Published April 19, 2010
The gap wasn't supposed to be this wide, at least not this early. New York's purists were actually hoping for a competitive balance between the Yankees and Mets -- back to the good old days when an inner-city rivalry actually meant something.
But only a couple of weeks into April, the disparity is too wide to ignore. The Yankees have won all of their first four series, including an impressive sweep of the Rangers this weekend. At 9-3 the Bombers are off to their best start since 2003, which is worth noting because of how little production they've gotten from Mark Teixeira (.114, two extra-base hits in 44 at-bats), Nick Swisher (.200) and Nick Johnson (.158).
The Mets, meanwhile, have lost each of their first four series, are nestled in last place and in the slow, inexorable process of getting Jerry Manuel fired. His day of reckoning is coming -- whether it's at the end of the month, following a three-game series in Philadelphia, or in May, after Carlos Beltran can provide a bounce. Or not.
Believe it or not, Yankee officials take no pleasure in seeing the Mets' season unraveling. GM Brian Cashman counts Omar Minaya among his friends; the two have joked about meeting up in the World Series some day.
Only, that seems like a pipedream now. Ron Darling, the former Met hurler who now broadcasts their games for the SNY Network, recently said, "When one team of the two teams (in New York) is down, it lessens the summer."
"It's part of living around here, when fans in the orange and blue can wink at the fans wearing the dark blue and say, 'Hey, we're pretty good, too.' It's the way it should be."
Of course, fans around the country couldn't care less if New Yorkers are being deprived of a two-team tapestry. The Subway Series in 2000 was one of the least-watched Fall Classics in recent memory; it mattered only within the five boroughs, to the two, distinct armies of obsessed followers.
It's true, the Yankees and Mets have different types of fans, different demographics and, obviously, different histories. But consider the similarities: both clubs play in state-of-the-art ballparks less than a year old. Both have their own regional sports networks. Both have the highest payrolls in their respective leagues.
And both rosters are loaded with stars: from Jeter to A-Rod, Rivera and Sabathia, to Wright, Reyes, Santana and K-Rod.
So how is that the Yankees look like they're embarking on another run-away summer (although the Rays would beg to differ) and the Mets have been reduced to a growing irrelevance?
What's undermining the Mets is the negative momentum left over from 2009. Talent evaluators say that Manuel has failed to erase the stigma of last year's 90-loss season, so that in times of crisis, the Mets have come to anticipate failure.
Said one executive, "When a team is down, it always takes on the personality of the manager. That's why I see going on with the Mets. The spark is definitely not there."
It doesn't help, either, that the Mets live with the day to day comparisons to the Yankees. At a time when the Mets' hierarchy is more like anarchy -- officials from other teams say they can barely tell who's in charge at Citi Field -- the Yankees have become a model of efficiency.
"Brian (Cashman) has definitely become better at his job," said one industry peer. "The Yankees used to get by only by throwing money at their mistakes. But they have a business plan now, which is pretty scary considering they've got $200 million to play with."
None of this has to be permanent, though. The Mets have seen flickers of excellence recently from Mike Pelfrey and, even Oliver Perez, who allowed only one run in 6.1 innings against the Cardinals on Friday. Johan Santana shut out St. Louis for the first seven innings of Saturday's 20-inning marathon.
The front office finally jettisoned Mike Jacobs, a wise choice, and appears ready to summon first baseman of the future, Ike Davis, another good move. And sooner or later, Reyes (.154) has to get hot.
But while it's realistic to think the Mets can stop the bleeding, it's a stretch to imagine them going on a long winning streak any time soon. Although they've got 22 of their first 34 games at home, 25 of those first 34 games come against teams that finished over .500 last year. And the Mets are currently in a stretch of 19 straight games against '09 contenders, including all four playoff teams (Rockies, Cardinals, Dodgers and Phillies.).
The Yankees' schedule is no less challenging, including the first 12 games which were against last year's contenders, including three with the Red Sox and three with the Rays.
Yet, the Bombers emerged from the turbulence with a .750 winning percentage. There's one more patch of rough weather coming, from May 7-20, when they play 14 straight games against the league's top teams. After that, the Yankees' schedule softens.
Which is to say, after that, it might be too late to stop them.
NOTING THE RADAR GUN:
The Mets may or may not consider this a problem, but the velocity readings are down among their starting pitchers from 2009.
Three-fifths of the rotation, in fact, is averaging under 90-mph: Santana (89.7), John Maine (89.3) and Perez (87.2). Even Mike Pelfrey, at 91 mph, is down a tick from last year's 92.7.
The only hurler to have gained speed is rookie Jon Niese, who's up to 90.6, exactly 1 mph better than in 2009.
An overpowering fastball is less of a necessity in the National League than in the American League, but it's worth remembering that Perez, Maine and Pelfrey were once considered three of the NL's harder throwers. Why they've stopped throwing hard appears to be a mystery.