A couple of weeks ago, Mets manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen got the team's pitching staff together. Injuries to the regular lineup were mounting by the hour, and it was time to have a talk.
"We made a plea to the pitchers," Manuel said last week. "We said, 'You're going to have to carry us for a while here.'"
The staff has responded. The Mets had the best team ERA in the Major Leagues in May. Livan Hernandez, John Maine and Mike Pelfrey have done exactly what the team needed them to do: provide reliable starting pitching in back of the brilliant Johan Santana. And the bullpen has been deep and tough in front of the brilliant Francisco Rodriguez.
But nothing lasts forever, and a real problem has developed with one of the key cogs on the staff. J.J. Putz, as everybody saw in Monday night's meltdown in Pittsburgh, is having some problems. The Mets need to get these problems fixed. And in order to do that, they need to find out what's really bugging this guy.
It could be, as Warthen was hoping Monday afternoon, a mechanical problem, and that the new delivery Putz and Warthen worked on in the bullpen Monday will fix it. Sure didn't look fixed Monday night, but that doesn't mean it's not. Anybody who's ever had a golf lesson knows it takes time for a new swing to feel (and work) right. Putz could have been tired from the bullpen session or just not yet comfortable with the tweaks Warthen made. If that's the case, he should be better the next time, and better the time after that and so on.
It could be, as Putz said a few weeks ago, that he's having a hard time feeling the eighth inning the way he used to feel the ninth when he was the Mariners' closer. That he's having a tough time generating the appropriate adrenaline now that his job is to get the ball to K-Rod rather than finish the game himself. If that's the case, he needs to be told to wise up.
If the Mets determine that the thing that's bothering Putz is having to pitch the eighth instead of the ninth, the best thing would be to sit him down and have a long, serious talk. Putz is a setup reliever in a pennant race in New York for a team whose bullpen sunk the 2008 season. That, friends, is an important job.
The Mets know it, the fans know it, and teams that will be looking to sign a closer next winter know it too. Assuming the Mets don't pick up his 2010 option, Putz will be a free agent with closer experience. He'll do himself a lot more harm than good if he mopes around all year about having to pitch the eighth in front of a guy who set the saves record a year ago. It's not going to hurt Putz, come contract time, that he didn't get saves in 2009. People's memories aren't that short. His best bet is to be the best eighth-inning guy in the league. Then he can sell himself as a top-talent closer who's also willing to do what's best for his team. He'll find plenty of buyers.
Finally, though, it could be that Putz is hurt -- that something is wrong with his arm and he just isn't saying. There are reasons, if this is the case, that he wouldn't want to come clean about it. The whole team is hurt, and it wouldn't do to be the latest in line at the trainer's room. And then there's the prospect of his looming free agency again. An injury in a contract year actually is a recipe for a tough winter.
But if Putz is hurt, he's not doing the Mets or himself any favors by delaying the news. If he's hurt, we'll all find out sooner or later, and if it's later he'll be that much further behind in whatever recovery is necessary. If he's hurt, he needs to come clean.
Regardless, the Putz problem is one the Mets can probably fix. Brian Stokes and Bobby Parnell both have pitched well enough to make you think they could fill in capably in the eighth. They could give Putz a couple of days off, or move him into lower-impact situations earlier in games for a short time.
This year's Mets, in case you haven't realized, are resilient and resourceful. They can do any number of things to get by while Putz fixes whatever it is that's wrong.
First, though, they have to figure out what it is.