Monday, March 26, 2012

One Season Wonders: The 2006 Mets

After their improbable run to the 2000 World Series, it seemed like the Mets were always one player away from taking it all.  By 2002, with deals made for Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz, it seemed as though then-GM Steve Phillips was serious about making the Mets legitimate. By then, however, Mike Piazza had started to show signs of wear and tear for a catcher, and fan-favorite manager Bobby Valentine had shown signs of wearing out his welcome in New York.

The Mets needed a philosophy change, desperately.  Then came 2004 and the "Black Friday" deal of trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, and it was decided that enough was enough.  Then-GM Jim Duquette and then-manager Art Howe were no longer lighting up the room, and something needed to be done.

Former Montreal Expos General Manager, Omar Teodoro Antonio Minaya y Sánchez, was hired to be the autonomous General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club.  One of the first things he did was hire rookie manager Willie Randolph to head up his team, under the philosophy of "pitching, speed and defense."  With Minaya on board for his first full season, he made it clear that losing was not going to be an option in 2005.  And what better way to show fans he was being serious about it than by bringing in Pedro Martinez, perhaps the most sought after free-agent pitcher on the market and starter for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.  Add Carlos Beltran to this mix of New Mets and the team improved from 71-91 in 2004 to 83-79 in 2005.  The seeds for success had been planted in 2005.  One year later, the team was ready to bloom.

Going into the 2006 season, the Mets still had some holes to fill.  After Mike Piazza hit a career-low .251 in 2005, it was clear that the Mets needed to go in a different direction behind the plate.  Enter Paul Lo Duca, who was an All-Star for the Florida Marlins in 2005.  At first base, the Mets turned to Carlos Delgado, the slugger who had spurned the Mets one year earlier for playing the Latino card in their attempt to sign him.  In right field, Xavier Nady was signed to replace Mike Cameron, whose 2005 season ended abruptly when the former centerfielder butted heads with the current centerfielder (literally) on the field in San Diego.

Finally, the team needed a dependable closer to replace Braden Looper, who was absolutely awful during the final two months of the 2005 season (0-3, 6-for-10 in save opportunities, 6.35 ERA, 1.65 WHIP over his final 18 appearances).  Enter Billy Wagner, the Sandman who gave opposing batters nightmares.

Once the Mets added a few role players who weren't expected to produce much for the team (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez and Duaner Sanchez, to name a few), the team was ready for Opening Day.  After losing their first five games to start the 2005 season, the Mets needed to get off to a quick start in 2006.  They responded by getting off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

After splitting their first two games of the 2006 season, the Mets tallied seven consecutive victories, sweeping a pair of series against the Marlins and Nationals by a combined score of 35-11.  By April 17, the Mets were 10-2 and became the first team to lead its division by five games after the 12-game mark.  After a victory over the Atlanta Braves on April 29, the Mets' lead in the NL East had grown to seven games, but they had already suffered their first casualty on the mound.  It would become a recurring theme throughout the season.

Brian Bannister was drafted by the Mets in the seventh round of the 2003 amateur draft and made a quick ascent through the Mets' minor league system.  After a sensational 2005 campaign split between AA-Binghamton and AAA-Norfolk (13-5, 2.74 ERA), Bannister joined the major league squad out of spring training in 2006 and made his first start in the second game of the season.  In his first month in the major leagues, Bannister did not disappoint, going 2-0 with a sensational 2.89 ERA, never giving up more than three runs in any of his five April starts.

However, in his fifth start on April 26, Bannister injured his right hamstring while attempting to score on Kaz Matsui's double.  Although the rookie pitcher did score the run, it would be his final appearance until August, as he spent the next four months on the disabled list.

Bannister's injury would lead to the first start made by a pitcher who wasn't one of the original five starters.  On May 2, John Maine became the first pitcher other than Bannister, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano to make a start.  Other injuries would beset the team during the season and other starters were brought in to replace the injured starters in the rotation.  Some fared well in their unexpected roles (Maine, Orlando Hernandez), while others did not (Geremi Gonzalez, Jose Lima, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, Alay Soler and Dave Williams, all of whom made at least three starts for the 2006 Mets).

Only Maine and Glavine had a sub-4.00 ERA of the 13 pitchers who started at least one game for the Mets in 2006, while seven of the unlucky 13 had ERAs north of 5.00 (Steve Trachsel just missed becoming the eighth member of the mile-high ERA club, finishing the year with a 4.97 ERA despite winning 15 games).  The team's 4.14 ERA was its fifth-highest mark since the Gil Hodges era began in 1968.  Despite their makeshift, lackluster pitching staff, the 2006 Mets found a way to win 97 games.  Needless to say, it was the offense that carried the team to victory more often than not.

