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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Some great rotations fed off cooperation, camaraderie

Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey of the Mets

Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey of the Mets relax in the dugout during game two of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. (June 18, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

ATLANTA - Tom Glavine remembers getting some flak over the golf clubs. Lugged aboard every charter flight, the same five or six bags every trip, for daily tee times throughout the National League.

But there were plenty of dinners, too. Again, the same five or six pitchers, always with Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the trio of aces who composed the nucleus of the Braves' pitching superiority for a decade.

Members of a rotation don't have to be friends to pitch well, or even have much interaction at all, really. They don't have to eat together or golf together or even watch games together.

When building a winning team, however, it can help. A great deal, in fact.

"I think our friendships went a long way toward us having the success we had collectively as a group," Glavine said this past week at Turner Field. "We drove each other, we helped each other, we talked to each other -- constantly, even on the bench during games, about hitters, about situations.

"Not only were we blessed to be around each other, and fortunate to be around each other as far as the team was concerned, but man, we had a lot of fun off the field, too."

The subject came up in the discussion that swirled around Super Tuesday, when the Mets' promising young duo of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler shared a doubleheader against the Braves. Harvey, 24, and Wheeler, 23, are expected to be the foundation of the rotation for what the Mets hope will be the next decade -- not unlike Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz all those years in Atlanta.

But in this case, the relationship between the two is difficult to define. Harvey already has 25 major-league starts on his resume; Wheeler made his debut Tuesday. Both were first-round draft picks -- Harvey out of North Carolina by the Mets in 2010, Wheeler plucked from a suburban Atlanta high school by the Giants in 2009.

Now that they're together, it's natural to typecast them as a Batman-and-Robin pairing or suggest the two will become fast friends based on their similar job descriptions, which David Wright describes as 1A and 1B of the Mets' rotation.

Terry Collins tried to slow that narrative, however, in correctly saying that if a friendship forms, it will take time. What he hopes is that the two have a productive work relationship, a symbiotic one that would have the greatest benefit to them individually and the team.

"I don't force anyone to do something they're uncomfortable with," Collins said. "But they can feed off each other. If they share information, it could help."

Collins is right about that. As much as it sounds cliched when pitchers talk about maintaining the rotation's momentum from one starter to the next, it's very real. And how each member relates to the others can be a big reason the ball keeps rolling along for weeks or gets squashed the following night.

Ron Darling, now an SNY analyst, was on two of the better starting rotations in baseball history with the Mets. In 1986, Darling went 15-6 with a 2.81 ERA on a group that included Dwight Gooden (17-6, 2.84), Bobby Ojeda (18-5, 2.57) and Sid Fernandez (16-6, 3.52). Two years later, the Mets featured Darling (17-9, 3.25), Gooden (18-9, 3.19), Fernandez (12-10, 3.03), Ojeda (10-13, 2.88) and David Cone (20-3, 2.22).

Were they all best buddies? No. But did they recognize the importance of competitive bonding as a rotation? Absolutely.

"If you have that fraternity, if you get that feeling that you're all brothers in this thing, it's as good as it gets as far as being in a team sport," Darling said. "Hitters look at pitchers like a necessary evil. You're like a separate element on the team, so it makes you become close.

"There's nothing worse than being on a team -- a bad team -- and you've got some guys in the rotation that they're all for them. And on the day you're pitching, they don't [care]. We'd be on the bench cheering a guy on when it was his day, and making sure that, hey, I'm here for you."

Sometimes it goes beyond the dugout. Darling described a bulletin board in the clubhouse where the Mets' rotation kept a running score of who did what at the plate. Just another way of establishing bragging rights among type-A pitching personalities.

"You got a point for a sacrifice bunt, two points for a hit, all that kind of stuff," Darling said. "So we competed offensively, defensively and of course, on the mound."

A key distinction, however, is to make sure this good-natured rivalry between starters doesn't fester into something more divisive. That can happen. There is only one Cy Young Award per league, fans have their favorites and teams are limited in the millions of dollars they can spread around. Like any other workplace, jealousy can sprout in a clubhouse like bacteria in a Petri dish.

This past week, it was suggested that Harvey's near no-hitter Tuesday was motivated in part by Wheeler soaking up most of the spotlight. Even if that did contribute, the attention was more of a statement about the media than the early stages of the relationship between Harvey and Wheeler.

As Collins said, they haven't spent much time around each other yet, aside from being locker neighbors in spring training. The best-case scenario is for the two to develop the sort of camaraderie Glavine fondly recalled.

"It was never 'I want to have a better year than you' or 'I want to win the Cy Young and I hope you don't,' " Glavine said. "We knew that if we took care of business individually what it meant for the team. If Greg [Maddux] threw a three-hit shutout, I wanted to throw a two-hit shutout. If someone had a bad night before me, you took it upon yourself to get the team back on track.

"There's a lot of pressure that comes along with being the ace of the staff. And if you're on a team where it's you and then keep your fingers crossed the next four days, it's tough. On those staffs, it was never the case."

As for all that time on the golf course?

"We took some criticism for that," Glavine said, laughing. "But you know what? Ninety percent of our conversations [there] were about past games or a game that we were getting ready to play. You never know what you're going to hear to make you a better pitcher."


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