The New York Mets have worn the label of NL favorite nearly all season.
However, with ace Pedro Martinez unavailable for the playoffs and his scheduled Game 1 replacement, Orlando Hernandez, missing at least the first round, the Mets face serious questions as to whether they have the starting pitching to make it to the World Series for the first time in six years.
New York can erase some of those doubts with a strong performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers when the teams begin their division series on Wednesday afternoon at Shea Stadium.
With Martinez and Hernandez in a rotation that also features Tom Glavine, the Mets seemed to have enough pitching depth to get through the best-of-five NLDS without a problem.
Injuries to Martinez and Hernandez have changed all that.
Martinez, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will miss the postseason with an injury to his left calf. An MRI also revealed he needs right rotator cuff surgery that will sideline him until next June.
The Mets’ pitching woes deepened Wednesday, when they left Hernandez off the division series roster because of a torn muscle in his calf. El Duque felt discomfort in his right leg while he was jogging in the outfield Tuesday as the Mets tuned up for the best-of-five series.
The 40-year-old right-hander was pulled off the field and went for an MRI exam that revealed Hernandez sustained a Grade 2 tear in his calf.
“It’s not great news, that’s for sure,” manager Willie Randolph said. “He was very upset.”
With Glavine having pitched Saturday and slated to start Game 2, the Mets have tabbed rookie John Maine (6-5, 3.60 ERA) to take the ball Wednesday. The 25-year-old right-hander was a pleasant surprise for New York this season, helping to stabilize the rotation, but he’ll be making his first career postseason start.
The dependable Maine pitched more than five innings in 10 of his 16 starts this season, but not having Hernandez for Game 1 is a major blow to the Mets.
Hernandez, acquired from Arizona in May, is 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 19 postseason games, including 14 starts, mostly with the Yankees. He owns four World Series rings, and his teams are 12-3 in postseason series.
“I’m sure there’s all kinds of panic in New York,” Glavine said. “And maybe that’s good, because we really hadn’t done enough for the expectations to be as high as they were.
“People had us in the World Series, like we had a bye. We haven’t done it long enough. And we haven’t done it before as a team.”
Maine made his only career start against Los Angeles on Sept. 8, throwing five innings and allowing four runs—two earned—and six hits but suffering a 5-0 loss at Shea Stadium. He pitched well in his final outing of the season, throwing six innings and giving up three runs—two earned—and three hits to beat Washington 4-3 on Friday.
The Mets (97-65) might have a shaky rotation, but they possess a solid lineup that helped them win their first NL East title since 1988.
Carlos Beltran—who batted .435 with eight homers in the playoffs for Houston two years ago—had 41 homers and 116 RBIs for the Mets this season. Carlos Delgado (38 homers, 114 RBIs) and David Wright (26 homers, 116 RBIs) fill out the heart of the order.
The key to the lineup, though, may be leadoff man Jose Reyes, who blossomed in his fourth season. Reyes hit .300 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs, and led the majors with 17 triples and 64 stolen bases.
The lineup, plus a steady bullpen featuring closer Billy Wagner, helped New York make the postseason for the first time since 2000, when it lost in five games to the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Mets, who went 4-3 against Los Angeles this season, were the first team to clinch a playoff spot, ended Atlanta’s run of 14 consecutive division titles, and have home-field advantage until the World Series.
But if the starters fail to come through, New York could be looking at the same scenario that happened the last time it won a division title—the Dodgers beat the Mets 4-3 in the 1988 NLCS.
Unlike New York, which went 6-7 after clinching the division on Sept. 18, the Dodgers (88-74) were battling for a playoff spot for the last two weeks of the season.
Los Angeles won its final seven games and nine of its last 10 to finish tied with San Diego atop the NL West. The Dodgers, however, were relegated to the wild-card spot and a cross country trip to New York because they lost 13 of 18 to the Padres.
“We got ourselves into a situation where we had to play like it was a playoff atmosphere the last 30 days,” Dodgers manager Grady Little said. “That experience is helpful through the postseason. I take the fact that we’re playing well ahead of who we play.
“We’ve been a streaky club all season long. And we’re on another one of those good streaks right now. Everything’s clicking. We’re just ready to get this thing started.”
After Derek Lowe (16-8, 3.63) starts in Game 1, the Dodgers also have rotation concerns.
Lowe was the winning pitcher for Boston each time it clinched a playoff series in 2004, including an outstanding performance in Game 4 of the World Series, when he allowed three hits in seven scoreless innings against St. Louis to lead the Red Sox to their first title since 1918.
The right-hander has been superb for the Dodgers down the stretch, winning seven straight decisions and going 9-1 with a 2.69 ERA in 13 games since July 29.
Lowe beat the Mets in his first career start against them on June 6, and is 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA in six appearances against New York.
He is 2-2 with a 3.20 ERA in six playoff starts and has a 3.05 ERA in 17 postseason games.