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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Long story short: Hitting coaches have only so much impact

Mets batting coach Lamar Johnson is seen in

Mets batting coach Lamar Johnson is seen in the dugout against the Pittsburgh Pirates in an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Tuesday, May 27, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

ST. LOUIS - Team A scored 629 runs, fired two hitting coaches and finished tied for second in the National League East with 79 wins.

Team B scored 619 runs, won a second straight NL Central title with 90 wins and is making its fourth consecutive trip to the NLCS.

We're obviously talking about the Mets and Cardinals, two clubs that seem light years apart. But was it really the fault of Dave Hudgens and Lamar Johnson that the Mets were in the NL's bottom half in a number of offensive categories? How much credit -- or blame -- does John Mabry deserve for the Cardinals' performance at the plate?

Before Saturday night's Game 1 at Busch Stadium, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny rushed to the defense of Mabry, who was criticized during the regular season for the team's offensive lapses. St. Louis finished in the middle of the pack with a .689 OPS -- three places higher than the Mets (.673) -- but dispatched the Dodgers in the NLDS with a combination of timely hitting and surprising power.

"He stayed the course and kept trying to make the minor adjustments that needed to be made," Matheny said. "And in the end, what's this game about? It's about scoring more runs than the other club, and we figured out a way to do that more often than not."

Ah, yes, Sandy Alderson's favorite stat: run differential. The Central champs were plus-16 for the regular season. The Mets were plus-11.

Again, the overall 2014 performance of these two teams can hardly be summed up by those five measly runs. But it all comes down to the players, and Mabry coaxing what he can from the Cards' lineup figures to be a much easier task than Hudgens or Johnson squeezing morsels of production from the Mets' ragtag bunch.

This situation wasn't unique to Flushing, either. Across town, the Yankees made hitting coach Kevin Long their fall guy Friday despite the record offensive numbers they produced in past seasons under his tutelage.

Though it's true that the Yankees have been awful at the plate the last two years, did Long forget everything he knew about hitting?

Of course not. It's more accurate to say he was saddled with an ever-changing lineup riddled by injuries. This season, he was force-fed Derek Jeter in the No. 2 spot for six months and never really had the benefit of a healthy Carlos Beltran or Mark Teixeira. By the end of September, Long seemed more exasperated than any of his players, and it might have been his visible frustration that sealed his fate among the people upstairs.

"I think Kevin can sleep at night knowing he tried every tool in the toolbox," Brian Cashman said. "I know that he publicly stated late in the year that he did everything and he's tried everything and it wasn't sufficient. The effort was sufficient. The results just weren't."

Based on Cashman's comments, however, what's the real crime here? The Yankees finishing 13th in the AL with 639 runs scored -- only four more than the Astros -- and a 12th-ranked .687 OPS? Or Long repeatedly saying publicly that he was out of suggestions on how to fix it?

Based on Long's track record and how highly he's thought of around the major leagues, maybe the 2014 lineup couldn't be fixed.

"I don't think there's anyone who tried harder or cares more," Cashman said of Long.

So what else is there for a hitting coach to do? Some believe the job is to be part instructor, part therapist.

Is Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens better than Long because the Giants had a .699 OPS (without the DH) and scored 32 more runs than the Yankees? It's impossible to compare because you're dealing with different rosters, but being a coach involves more than just breaking down video and soft toss.

"Sure, knowledge, it's got to start with that," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "And your ability to maybe tweak somebody, fix their flaws. But as important, just be positive, too.

"Let's have some fun with this. This isn't life or death. Stay positive. And the only way to be resilient is to remind them how good they are. That's what good coaches do."

Maybe so, but it felt like Mission Impossible this season in the Bronx and Queens.

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