Mets hope small ball pays off big

Mets hope small ball pays off big

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Among the defeats the Mets endured during their September slide last season was one that particularly distressed their manager, because he was certain that it could have been averted had his hitters not adhered to their routine practices.

That night, Jerry Manuel would have paid a princely sum for a swing that perhaps would have produced a foul ball to extend a critical at-bat. He would have been quite content with a ground ball to advance a runner rather than a perfect and mighty swing designed to create a hero.

For want of a small-ball component -- more contentious at-bats, a properly placed ground ball -- the Mets lost that night, prompting Manuel to lament during the postmortems: "There are things we can do to win games that we don't always try. ... There's more than one way to skin a cat."

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Let those words stand as a warning for National League opponents as well as the feline population of Flushing. The 2009 Mets are likely to be far more resourceful than their immediate predecessors. Big swings, base-path thievery and anything else that might gain statistical favor in a salary-arbitration hearing will be acceptable, of course, but only at the appropriate instances. On other occasions, these more Manuel Mets will do anything to accomplish their objectives, to win that night and ultimately find their way past the season's 162nd game. Whenever necessary, they will go outside the box score.

"More Mark Lemke than Mark McGwire" was the phrase that former Met Lenny Harris once used to describe the difference in how the game can be played at critical moments.

Manuel advocates the former.

"You can have that kind of effort every day," he said last year when told of Harris' 10-year-old comparative. "That kind of play doesn't slump."

So consider it symbolic and well conceived, too, that Manuel had his pitchers bat second in three home exhibition games last week to make them more familiar with small-ball maneuvers they probably will be asked to execute more often come April. And consider it his way of underscoring the skin-the-cat credo that he situated himself on the outfield lawn during intrasquad games so he could be a Jiminy Cricket for his shortstop, and that he assigned some of the team's most successful and highest-profile position players unfamiliar addresses in the batting orders.

"He wants us to think about other ways we can beat a team," Ryan Church said after he completed the arduous, 80-swings-in-six-minutes drill that Manuel implemented in hopes that his players would become more willing and better able to go with a pitch.

"He's reminding us all the time. He's saying it, and he's doing things to remind us," Church said.

And the Mets are listening, even accepting it.

"Why not?" David Wright said after his exposure to the 80-in-six torture. "It's not like we've been real successful doing it a different way."

The Mets are ripe for Manuel. Even though he was involved in the two unrewarding Septembers, the players recognize that the fault lies with them, not the men who make trades, decide when to hit and run, and whether to wave a runner home. Moreover, they are being exposed to an all-for-one approach some five months after the Rays' "9=8" credo brought a less-proven team to the World Series.

"We know what Tampa Bay did," Jose Reyes said. "They were a good team. We are a good team."

Who will pitch late innings for the Mets this year -- J.J. Putz and Frankie Rodriguez -- has changed, but little else, in terms of personnel, is different. So if this team is to be successful in its next 162-game pursuit, the changes will have to be in how it goes about its business.

Manuel intends to celebrate small-ball successes. When Nick Evans advanced a runner with a right-side groundout on Wednesday in the first exhibition game, against the Orioles, the manager lauded his contribution and made no mention of the base hits that Evans had produced in his three other at-bats.

The day camp opened, Manuel went so far as to say that he might reward players for small-ball contributions and use them before those with more tangible, box score merit. Mark his words, Lemke over McGwire.

General manager Omar Minaya insists that the talent he has assembled is sufficient. He said the same last season and the previous year, too, but he says that this team has greater talent, certainly enough to bridge the gap from 162 to the best-of-five and the best-of-seven. He endorses Manuel's socialist approach.

"It's a good way to play," Minaya said. "I think more teams will take that approach now. And most teams don't have the level of talent we have. "If we use the right approach with our talent, we should have a very good year."

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