Notes: Slightly changed role for Heilman
Setup man has entered mid-inning in first two Mets wins
ST. LOUIS -- Even now, with merely two of 162 games played, a change in the protocol of the late innings of Mets games already is noticeable. Manager Willie Randolph declines to identify any of his relievers by role other than closer Billy Wagner. But given the evolution of the bullpen last season, the absence of Duaner Sanchez and the strength and weaknesses of the current relievers, the duties roster is clear and, compared with what existed last summer, different.
If nothing else, Randolph's use of Aaron Heilman in the first two games suggests not a revision of roles, but an adjustment.
In the Mets' victories against the Cardinals on Sunday and Tuesday nights, Heilman was summoned in mid-inning after danger was in place. He entered Sunday's game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, one out and with Scott Rolen due to bat. The Mets led by four runs at the time.
His assignment Tuesday was to extricate himself from comparable peril, facing Albert Pujols with two runners on base, two outs and the Mets leading by three runs.
Of course, Heilman has faced danger before in his two seasons as a reliever, and, once Sanchez went down with a separated shoulder last season, he did assume most of the eighth-inning responsibility. The difference is this: The Mets will probably rely on Heilman more and pitch him less, summoning him in mid-inning, something they rarely did last season.
Heilman said he anticipated as much Wednesday night as the Mets prepared for the final game of their series in St. Louis.
Heilman thought it was likely he would face fewer batters in 2007, if only because of the changed composition of the bullpen. With two, rather than one, left-handed setup men and sub-sidearm rookie Joe Smith in the bullpen, Randolph is more able to match up -- and perhaps more likely to match up. So unlike last season and 2005, when Heilman made his own trouble, he is more likely this year to inherit that of others.
In both appearances so far this season, sure enough, Heilman has been summoned in mid-inning. Last season, he started an inning in 65 of his 74 appearances and 21 of his final 22.
In two games, Heilman has faced only two batters. He retired Rolen on a hot ground ball that Jose Valentin turned into two outs and, after challenging Pujols with a fastball, he retired him on an innocuous fly ball.
Eight pitches, two outs. Less wear on an elbow that has been barking for more than a year now.
Heilman expresses no preference, finding potential benefits and pitfalls in each scenario, the primary benefit being that the demands on his arm -- and his sometimes-sore elbow -- would be reduced.
Heilman's elbow, afflicted with tendinitis since spring 2006, already seems to be less of an issue. He threw two split-finger fastballs to Pujols on Tuesday and acknowledged that he rarely threw the split last season because it aggravated his elbow.
The primary pitfall is that Heilman is afforded almost zero margin for error, something he has noticed.
"It is the same, but it's not the same," Heilman says without a trace of complaint. "Either way, the idea is to get outs."
And though he doesn't address the heightened risk of his role in the first two games, he doesn't deny it, either.
The situation seems likely to persist. Sanchez, like Heilman, was effective against left-handed and right-handed hitters, though not to the extent Heilman was. No matter, Randolph was comfortable using Sanchez against all comers. And the manager had Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano to handle the respective right-handed and left-handed-hitting opponents.
This year, though -- or at least, for now -- only Heilman is equipped for all hitters. Joe Smith already has shown some ability to deal with left-handed hitters, but he's not there yet. Thus, the innings between the starter and Wagner are more likely to be piecemealed. And Heilman, for now, the last line of defense before Wagner, may be saved for the more challenging instances.
Randolph made the fewest pitching changes in the National League in 2005 -- 392, or an average of 2.42 per game. He made the sixth-fewest in the 16-team league last season with 474, an average of 2.93 per game. Through two games this season, he has made seven pitching changes, and starters Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez have pitched six and seven innings, respectively.
Bottom line: The Mets won both.
No. 42, Willie Randolph: The Mets' manager will wear Jackie Robinson's universally retired uniform number April 15 when baseball honors the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier.
"Any time I can be involved with the name Jackie Robinson, it's an honor for me," Randolph said Wednesday. "I want to be the one. He was such a special man who did so much for so many people. I'm looking forward to the ceremony and to seeing Rachel [Robinson, Jackie's wife]."
3B in 3D -- the Wright image: His likeness has been on the covers of a half-dozen magazines, and his name is on a shuttle jet, a $55 million contract and the lips of another set of millions. Major League Baseball is so sure of David Wright, he is a primary figure in the game's promotion of its summer showcase, the All-Star Game.
And now his image, quite three-dimensional, has been copied -- the highest form of flattery. A wax figure of the Mets third baseman was unveiled at Madame Tussauds New York on Wednesday as part of the new "Ultimate Subway Series" exhibit that includes a figure of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, as well.
The interactive exhibit includes replicas of the Mets and Yankees dugouts, recordings of both players' voices, and pitching and cheering games.
Wright is to visit Madame Tussauds on Tuesday and take a look at himself.
Coming up: After an off-day Thursday, the Mets open a three-game series in Atlanta at 7:35 p.m. ET on Friday night. They go to Turner Field as no visiting team has gone since 1991, as the reigning National League East champion. They bring with them starting pitching project Oliver Perez, in the hopes that he will begin to realize his potential and evolve into what they envision -- a dominant starting pitcher.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.