Mets, Braves looking vulnerable in NL East
The Mets are raising their National League championship banner at Shea Stadium on Monday afternoon.
It’s an added bonus that they get to force the division champion Atlanta Braves to look on from the visitors dugout.
Garth Brooks will be on hand. So will John Rocker.
All the festivities will go on, even though the weekend’s events left neither team feeling very much like champions.
The Mets were swept by the upstart Expos, who pecked away at Al Leiter on Sunday.
The Braves, who dropped two of three to the Mets in their opening series, were pummeled Saturday and Sunday by the Florida Marlins.
So, is this the best the NL East has to offer?
Both these teams look like shadows of their former selves right now as they gaze up at the Expos and Phillies in the standings.
“I think the Expos are going to surprise an awful lot of teams,” said Leiter, after his team was outscored, 25-8, over the weekend.
It’s not like either the Braves or Mets have instant remedies.
The Braves know they’ll be without John Smoltz for at least the next couple of months. They managed to get five innings out of Greg Maddux on Friday, but John Burkett and Tom Glavine were shelled over the weekend.
Rico Brogna might be hitting .450, but the Braves just don’t look as fearsome without Andres Galarraga, especially when B.J. Surhoff is sidelined by back spasms as he’s been the last two games.
For some reason, Glavine can’t win at Pro Player Stadium, where he’s 3-9 in 12 career starts (he’s 102-60 everywhere else on the road).
Two Marlins, in particular, have Glavine’s number. When 29-year-old reserve catcher Mike Redmond homered against the former Cy Young Award winner, it was his first homer since September of ’99 and made him 15-for-23 in his career against Glavine.
Clifford Floyd, who also homered Sunday, is 10-for-22 against him. In the first five innings, Floyd, who has at least one RBI in each of the season’s first six games, also produced a single and twice made outstanding plays to throw out Javy Lopez on the bases.
The Mets hoped they wouldn’t miss Mike Hampton and Bobby Jones too, too much, but they do. The Expos, who scored 20 runs in the first two games of the series, trashed Steve Trachsel on Saturday.
Montreal’s bullpen has permitted just two runs in its first 20 1/3 innings. Yesterday, Scott Strickland retired Mike Piazza with the bases loaded in the eighth (the Mets stranded 14 runners) and Ugueth Urbina worked the ninth, saving the 5-2 victory.
Not only are the Mets not getting enough pitching (their starters surrendered 23 hits and 18 earned runs in 13 innings vs. Montreal), they’re not scaring anyone offensively. Edgardo Alfonzo, a true catalyst when the team is functioning on all cylinders, went 0-for-11 against the Expos and is 2-for-24 to start the season.
The Mets were 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position Sunday. The only hitting they did came when Turk Wendell plunked Vladimir Guerrero — then adopted the U.S. policy toward China: “I’m not sorry that I hit him, by any means,” Wendell said.
The Wendell/Guerrero feud, which heated up on Saturday, only masks the Mets’ dilemma.
“We didn’t play very well. I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Piazza said. “We didn’t get the big hits when we needed them.”
To top it off, the whole Mets outfield is visiting sick bay. With Jay Payton already out of action (throat infection), New York lost Benny Agbayani (out 3-4 weeks after breaking his wrist) and Timo Perez (groin strain) during Sunday’s loss.
“We’d rather go home on a three-game winning streak,” admitted manager Bobby Valentine. “But it’s good to get home. It’s great to play in front of our fans and it’s great to get out of the suitcase.”
Dominican dandies: Sunday’s top performers were a pair of stars from the Dominican Republic — one established, one budding.
Pedro Martinez struck out six in the first two innings on the way to his 16-strikeout, eight-inning performance against Tampa Bay. Martinez, who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Devil Rays last August, had a no-hitter working until the seventh inning in this one.
Outfielder Carl Everett, who like Manny Ramirez went 6-for-11 in Boston’s three-game sweep, said it was fairly simple. Tampa Bay batters couldn’t hit what they could not see.
Martinez didn’t mind turning things over to Derek Lowe so start the ninth.
