Fun, but turbulent ride at Shea
Mets give fans plenty to talk about, plenty to scream about
NEW YORK -- It's a Mets movie: "The Good, the Better and the Mota."
When the Shea Stadium roller coaster finally came to a halt on Wednesday night, the home team had triumphed and the faithful went home happy. But before that, the Mets fan base had experienced the full range of emotions: from the joy to the anger to the jubilation -- the last made all the better for the disappointment that had preceded it.
The Mets emerged with a 4-3 victory over the Braves. This was the Mets' fifth victory in their past six tries against the Braves. The Braves used to be the Mets' main nemesis. The Braves used to be the colossus of the National League East. Those days are gone. These roles have been reversed.
And as a bonus, the Phillies, the Mets' next opponent, lost again to the Rockies, raising New York's lead in the NL East to an imposing seven games with only 17 left to be played.
It would take something very close to a complete collapse for the Mets not to win their second straight division title. And that just isn't going to occur. The Mets are way too solid, and the Phillies' pitching isn't close to being solid enough.
Some of the individual efforts of the Mets simply dazzled in this one. If you looked at the pitching matchups before this series, you might have reasonably thought that this was the best shot that the Braves had. After all, they had John Smoltz starting. Smoltz is the only pitcher in Major League history to have at least 200 victories and 150 saves. His remarkable career transitions -- from elite starter to lights-out closer back to elite starter -- means that he's going to the Hall of Fame if he never throws another pitch. And he will throw another pitch.
But Smoltz was out-pitched over the course of six innings, slightly, but notably, by John Maine. While Smoltz was giving up two runs in that period, Maine was giving up just one. Outstanding work.
Yet another key hit was delivered by Marlon Anderson, who has been a remarkably productive utility player for the Mets. Anderson got a start at first base on Wednesday night, and he made manager Willie Randolph look like a genius, delivering a fifth-inning home run that turned a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 game.
Players like Anderson, while they never get the overwhelming recognition, can make the difference between a good team and an outstanding team. When you can turn to a player of this caliber for a necessary spot start, it's the daily double. You get roster flexibility and production.
Anderson has 24 RBIs in just 86 at-bats, and he's excelled as a pinch-hitter, hitting .333 in that role. He has been tearing it up recently, with 12 RBIs in his last 16 games. Terrific role player.
Carlos Beltran, with his bat and his legs and his brain, ran his way into the winning run in the eighth inning -- a leadoff single, then he steals second, then he alertly and quickly advances to third on a grounder to third. Great instincts, great timing, great, great, great.
Shawn Green drove in Beltran with the game-winning single. This was Green's third hit of the evening. There was a time when Green's role seemed to be dwindling into the deep background on this team, but he's hitting .383 over his past 12 starts. A valuable veteran, a stable presence, a big clutch performance in this one.
The vast majority of the 51,648 patrons of the game on hand on Wednesday night booed reliever Guillermo Mota. And this was just when he showed up on the mound in the eighth inning. The fans reached a much higher decibel level after he had surrendered a two-run single that turned a 3-1 game into a 3-3 tie.
It was as though Mota was representing both the Internal Revenue Service and the Phillies. Serious booing, but in part, of course, the fans were criticizing the mere decision to have Mota in a crucial situation in a game that meant something.
When you say that Mota has not been effective this season, you're being generous. He has a 5.79 ERA in 44 games. His appearance in a 3-1 game, in the late innings with the bases loaded, filled the paying public with what sounded like a mixture of dread and dismay. The paying public wasn't wrong.
But you haven't seen the last of Mota.
"I'm going to keep going to him," Randolph said. "He's still got some of the best stuff in our bullpen. He needs to continue to work to be more consistent with things. Right now, he's just going through one of those situations where he just can't seem to get a break, but that's going to turn around for him, that's going to change."
The crowd's reaction, Randolph said, cannot be an issue for the relief pitcher.
"He shouldn't get caught up in the crowd," the Mets manager said. "The crowd's going to react. That's not something he should be concerned about. I think for the team and for us, he needs to just get over the hump."
After Mota gave up the game-tying hit to Jeff Francoeur, he did strike out Andruw Jones to end the top of the eighth. This left him as the pitcher of record. And this led to a third round of booing.
Amid the postgame elation at Shea Stadium, where the announcement was made that Mota was the winning pitcher, the crowd booed again. These people had every right to this reaction.
Randolph has done a superb job as the manager of the Mets, particularly in light of some of the adversity this team has faced this season. If he's not a favorite for NL Manager of the Year, he certainly deserves serious consideration for the award.
But on the issue of Mota, at some point, the belief in the potential has to give way to the harsh facts of continued inadequate performances. If the need to get Mota back to top form still exists, and apparently it does, less critical situations would be the logical place of work for this relief pitcher at this time.
That was it at Shea Stadium on Wednesday night: the Good, the Better and the Mota. The highs were high, the lows were low, and at the end, two out of three is very good in this game.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.