Mets' loss prompts changes in bullpen
Kunz to get chance to close; Maine could later fill role
NEW YORK -- The disabled list and the turn of the pitching rotation stand in the way of what Jerry Manuel now swears he would do if those obstacles didn't exist -- use John Maine as the Mets' closer until Billy Wagner returns. The Mets' manager, exasperated by his team's Russian Roulette Relief, said as much Monday afternoon in the aftermath of a most vexing defeat.
Moreover, when the Mets play the Nationals in Washington on Tuesday night, Eddie Kunz will be cast in the role rendered vacant by Wagner's strained left forearm. So disturbed by the inability of his more veteran relievers to throw strikes and achieve outs, Manuel will turn to a rookie to close, should the Mets reach the ninth inning with a lead, as they did Monday in their makeup game against the Pirates.
The Mets manager calmly acknowledged his immediate plans an hour after the bullpen turned a 5-1 lead into a 7-5 loss. And he went so far as to say Maine, who is assigned to the disabled list but scheduled to start Wednesday night, probably will be the closer after he has recovered from the start and until Wagner returns.
"I have to use all of my options that I have -- that's what I got to do," Manuel said.
He had no quarrel with the phrase "Russian Roulette Relief," even forcing a smirk when it was spoken in his presence.
"That's what it's been," he said.
And whatever qualms he had about using Kunz in the unending search for an empty chamber evidently are no more.
"I have to give him a shot -- I have to see what he looks like," Manuel said. "I didn't want to put him in that situation, but he's got to feel like he's got to be considered to do that. I have to go and get everything I can with the people we have here. ... We've got to fix this. We can't continue to perform this way late in the game. I have to find a way, a pitcher who will step up and fill that role."
Manuel had tried to find that pitcher for most of three innings on Monday after Pedro Martinez had thrown his 99th pitch and completed his workday. Manuel used five relievers -- in order, Joe Smith, Pedro Feliciano, Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis -- and all but Sanchez contributed to the collapse.
The Pirates scored three times in the seventh against Smith and Feliciano and three times in the ninth against Heilman, the losing pitcher, and Schoeneweis, who surrendered the two-run single by rookie Steve Pearce that provided the margin for victory. Excluding the five batters Sanchez faced -- the last one in the seventh and four in the eighth -- the bullpen faced 15 batters and allowed two doubles, three singles, two walks and a hit batsman. One of the six outs achieved was a sacrifice fly by Ryan Doumit in the seventh that produced the Pirates' fourth run, and another was a bunt, ruled a sacrifice.
And one of the outs that didn't benefit the Pirates was a hot ground ball that Damion Easley smartly stopped and turned into a second-to-the-plate forceout that was the second out in the ninth. It came after Schoeneweis had replaced Heilman and the Pirates had tied the score. "You got a sense that 'We're one pitch away. We can get out of the inning" Easley said. Pearce lined a 3-2 pitch into left-center, though. And the Mets went on lose, for the fifth time this season, a game in which they led after eight innings. No National League team has so many losses of that nature. The loss put their bullpen's record at 18-19. Among NL teams, only the Cardinals have more losses, 25. Heilman, who seemingly solved his problems with an adjustment in his delivery last week, is responsible for seven of the losses. The only reliever with more is Luis Ayala of the last-place Nationals.
Since Wagner was assigned to the disabled list, Heilman has endured emotional whiplash that erodes confidence and tires its victims. He called this loss, "more frustrating than tiring." Manuel was upset that his relievers, particularly Heilman, hadn't "attacked the strike zone." Manuel said: "That bothers me, and I have to find somebody that will do that. I don't mind [a pitcher] getting hit, but 3-1, 3-2 [counts] ... that's not going to do it. Not going to do it."
Schoeneweis did acknowledge one form of fatigue: "I'm tired of talking about it," he said. "We have to be better. The entire bullpen is struggling at the same time, and we don't have a closer."
But seemingly they will have another pitcher in that role on Tuesday night.
"I'm here no matter what they want me to do," said Kunz who has extensive experience in the role, albeit in college and at the Double-A level.
And Maine, often considered ideally equipped to be a closer, hardly was fazed by the possibility. "If that's what they want," he said, "I'm game."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.