“You don’t expect to pitch a complete game this time of year,” he said. “Only Nomo does that — and I’m a Pedro, not a Nomo.”
One expects Martinez to be a power pitcher, but what about Pittsburgh third baseman Aramis Ramirez as a power hitter?
He proved it at Enron Field, homering in each of his first three at-bats in the Bucs’ 9-3 win. Walked his fourth time up, Ramirez became the first Pirate to have three homers in a game since Darnell Coles in 1987.
Ramirez, 22, had been 2-for-15 this season, but credited hitting coach Dave Clark with helping him shorten his stroke.
Below the radar: The Padres are a team that can sneak up on you.
Just ask the Rockies, who were swept in Denver this weekend.
Phil Nevin went 3-for-5 with five RBI, backing the pitching of Brian Tollberg (eight innings, three runs) in Sunday’s 11-3 victory.
Meanwhile, outfielder Mike Darr went 4-for-6, raising his average to .586.
Young pitchers: Some young pitchers produced landmark performances on Sunday.
Rick Ankiel made good use of the high strike zone in pitching the Cardinals past Arizona and Randy Johnson. At one point, he retired 11 consecutive hitters, six on strikeouts. Ankiel threw 100 pitches (none of them wild) and 63 of them were strikes. Conversely, Johnson, once the game’s premier wildman left-hander, gave up nine earned runs, the most he’d surrendered in a game since April of 1994. Johnson, coming off a 132-pitch effort, lasted 5 2/3 innings.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s prize rookie left-hander, C.C. Sabathia, made his long-awaited debut. Sabathia, 20, gave up a three-run homer in the first inning to Jeff Conine, but settled down to permit just one more hit over the next 5 1/3 innings. Justin Speier, Paul Shuey and Bob Wickman combined with Sabathia on a three-hitter as the Indians rallied for a 4-3 win against Baltimore. Sabathia, the youngest Indians pitcher since Julian Tavarez was 20 in 1993, had not pitched above Double-A.
Matt Clement, who came to the Marlins along with Eric Owens in the Mark Kotsay deal with San Diego, beat Glavine yesterday. Changing speeds effectively, he worked eight innings, struck out eight and permitted just four hits.
Chatter: One can’t help but shake his head at the passing of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, hours before his beloved Pirates were to christen their new home, PNC Park. A 12-foot bronze statue of Stargell, bat cocked, graces the grounds of the new digs, but “Pops” will forever be associated with Three Rivers Stadium. In his first season there, he hit 48 of his 475 career home runs. … Colorado’s Gold Glove shortstop Neifi Perez was placed on the DL with a sprained left thumb, thus ending his streak of consecutive games played at 171. Perez, who was hitting .550, was replaced on the roster by shortstop Juan Uribe. The Rockies have their fingers crossed that Perez won’t need surgery. … Cleveland’s Jaret Wright, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, threw 75 pitches in an extended spring training outing on Sunday. The Indians were to assess Charlie Nagy in similar action on Monday. … Toronto had taken six consecutive games against the Yankees before being leveled by New York’s 20-hit attack on Sunday. The Blue Jays hope to have Mike Sirotka throwing off a mound again in about a week. … Jeff Weaver came up big, beating David Wells as the Tigers swept the White Sox. No AL hitter is much hotter than Detroit’s Tony Clark. … If you drafted Mark Grudzielanek for your Roto team, you’re laughing all the way to the bank after he hit his fifth homer in four games on Sunday. … Roof open or roof closed, the Brewers are just plain unbeatable at Miller Park. Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins hit back-to-back homers as Milwaukee completed a sweep of the Reds. … The Pirates were on the verge of adding a much-needed veteran starter. They agreed to terms with free agent Ramon Martinez on Sunday. Martinez, let go by the Dodgers this spring after going 10-8, 6.13 for Boston last season, looks awfully good to the Bucs who are operating without Kris Benson (elbow), Francisco Cordova (elbow), Jason Schmidt (ribcage) and Terry Mulholland (knee). … In honor of the Pirates home opener at PNC Park, Breugger’s Bagel Bakeries are selling black and gold bagels. If you buy a cup of coffee to go with one, please raise a toast to Willie Stargell.