Monday, February 16, 2015

Three Mo-METS In Time: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine (The Three Enemigos)

A general manager can acquire baseball players in several ways.  These ways include - but are not limited to - trading for players, signing free agents or drafting players.  From 1997 to 2003, the man who traded, signed and drafted players for the Mets was general manager Steve Phillips.

Phillips helped build the Mets into a contender, adding proven talent like Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura to a squad that had ended a six-year run of futility during the first year of Phillips' tenure.  He also set the Mets up for success after his departure by drafting David Wright and signing Jose Reyes.

But Phillips also had his share of duds, as anyone who remembers the 2002 season can attest.  (The law office of Alomar, Vaughn, Burnitz and Cedeño lost a lot of cases for that team.)  He also failed to keep quality players when he had them.

Phillips could not re-sign first baseman John Olerud, who went back home to the Pacific Northwest after Phillips made a poorly-timed comment about the World Trade Organization riots going on in Seattle, saying, "I can't understand why anybody would want to play in Seattle after seeing the chaos.  I would think there'd be a mass exodus."  Olerud went on to win three Gold Gloves and made an All-Star team with the Mariners (he accomplished neither in his three years as a Met).  He also played in the postseason four times after leaving the Mets.

In addition to Olerud, who left via free agency, Phillips also pushed the panic button when shortstop Rey Ordoñez got hurt in 2000, trading Melvin Mora to the Orioles for short-term solution Mike Bordick.  The 35-year-old Bordick, who was having a career year in Baltimore (.831 OPS), underperformed in New York (.685 OPS).  Mora went on to become a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient in ten seasons with the O's, while Bordick went on to become an Oriole again in 2001, leaving the Mets as a free agent.

Needless to say, Phillips had his ups and downs as general manager of the Mets.  But three players - players who are now vilified in New York - were originally viewed as key pieces to helping the team either make a push for the postseason or bringing the team back to respectability.  One was acquired via a trade.  Another was drafted by Phillips.  The third came to New York as a free agent.  For the most part, they performed well while in New York.  But no one ever remembers that.  The only thing anyone remembers about them was their contribution to three of the lowest moments in Mets history, essentially turning them into the Three Enemigos - enemies of Mets fans who wanted so badly to taste postseason success, only to have it taken from them through three epic meltdowns.

Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman and Tom Glavine - the Three Enemigos!

In 1998, the Mets failed to end a ten-year postseason drought, coughing up a one-game lead in the wild card race in the season's final five games.  Although New York added future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza in May, the team only made minor moves at the trade deadline in 1998, dealing for players such as Tony Phillips, Wille Blair, Jorge Fabregas and Mike Kinkade.  Not wanting to use the same approach in 1999, general manager Phillips went all-out at the trade deadline, acquiring veterans Darryl Hamilton and Shawon Dunston.  He also made two separate trades with Oakland, dealing away former Generation K member Jason Isringhausen for reliever Billy Taylor and shipping off outfield prospect Terrence Long (who became the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2000) for starting pitcher Kenny Rogers.

Rogers pitched well for the Mets during the season's final two months, tossing two complete games, one of which was a four-hit shutout against the San Francisco Giants on September 6.  The Mets won ten of the 12 starts made by Rogers, including his critical performance in the first game of the season-ending series versus the Pittsburgh Pirates.  With the Mets two games out of the wild card with three games to play, Rogers held the Bucs scoreless into the eighth inning, striking out a season-high ten batters.  But Rogers allowed a run in the eighth, then watched from the bench as a walk by Turk Wendell and a single off John Franco allowed the tying run to score.  The Mets eventually won the game in 11 innings to keep their postseason hopes alive and three days later, their playoff dreams came true after they defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the season's 163rd game.

In his first nine starts for the Mets following the trade, Rogers was a perfect 5-0 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.  The Mets won eight of those nine starts, which impressed manager Bobby Valentine.

''He surprises me with his curveball, something I didn't know he had developed so well,'' said Valentine.  ''He's a much better pitcher than I remembered. ... He's everything that we had hoped for.'' 

