David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
After sacrificing his most critical bullpen pieces and narrowly escaping Wednesday with a 2-1 victory over the Marlins, Terry Collins didn’t sound like the manager of the defending National League champions.
He was Terry from Flushing. First time, longtime.
Because the postgame spiel Collins delivered was straight talk-radio fodder, the stuff of rush-hour traffic frustration, or midnight loneliness. It was not the sober analysis of a 66-year-old baseball lifer.
“We had to send a message,” Collins said. “We’ve got to show people we mean business here.”
Collins went on to use a series of adjectives that really shouldn’t be applied on April 13, describing Wednesday as “huge” and “a game we had to win.” Only five days earlier, this was the same team that raised the NL pennant. The Mets spent all spring training telling us how they’d not just make it back to the World Series, but finish the job this time.
And now Collins is sweating a mid-April game against the Marlins? That’s playing tight, and it’s also contagious. That’s the kind of talk reserved for watching games from the couch, with a cold beer, blasting Yoenis Cespedes and his $27.5-millon salary for Wednesday’s hat trick (three strikeouts).
No, it’s Collins’ responsibility to pilot this ship, and panicking after bumping into a few waves during the first week is not good for anyone, from the manager on down to the 25th roster spot. For the past five years, we’ve seen Collins have the perfect feel for his Mets teams, whether it was squeezing the most from meager talent in those early seasons or keeping them focused on last October’s World Series campaign.
Sure, Collins would have his moments. He’d let off steam for the camera, but that always seemed to work to his advantage. For the smarter, savvy managers, it’s a familiar tactic. As long as Collins kept the reporters entertained, his players could go about their work, mostly free from the media’s tentacles.
But Collins handled everything Wednesday with a nervous hand on the wheel. He pulled Logan Verrett after 85 pitches, despite six scoreless innings. Then he called on Jim Henderson, fresh off a career-high 34 pitches the previous night, for the seventh. We also should mention this is Henderson’s first year back in the majors after shoulder surgery, and going to him so soon seemed not only unwise, but dangerous.
Collins said Henderson told him he was fine before the game, but it’s up to the manager to protect these players from themselves. Henderson had nothing — his velocity dipped to 89-90 mph from the 95 of his previous outings — and loaded the bases before Hansel Robles replaced him.
Robles and Jerry Blevins bailed out Collins. But when the Marlins put the tying run on in the eighth, he summoned Jeurys Familia for the five-out save. In April. For Game No. 8. On top of that, Familia was being used in consecutive games, and this was his fourth appearance in five days. He also has been battling a severe cold.
For a team sworn to protect its young pitching staff, this bordered on abusive so early in the season. And Collins had no problem saying he was motivated by the Mets’ disappointing 2-5 start. If the record had been reversed?
“I would never have done it,” Collins said. “He would have pitched the ninth inning and ninth inning only.”
Again, a startling admission for April. But Collins felt it was that important. Or someone did. The manager was spotted having a long conversation with Fred Wilpon before Tuesday night’s loss, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence for Collins to suddenly be so worried about the “perception” of his team during Wednesday’s postgame news conference.
Collins said he was hearing “people” talk about the Mets showing “no energy” and being “overconfident” and “not taking things seriously.” But he didn’t specify where all this stuff was coming from, other than mentioning that he does read the newspapers and what’s written about the team.
We’re glad to hear that. We can use his $2 (or page views). But that’s not something managers usually cop to, if at all. And frankly, despite our taste for hyperbole, we’d never call an April 13th game a “must-win.” That’s crazy talk.
But Terry from Flushing did. And for the price he paid Wednesday, the Mets might have been better off losing.