08/24/07 12:47 AM ET
Mets-Padres: Possible playoff preview?
Both teams showed their strengths, weaknesses in series
If the season ended today -- which it never does when somebody says that -- the Mets, owners of the best record in the National League, would play the Padres, currently the NL Wild Card leaders.
These two clubs finished their season series at Shea Stadium on Thursday night. Before this series, the Padres had not won a game at Shea since August 2004. But they won two out of three this time around. They finished 4-2 overall against the Mets for the regular season.
What this series demonstrated was that if the San Diego club gets any kind of offense, it is extremely difficult to defeat. The Padres lead the Major Leagues in team ERA. After 126 games, it's far too late for that sort of thing to be a statistical fluke.
The Padres' problem has been a lack of offense. They opened this series 15th in the NL in runs scored. But after two games, they moved up to 13th. They still had a long distance to travel, but at least they were headed in the right direction.
Padres manager Bud Black looked through his lineup before Thursday night's game and found four players -- Brian Giles, Mike Cameron, Adrian Gonzalez and Khalil Greene -- who had been simultaneously swinging the bats well. This did not even factor in the very helpful return of Milton Bradley from a strained hamstring.
"For us to score runs, at a rate that we think we can score them, we need three or four guys swinging the bat well," Black said. "I mean for a two-week period where three or four guys are locked in. And for whatever reason during the course of the season, we haven't had that many guys swing the bat well at one time. We seem to have two, maybe three."
They had more like seven or eight going well by the end of Thursday night, which ended in a 9-8, 10-inning San Diego victory. The Padres' nine-run, 15-hit performance was impressive, but it wasn't far out of line with their work in the rest of the series. For the three games, the Padres scored 22 runs on 40 hits. And they needed all of those runs, because the Mets scored 20 themselves.
On the other hand, the Padres didn't exactly contain the Mets' running game. The Mets stole 11 bases in the series. On Wednesday night, Jose Reyes, arguably the single most exciting player in the game today, set a franchise record for steals in a single season. On Thursday night, the Mets set a franchise record for team steals in a single season. The Padres could not stop them. The bottom half of each inning of this series had the potential to turn into a one-way track meet.
But that kind of thing is what you like best about the Mets' offense. It does not always require sheer power to succeed. This is probably a very good thing, since the Mets haven't received the sort of sheer power they were hoping for this season.
If you had just checked the scoreboard, with runs piling up in all directions and leads evaporating, you might have thought that this was the American League. OK, it wasn't Texas beating Baltimore, 30-3, on Wednesday, but nothing was sacred on the mound.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, the game's all-time saves leader, and the Mets' Billy Wagner, one of the premier closers in the business, were both scored upon. Hoffman squeezed in a save in Wednesday's night game, but pitching was not exactly the theme here.
On Thursday night, Tom Glavine, seeking his 302nd victory, was battered for six runs on 11 hits in five innings. That didn't even seem to matter when the Mets erased a 6-1 deficit to take a 7-6 lead, but it was indicative of the way these games went.
The Padres are happy to be swinging the bats well, but this offensive showing doesn't change the essential nature of their team. It does indicate that they have a chance to strike the kind of balance that successful teams require.
"I still believe that the strength of our team is the pitching and the defense," Black said. "But we do have [hitters] who I believe are capable.
"Collectively, we know that it it's going to take all aspects. We're not going to win with just pitching or just defense. It's going to take all the facets, playing as a team, to get where we want to be."
Padres reliever Heath Bell, a former Met, restored pitching order with a scoreless bottom of the 10th on Thursday, recording his first career save in the process. This victory meant a lot to the Padres, but it also meant a lot personally to Bell.
"It's huge for me; first Major League save, especially against the Mets in New York, especially since I got booed," Bell said with a smile. "I love the Mets fans; they would cheer you when you do good, and boo you when you do bad. I think the boos were more that I was gone. And that wasn't my decision."
As the two teams ranked Nos. 1-2 in the NL in team ERA, producing these wide-open contests, Bell had a perfect perspective: "The scores are up there, but at the end, we're holding them enough to win the game, and that's really what counts. If our team's ERA was 8.00 and we scored nine runs every day and won 100 games and got to the playoffs, I don't think anybody would mind."
These two teams are finished with each other for the regular season, but the possibility of them meeting in the postseason is very real and both sides know it.
"It'll be a lot of fun, I'm excited about it," Wagner said. "I'm sure their team's feeling lucky, too. Their bullpen and our bullpen, it was a tough three-game series for each bullpen, and I don't think anybody's sitting there bragging about how well they did. Both sides know it's going to be a battle if we get in the playoffs."
Based on reasonable pitching expectations for this series, this turned out to be largely a run-scoring festival. That was unexpected. What could have been expected, now and maybe later, was the degree of difficulty the New York Mets found in playing the San Diego Padres.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.