Jerry Manuelâ€™s use of KRod Tuesday night was certainly questionable.
In an ideal world, players do whatever is necessary to stay in shape and be ready to perform at the highest level, regardless of the situation. Alas, 21st century pro sports is not an ideal world.
Francisco Rodriguez has never had a reputation of being particularly difficult, but he is a 28-year-old athlete making 10+ million a year, who clearly has a very definite idea of what he believes he needs to succeed. It has been said that he must have a lot of work to stay sharp, and after the 2nd half meltdown we saw last year, maybe Jerry must keep all of this in mind.
Surely he used KRod in the 8th in order to be certain to get him game action, as there was no guarantee that there would be a bottom of the 9th to use his closer in. Of course, after KRod did his job and kept the deficit where it was, the Mets tied the game in the top of the 9th. Having already also used Dessens and Parnellâ€”apparently the other two of the four bullpen arms he trustsâ€”Jerry was forced to use Pedro Feliciano in the bottom of the 9th against a tough right-handed batter in Dan Uggla. We all know how this turned out.
Is criticizing this when Jerry felt he had to use KRod (and we have to decide at some point if Feliciano can be used in any situation with confidence) just basking in the benefit of hindsight? Maybe. Is accepting the result just blindly supporting Jerry while the team has been doing well? Maybe.
As in most debates, reality probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Never does one hear even Jerryâ€™s most ardent supporters suggest that he is a master of strategy or that his strong suit is out-maneuvering the guy in the other dugout. His bullpen use is oftenâ€”and often rightfullyâ€”questioned. But he has lessened his obsession with the sacrifice bunt as the offense has become more proficient and reliable, and he has finally largely stuck with a lineup strategy which makes sense, after a lot of debatable experimenting.
But his greatest strength seems to be motivational. Yes, this writer and others questioned this last year; but after nearly half of 2010, the dramatic improvement in many areas must at least be partly credited to Jerry.
In 2009, the team, from start to finish, was a mess. Bad fundamental play and mailing in games after falling behind happened from early in the year when the team was winning right through the injury-marred disaster of a second half. Young players like Murphy and Parnell were used inconsistently and possibly had their progress hindered. Overall, there was not much to like about the 2009 Mets, and putting the blame at Jerryâ€™s door made sense to this writer and many others.
In 2010, we have largely seen the opposite of 2009. The fundamentals are simply night and day from last year. Baserunning, fielding, hitting intricacies like moving runners over, and many more areas have dramatically improved. The excessive bunting has largely subsided. Young players like Niese, Ike, and Tejada have been used wisely and given a chance to both shine and to gain confidence. And the team simply never stops hustling. How many multi-run deficits have we watched the Mets overcome? Did that happen even once last year?
Football and basketball seem like sports where a Pat Riley or a Bill Parcells can instantly improve a teamâ€™s fortunes with brilliant strategies as well as motivational tactics. Baseball is such an eternal season, and so few teams remain in serious contention the last 1-2 months that it is very different. Motivating players through the endless travel and marathon of a season might be a sorely underrated skill in baseball. What we have seen of the 2010 Mets, Tuesday nightâ€™s bullpen use notwithstanding, speaks well of Jerryâ€™s ability to prepare and drive a team once he finally has some control over the roster and the staff.
In any event, we can all agree that Jerry is not perfect. But the team is playing significantly better than it did last year, is playing smarter, never stops hustling, never gives up, and seems to be developing the camaraderie which some great teams have. The Mets play with an excellent mix of veterans of various vintage, young players, and rookies, all of whom appear to truly like each other. Teams donâ€™t have to like each other to win, as a look at the 1970s Aâ€™s or Yankees instantly shows. But sometimes teams DO like each other while on the path to winning. The 1969 Mets appeared to be a brotherhood which still really likes and respects each other, and despite the occasional Strawberry-flavored issues, the 1986 Mets were clearly a group which fought to support each other (on and off the field), had each othersâ€™ backs, went to war together, got drunk together, and also embodied lots of other classic sports clichÃ©s.
It says here that Jerry, while continuing to mystify educated fans with his bullpen decisions, simply must be given a serious share of the credit for the dramatic improvement in fundamental play, hustle, attitude, and never-say-die spirit. Maybe 2009 was the last residue of the flawed Willie Randolph years, and it took Jerry this long to put his stamp on the team. It sure looks that way right now.
Jerry Manuel will most definitely never be a master strategist. But he has the players believing in themselves and each other. He has them constantly hustling. He has them hitting the cutoff man and moving runners over. He has them fighting until the last out. He has them gelling into a serious, loose, jovial unit. All of this must somehow compensate for some of the in-game tactical brilliance he lacks.
Will the Mets win more games due to Jerryâ€™s overall leadership than they will lose due to his in-game decisions? A question for the ages.
Maybe our esteemed Mr. North Jersey said it best when he opined that Jerry is neither as good as some of us may think, nor as bad as his detractors claim. As is often the case, after thinking about it, Mr. N. is probably right.