What Valentine hadn't hoped for was Rogers falling apart in his next two starts, allowing a total of ten runs and not making it past the fifth inning in either game, both of which came against the sub-.500 Phillies.  His strong performance against the Pirates in his final regular season start only served to place a bandage on a cracking dam.  That crack would burst in the postseason.

The Mets lost a total of five games against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves in the 1999 postseason.  Three of those five losses were charged to Kenny Rogers.  A home run by backup catcher Todd Pratt ended the division series in four games, temporarily making Mets fans forget that Rogers was responsible for the team's only loss in the series, a game in which he allowed four runs in 4⅓ innings.

Rogers didn't fare much better a week later in his first NLCS start.  After dropping the first game to Atlanta, the Mets desperately needed a series-tying win before coming back home to Shea Stadium.  Although Rogers kept the Braves scoreless through the first five innings, he was constantly pitching in and out of trouble, allowing eight base runners in those five frames.  But the Braves squandered several scoring opportunities, grounding into two double plays and getting picked off first base on two occasions.  Rogers was more lucky than good in the first five innings.  His luck ran out in the sixth, as he allowed a game-tying two-run homer to Mets killer Brian Jordan, followed by another two-run homer by light-hitting catcher Eddie Perez.

"I can't believe I just gave up a homer to Eddie Perez." (Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images)

It was bad enough that Rogers had coughed up the lead in the critical Game Two loss to the Braves.  But that's not what Mets fans remember him for.  The moment that truly made Rogers an enemy of the Mets' state happened four games later, when two of his fellow pitchers blew late-inning leads and he was called upon to keep the game tied.  Until it wasn't.

As a result of the game-winning Grand Slam Single by Robin Ventura in Game Five - a game in which Kenny Rogers pitched two scoreless innings of relief, the Mets became just the second team in big league history to force a Game Six after dropping the first three games of a best-of-seven series.  The series shifted back to Atlanta for the sixth game, but the Mets didn't show up for that game until after it had begun, falling behind by five runs in the first inning.

The never-say-die Mets did not panic, despite the early 5-0 deficit.  New York scored eight runs from the sixth through the eighth innings, taking a one-run lead into the bottom of the eighth.  But John Franco allowed a one-out single to Eddie Perez (you may remember him as the aforementioned light-hitting catcher), a stolen base by pinch-runner Otis Nixon and a run-scoring single by Brian Hunter.  Once again, the Mets and Braves were going to extra innings with the Braves a run away from winning the pennant.

In Game Five, Todd Pratt tied the game in the 15th inning with a bases-loaded walk.  Two days later, Pratt gave the Mets an extra-inning lead, hitting a sacrifice fly to score Benny Agbayani in the tenth.  But once again, the Mets bullpen could not hold the lead, as Armando Benitez allowed a one-out RBI single to yet another light-hitting Brave - pinch-hitter Ozzie Guillen.  The game was now tied, 9-9, as the teams moved on to the 11th inning.  This time, the Mets could not push across a run to take the lead in their half of the inning, a frame that saw the Mets use Shawon Dunston as a pinch-hitter for Benitez.  New York had used nine pitchers in their Game Five victory.  With Benitez now out of the game, the Mets needed an eighth pitcher to start the bottom of the 11th in Game Six.  Valentine rolled the dice and turned to Kenny Rogers.  The decision ended up costing the Mets their magical season.

Rogers allowed a leadoff double to Gerald Williams, who advanced to third on Bret Boone's sacrifice bunt.  Valentine then had Rogers intentionally walk Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to set up a force play at every base.  But that also forced Rogers to pitch with pinpoint control to slugger Andruw Jones.  Finally, on a 3-2 count, Rogers threw a pitch that wasn't even close to the strike zone, allowing Williams to scamper home with the pennant-winning run and the Mets to fly home with their season coming to a screeching halt.

