David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Mets had three significant items on their shopping list in the offseason: a front-of-the-rotation starter, a power bat for the middle of the lineup and a significant upgrade at the catching position.
Omar Minaya whiffed on the first when John Lackey signed with the Red Sox, and the signing of Jason Bay has not produced immediate results. Give Minaya a gold star, however, for enlisting not one but two catchers who have achieved his primary goal of coaxing some decent performances out of an unproven pitching staff.
Under the supervision of Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco, the Mets' 3.27 ERA was the fourth lowest in the National League and fifth overall heading into Wednesday's game against the Cubs. Until that point, the starters had a 0.95 ERA in the previous six games, and the rotation's overall 4.07 ERA was seventh in the NL. The bullpen was second in the NL and third in the majors with a 2.11 ERA.
"The plan was to get catchers that would help the pitchers," Minaya said. "We didn't need them for offense. Our staff is still developing and we needed guys that would help them reach their full potential."
Or as John Maine joked, "a baby-sitter."
As Mike Pelfrey described how helpful Blanco has been in his starts this season, even reminding him to "catch his breath" after running the bases, that's when Maine chimed in - and Pelfrey agreed with the characterization.
"That's kind of what he is," Pelfrey said. "Any time you can have a guy around like that to talk to you and let you know what you are doing, it allows you to learn and it allows you to get better."
Barajas and Blanco were comfortable with the "baby-sitter" label, too.
"If we have to do that sometimes, we'll do it," Blanco said. "They're the main guys on the field and that's our responsibility - to deal with those types of little things that probably nobody sees on the field."
Added Barajas, "You have to be like a parent. Get them back on the right path. Just try to steer them, whether it's in a tough way or an encouraging way or whatever way that person responds to."
Minaya's "plan" for the catching position didn't go exactly as planned during the offseason. Blanco, 38, was signed early as a backup, but the Mets got lucky when Barajas fell into their laps a matter of hours before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Minaya's first choice was Bengie Molina, who returned to San Francisco for a discounted one-year, $4.5-million deal. But the Mets secured Blanco for $750,000 this year and grabbed Barajas, 34, for a base of $500,000 that jumped to $900,000 when he made the Opening Day roster.
Though Barajas and Blanco have contributed some from the bottom of the batting order, they've earned their money as mentors to the younger members of the pitching staff, a role that neither Josh Thole nor Omir Santos was capable of handling this season.
"Your primary responsibility is to help your pitchers get through a game," Barajas said. "If we do something at the plate, great, but that's not our goal. That's not our objective. It's to work with the guy on the mound."
Heading into Wednesday's game, opposing teams had only six stolen-base attempts against the Mets, with Blanco throwing out all three players who tried to steal against him. More importantly, the staff has been pleased with the duo's game-calling abilities, and Jerry Manuel believes that's been the biggest difference.
"It's kind of difficult if you are questioning the pitch selection, and we haven't had that issue yet," Manuel said. "They have full confidence that understand what needs to be done."
Blanco especially has clicked with Pelfrey, who is off to the first 3-0 start of his career and has a 0.86 ERA in three starts. Pelfrey said he didn't shake off Blanco once in seven innings Tuesday.
"This game is extremely tough," Pelfrey said, "and any time you can have somebody on your side that makes it a little easier, it definitely helps. I think both of those guys are huge improvements and I'm glad that both of them are here."