BOSTON – It may well be true, as general manager Omar Minaya suggested earlier this month, that the New York Mets lack an edge, though a lineup with Gary Sheffield(notes) can take on the personality of broken glass at any time.
But these Mets have discovered, over the course of a three-city, 10-day bicoastal journey filled with perils both unforeseen and self-created, that they have character traits – resilience and a survivor's instinct – seldom attributed to their recent predecessors.
In circumstances that could well have left them punch-drunk – when third-string shortstop Ramon Martinez(notes) showed up Sunday with a sore back, manager Jerry Manuel joked he might have to activate himself – the Mets returned home Sunday night united by their shared capacity to overcome calamity, demonstrated most persuasively by what transpired in Fenway Park this weekend.
After winning the first two games, the Mets on Sunday afternoon were soundly beaten in the finale of their three-game set with the Boston Red Sox, 12-5. But they became just the second visiting team this season to win a series in Boston, the first team anywhere to win a game in which the Red Sox were leading after six innings, and the first to pin a loss on Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon(notes), who was stunned Saturday night by a two-out, ninth-inning home run by Mets rookie catcher Omir Santos(notes).
"I'm glad we got out of here alive," said Manuel, who lost nine players at various times during this trip and still came home with a 5-5 record on the trip.
The Mets are surviving without Carlos Delgado(notes), their cleanup hitter and top RBI man who had hip surgery and is expected to be out at least 10 weeks. They're surviving without Jose Reyes, their dynamic leadoff man (calf), and without his backup, Alex Cora(notes), out with torn thumb ligaments. They're surviving with a setup man, J.J. Putz(notes), who couldn't pitch Friday because of neck spasms, and with a closer, Francisco Rodriguez(notes), who was taken by ambulance to the hospital after Saturday's game with back spasms.
The Mets are surviving with a third-string shortstop, Martinez, who owes his continued professional employment to his glove but on Friday night was stricken by fielder's amnesia, which makes even the most routine play an adventure. Martinez, 36, was guilt-ridden after the game but bounced back with flawless efforts the next two days, though he finally asked out in midgame Sunday because of his back.
They survived with a defensively challenged outfielder, Daniel Murphy(notes), getting on-the-job training at first base, and with a 40-year-old outfielder, Sheffield, who was cut by Detroit in spring training, then was flattened last week in Los Angeles by food poisoning.
They are surviving even after a trip in which they made five errors in one loss, and had another loss in which their starting pitcher, Mike Pelfrey(notes), afflicted with a self-diagnosed case of the "yips," committed three balks. (In the same spirit, 40-year-old Japanese reliever Ken Takahashi(notes) on Sunday was charged with a balk when his attempted pitch to David Ortiz(notes) slipped backward out of his hand.)
They even survived the profound embarrassment of base-runner Ryan Church(notes), who missed third base in extra innings in Los Angeles, negating what could have been the winning run and causing manager Manuel to declare that if Church had been his son, he would have strangled him. Church strained a hamstring here Friday, eliminating any chance of an encore. Exhausted by all the replays, he has vowed to point at every base before he steps on it.
"This is a good team," Cora said. "We played a bad game [in Los Angeles], one that we should have won, then [lost] two close games. Three best records at home, we just played, and we're 5-5.
"You know how it is. Everybody starts picking up each other, then suddenly everybody gets healthy, and boom, we're right there.
"People have an image of this team, but we're going to grind it out. Sometimes it looks very ugly, but we're going to grind it out. Edge? What's the edge? I don't understand that. People have an image of this team because of what happened the last few years, but this is a different core group of guys. A lot of us have had the winning experience. Ain't like you have to preach winning here. To me, chemistry is a three-game winning streak."
The Mets survived because their ace, Johan Santana(notes), remained unaffected by Martinez's misfortunes, then became inspired when tightly wrapped Kevin Youkilis(notes) took exception to being hit by a pitch.
They survived because Pelfrey did not have a recurrence of stage fright Saturday, because David Wright(notes) has been baseball's leading hitter in May and Carlos Beltran(notes) has been the game's best hitter on the road. They survived because Sheffield refused to believe the results of the autopsy on his bat and has so far disproved the notion that he can no longer play the outfield.
"He's a winner," said Cora, who played previously with Sheffield in Los Angeles. "Everywhere he's played, he's won."
They survived with a healthy dose of serendipity, on a weekend the umpiring crew reviewed two home runs. The first, Santos' screaming liner that struck the small shelf on which first-row patrons of the Green Monster seats set their beers, was originally called in play, but after umpire Joe West led his colleagues into the reviewing room, he emerged and with a twirl of his finger sent Santos happily toward home Saturday.
The second, a towering drive by Youkilis on Sunday that cleared the top of the left-foul pole, was called foul by West, umpiring at third base. Boston manager Terry Francona persuaded him to take another look, and for the second time in two games, technology that had gone unused at Fenway came into play. The procession in blue disappeared down the dugout steps, and whatever they saw – TV replays seen by the public were inconclusive – West came out waving his hands. His original call stood.
And until Tim Redding(notes), who is in the rotation because Oliver Perez(notes) went on the DL in early May, and three Mets relievers were knocked around Sunday, Mets pitchers had held the opposition to three or fewer runs in five of their previous six games. The bullpen, a hall of sorrows the last two years, began Sunday with the best ERA in the majors (2.80).
The schedule gets easier the next two weeks. The Mets come home to face the last-place Nationals and skidding Marlins, then go on the road to face the sub-.500 Pirates and Nationals before a rematch at home with back-to-back series against their prime nemeses, the Phillies and Yankees.
Reyes, who dodged a stint on the DL when an MRI came back negative, said his sore calf has improved to where he hopes he can play Monday night. Rodriguez, despite his ambulance ride, said muscle relaxants alleviated his condition and thought he could have pitched Sunday.
"Man, that was really painful," he said. "I've never experienced anything like this before. I was struggling to walk yesterday."
Are the Mets a better team for what they've endured?
"I don't know if we're healthy enough to say that one way or the other," Manuel said. "Our situation right now, with bodies all banged up, sometime tomorrow we'll know for sure where we are. But I can't say we're better."
But tougher? After two straight Septembers of turning soft, the Mets have more convincing to do. But their steel is starting to show.