NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Mike Baxter. Jeremy Hefner. This list goes on… Vinny Rottino, Rob Johnson, Jordany Valdespin, Omar Quintanilla, Mike Nickeas.
These aren’t exactly the Mets everybody expected to see. So, who these guys and how do they keep winning big league ballgames?
Two months into the season, the mostly no-name Mets are one of baseball’s biggest surprises. Stars David Wright and Johan Santana are surrounded by a mystery cast of supporting characters, New York is 28-23 and only 1½ games out of first place in the tightly bunched NL East.
Terry Collins is encouraged by what these replacement Mets are accomplishing but is hoping to see his roster return to health.
“Obviously, we’re looking forward to getting some of our front-line players back. But what these guys have shown us is that they can play here,” second-year manager Terry Collins said.
Turning to a string of subs and fill-ins, the Mets are almost a real-life version of “Major League,” the hilarious movie about a band of baseball rejects who carry the Cleveland Indians to the playoffs. About the only thing missing is Bob Uecker behind the microphone — or Wesley Snipes running sprints in his pajamas.
Or a player wanting to sacrifice a live chicken, but stranger things have happened over the years inside the Mets’ clubhouse.
“I think our minor league staff has done a great job of getting these guys prepared to come here,” said Collins, who also deserves plenty of praise. “I think one of the things that helps out is when they walk in that locker room and they look around and they see friends. They see guys they know. I think it makes a big difference.”
New York is minus three injured regulars: left fielder Jason Bay, shortstop Ruben Tejada and catcher Jose Thole. Starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey is out for the season following elbow ligament replacement surgery.
Backups Ronny Cedeno and Justin Turner are also on the shelf. New York has used six shortstops already this season following the departure of All-Star Jose Reyes as a free agent in December.
“Everybody said we didn’t have depth. I think that’s decent depth. So, guys coming up and performing is great to see,” chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. “Our farm system was better than anybody thought.”
With the Mets in dire need of early reinforcements, unheralded youngsters and minor league journeymen have stepped in and produced immediately to everyone’s surprise.
Nieuwenhuis came up from Triple-A Buffalo when center fielder Andres Torres was injured on opening day and has kept himself in the lineup by hitting .294.
Baxter, who grew up 10 minutes from where Citi Field stands, won the final bench spot in spring training. He did so well as a pinch-hitter that he’s elevated himself into batting leadoff against right-handers.
Miguel Batista earned a win in Pelfrey’s place and so did Hefner, punctuating his first major league victory with a stunning home run.
“The bus from Buffalo arrived today, as it normally does,” general manager Sandy Alderson said Tuesday.
Valdespin’s first career hit was a pinch-hit, three-run homer off Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning that sent New York to a 5-2 victory May 7.
Quintanilla was called up from the minors this week and immediately contributed by getting three hits in his Mets debut.
“They’re all here because they’re worthy of being here,” 37-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said.
Of course, the stars have shined, too.
Wright is batting .365 with five homers and 30 RBIs. Despite a recent slump, he was tied for the major league lead in on-base percentage (.463) and ranked among the NL leaders in several other categories.
Santana, who missed last season following shoulder surgery, has a 2.75 ERA after 10 healthy starts and is coming off his first shutout since June 12, 2010.
“He sets the bar for us,” pitcher Jonathon Niese said. “Everybody feeds off him.”
Dickey is 7-1 with a 3.06 ERA, lefty specialist Tim Byrdak has been a durable rock in a revamped bullpen and new closer Frank Francisco is 14 for 16 in save chances. Part-time outfielder Scott Hairston has six homers, second on the team, and 21 RBIs.
All that has helped make up for Bay’s absence since April 24 and Ike Davis’ .170 batting average.
Those were troubles the Mets supposedly couldn’t afford, but timely hitting has been huge. They entered Wednesday leading the majors in two-out runs, camouflaging a 4.49 team ERA that ranked 15th out of 16 NL clubs.
“I’m not surprised. I would say I’m a little bit impressed because they have some good young players,” said Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whose club is 3-6 against the Mets this season. “The biggest thing I like about their team is you can see the life — that they stay there and play 27 outs and they like to play. And when you like to play and when you’ve got the right attitude and you want to enjoy it and have fun and stuff like that, you could do a lot more than you think you can sometimes.”
Fans aren’t exactly flocking to Flushing: New York ranked 17th out of 30 major league teams in average attendance going into Thursday.
“We have a real nice clubhouse and the dynamic in there is such that we enjoy coming to work. And I think that’s one of the things that has helped us maintain a level of play that we’re satisfied with,” Dickey said. “I think the leadership in the clubhouse is such that everybody really does have a voice. Whether you’ve got two days of service time or 10 years of service time, everybody’s got a common goal and that’s neat.”
After playing 20 days in a row, the plucky Mets were off Thursday before beginning a four-game series Friday night against former teammate Carlos Beltran and the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
There are 111 games remaining, and the Mets have plenty to prove. But back in March, most pundits picked this team to finish last in a loaded division — while even ardent fans conceded it was unlikely the club would contend. After three straight losing seasons and a $49 million payroll purge, it appeared attention had turned toward rebuilding for the future.
By the end of May, however, the Mets have opened eyes with their patient at-bats and pesky hustle. In a town where the Yankees grab gobs of coverage, the Giants won this year’s Super Bowl and the Rangers-Devils playoff series put the NHL up front for a while, the underdog Mets are beginning to generate some positive buzz.
That’s a noticeable change for an injury-plagued franchise dogged by money problems, dwindling attendance and angry fans the past few years.
The swing started with good news off the field in March, when ownership settled a lawsuit by the trustee seeking money for victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme for up to $162 million. The agreement finally provided some financial assurance going forward and, once the games began, the Mets started winning.
“Certainly, we’re happy,” Wilpon said. “It’s not unexpected that we thought we’d be in it. I know nobody else thought we’d be in it. But listening to Sandy and the baseball guys, they thought we would have a competitive team. And that’s what they’re showing. A lot of different guys contributing.”
The question is, can the Mets keep it up?
“I think everybody has a part to play,” Dickey said. “We have a long way to go. So, for us to be in this place at this point is nice, but none of us are under the delusion that we have arrived at anything. We simply are in the place where we need to take a jump off the springboard.”
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