Although he pitched fairly well during the regular season following his mid-season trade to the Mets, Rogers fell apart in the postseason, going 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA.  Rogers pitched 12 innings in two starts and two relief appearances, allowing 26 base runners (16 hits, nine walks, one hit batsman).  The Mets eventually did win the pennant in 2000, but they did so without Rogers, who signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers following his postseason pratfalls.  For many Mets fans, he left the team four balls too late.

After the Mets lost the 2000 World Series to the Yankees (without Rogers), Steve Phillips went into the 2001 June amateur draft hoping to find a talented arm who could help the team in the near future.  After all, four of the club's five starting pitchers in 2001 were already in their thirties and the team had just lost starting pitcher Mike Hampton to free agency.  However, as a result of Hampton's defection to the thin air and utopian school system in Denver, the Mets received two first round draft picks from the Rockies.  With their supplemental pick from Colorado, the Mets chose infielder David Wright and with their compensation pick, New York selected pitcher Aaron Heilman.

At least David Wright turned out okay.  (Doug Benc/Getty Images)

As a student-athlete at Notre Dame, Heilman set school records in career wins (43) and strikeouts (425).  He also rarely gave up home runs, allowing just 12 homers in 393⅔ innings.  That trend continued in the minor leagues, as Heilman surrendered just 15 homers in three minor league seasons before making his major league debut for the Mets in 2003.  Unfortunately, Heilman took some time to adjust to major league hitters, especially ones with power.

From 2003 to 2004, Heilman made 18 starts for the Mets, allowing 17 homers in 93⅓ innings.  It was more of the same for Heilman in his first start of the 2005 campaign, as he allowed home runs to noted Met-killers Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones in a loss to the Braves on April 9.  His next start was a revelation, as Heilman pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout against the Florida Marlins, allowing just a fourth-inning single to future Met Luis Castillo.  But when Heilman faced the Marlins again in his next start, he allowed seven runs and 11 hits in just four innings of work.  A month later, Heilman had lost his spot in the starting rotation.

The home run ball was one of the reasons why Heilman never made it as a starting pitcher, as he served up 22 taters in his first 25 career starts.  But once he moved to the bullpen, Heilman thrived.  He allowed just one homer in 45 relief appearances, with that long ball coming in garbage time on August 24 during the late innings of an 18-4 Mets victory over the Diamondbacks.

In 2006, Heilman once again finished strongly.  From July 19 to the end of the season, Heilman made 33 relief appearances, posting four wins, 12 holds, a 2.29 ERA and a stellar 0.93 WHIP.  Opposing batters hit just .190 off Heilman in those 33 games and most importantly, failed to hit any home runs off him in 35⅓ innings.  Heilman went nearly three months without allowing a home run until he surrendered what appeared to be a meaningless home run to Wilson Betemit in Game Two of the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It was the only run allowed by the Mets in a 4-1 victory.  Two weeks later, Heilman allowed another home run.  This time, the blast wasn't so meaningless.

In a tension-filled seventh game of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets and Cards were tied, 1-1, going to the eighth inning.  As he had done throughout the season, manager Willie Randolph brought in Heilman to pitch the eighth inning.  Heilman rewarded his manager by pitching a scoreless frame, sandwiching two strikeouts around an intentional walk to Albert Pujols.  But instead of bringing in closer Billy Wagner to start the ninth, even though there was no chance for a save situation with the Mets playing at home, Randolph decided to hold Wagner in case the game went into extra innings, allowing Heilman to pitch the ninth.

Heilman had pitched beautifully in 2006, but he was most effective as a one-inning pitcher.  During the regular season, Heilman was asked to pitch more than one inning in 17 of his 74 relief appearances.  He allowed runs in nine of those 17 outings.  When asked to pitch no more than one inning, Heilman held the opposition scoreless in 45 of those 57 appearances.  But Game Seven was a different animal, and Heilman was going to pitch as long as Randolph needed him to stay on the mound.  Three batters into the ninth, Heilman became a part of Mets history, but not for a moment he wanted.