Newcomers Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado and Xavier Nady all became major contributors in the Mets' offense.  Lo Duca finished seventh in the National League with his .318 batting average, picking up 163 hits and 39 doubles along the way.  Both of Lo Duca's totals in base hits and doubles represent franchise records for a catcher, breaking Mike Piazza's team records in both categories.

Carlos Delgado did not disappoint with his power production.  His subpar batting average (.265) was barely noticed after he rocketed 38 HR and drove in 114 runs for the Mets in 2006.  Only Darryl Strawberry (39 HR in 1987 and 1988) and Robin Ventura (120 RBI in 1999) had surpassed Delgado's totals in both categories for left-handed hitters in team history.

Xavier Nady was a quiet contributor on the 2006 Mets.  After making his major league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2000, Nady never became a constant presence in their lineup, collecting only 775 at-bats during his tenure in San Diego.  But given the everyday rightfielder's job in New York, Nady blossomed, hitting .310 with 14 extra-base hits (seven doubles, seven home runs) in his first 26 games as a Met.  By late July, Nady was quietly producing the best season of his career.  Then fellow newcomer Duaner Sanchez got the midnight munchies in Miami and Xavier Nady was no more.

By not getting a food plate delivered, Duaner Sanchez could not deliver to the plate after July 30.

Prior to the trade deadline, the Mets were not looking to make a deal for a set-up man.  After all, Duaner Sanchez had performed very well in that role, going 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA.  But when Sanchez was involved in a traffic accident while looking for late-night grub, the Mets needed to find a replacement fast.  As a result of Sanchez's taxicab collision, the Mets were forced to part ways with Xavier Nady in order to acquire set-up man Roberto Hernandez and throw-in Oliver Perez from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With Nady no longer in right field, Lastings Milledge became the everyday rightfielder.  But Milledge was not ready to become a full-time player in the major leagues, hitting .189 with nine strikeouts in his first 12 starts after the trade.  Three weeks after becoming the everyday rightfielder, Milledge was back on the bench, with newly-acquired veteran Shawn Green replacing him.

Despite the Mets opening up a double-digit lead in the division (due mostly to an impressive 9-1 road trip in June), there was something missing from the team, and that was the team itself.  Due to injuries and poor performances by those enlisted to replace the injured players, the Mets had no consistency in their everyday lineup and starting rotation.

In addition to the 13 pitchers who made at least one start for the Mets in 2006, a total of 15 position players started at least 20 games at a position.  The fact that Paul Lo Duca (117 starts) and Ramon Castro (32 starts) were part of this list is not unexpected, as teams usually use their backup catchers often to give their No. 1 catcher at least one day off per week.  Also not unexpected were David Wright (153 starts at third base) and Jose Reyes (148 starts at shortstop) taking their positions almost every day.  But the other five positions on the field saw 11 different players make at least 20 starts.

Did anyone expect Julio Franco to start 20 games at first base in 2006, especially with Carlos Delgado having a monster year?  He did.  What about Chris Woodward making 33 starts at second base despite Kaz Matsui being the team's everyday second sacker to start the season and Jose Valentin ending the year there?  Woodward got to see more double play balls than he expected.  The oft-injured Cliff Floyd allowed Endy Chavez to start 22 games in left field.  But Chavez actually started more games in center (25 starts) and right (32 starts) than he did in left.

Clearly, there was no consistency to the team, especially in their starting lineup.  That lack of consistency would become more noticeable as the team entered the final month of the season.

The two Mets teams that followed the 2006 squad would be known for what they did over their final 17 games.  But the roots of those late-season collapses may have been traced back to 2006.  After 145 games, the 2006 Mets were proud owners of a 90-55 record and a 16-game lead in the division.  Their fourth 100-win season was within reach, as was their fifth division title.  But with the Mets needing one win against lowly Pittsburgh, the team's play became lackadaisical.  The Mets were swept in Pittsburgh and returned home to face the Florida Marlins.  The Mets did defeat the Marlins on September 18 to clinch their first National League East crown in 18 years, but it was one of their few victories over the final three weeks of the season.

Did Jose Reyes borrow those goggles from Duaner Sanchez?

