Friday, April 30, 2010

Mets, Nationals fans emerge from April baseball with hope

There’s an old saying in baseball: Don’t believe too much of what you see in April or September.

It is not uncommon for lousy teams to get off to a good start in April only to be worn down by the grind of the 162 game season. There are lots of off days in April—some caused by poor weather—and the need for five starting pitchers (or more later when injuries kick in) isn’t there yet. The bullpen is still fresh and someone destined to hit .260 might be hitting .400.

In September, when teams have been eliminated from contention and bring players up from the minor leagues, there are always a couple who catch people’s eye with their play. Sometimes there’s a reason for it—Derek Jeter was a late call-up in 1995—sometimes it’s just September baseball.

So I sit here on the last day of April caught in a conundrum. The New York Mets, the team I grew up with, after what appeared to be a predictably terrible start, has reeled off seven straight wins and sits atop The National League East at 13-9. The suspect starting pitching, which appeared to be Johan Santana and whomever wanted the ball next, has suddenly been world-beating. Mike Pelfrey hasn’t given up a run since about 1994 and the team is winning WITHOUT centerfielder Carlos Beltran.

So, do I get excited? Or do I still to the old baseball axiom and check back in June?

The same question is being asked in Washington, where the Nationals, coming off back-to-back 100 loss seasons, are 12-10. Unlike the Mets, whose winning streak came entirely at home, the Nats have just gone into Chicago and won two-of-three from the Cubs, causing Lou Piniella to lose his mind, which is always entertaining.

Like the Mets, the Nationals are pitching better and, perhaps as important, they’re catching the ball much better. Last year their defense was so bad you had to avert your eyes on routine ground balls unless you were extremely brave. Now, the Nats are not only making routine plays, they’re making some spectacular ones too.

What’s more, the Nationals best pitcher is currently pitching in Harrisburg. Stephen Strasburg, the phenom picked No. 1 in last year’s draft has looked every inch of The Next Great Thing since spring training began. In his last outing he pitched five innings of no-hit baseball. He will probably be moved up to Triple-A Syracuse in the next couple of weeks and his pitch count will be carefully monitored as he is allowed to pitch more innings. He should be in Washington by June and if you put him at the top of the current starting group, the Nationals could be—dare I say it—pretty good.

Of course there’s a strong sense of foreboding based on disappointments of the past in both places. On their last homestand, the Nats played two playoff teams from last year, the Rockies and Dodgers, and struggled to draw 20,000 most nights. The Mets played in front of half-empty ballparks most of the time on the just-ended homestand. It may be that if both come back from road trips still playing well that the crowds will pick up. Baseball fans are like all other fans—they’re frontrunners. Fans of these two teams have lots of reasons to be skeptical though, regardless of their April records.

Still, it’s nice to see some hope. It’s better than being a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, who won two games in a row earlier this week to improve their record to 4-16. They’re now 4-18 and even with the Yankees in town this week, Camden Yards wasn’t close to sold out. Attendance was 26,439 on Thursday night—most of them Yankee fans. If the Orioles aren’t playing the Yankees or the Red Sox their attendance these days is brutal. Next week, they play the Minnesota Twins at home and the Twins have one of baseball’s more entertaining teams. They currently lead the American League Central. Do you think there will be a single crowd of more than 20,000 people?

Not likely. This in what is still as nice a ballpark as there is in baseball, even in its 19th year. And yet, with the Orioles clearly headed for a 12th straight losing season, they are down to die-hards only except when the Yankees and Red Sox show up and turn the ballpark into Yankee Stadium-south or Fenway Park-south. It is sad to see such a proud franchise in this state.

Team President Andy McPhail thinks the young pitchers the team has are going to get things turned around and it’s entirely possible that they will. Good pitching is like good goaltending in hockey or good putting in golf—it can hide all your other weaknesses. Right now, the Orioles pitching just isn’t good enough to hide anything. Maybe that will change.

The Mets are another story—at least at the moment. They go into Philadelphia this weekend on a roll. Most people had conceded The NL East title to the Phillies for a fourth straight year before the first pitch was thrown earlier this month. There still isn’t much reason to believe that isn’t going to be the case. That said, the team that was given the best chance to chase the Phillies was the Braves and they are off to an awful start. The Mets swept them last weekend in New York.

I can imagine what the talk shows are like in New York right now. They are probably discussing what the ticket prices will be like for a Subway Series in October in the two new ballparks.

I’m not ready to get that carried away just yet. It IS nice, whether you live in New York or Washington, to see the calendar turning from April to May and not be wondering what players your team might unload at the trading deadline. Think about this: in Baltimore, in Kansas City, in Pittsburgh, in Houston, the hopeful part of the baseball season is already over.

At least in New York and Washington right now, there’s hope. If that feeling still exists a month from now, it might be time to get serious. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy.

God knows Mets fans and Nats fans are both entitled to a little bit of fun.


Tim said...

I'm amazed it took you this long to mention your Mets....I thought you said a 2-game win streak would do the trick. And now after 7 you finally mention?

ckstevenson said...

Just to defend the Nats attendance a little (as a diehard Nats fan), the weather hasn't been great for home games and the now defunct (read: crash and burn) Caps post season play often coincided with home games.

But we should be drawing better. I expect attendance to improve greatly with the record and lack of competition from any other major sports franchise in the area.

The O's, wow, they stink bad. A few rays of sunshine, but as a casual observer by virtue of proximity it seems as though they are STILL headed in the wrong directions