I wonder what's got everyone's attention in this photo.  (Photo by Bill Kostroun/AP)

During the 2006 regular season, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina batted .216 and had a .271 on-base percentage.  He also was not a threat to go deep, as he had notched just 16 career homers in 1,033 plate appearances.  Clearly, Molina was not a Mike Piazza-type hitting catcher.  In fact, he couldn't even be compared to someone like, oh, let's say Mike Scioscia.  Although Molina's power was comparable to Scioscia, who hit 35 homers in 3,295 plate appearances through 1988, at least Scioscia knew how to reach base (.263 batting average, .350 on-base percentage during the same span).

In 1988, Scioscia had 31 plate appearances against the Mets during the regular season.  He produced no homers and one RBI against them.  Similarly, in his short career, Molina had 32 lifetime regular season plate appearances versus the Mets entering the 2006 NLCS.  Those plate appearances produced - you guessed it - no homers and one RBI for Molina.  In the 1988 National League Championship Series, Scioscia pulled a two-run homer off Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning at Shea Stadium in what was considered the turning point of the series.  Eighteen years later, a catcher with little power was batting in the ninth inning at Shea during a critical moment of the NLCS.  Once again, the light-hitting catcher had a runner on base and was facing a homegrown, first round draft pick.  And once again, the ball was pulled out of the yard.

Ever since becoming a relief pitcher in 2005, Aaron Heilman had become a master of keeping the ball in the park, allowing just six homers in 119 relief appearances during the 2005 and 2006 campaigns.  But once Molina beat him for a pennant-winning two-run homer in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, Heilman became quite susceptible to the long ball, serving up 18 homers in 159 games over the next two seasons.  And it wasn't just the fact that he was giving up homers.  He was also giving them up with men on base.

From 2003 to 2006, Heilman allowed 28 homers.  Exactly half of them (14) were solo shots.  After giving up the fateful home run to Molina, Heilman yielded 18 homers in his final two years as a Met.  Only four of them were hit with no one on base.  Six of them came with at least two runners aboard (four three-run homers, two grand slams).

Aaron Heilman was supposed to be a top prospect for the Mets who prided himself on keeping the ball in the park.  As a relief pitcher in 2005 and 2006, he was one of the best at doing just that.  That is, until Yadier Molina took a page out of the Mike Scioscia Guide to Hitting Devastating Home Runs.  Heilman - and the entire Mets franchise, for that matter - never recovered.

Speaking of being devastated, one player who signed with the Mets as a free agent during Steve Phillips' tenure as general manager was present at both the Kenny Rogers and Aaron Heilman meltdowns.  As a member of the Braves in 1999, he was in a celebratory mood when Rogers walked Andruw Jones to force in the decisive run, but seven years later he was more somber as a member of the Mets who witnessed the Molina home run.  One year after the Molina bomb, he put up a stinker of his own, not that he was all that destroyed by it.

Tom Glavine was an enemy before and after he became an "enemigo".  In 17 years with the Braves (1987-2002, 2008), Glavine made 36 regular season starts against the Mets, posting a 17-7 record and 2.82 ERA.  His .708 winning percentage versus New York made him one of just three pitchers (min. 35 starts) who won at least 70% of his decisions against the Mets, joining two former Giants - Juan Marichal (26-8, .765 winning percentage) and Mike Krukow (22-7, .759).  But when Phillips needed to make a splash following the Mets' first losing season in six years, he turned to the Mets' nemesis, signing Glavine to a three-year, $35 million contract with a fourth-year option.  Glavine, who had 242 career wins at the time, thought he needed four productive seasons to reach 300 victories.

''I want to have the opportunity to win 300 games, and I think in order to do that, I have to pitch four years,'' said Glavine.  ''So I don't want to make a decision and in three years have to find a team to pitch for in the fourth year.  That fourth year is an important part of it.''

Glavine needed more than four years to reach 300 wins, as he produced 48 victories in his first four seasons as a Met.  But after becoming the only Mets pitcher to win multiple games during the 2006 postseason and needing just ten wins to become the first pitcher to win his 300th game while wearing a Mets uniform, the Mets almost had to bring Glavine back, which they did when they signed him to a one-year, $10.5 million contract to pitch for the team in 2007.

