Before Mets' late heroics, Maine thrives
Barajas hits decisive homer in ninth; starter confounds Reds
CINCINNATI -- The box score will tell you this game was about Rod Barajas. It was not. This game was about John Maine.
First, to the aforementioned box score formalities: the Mets beat the Reds, 5-4, on Tuesday, on the strength of Barajas' game-winning home run in the ninth. Despite a late hiccup or two, they managed to recover and snap their losing streak at three.
Maine was on the bench for all the commotion, leaving after six innings and permitting his teammates to do the rest. And the Reds were glad for it.
Whereas Reds sluggers Joey Votto and Scott Rolen had little problem hitting back-to-back homers off Fernando Nieve's mid-90s heat in the eighth inning, neither Votto nor Rolen -- nor anyone other than Brandon Phillips, who homered in the first -- could do much damage off Maine.
It didn't make sense. Still clearly not the pitcher he was in 2007 and 2008, Maine hovered in the high 80s with his fastball all night, venturing into the low 90s only on rare occasions. But Votto, Jay Bruce and others -- good, smart left-handed hitters -- continually swung and missed. In all, Maine racked up six strikeouts in six innings, four of them against lefty batters.
"You're looking at the gun and you're looking at the hitters, and it doesn't seem to match up," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "John Maine has that little late, sneaky ball that seems to give the left-handed hitters a bunch of trouble. Somebody on the bench today said he's a right-handed Sid Fernandez."
A right-handed Sid Fernandez with a self-deprecating streak. Asked to assess his performance, Maine said simply: "It's getting better." Which is true. After three inadequate starts to open the season, Maine is now 1-0 with a 2.30 ERA over his three most recent outings.
There is no difference in Maine's velocity. But his pitches, for the first time in years, are darting and dropping as they approach the plate, well after the hitters have committed to swing.
"He's got deception," Barajas said. "We keep calling fastball after fastball after fastball, and these guys, for some reason, aren't catching up to it."
In his catcher's estimation, Maine threw roughly 85 percent fastballs in this most recent outing -- same as the last one. In other words, he threw roughly 85 fastballs, none of them featuring above-average velocity. And he survived.
"I look up at the scoreboard during the game also, just to see where my pitcher's at," Barajas said. "It doesn't look like 89, 90. It definitely looks like it's got three or four miles per hour more. He hides it well."
Compared to Maine's offerings, Reds closer Francisco Cordero's fastballs must have seemed supercharged. But Barajas caught Cordero for three seasons in Texas and, like most catchers, he is skilled in discerning the tendencies of pitchers.
Coming to the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth inning Tuesday, Barajas figured Cordero would either throw him a fastball or a slider.
"And I'm a better fastball hitter than I am a slider hitter," Barajas said. "So I just sat on the fastball."
The result was a home run that, while not as spectacular as David Wright's 455-foot shot in the fourth inning, still cleared the wall with ease. And it made up for the transgressions of Nieve, who coughed up a two-run lead with two outs in the eighth.
Hours after Manuel discussed Nieve's status as a "resilient" sort of reliever, the league's newly minted appearances leader served up back-to-back homers to Votto and Rolen, the latter tying the game at 4 and spoiling Maine's chance at a victory.
"We thought, well, we're in a little bit of trouble," Manuel said. "But we got out of it. So that was good for us."
They got out of it thanks to Barajas, who now has seven homers among his 18 total hits on the season. And four of those homers have either tied games for the Mets or given them the lead.
"I don't think we're going to live or die by hitting home runs," Wright said. "But at the same time, they're a nice momentum shift. They're instant offense. It gets the dugout excited."
After losing three straight games, the Mets needed such excitement. Barajas provided it. They needed strong pitching. Maine, Jenrry Mejia and Francisco Rodriguez provided that. It was a complete game for a struggling team, so perhaps Maine's words -- "It's getting there" -- were most apt.
It wasn't perfect. Nor did it have to be.
"It's good to win a close game," Wright said. "That's something we haven't been doing a lot of this year."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.