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Good to the LastOut
Thanks to a glossy new pen, the season will end happily in late, not early,October

TO STROLL throughthe Mets' spring training camp was to find a team attempting to reinventitself. On one day you could see 6'5", 250-pound J.J. Putz and his fellowrelief pitchers fielding grounders at second base and working on double playfeeds; shortstop Jose Reyes exhausting himself in a hitting drill during whichthe batter must take 80 opposite-field swings at 80 machine-fired curveballs insix minutes; and every clubhouse television screening a DVD with nothing butopposite-field hits by the Mets in 2008. All of the events wore the stamp ofthe team's first camp under manager Jerry Manuel. "Best camp I've everseen," says Putz, the 32-year-old erstwhile Mariner.

For subliminaleffect, though, Manuel might have considered replacing the opposite-field videoloop with a replay of the Mets' 8--1 win on Oct. 3, 2004—the last time thefranchise won its final game of the year. In each of the past three seasons NewYork was eliminated on the last day with a loss at Shea Stadium: 3--1 to St.Louis in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS; 8--1 to Florida in Game 162 of the '07regular season; and 4--2 to Florida in Game 162 of '08.

The Mets madesure that won't happen again; they tore down Shea Stadium.

Whether the firstseason in their new digs, Citi Field, ends with the same swan song is largelydependent on two relievers unencumbered by the franchise's recent frustrations:Putz and Frankie Rodriguez. (Here's all you need to know about how the East wasdecided last year: The Mets lost seven times after taking a lead into theninth, the first-place Phillies not once.) There were eight closers last yearwho had at least 15 saves and struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings,and in two days in December the Mets seized two of them, trading for Putz to bethe setup man to Rodriguez, whom they signed after his record-setting 62 savesfor the Angels. When it comes to the last inning, New York did the best itcould to author a happy ending this time.

"Totallydifferent," general manager Omar Minaya says of the last two Septembercollapses. "I actually think in '08 we overachieved, given a lot ofinjuries. We gave it away in '07. We basically had it. In '08 we never had it.The issue is, we have to win. We have to close it out before 162."

Manuel will havea far easier time with bullpen management this year than last September, whenhe went to his pen 69 times in the fateful final 17 games. With theoverpowering stuff of Putz and Rodriguez, Manuel doesn't need to worry aboutbatter-pitcher matchups or trying to create platoon advantages over at leastthe final six outs. "If they need me for more than three outs, I'mready," Putz says. "If they need me in the seventh, I'm ready. But whenI look at our bullpen, I see so much quality and depth that I don't thinkanybody needs to be overused.... And Sean Green is going to be a big key forthis team. He was lights-out last year until he wore down from being used somuch." Green, a sinkerball specialist acquired with Putz in a 12-playertrade with Seattle and Cleveland, entered August with a 2.83 ERA but had a 9.55ERA the rest of the year.

Other thansmartly renovating the shoddy bullpen that absorbed nine walk-off losses, NewYork did little else to what Minaya describes as "a real good team lastyear." Its core remains the stalwart pitching of Johan Santana, 30, andthree players in their prime years all capable of winning an MVP award: Reyes,25; third baseman David Wright, 26; and centerfielder Carlos Beltran, 31, thelinchpins of a team that outscored every other in the NL but Philadelphia in'08.

Since 2001 theMets have ranked no lower than third in NL payroll, yet the investments inthose eight years have returned more nightmarish endings (two) than playoffappearances (one). The Mets have been on the cusp of something great, and toput them over the top they have emulated the architecture of their bitterrivals, the Phillies, who traded for closer Brad Lidge and parlayed endgamecertainty into a world championship. With Putz and Rodriguez, the Mets havewhat it takes to win the games that they should, including the very lastbaseball game of 2009.

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

In a tacticalmove ripped from Davey Johnson's book, Jerry Manuel can squeeze extra runs outof his lineup by shifting Daniel Murphy from leftfield to second base wheneverJohan Santana or Oliver Perez are on the mound. The two lefties generate mostlyfly balls and strikeouts, minimizing Murphy's exposure on defense; by usingMurphy (left) at second 30 to 40 times, the Mets can get an extra bat, such asNick Evans (who had a strong spring), into the lineup and rest the fragile legsof regular second baseman Luis Castillo. In the 1980s Johnson occasionallymoved third baseman Howard Johnson or outfielder Kevin Mitchell toshortstop—getting a better hitter than Rafael Santana or Kevin Elster into thegame—when such fly ball pitchers as Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda or Ron Darlingwere on the mound.


Saves that newcloser Francisco Rodriguez had with the Angels last season. Despite thatmajor-league-record total, which was 15 more than his previous single-seasonhigh, it was not K-Rod's most dominant year—far from it. His walk rate (4.49per nine innings) was the second-worst of his six-year career, and his 10.1 K'sper nine was his lowest rate since his rookie season and well below his career11.8 entering 2008.

The Lineup

Manager JerryManuel

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)


October 13, 1986

John Hernandez, Juan to his son, is an obsessive andoverbearing man who taught Keith Hernandez how to hit and field, and the simpletruth is that no one, no manager or batting instructor, knows the nuances ofhis swing half as well as his father does. For years, John's understanding ofKeith's stroke has been the tether that has kept these two men together. Keithknows that no one can help him out of a slump as quickly as his father can, andso, throughout his career, he has often turned to his father for help. At thesame time, he has felt the compelling need to break away from his father andmake it on his own, to be his own man.

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WHAT A RELIEF Manuel's late-inning worries are over as long as newcomers K-Rod (left) and Putz stay healthy.