After their 90-55 start, the Mets lost 10 of their next 13 games (with one of their three victories being the division clincher), before recovering to win their final four games of the regular season.  Although the team struggled to the finish line, they did finish a National League-best 97-65, with no other team in the league winning more than 88 games.  It was on to the NLDS against the wild card-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Mets were going into that series missing a few key pieces.

Original Game 1 starter Pedro Martinez was scratched due to a pair of injuries in his shoulder and calf.  When word came down that Martinez's replacement, Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez, was also unable to make the Game 1 start due to a calf injury, the Mets went with plan C, John Maine.  The first man to make a start for an injured player during the regular season was now being called upon to do the same in the postseason.  But just as the offense had picked up the beleaguered staff during the regular season, they came through again in the NLDS.

Carlos Delgado, who had never taken part in a playoff game prior to 2006, made quite a splash in his postseason debut, going 4-for-5 with a home run.  Also coming through with their bats were Cliff Floyd, who followed Delgado's blast with a homer of his own, and David Wright, who collected a pair of doubles and drove in three runs.  But the Mets might not have won the game had it not been for an odd play involving Paul Lo Duca at the plate.

With the game scoreless in the top of the second inning, the Dodgers had Jeff Kent at second base and J.D. Drew at first with no outs.  Russell Martin then drove a ball off the right field wall that should have scored at least one run.  However, Kent was slow getting around the bases and was thrown out at home.  Meanwhile, Drew, who never stopped running, was just a few feet behind Kent.  After an alert Lo Duca turned around to see Drew headed toward the plate, he made a quick tag of Drew to complete the unusual double play.  Almost forgotten in the aftermath of the play was that the Dodgers did eventually score a run in that inning to take a 1-0 lead, but it could have been much worse if not for the Dodgers' poor baserunning and the cat-like reflexes of Paul Lo Duca.  That play proved to be the difference in the Mets' 6-5 victory.

 Ernie Banks might have said "let's play two", but Paul Lo Duca said "let's tag two".

Compared to Game 1, the Mets had a relatively easy time with the Dodgers in Game 2, with Tom Glavine pitching beautifully in the team's 4-1 victory, but things got a little dicey in Game 3 with Steve Trachsel on the mound.

After the Mets spotted the longest-tenured Met with a four-run lead in Game 3, Trachsel gave it all back and then some.  By the time the Mets came to bat in the sixth inning, a 4-0 lead had turned into a 5-4 deficit.  But the Mets strung together four hits and a walk to score three runs in the sixth to retake the lead.  They added two insurance runs in the eighth inning before Billy Wagner came into the game in the ninth and got pinch-hitter Ramon Martinez to fly out to former Dodger Shawn Green to end the game, giving the Mets a 9-5 victory and a series sweep.  The Mets had advanced to the NLCS, with the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals standing in the way of their fifth National League pennant.  It looked as if the Mets were going to have an easy ride to the World Series.  But that did not end up being the case.

In a hard-fought Game 1 of the NLCS, the Mets defeated the Cardinals, 2-0, with all the runs scoring on a sixth inning home run by Carlos Beltran.  But in Game 2, the Mets failed to hold a late-inning lead, allowing the Cardinals to score two runs in the seventh to tie the game and three runs in the ninth to win it.  The big blow came off the bat of the light-hitting So Taguchi, who gave the Cards a 7-6 lead with a home run of Billy Wagner in the ninth.  St. Louis added two more runs off Wagner en route to a 9-6 series-tying victory.  The devastating Game 2 loss might still have been on the minds of the Mets as they traveled to St. Louis.  Either that or they lost their bats at the airport, as Jeff Suppan stymied the Mets' high-powered offense, holding them to three hits over eight innings.  Suppan also provided an unexpected blow, hitting a home run off Steve Trachsel to lead off the second inning.  Three batters later, Trachsel threw his final pitch as a Met.  The Mets lost Game 3, 5-0, and were now trailing the series, two games to one.

After feeling good about themselves following their Game 1 victory, the Mets were now one loss away from playing an elimination game.  The Mets had to win Game 4 to prevent that game from happening in front of the raucous Busch Stadium crowd and to guarantee a trip back to New York.  Oliver Perez, who had not pitched in two weeks and had only won one game in seven starts since being traded to the Mets at the trade deadline, was called upon to end the Mets' misfortunes in Missouri.  Needless to say, many people weren't very optimistic about the Mets' chances with Perez on the mound.  Perez didn't pitch very well, allowing five runs on nine hits in 5⅔ innings, but the offense bailed him out.  The Mets' 3 through 7 hitters combined to go 10-for-20 with two doubles and four homers (including two by Carlos Beltran).  They also drove in all of the runs in the Mets' 12-5 win.  With the Mets now assured of making a trip back to Shea Stadium, all they needed to do was win Game 5 in St. Louis and a pennant would be within reach.  That was easier said than done.