The Mets weren't nearly as successful in 2007 as they had been a year earlier.  Neither was Glavine, for that matter.  After going 15-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 2006, allowing three runs or fewer in all but seven of his 32 starts, his 2007 campaign was quite pedestrian (13-8, 4.45 ERA).  Glavine also allowed six runs or more in seven of his 34 starts in 2007.  One of those seven poor efforts came in Glavine's next-to-last start of the season, when he allowed six runs in five innings against Washington.  The Mets scored six runs in the ninth inning to make the Nationals sweat, but fell short by a single tally, losing a 10-9 heartbreaker.

Although Glavine could have easily been remembered for that subpar performance, the Mets still had a two-game lead in the division over the Phillies with five games to play.  Glavine would get one more opportunity to pitch before the end of the regular season, with the Mets hoping that the division could be clinched before then.  But it wasn't.  And Glavine's final start would determine if there would be October baseball at Shea Stadium.  Spoiler alert: There wasn't.

One day after John Maine had one of the best pitching performances in franchise history (no runs, one hit allowed, 14 strikeouts, no-hitter broken up with two outs in the eighth), Glavine had one of the worst.  Four batters into the game, Glavine had already given up more hits than Maine did the previous day.  Glavine faced every batter in the Marlins' lineup in the regular season finale.  He retired one of them.  The southpaw allowed four singles, a double, two walks and made a throwing error before hitting opposing pitcher Dontrelle Willis with the bases loaded to force in a run.  When reliever Jorge Sosa allowed a two-run double to Dan Uggla - the only batter Glavine retired in his abbreviated outing - the book on Glavine was closed.

In the Mets' biggest game of the season, Glavine pitched one-third of an inning, allowing seven runs - all of them earned.  His ERA for the day was an unfathomable 189.00.  The only thing larger than his earned run average was the enormity of the loss, as the 8-1 defeat, coupled with the Phillies' 6-1 victory, gave Philadelphia its first division crown in 14 years.  The crushing loss also sent the Mets home prematurely after the team held a seven-game lead in the division with 17 games to play.

As upset as Mets fans were with the team's collapse during the final three weeks of the season, they became even more incensed after hearing how Glavine felt about his performance, especially his choice of words when asked by a reporter if he was devastated by the loss.

"I'm not devastated, but I am disappointed.  Devastated is a word used for greater things in life than a game.  I was disappointed in the way I pitched."

For Mets fans who lived and died with the team since before Glavine had thrown his first pitch in the majors, the season-ending loss in 2007 was one of the toughest to comprehend, almost as difficult to swallow as Glavine's post-game comments.  Glavine's performance not only capped an historic collapse, it reinforced the notion that the Mets could not win the big game, similar to Kenny Rogers' loss in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS and Aaron Heilman's defeat in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS.

The Mets once again lost a late-season division lead in 2008, although that one was just a three-and-a-half game lead, then followed that up with six consecutive losing seasons.  If only Kenny Rogers had not suffered a postseason meltdown in 1999, or if Aaron Heilman had known that light-hitting catchers can indeed become supermen at Shea Stadium in October, or even if Tom Glavine had been a little more terrific and a little less horrific in his final start as a Met, the history of the franchise could have been quite different.

Steve Phillips helped put together a team that made the only back-to-back playoff appearances in club annals.  He also helped lead the team down a dark path with some ill-fated trades, draft picks and free agent signings.  Three of those acquisitions had success with the Mets for most of the time they toiled in New York.  But they wilted horribly when the team needed them the most.

Kenny Rogers (traded to the Mets), Aaron Heilman (drafted by the Mets) and Tom Glavine (signed as a free agent with the Mets) could have been remembered for many things.  But their legacies will always come down to three heartbreaking defeats, turning three potential heroes into villains in the eyes of long-suffering Mets fans.

Nothing the Three Enemigos did prior to their untimely performances with the Mets will ever matter.  Whether they admitted it or not, those three moments in time will always be devastating.

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness

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