Outfield realignment can't save Mets
No defense possible against three Cubs long balls
NEW YORK -- Now that the Mets' chance of producing a .500 record is as long a shot as a home run to right-center field in their spacious ballpark, and now that the organization has acknowledged its commitment to leave Citi Field's dimensions unchanged, now, the Mets have begun to work at improving their coverage of the vast area beyond Citi's infield.
Which is to say, now that the barn is open, the Mets are going to lasso a few ponies.
So it is that they have begun to alter the alignment of their outfielders in an effort to undermine the extra-base prowess of their guests. The modifications may not have been conspicuous in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Cubs or in Friday night's 6-2 win against the same team. But they were in effect.
For two games now, the Mets have pinched the gaps and left the foul lines relatively unattended. They positioned left fielder Cory Sullivan in left-center field, center fielder Angel Pagan more toward right field and right fielder Jeff Francoeur a few steps to his right. And they hope it will all come together, so to speak.
Manager Jerry Manuel said months ago that his team would need to play at least most of its home schedule before it could develop a real sense of how Citi Field would play.
"Any ball hit into the gaps is an automatic triple for your average runner," he said after the Mets had played one home exhibition game in April. "It will be more beneficial to bunch our outfielders."
And now, after 68 games at Citi Field, the bunching is underway.
The new strategy couldn't save the Mets or Nelson Figueroa on Saturday. A 10-man defense would have been insufficient. The Cubs hit three balls -- Derrek Lee hit two -- into the second deck in left field, accounting for all their runs. Manuel would have had to arrange his outfielders vertically to combat the Cubs' power. But his team was, in fact, pinching the gaps as teams often do in Coors Feld in Denver and AT&T Park in San Francisco.
The objective is to deny the triple, Manuel said. The Mets have produced 24 of them, their opponents a mere nine. But, really, the idea is to defend the gaps and make the extra base less available, whether it is second, third or home, to the visiting teams.
"Balls down the line are doubles pretty much no matter what you do," Sullivan said Saturday. "You play it straightaway, and you might stop one in a hundred. But you can save some runs if you're bunched."
Sullivan is familiar with how the Rockies aligned their defense, and he advocates similar positioning in the Big Citi. Sullivan says Citi plays bigger than Coors.
"Out there by the 415 [foot sign in right center], it's the Bermuda Triangle," said Sullivan. "Triples are almost automatic."
The realignment is one more step in preparing for 2010; the Mets have long since abandoned the summer lip service paid to '09. With Manuel planning to play rookie catcher Josh Thole in consecutive games this week, '10 becomes larger on the horizon. And the possible -- dare anyone say, probable? -- return of Carlos Beltran on Tuesday is as much about next season as it is about '09. Moreover, Manuel said long-lost John Maine was on the list of possible starting pitchers for one of the doubleheader games in Philadelphia next Sunday. Maine's return wouldn't be viewed through the prism of '09 either.
In some ways, even the loss Saturday was about 2010 in that it involved Figueroa, who could be a candidate for spot starting next year. He was the victim of the first of Lee's two home runs, hit in the fifth, and the one Aramis Ramirez hit an inning earlier. Elmer Dessens surrendered Lee's second on the first pitch of the eighth inning after the Mets had reduced their deficit to 4-3 in the seventh.
A challenging test for any starting pitcher is to oppose the same team twice in less than a week. In such instances, familiarity often breeds defeat in the second confrontation, regardless of the result of the first. Now it has happened to Figueroa, who beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday and lasted six innings Saturday. He allowed seven hits and two walks and struck out eight in a park more pitcher-friendly than Wrigley and lost for the fourth time in five starts this season. His overall record is 2-4. He had limited the Cubs to one run and struck out a career-high 10 in seven innings Sunday.
The three home runs by the Cubs and Sullivan's second in two games, against winning pitcher Rich Harden (9-8), put the Mets' disadvantage in home runs at Citi Field at 70-45. No outfield realignment can cure that.
Sullivan hit his home run in the second inning to afford Figueroa a 1-0 lead. The Mets scored in the fourth as well on a walk to Sullivan, a single by Thole and an infield single by Anderson Hernandez. Lee's first home run created a 4-2 Cubs lead. A sacrifice fly by David Wright against Aaron Heilman in the seventh reduced the Mets' deficit to one and improved their chances of a third consecutive victory. But Lee made it unlikely in the eighth, and a four-out save by Carlos Marmol made it impossible.
But if the outfield defense is to improve, it's got to start somewhere.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.