Similar to the Mets using Oliver Perez in Game 4, the Cardinals turned to a pitcher they had acquired in July who had underperformed in the regular season.  Jeff Weaver was awful for both the Angels and Cardinals, finishing the 2006 regular season with a combined 8-14 record and a 5.76 ERA.  But despite his poor season, the Cardinals gave him the ball in Game 5.  Weaver shocked the Mets by holding them to two runs in six innings of work, while his counterpart on the mound, Tom Glavine was knocked out of the game before he had recorded an out in the fifth inning.  The Cardinals went on to defeat the Mets, 4-2, to put them within one win of the World Series.  If the 1973 Mets could reach the World Series after only winning 82 regular season games, then the 2006 Cardinals figured they could do the same with 83 victories.  But the 1973 Mets also taught us that "ya gotta believe", and the 2006 version of the team was trying to do just that as they returned to Shea Stadium for Game 6.

With the Mets down three games to two, it was up to rookie John Maine to force a seventh game.  Maine was brilliant for the Mets, pitching into the sixth inning while keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard, allowing only two hits along the way.  All the tension felt by the fans prior to the game was lifted after only one batter, when Jose Reyes led off the game with a home run.  The Mets added one run in the fourth and two runs off former Met Braden Looper in the seventh to take a 4-0 lead.  Despite another shaky outing by Billy Wagner in the ninth, giving up a two-run double to his NLCS nemesis, So Taguchi, the Mets escaped with a 4-2 victory and were on to their first Game 7 at Shea Stadium since the 1986 World Series.  But because of their lack of starting pitching depth, the Mets had to give the ball to Oliver Perez on only three days rest.  Perez would be facing Jeff Suppan, who had toyed with the Mets with his arm and his bat in Game 3.  One team was about to win the National League pennant, but it was two long fly balls that became the story of the game.

After not fooling the Cardinals in Game 4, Oliver Perez pitched very well in the biggest game of his life, allowing one run through the first five innings.  But after a one-out walk to Jim Edmonds in the sixth, Scott Rolen stepped up to the plate.  Rolen was a .450 career hitter (9-for-20) against Perez with five doubles.  However, he had never hit a home run off the Mets' lefty.  It looked as if that was about to change after only one pitch.  But Endy Chavez had something to say about that.  On Perez's first pitch to the Cardinals' third baseman, Rolen lifted a high fly ball that appeared to be headed for the Cards' bullpen.  But Chavez had the speed and the strength to be there, timing his leap perfectly to rob Rolen of a tiebreaking two-run homer.  After checking to see that the snowconed ball was in his glove, Chavez quickly threw the ball to second baseman Jose Valentin, who fired the ball to Carlos Delgado to double off Jim Edmonds for an inning-ending double play.  Shea Stadium was rocking like it had never rocked before with the Mets seemingly taking the momentum away from the Cardinals.  But they could not capitalize on Chavez's catch for the ages.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Mets loaded the bases with one out, with two participants in the previous half-inning's double play, Valentin and Chavez, coming up.  Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa could have taken starting pitcher Jeff Suppan out of the game at that moment, but chose to leave him in.  It was perhaps the most important managerial decision made in the series.  On a 1-2 pitch, Suppan struck out Jose Valentin, then got Endy Chavez to hit a routine fly ball to center to end the inning.  Neither team threatened in the seventh or eighth innings.  It was on to the ninth inning with the game still tied at one apiece.  Aaron Heilman, who had pitched the eighth inning for the Mets, was allowed to start the ninth.  Before long, his name would permanently become a part of Mets history, but not in the way he intended.

Billy Wagner had not fared very well in the ninth inning during the NLCS, giving up three runs in Game 2 and two more runs in Game 6.  Perhaps that factored into manager Willie Randolph's mind when he left Heilman in the game for the ninth inning.  The move appeared to be a good one after Heilman struck out Jim Edmonds to lead off the ninth.  But then Scott Rolen grounded a single to left to bring up Yadier Molina.  Doing his best Mike Scioscia impression, Molina lifted a long fly ball that carried out of the ballpark, far away from Endy Chavez's glove for a two-run homer.  The light-hitting Molina, who had only hit six home runs during the regular season brought back painful memories of Scioscia, another light-hitting catcher who in 1988 hit a two-run ninth-inning home run in the NLCS at Shea Stadium.  But Scioscia's home run came in Game 4 and only tied the game.  Molina's home run was in Game 7 and gave the Cardinals a two-run lead.

