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Mets' win not without crisp defense

Mets' win not without crisp defense

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NEW YORK -- The Mets were in the early stages of transformation. Pedro Martinez was on the mound regularly. Carlos Beltran was in center field. Willie Randolph was in the dugout. And a different sense of the Mets was developing. The most conspicuous on-the-field difference between the Mets of 2005, Randolph's first Mets team, and their immediate predecessors wasn't the names of the players, but rather how they played. Execution of defense, particularly relays from the outfield, was emphasized.

Third-base coaches in the National League learned quickly not to challenge the Mets' defense that year. The difference was as noticeable as the first-time presence of Martinez.

That was then and this is now, and neither Martinez nor sharp execution has been seen so much this season. The primary reasons for the team's uneven performance have been a generous bullpen and stingy offense. But the Mets' execution hasn't been all it should be, either. Third-base coaches noticed that, too.

Chances are, the Mets' on-field maneuvers of the first 39 games did not factor into the split-second decision that Yankees third-base coach Bobby Meacham made in the third inning on Saturday. Johnny Damon was on first base when Bobby Abreu doubled into the gap in right-center field.

"It made sense in my mind just to go for it," Meacham later said. "We're telling these guys to be aggressive, so let's go for it."

He waved Damon around third base, knowing that the Mets would have to make a perfect play to deny the Yankees a third run. As it turned out, a Ryan Church-to-Luis Castillo-to-Brian Schneider relay -- and Schneider's impersonation of an obstacle -- worked to perfection. Damon ended up a foot short of scoring.

The foot belonged to Schneider, incidentally. At the last instant, as he caught the one-bounce relay from Castillo, the Mets' catcher slammed his left foot into ground and essentially deflected Damon's left foot away from the corner of the plate. Access denied.

Run denied, too. And who knows what that run might have meant? As it turned out, the Mets beat the Yankees, 7-4, in their first Interleague engagement of 2008. It might have been 7-5. It might have been a Mets loss had the run scored.

When the play was complete, for a moment on Saturday, the year was 2005, and the words that came from the mouth of the manager were about crispness and execution and doing things right.

"You feel good when you make a play like that; the whole team does," Randolph said.

The 9-4-2 play was textbook Branch Rickey from beginning to end. Church cut off the gapper before it reached the warning track. His throw to Castillo, positioned 15-20 feet into outfield grass, was prompt, powerful and accurate.

"[Church] is as fundamentally sound as any outfielder I've seen in a while," Randolph said.

Castillo made the glove-to-hand exchange -- that's what he does best these days -- as if he were turning a double play and made a true, one-bounce throw that was readily handled by Schneider.

It was Schneider's foot, though, that made the rest of the play look so good. Even if the execution were perfect but unsuccessful, what good would it be? A bottom line exits on every play.

"I was able to wait till the last second," Schneider said, "because the throw was perfect. We really executed, and you feel good when you do that. ... I was taught to make the play that way, give them a reason to slide. Let him see the plate, then take it away from him as soon as you can."

Catchers routinely blocked the plate in some way or another until Carlton Fisk severely injured his knee in 1974 and removed himself from the line of fire, opting instead to make swiping tags.

"But that's the way," Schneider said. "When that play is developing, you're thinking about getting the out, not that you're going to get hurt. You know who the runner is, and some guys are more aggressive than others and they may try to take you out. But you've got a job to do. That's why you wear all of that gear."

Without the out, Johan Santana would have been down, 3-0, with a runner on second base and nobody out. With that out achieved, the three runs the Mets scored in the fourth inning looked a bit more formidable. They were the foundation of their victory.

"It was a big play because it denied them, and we were rewarded for doing it right," Randolph said.

The Mets made other plays. Beltran threw out Derek Jeter at second base in the sixth inning -- even if second-base umpire Alfonso Marquez seemingly forgot that Jeter had to reach the base. The umpire called him safe, but Castillo's leg had denied Jeter the base. He came up a foot short of the base, while Castillo picked up the ball he hadn't caught cleanly.

Jose Reyes made a pretty play at shortstop in the fourth, and Santana, using a goalie's reflexes, ducked away from and caught a scorched line drive hit by Jason Giambi in the fourth. But it was the team plays that warmed the manager's heart. Randolph had been smart enough to call his team meeting when Santana was scheduled to pitch. And the sharp plays that followed the meeting suggested that the talk had impact.

"I wish that were the reason," Randolph said.

He wished it were that easy -- say it, play it.

"We weren't perfect, though," Randolph said. "I had to jump Castillo for that play in the eighth -- getting thrown out at third base [on an attempted steal] with David [Wright] up. ... They said I don't get in my players' faces. I did then.

"That play would have ruined my whole day if we lost. It wasn't smart baseball. If I made a play like that here when I played, Thurman [Munson] would jump me. Or Roy White. They didn't tolerate bad plays. That's the way we have to be. Commit to each other. Accept criticism if it's right.

"We have to play smarter. That's what we talked about in the meeting -- if we play smarter, there's a championship out there for us. We can win one if we all just commit to playing the game right."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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