on the DL. Claudio Vargas, who was something of a long man, made two appearances of more than two innings - including one of great success after Ollie Perez's meltdown in San Fran. He, along with Nelson Figueroa - another potential longman, currently toils at AAA. Maybe Willie Collazo, currently on the roster due to Pedro Martinez's bereavement leave, could even be a long man.

Although not one of these men would likely contribute in the way that Oliver did while filling that role in 2006, any one of them would be an upgrade over "Oh, shit - this game's going into extras. We've used everyone but this guy, because we were trying to rest him after working plenty on consecutive days. Well, what choice do we have? Let's throw him out there!"

Hell, maybe the Mets could even trade for Manny or Teixeira - I hear they're available - and make one of them the long man. Even if they couldn't pitch well, it would still be nice to designate someone in that role.

Look at the number of relievers the Mets have used in their recent contests excluding Santana's (ill-advised) complete game:

7/22: 4
7/23: 3
7/24: 2
7/25: 4
7/26: 7
7/28: 5

Keeping in mind that there are only seven relievers on a team, how is this kind of usage pattern sustainable? That question becomes even tougher in road games, when a manager will not use his closer without a lead.

Manuel is more aggressive than Randolph; we knew that when he was coming in. But his aggression with the bullpen cost the Mets this game – if one only makes the conservative assumption that a well-rested Aaron Heilman would have been better than Muniz, Smith, Schoeneweis and Co.

Recall this game, last year. The Mets still had Billy Wagner ready to go to slam the door in the 17th! Against the Cardinals on Saturday, Oliver Perez was warming up in the 14th.

Certainly, the Mets' bullpen is going through tough times right now. Smith is hitting a wall, perhaps, as is Sanchez, and Feliciano hasn't been able to get anyone out for over a month. Carlos Muniz is not a capable major league pitcher, and Billy Wagner won't be pitching eighth innings because no one else can.

The problem is not that starters aren't going deep into games (ARGH, THESE BABIES WITH THEIR PITCH COUNTS! SATCHEL PAIGE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HIS OWN BIRTHDATE! MORDECAI BROWN HAD THREE FINGERS! OLD HOSS RADBOURN THREW 678 INNINGS IN A SEASON!), but that the bullpen isn't getting anyone out (and is giving up plenty of runs), and Manuel is managing aggressively to keep the Mets in these games.

Problem is, managing aggressively means you sometimes have to pitch Aaron Heilman until his arm falls off, even though you know it will hurt the team.

Managing while paying due attention to the bullpen wouldn't be all that difficult, though - it means getting lots of innings out of Carlos Muniz (or whoever the long man will be) and perhaps in the process conceding a less important game and saving the bullpen for the next contest, or, if the game is still definitely within reach, charging ahead with all hands on deck.

But the Mets can't have it both ways.

ADDENDA: This is the second straight post within which I have spoken about debunking the philosophy of the Met manager. I love Jerry, just so you're sure. But I will depart from the discussion of baseball philosophy to plead for a few things:

1) Scott Schoeneweis is a situational lefty. Lefties are hitting .149 against him; righties .309. In his inning of work tonight, he faced one left-handed batter (whom he should have retired if not for David Wright's premature sprint to third), out of seven total. I know there were pinch hitters and the like, but he is not on this team to face right-handed batters (again, this speaks to the problem of a short-handed bullpen, but I'll move on.)

2) Schoeneweis is a better situational left-handed reliever than Pedro Feliciano. We knew that going into the season, provided we believed that Schoeneweis was truly injured last year and for that reason he pitched poorly. However, Pedro Feliciano was expected to do well against left-handed and right-handed batters, as he had both last year and the year before. That has not been the case. Pedro has been unable to retire righties of late - which might explain this news that the Tigers have been looking into snagging Schoeneweis. If this is the real Feliciano, then the two cannot peacefully coexist in that bullpen. There is only enough room for one situational lefty. Although your author would prefer Schoeneweis be the one to stay, his value is probably greater to interested teams.

3) Cannot the Mets acquire a reliever? Moreso than an outfield bat, a set-up man would be a welcome acquisition, it appears. While your author fondly remembers previous midseason relief acquisitions that have proved a little less than fruitful (Mel Rojas, Steve Reed - for Jason Bay, Billy Taylor - for Jason Isringhausen, Roberto Hernandez's Act II - the lacking success of which I forecasted correctly here, save for the Perez stuff), this corps simply cannot be trusted. Perhaps relief (intended, obvs.) comes from within: in the form of Jon Niese or Bobby Parnell, power arms that could be converted to bullpen help for the stretch. The Mets have Eddie Kunz, too, a former college closer ready to contribute. Maybe former Philly legend Eude Brito brings some help. But this bullpen, in its current state, ain't goin' nowhere.

4) What is up with this three catchers thing? I presume Manuel's still carrying three catchers because either Castro or Cancel is a better pinch-hitting option than Chris Aguila or Val "I'll be honest. Who is he?" Pascucci. But Castro has had four at-bats as a pinch-hitter this year. 4. Sure, he's probably been double-switched in a few times - and therefore not technically a pinch-hitter, but the fact remains that Manuel isn't using his third catcher to give Castro at-bats off the bench... he's using Castro as a third catcher (on days when he's not starting) to get Robinson Cancel at-bats! Cancel has 8 pinch-hit ABs, despite having been on the roster quite a lot less than Castro has. I'm not going to make an argument that Castro should be the everyday catcher - he's in too poor shape for it to ever happen. But, Jerry, let me plead: if the Mets are to carry three catchers (thereby hamstringing the rest of the bench), can it at least be designed to give ol' BigHead some extra at-bats, and not SlightlySmallerHead Cancel some plate appearances to write a fairytale?

5) Manny? I think Manny would be a good fit - I really do. And for the first time ever on WFAN, I even heard an intriguing potentially feasible trade proposal: Manny and Jacoby Ellsbury to the Mets for Carlos Beltran. The Mets would probably be asked for a little more in that hypothetical deal, but I digress. Its feasibility gives me pause. To get Manny, this would not be a simple trade - regardless of how much of a clubhouse cancer the slugger is, and despite the boatload of money still owed to him (including two option years he might want the new team to pick up) – the Red Sox have hopes of repeating as World Series champs and would need a player of Beltran's caliber in return. Prospects would be of no use to them. My gut would tell me that Beltran, who has a full no-trade clause, would not want to go to Boston. And if giving up Beltran seems a tough pill to swallow, imagine losing the only other comparables: Wright, or Reyes. The Mets wouldn't benefit on the field from trading either one (and it would be an off-field nightmare), and moving Beltran would be only slightly better. While this author has a sneaking suspicion that other potential tradebait (ie Fernando Martinez) is tremendously overhyped and will not be an elite major leaguer, the Red Sox should not be interested in prospects at all. So we must wait. Perhaps he comes here as a free agent this offseason, though your author would prefer another lumbering free-agent left fielder: Patrick Brian Burrell.


On the whole, though, there's a lot to like about this team. Despite two blown ones from the bullpen out of the last three, first place is still theirs - at least until tomorrow.

Tuesday night's matchup: Oliver Perez (6-6, 4.15 ERA) goes against Scott Olsen (6-5, 4.07 ERA), in the Dolphin Tank in front of a few thousand fishmongers. 7:10 p.m. is your start. If you have an unaddressed fetish for mercurial (read: immature) lefthanders, this is a must-watch game. This author hopes the two will have been in fisticuffs by the third inning.

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