The Mets were now down 3-1 as they came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning, three outs away from elimination.  Rookie closer Adam Wainwright was called upon to pitch the Cardinals into the World Series.  But he struggled early, allowing back-to-back singles to Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez to lead off the inning.  With the tying runs on base, Cliff Floyd was not called upon to bunt the runners over.  The move ended up being costly, as Floyd struck out on six pitches.  After Jose Reyes lined out to centerfielder Jim Edmonds, Paul Lo Duca, doing his best Gary Carter impersonation, refused to be the final out at Shea Stadium.  Lo Duca walked on five pitches to load the bases and bring up Carlos Beltran.  Wainwright threw two strikes to Beltran to go ahead in the count.  Then this happened...


If you were to look at the big picture of the Mets in the last decade, 2006 was the blip on the radar, not the other way around.  Overall, 2006 was no different in how the Mets operated in years past, namely with injuries, bad contracts and reliance upon out-of-their-prime veterans and not-so-ready-for-prime-time rookies.  They were just more successful on paper than previous and post years.   

In fact, if you were to look at how the Mets started to slowly unravel at the end of the 2006 season, it was clear we all were just willing to overlook their shortcomings simply because of how good they did that year.  Most certainly Omar Minaya, Willie Randolph and Fred Wilpon did.  It is true, then, that winning makes you forget about these things.  Now that the Mets haven't won in a few years, we're able to look at 2006 more objectively, as being the one season wonder, the year that maybe shouldn't have been.  

Look at Steve Trachsel, who was an underrated and under-appreciated pitcher for the Mets in his years, winning 15 games that year but under the guise getting great run support.

Look at Jose Valentin and Chris Woodward, starting all those games at second base when they were supposed to be at best super utility players.  Who besides the Mets would give Julio Franco that much playing time, as a 48-year-old man?

Xavier Nady is seen to this day as a cult hero in Mets lore.  The fact that a middle reliever's injury caused so much of a domino effect on the dynamic of the team is a testament to not only how valuable Duaner Sanchez was to the bullpen, but conversely how that team was just one player short of imploding.  

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner had great seasons in 2006, never to be replicated again in a Mets uniform.  

Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado fed off of each others production, and paved the way for future leaders of the team Jose Reyes and David Wright.  Now, Reyes is playing for the NL East rival Miami Marlins, and Wright has yet to take that leap to making the Mets his team. 

Lastly, trotting out 13 different starting pitchers, including Jose Lima, and they still won?  Chances are, this was not a formula for success but how lucky are you feeling, punk?   When your postseason hopes are foisted upon the likes of John Maine, Oliver Perez and Orlando "The Dookie" Hernandez, it's evident the 2006 Mets were just lucky to be there.

Prior to 2006, the Mets had made the playoffs six times.  Each of the six trips could be separated into pairs.  The 1969 and 1973 Mets were represented by many of the same players.  The 1986 and 1988 Mets could also be paired off, as the majority of the team in 1986 was still intact in 1988.  And of course, the 1999 and 2000 Mets were practically the same, save for John Olerud and Mike Hampton.  But the 2006 Mets have no postseason cousins.  They're simply a standalone team, a one season wonder on their own.

Studious Metsimus would like to thank Taryn "The Coop" Cooper for her contributions to this piece.  Not only was it her idea for the entire 2006 Mets team to receive the One Season Wonders spotlight, but she also wrote 10½ paragraphs for the piece.  You guess which ones.  For more examples of her writing on the Mets and on her other sports loves, please check out her site, A Gal For All Seasons.

Note: One Season Wonders was a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets who had one and only one memorable season in New York. (And on occasion, it wasn't just an individual player that was a One Season Wonder.)  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:
January 2, 2012: Bernard Gilkey
January 9, 2012: Terry Leach 
January 16, 2012: George Stone
January 23, 2012: Roger Cedeño
January 30, 2012: Frank Viola
February 6, 2012: Joe Christopher 
February 13, 2012: Dave Magadan 
February 20, 2012: Pedro Martinez
February 27, 2012: Bret Saberhagen 
March 5, 2012: Robin Ventura 
March 12, 2012: Willie Montañez
March 19, 2012: Lance Johnson 

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