Unable to overcome late-inning pitching woes last season despite a productive lineup, the Mets kick off 2009 with a revamped bullpen as they open a three-game series with the Reds on Monday.
Terrible bullpen work led to New York’s second straight collapse in ’08, as the Mets lost 10 of their last 17 games to blow a 3 1/2-game lead to Philadelphia in the NL East - a year after a 5-12 finish caused their seven-game lead over the Phillies to slip away.
Reliever Scott Schoeneweis suffered the loss in the Mets’ 4-2 loss to Florida in their regular-season finale at since-demolished Shea Stadium on Sept. 28, knocking them out of playoff contention despite an 89-73 finish. In a 10-8 win over Cincinnati on July 17, Schoeneweis had the first of New York’s NL-high 16 blown saves after the All-Star break.
Schoeneweis was traded to Arizona in December as part of general manager Omar Minaya’s overhaul of the bullpen.
Closer Billy Wagner was sidelined for the final two months last season and is expected to miss all of ’09 following elbow ligament replacement surgery, so Francisco Rodriguez was signed to a $37 million, three-year contract. Rodriguez saved a major league-record 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels last season.
Minaya also traded for J.J. Putz, an All-Star closer himself in 2007 with Seattle. He’ll serve as Rodriguez’s setup man.
“The offense has never been the question. They are going to score a lot of runs. And now the pitching staff, we have to protect the lead,” Rodriguez said.
New York is counting on Rodriguez, a potent lineup and capable pitching staff to produce a successful first season at Citi Field, now standing in what once was the Shea Stadium parking lot.
The Mets start the season with a six-game road trip before playing San Diego on April 15 in their first game at the new ballpark. They’ll look to ace pitcher Johan Santana (16-7, 2.53 ERA) to help them open the year with a victory.
Santana was outstanding in his first season with New York, posting the lowest ERA of his career. The left-hander appears healthy after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on torn cartilage in his left knee Oct. 1 and complaining of tightness in his pitching elbow early this spring.
Against the Reds, though, Santana has a 6.75 ERA in three starts and one relief appearance, winning his only decision against them.
“We’ve got the pieces it takes to win it all,” Santana said.
Jose Reyes will continue to bat leadoff after manager Jerry Manuel talked of possibly moving him to the No. 3 spot early in spring training.
The Mets have also added some power to their bench, agreeing to a contract with 40-year-old Gary Sheffield on Friday. Slowed by shoulder injuries with Detroit last season, Sheffield is one home run shy of 500.
Sheffield will be available for pinch-hitting duty as New York faces Cincinnati’s Aaron Harang (6-17, 4.78), who’s trying to bounce back from a subpar 2008.
The veteran right-hander put on weight and hurt his arm last season, but has lost 33 pounds and appears to be back in form. He won 16 games and posted an ERA under 4.00 each of his previous two seasons.
Harang is 2-1 with a 5.85 ERA in four starts against the Mets. He leads a rotation that Cincinnati is counting on to provide plenty of quality starts with much of the power gone from its lineup.
The Reds, who suffered their eighth straight losing season with a 74-88 finish last year, are now counting on a small-ball approach.
“Oh, it’s a 180-degree flip from what it was,” Harang said. “Since I’ve been here, that’s how it’s been: ‘Let’s try to get Dunn, Junior, (Austin) Kearns when he was here, let’s try to get those guys up and let them hit the long ball.’”
Instead, Cincinnati will be relying on Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, among the few bright spots last season. Votto led NL rookies with a .297 batting average while Bruce topped the Reds with 15 homers after the All-Star break.
They became the first pair of Reds rookies hit at least 13 homers in a season. The duo may have more chances to drive in runs this season now that Cincinnati finally has an accomplished leadoff hitter.
The Reds signed center fielder Willy Taveras, who stole an NL-high 68 bases for Colorado last season, as a free agent Dec. 31.
The Mets went 4-3 against the Reds last season, totaling 17 runs in two wins at Cincinnati.