Getting To Know Your Friendly Neighborhood Division Rivals
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As things go for the Mets, it’s unusual to be playing a must-win series in June, and far more so when it’s not them but the opposition staring at the possible end of their hopes of winning the division. This year, it’s the Philadelphia Phillies who find themselves in that unenviable position. Should they lose two games of their three-game set with the Mets this week, they’ll be 8.5 games out and one game over .500. Even if they sweep the Mets, they’ll be 3.5 games out, which is a bigger deficit than you’d have expected at this point in the season.
The reason for this isn’t hard to discern – the Mets are a much better ball club. The Phillies have outscored their opponents by six runs, the Mets by 60. The Phillies’ strengths are a strong heart of the order and a bullpen leading the league in ERA; the Mets’ top hitters are just about as good as the Phillies’, their bullpen is every bit as good, and they’re stronger in every other area of the game. In some areas, like the top of the rotation, there’s no comparison. Whatever the outcome of these games, there’s probably a better chance of the Mets running away with the division than there is of the Phillies going on a tear and seizing the lead.
Any hopes the Phillies have resides entirely in their 2-through-5 hitters: Chase Utley (.303 AVG/.375 OBA/.514 SLG), Bobby Abreu (.288/.455/.493), Pat Burrell (.259/.380/.532), and Ryan Howard (.294/.360/.614). That’s an awfully difficult group to pitch to – I’m not entirely sure I’d take Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and a healthy Gary Sheffield over these four.
Given the general ineffectiveness of Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel against left-handed hitters, and the fact that Shea Stadium is an excellent park for lefty power hitters, I’d expect them to do a lot of damage during these three games. One key might be Willie Randolph’s use of the bullpen: Ideally, you’d like to see Aaron Heilman’s lefty-paralyzing change-up against these four late in the game, rather than Duaner Sanchez’s lefty-enticing assortment of sinkers and sliders. We’ll see.
As for the rest of the Phillies’ lineup, it matches up pretty well with the Mets’, though it’s likely a bit worse. Center fielder Aaron Rowand (.290/.332/.481), whom Mets fans will recall making the play of the year on a sure double in the gap with the bases loaded and two outs (Rowand caught the ball and broke his face on the fence for what ended up being a game-saving play), is a useful but not scary hitter; shortstop Jimmy Rollins (.253/.308/.389) is a somewhat less impressive Jose Reyes; third baseman David Bell (.259/.335/.381) just can’t hit; and catcher Mike Lieberthal (.250/.284/.345) is coming off an injury and is washed up. Other than outfielder David Delucci (.254/.318/.542), there’s no bench strength, either. Mets pitchers should be able to coast through most of the lineup and focus on the big guns.
On the pitching side, the Phillies aren’t much at all, but the teams match up well in this go-round. Ace Brett Myers is going tomorrow, and you have to like the smart, hard-throwing righty over the inconsistent Hernandez. Thursday’s matchup of career no. 4 starters Cory Lidle and Steve Trachsel is reasonably even, though the Mets have generally done a better job of punishing this sort of pitcher than have the Phillies.
Tonight’s matchup is, improbably, the best of the series: Tom Glavine is a serious Cy Young candidate, while Ryan Madson was last seen pitching an awesome seven innings of scoreless relief in a 16-inning classic and taking the tough loss when Carlos Beltran hit a solo home run to end the game. Madson is the Phillies’ version of Aaron Heilman – dominant in the pen with a repertoire that makes him seem like a natural starter, but generally ineffective in the rotation. Still, if he can harness whatever it was that worked so well against the Mets last month, this could be a real pitcher’s duel.
In such a game, the Mets would have the advantage, because the Phillies’ league-leading 3.16 bullpen ERA masks the generally unimpressive nature of their relief corps, which consists of closer Tom Gordon and a bunch of unthreatening, hittable guys like Aaron Fultz and Rheal Cormier. The Phillies may have gotten slightly better performances out of their pen to this point in the season, but given as the Mets have three relievers better than Gordon, they’re much better equipped to finish out tight games and get out of middle-inning jams.
There was an expectation after Rowand’s wonderful catch that the Phillies would turn it around and start playing with the passion they’ve long lacked, inspired by their center fielder’s self-sacrificial play. That hasn’t really happened, but it’s not passion they lack, it’s talent. Had the Phillies started the season with Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, and the Mets with Gavin Floyd and Jon Lieber, it’s probable that the Mets would be the ones coming into this game desperate for a sweep. As is, I’d bet it’s going to be a long three days for the Phillies.