"I don't think there ever was a payoff," Dillon Gee said Tuesday morning. "We lost interest pretty quick."
Well, not that quickly. Niese had two hits, an RBI and a walk on April 1, when the Mets did their usual Opening Day routine and won. And Matt Harvey singled in his first at-bat the following day. Yes, Mets pitchers were, in fact, batting 1.000 after three turns last season. Note: their first game was played on April Fools Day. Is it at all surprising that they batted .109 for the rest of the season after their first three swings?
Now, no one has held the starting pitchers' hitting responsible for the team's losing record (74-88) in 2013. But the feebleness of the swings by Niese, Gee, Harvey, et al probably had more to do with the 88 losses than with the 74 victories. The ninth spot in the Mets' batting order last year, as Terry Collins noted Tuesday, "didn't do too much damage." It seldom has since the departure of Mike Hampton (.278 batting average, 20-for-72 in '00) after the 2000 season.
Tom Glavine could bunt with the best of them and always got his hits, Orlando Hernandez had a big league swing and an attractive offensive resumé, Steve Trachsel rarely embarrassed himself at he plate, Johan Santana was no Bob Buhl (0-fer a season) and Da Sung Koo did have that big hit against Randy Johnson. But, by and large, Mets pitchers rarely have stung the baseball with any sort of consistency since the '80s when Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Rick Aguilera (.278 batting average, 10-for-36 in 1985), David Cone and even Bobby Ojeda took their turns seriously and enhanced their chances to win.
Some contrast here: Mets pitchers struck out 140 times in 296 at-bats last season, leading to sarcasm and suggestions that their likenesses be placed with those of real missing persons. Their hits (34), RBIs (15) and sacrifice bunts (27) combined didn't approach their unbecoming strikeout total.
But this is mid-February, and hope is as plentiful in Florida and Arizona camps as snow is at Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Citi Field. They Mets have some new hope about their pitchers' hitting, and it comes in a least-likely form -- a 40-year-old with the physique of a fire plug who has 29 at-bats since 2002, Bartolo Colon.
The club imported Colon to pitch. And it believes he will do that effectively enough to earn the $20 million it is obligated to pay him through the end of the 2015 season. And he indicated -- he provides little information via spoken words -- that he will hit as well.
Truth be told, Colon has been preparing for his second tour of the National League. It follows his first by 12 years. Three years before he surprised the baseball universe by winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2005 as a member of the Angels, Colon was traded to the Expos by his first big league team, the Indians. During his brief run north of the border, he made 17 starts, batted 43 times, amassed five hits, a .128 average, a sacrifice fly, two sacrifice bunts and took one pitch for the team.
Now those numbers don't compare favorably to the hitting statistics of, say, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Don Drysdale or Gary Peters, but they do provide a sense that Colon knew what to do with the business end of a bat.
"I can hit," he said in what tied for his longest sentence. "Right now, no."
He also acknowledged that, if he bats regularly -- three or four at-bats a week, he'll be better off.
But Colon prefers not to show his hand. What if he announces he can hit and then begins his second National League tenure with an extended 0-fer? What then? He believes he's sly. New teammates hear him speaking English clearly when he's in the kitchen here or when he's kibitzing with a coach. But he publicly denies any degree of fluency in English. Presumably, his idea is to keep 'em guessing. He didn't say.
He did acknowledge, though, that he intends to be more than a baseball "three-and-out" when in the box. He confirmed what another person in Mets camp had whispered the previous day -- that's he'd been taking batting practice in the Dominican for two months before bringing his 16 years of experience to Port St. Louisville Slugger.
Colon's means of confirming the whisper was to reveal blisters on his palms, a means Pete Rose and Tony Perez used each February when they were active to demonstrate their preparedness. One blister was large and rather ugly. Evidently, Colon was unaware of how Moises Alou, his father and his uncle -- big leaguers all -- had toughened the skin on their hands.
When the blisters were mentioned to Collins, he smiled sheepishly. He was aware of Colon's preparation.
"I'm thinking of batting him third," the manager said.
No word from David Wright on that possibility.
At least, Colon will get to swing a few times every five days as a regular starter. And if he pitches as he did last season when he produced an 18-6 record and a 2.65 ERA with A's, he might get a few extra at-bats. He threw three complete games, all shutouts. That's a guarantee of three at-bats. The Mets incidentally, pitched four complete games (two shutouts) last season.
"It would be great if we all hit more," Gee said. "It's part of our job."
Incidentally, Gee tied for the team lead in hits by a pitcher last season. He had eight, as many as Niese. But Niese had 39 at-bats to Gee's 60. And Zack Wheeler had four hits in 30 at-bats. Harvey was 5-for-58. But -- have you heard? -- he's not going to bat or pitch this year.