The New York Mets were dead. They were underachieving again. They were swallowing against the aftertaste of the previous September and propping up a manager who’d done what he could, which wasn’t enough.
They had talent, for sure, but had become a collection of names and paychecks, a daily nine-inning symbol of failure and heartache.
The Mets were a game under .500 the night Willie Randolph was fired. They were 6½ games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. Since that night, and despite issues in their starting rotation, larger issues in the corners of their outfield, and massive issues in their bullpen, the Mets are 48-28. They have regained all those games on the Phillies. They’ve added three more.
Jerry Manuel doesn’t have a contract for next season. He remains an interim manager. The Mets – his Mets – still must negotiate the most trying part of their schedule. The games themselves aren’t altogether daunting. But these are the weeks that were left unfinished last season.
Going in, the Mets look like gamers again. They look like they’re having fun again. They look ready to win again.
Manuel got them back here. That’s why he’s the NL manager of the year. With two weeks to go.
• Lou Piniella, Chicago Cubs: The Cubs began the season as NL favorites, the sort of expectations that have done nothing for them for a century. Then they were the best team in the league for most of the season. Their run differential is plus 176. The Phillies, second in the NL in run differential, are plus 94. That’s how much better the Cubs are. Again, these kinds of things mean nothing in Chicago. Piniella has done a reasonable job keeping his club’s energy pointed toward this year, this team, this game. Of course, they lost eight of nine to end August and begin September, and everybody in town is thinking the same thing.
• Tony La Russa, St. Louis Cardinals: La Russa probably should share this mention with Dave Duncan, his pitching coach. All winter signs pointed to a long season of fifth-inning deficits for the Cardinals. And spring signs pointed to a fluke. But the starting rotation not only hung in there without Chris Carpenter, held up through various injuries and re-injuries to Adam Wainwright and Mark Mulder and persevered when its leads were blown by Jason Isringhausen, but it had the fifth-best starters’ ERA in the league. Meanwhile, La Russa feathered in an outfield of Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Skip Schumaker and had eight different pitchers save at least one game.
• Ned Yost, Milwaukee Brewers: It could be argued the cleverest move Yost made all season was handing the baseball to CC Sabathia on July 8. And then remembering to do it every five days after that. But, remember, with only a couple meaningful upgrades last winter, these were the same Brewers who led the division into late summer last season, only to fade and finish two games behind the Cubs. While the Brewers currently are fighting another spot of trouble, the division is not out of reach and the wild card is theirs to lose. The starting pitching has been excellent, the offense is holding on in a down year for Prince Fielder and Yost has endured the occasional calls for his job in Milwaukee.
• Fredi Gonzalez, Florida Marlins: The owners didn’t spend and the fans didn’t come, but the Marlins showed up and played anyway. They didn’t pitch with the NL elite, they didn’t catch the ball as often, and the offense died at a bad time in the second half. Their best starter – Josh Johnson – has made 11 starts. Mark Hendrickson made 19, which, as it turned out, was about 10 too many. And it went OK for about 4½ months, or four more than anyone might have expected. The Marlins had the same kind of season two years ago and Joe Girardi outpointed Willie Randolph for manager of the year. Gonzalez has done a similarly impressive job, only without the shouting matches with the owner. Extra credit for shouting at the owner.
• Cecil Cooper, Houston Astros: The best team in baseball since the All-Star break? Yup, Coop’s crew. Now, this is a full-season award, so don’t expect Cooper to get much of a sniff here if the Astros don’t run down the Brewers for the wild card. Their second-best hitter – Carlos Lee – has been out since early August. Michael Bourn has done almost nothing from the leadoff spot. Geoff Blum has been trying to protect Lance Berkman in the batting order. And the pitching hasn’t even been all that good. But, nine games under .500 on July 26, the Astros are 32-11 since. After some shaky moments early, Cooper has grown into the job.
• Joe Torre, Los Angeles Dodgers: This was the job that convinced Grady Little life was a lot better on a motorcycle in North Carolina, Jim Tracy in the sidecar. Ned Colletti handed Torre a fractured clubhouse, a four-man outfield and a roster with a lot of guys in the extremes of their careers, but very few in their primes. Rafael Furcal played only 32 games because of an achy back, Andruw Jones was a strike out anchor and Blake DeWitt, his Opening Day third baseman, had never played a game above Double-A. The Yankees never seemed so far away, but Torre coped and has a good chance to win a bad division.