LaTroy Hawkins has given Mets a boost as fill-in closer for Bobby Parnell
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LOS ANGELES - The Mets bullpen ran as a group, sprinting on the warning track from one foul pole to the other, part of an unpleasant conditioning drill. They made the journey several times, running back and forth, pools of sweat dripping from their faces.
There was only one exception. As the rest of the relievers huffed and puffed, he stood in outfield grass chatting with one of the team's coaches.
LaTroy Hawkins has learned over the years what it takes to prepare his body for the rigors of a big-league workload. And at age 40, it no longer involves running foul poles. Clearly, the Mets don't mind, especially because the veteran has emerged as a steadying force in the bullpen.
"If anything, it gets harder the older you get," Hawkins said.
But based on his performance, Hawkins has made a fool of Father Time. In 54 appearances, Hawkins is 3-2 with a 3.04 ERA. And since closer Bobby Parnell has gone down with a neck injury, Hawkins has nailed down three saves.
Wednesday night against the Dodgers, Hawkins gave up a game-tying two-run home run to Andre Ethier in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Mets' chances of making the postseason are slim. One computer simulation estimates the Mets odds of snagging the second wild card spot at just 0.3 percent. However, they have wrapped their arms around another goal, one that may be within reach.
In recent years, the Mets have swooned in the second half, a swift decline that typically begins around this time of year. Not since 2008 have the Mets pieced together a winning record in August. The clubhouse has rallied around ending that ignominious streak.
Success will depend on several factors, including whether the bullpen as a whole can maintain its effectiveness. So far, it has shown promise. Since July 1, the bullpen has posted a 2.10 ERA, the third-best mark in the big leagues. It entered play Wednesday night with a 3.64 ERA, good for 15th in the big leagues.
For a bullpen that in recent years has ranked near the bottom of baseball, this is improvement.
Manager Terry Collins said he has no name "etched in stone" as far as a designated closer in Parnell's absence. But Hawkins has emerged as the hot hand, giving Collins reason to stick with him for now in save situations.
"You try to keep the same mentality, bend but don't break, try to get three outs before you give up the tying run or the winning run," said Hawkins, whose success has come mostly as a middle reliever.
Since the All-Star break, entering Wednesday night the righthander had posted an 0.75 ERA in 12 innings. He had issued only nine walks, third fewest in the NL, third fewest among pitchers with at least 50 innings.
The Mets have sparingly used Hawkins on consecutive days and have yet to call upon him for three consecutive outings. His workload must be managed. But so far, he and Collins have struck an effective balance.
"That's the difference between now and back then," Hawkins said. "I knew what I was going to get from my body back then. Now, I might go out there and throw 96, 97. And then I might start feeling bad and I might be throwing 88, 89 like I was in the second part of May and in the beginning of June."
But mostly, Hawkins has maintained his velocity. At an average of 92.3 mph, his fastball has had no dropoff for the fourth straight season, a testament to his remarkable physical conditioning.
"That's huge for me because those extra miles per hour helps me make up for some mistakes," Hawkins said. "I can't make mistakes when you're throwing 88, 91. I mean, you can, but you don't get them back often."