By Steve Silverman
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That’s once again the case as the Mets host the Yankees this weekend. The Mets are enjoying a very solid first half of the season, and the common perception is that by taking two-of-three from the Yankees the Mets will put themselves in a position to seize control of the National League East and chase down the Washington Nationals.
While beating the Yankees would be great for the Mets, it would not necessarily mean that they will go on a long winning streak or take 10 series in a row from their upcoming opponents. Momentum does not often come in Major League Baseball by beating the team you “hate,” especially when that series takes place in June.
No, what the Mets need to do to run down the Nationals and take control of the N.L. East is to get consistent starting pitching. That’s been the baseball rule for decades, and the only change that has meant anything is how much the bullpen means.
Dramatic, come-from-behind wins are great for the fans and sportswriters, but those kind of games bring momentum surges that last a few days. The momentum surge that comes from consistent starting pitching will take a team through October.
The quality of the Mets’ starting pitching is something manager Terry Collins can work with for the foreseeable future. Obviously, R.A. Dickey has worked his way to the top of the rotation with his sensational power knuckleball. He’s recorded an unbelievable 11-1 record, 2.30 earned run average and unfathomable 103-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He is a very good pitcher at this point who is in the midst of a sensational hot streak. He is the almost-certain National League starter in the All-Star Game, but unless the history of baseball is going to be completely rewritten, his knuckleball will not remain an unhittable pitch for the rest of the season.
Two consecutive one-hitters is nothing to gloss over. Dickey has as much control over his pitch as any knuckleballer in the last 50 years. But the best knuckleballers — like Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood, Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough — would remain effective for only a finite period of time. At a certain point it seems obvious that the hitters will have their day against Dickey.
However, it’s not his job to worry about the odds and the history of the pitch. It’s his job to keep throwing it as well as possible and let others worry about using terms like “unprecedented success.” He has to work on maintaining his success by improving.
That’s just what Dickey is doing. He is not looking for accolades and pats on the back. He just wants to go out on the mound and work at his job. It’s called maturity.
Johan Santana and Jon Niese have also been strong in support. Santana threw his wondrous no-hitter and was properly celebrated, but it’s the business of consistency that most interests Collins. Santana has always been a true pro, and while he has lost a few miles per hour off his pitches he has made up for it with guile and intelligence. The issue with Santana is health. If he can stay healthy, he will almost certainly get the job done.
Niese also has the look of a solid contributor. As he gets set to take the mound against a Yankees team that he shut out for seven innings earlier this year, he is becoming a solid guy. Take his last outing against the Reds. He gave up a three-run homer in the first inning but then gave up just one run the rest of the way.
A bad inning per game is often the way it goes with starting pitchers. If that bad inning is three runs or less and then the rest of the game is solid, that’s a good formula for keeping your team in the game.
Dickey, Santana and Niese appear to be the Mets’ big three for the foreseeable future, and that’s fairly solid. A series win over the Yankees would be nice, but the one that follows against the diminished Cubs may be even more important.
Teams with designs on playing in the postseason –- possibly as the division champions –- can’t lose series to teams that may lose 105 games or more. The Mets have two series with the Cubs prior to the All-Star break, and taking five-of-six games would be well-advised to show that this team takes no one lightly.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Give us your prediction right now: Will R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana and the rest of the Mets’ starting rotation lead the Amazins’ to October baseball? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…