Three years ago today, Carlos Beltran got a good look at an Adam Wainwright curveball and the Cardinals went on to the 2006 World Series. (I have spared my fellow Mets fans from having to see that picture by showing you a photo of Beltran hitting a home run against the Cardinals instead.) After that devastating loss to St. Louis, the Mets thought they could use it as a springboard to bigger and better things. Although they came close to returning to the postseason in 2007 and 2008, they failed to do so both times and completely fell apart in 2009. The Mets are not alone in thinking success from 2006 would carry over into future seasons.
The San Diego Padres share many things with the New York Mets. They’re fellow expansion teams from the 1960s, with the Padres coming into the National League in 1969. Both teams have claimed five division titles, but neither team can claim a no-hitter by one of their own. For a while, both teams even had strong ties to a Murphy brother, as Bob Murphy was a Mets broadcaster for 42 seasons and the Padres played in Jack Murphy Stadium (named after Bob’s sportswriter brother, who was instrumental in getting San Diego to build a multi-purpose stadium in the 1960s) as it was so named from Jack’s death in 1980 until it became Qualcomm Stadium before the 1997 season.
One other thing they share is the 2006 season and their subsequent dropoffs after both teams lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in that postseason.
The Mets had started to turn things around in the 2005 season under new manager Willie Randolph. They went from 20 games under .500 in 2004 to an 83-79 record in 2005. The Padres did the Mets one better by winning the 2005 NL West division title, albeit with a poorer record than the Mets (Padres won the West with an 82-80 record). Both teams improved in 2006, with the Mets winning the NL East and finishing with the best record in the National League (97-65). The team with the second best record in the National League was the Padres, as they finished 88-74.
Unfortunately, both teams ran into the buzzsaw known as the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. Although the Cardinals finished with the worst record of all the 2006 playoff teams (83-78), they eliminated the Padres in four games in the NLDS before breaking our hearts in Game 7 of the NLCS.
Both the Padres and the Mets were hoping for return trips to the postseason in 2007 and midway through September, it appeared as if that would become a reality. Mets fans all know about the infamous collapse in 2007, but what they might not know was that the Padres suffered a similar collapse.
With 10 games left in the regular season, the Padres were fighting for the division title with the Arizona Diamondbacks. They were not even looking in their rearview mirror for the third-place Colorado Rockies. After all, the Rockies were 4½ games behind the Padres with ten games to play. Then the Rockies swept a three-game series from the Padres in San Diego (just like the Phillies had swept the Mets in New York) and the losing began. Their most devastating loss came in the next-to-last game of the season.
On that final Saturday, the Padres still held a two-game lead in the wild card race with two games to play. Just one win by the Padres or one loss by the Rockies would have given the Padres the wild card berth. The Padres were one strike away from winning the wild card and had all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman on the mound against the Brewers’ Tony Gwynn, Jr. Then the son of the greatest Padre of all-time delivered the game-tying hit against Hoffman in a game the Brewers eventually won in 11 innings. The Padres then lost the final game of the season while the Rockies won their final two games, forcing a one-game playoff in Colorado that was won by the Rockies when Matt Holliday did a face plant into home plate to magically score the winning run without ever touching the plate.
Since their simultaneous collapses in 2007, the Mets and Padres have gone nowhere. The Mets fell short again in 2008 and both the Mets and Padres finished in fourth place in their respective divisions in 2009. However, the Padres did improve by 12 games in 2009, while the Mets went backwards.
Both teams play in pitcher-friendly parks. Despite that, Padres’ first baseman Adrian Gonzalez still hit 40 HR. This shows that if the Mets can get a player with legitimate power, they can have the home run threat in the lineup they lacked in 2009. After all, Citi Field wasn’t keeping opposing players from hitting home runs (see Mark Reynolds) and getting certain areas “named” after them (see Chase Utley, Utley’s Corner).
At the 100-game mark, the Padres were 38-62 and had nothing left to play for. Despite that, they finished strongly, going 37-25 over their final 62 games. How did they do that? They were able to score early and keep their leads. They scored late and often to prevent teams from coming back on them. They also had extended stretches of pitching brilliance.
Over the final 62 games, the Padres scored in the first inning 18 times. Their record in those games was 12-6. Meanwhile, the Mets scored in the first inning 12 times in their last 62 games. Somehow, they went 4-8 in those games. The Mets must continue to score early in games, but must also remember not to hit the snooze button after starting off well. Obviously, the losses will continue to mount if the Mets cannot keep any momentum they created in the first inning of games.
From the seventh inning on, the Padres outscored their opponents 95-74. By contrast, the Mets were outscored 88-73 after the sixth inning. The Padres were able to win nine games in which they were tied or losing after six innings. The Mets could only claim four such wins in their last 62 games. Although the lack of offense can be partially to blame for this, I choose to blame the bullpen, particularly Francisco Rodriguez. How many times did Frankie falter at the end of the season? Until Luis Castillo dropped the pop-up at Yankee Stadium, Rodriguez was a perfect 16-for-16 in save situations and was the owner of a spiffy 0.61 ERA. After that moment, Frankie converted 19 out of 26 save situations. He went 2-6, had a 6.10 ERA and gave up way too many game-winning homers. With a complete season from K-Rod in 2010, the Mets will have a better chance to outscore the opposition in the late innings and will be able to hold on to a few more victories.
Finally, over the last 62 games, the Padres pitching staff turned it up a notch. After the trade of ace Jake Peavy to the White Sox, the other starters elevated their game. In 15 of their final 62 games, the Padres gave up one run or less. They pitched seven shutouts and gave up only one run eight times. Over the same time period, the Mets only gave up one run or less nine times (four shutouts, five games giving up one run) and three of those came in the final three-game sweep of the Astros. Clearly, the Mets must acquire at least one more starter capable of holding opponents off the scoreboard. Another season with multiple starts by the likes of Tim Redding, Pat Misch and Nelson Figueroa is not the answer. They proved themselves to be capable in spot starts, but if they have to be in the rotation together for another month at a time like they were in September, the Mets can’t expect to win too many ballgames.
The San Diego Padres are too much of a small market team to be able to compete with the Mets when it comes to signing big-name free agents. Despite that, they still had a better record than the Mets did in 2009 and showed that they’re on the right track to becoming a contender again. Perhaps the Mets should follow their example of shrewd trades for young players (such as the Padres’ trade in 2005 where they acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young from the Texas Rangers for veterans Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka). They could also do a better job of scouting and developing players like the Padres did with Nick Hundley, Chase Headley and Everth Cabrera, all of which received significant playing time in 2009 and played well.
Since the 2006 season, both the Mets and the Padres have suffered since coming so close to reaching their ultimate goal. However, if the Mets continue to make poor decisions, their run of futility might continue. The Padres have already shown improvement and although they fired GM Kevin Towers recently, they’ve been more intelligent with their player transactions. Perhaps the Mets should look a little closer at how the Padres have been doing things before they make any more poor free agent signings (a la Oliver Perez). If not, it may be a team like the Braves or the Marlins who will be ending the Phillies’ run as NL East division champions before the Mets do.