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Giants, Mets going in opposite directions

Special to

May 13

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a weekend that meant something to this city, to those snacking on garlic fries, Cha Cha Bowls and Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the park built out of respect for Giants fans because they remember what happened to the best team in the National League last October against the New York Mets. "There is a playoff atmosphere, maybe for the first time this year," Dusty Baker said, "and at a good time."

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds says the Giants will be better once they get a handle on the new strike zone.

Indeed, after winning consecutive home series against the Expos and then the Mets, that the Giants have begun to re-establish themselves in the division in which everyone reached Mother's Day looking down at the .500 waterline. "We're OK," Baker said as he looks for more production out of right field, Livan Hernandez and his left-handed relievers.

Baker watched as they won a tough, playoff-like, 10-inning game Friday, then toasted the underbelly of the Mets pitching staff 10-3 Saturday afternoon. "We're OK (20-16 on Mother's Day morning, a half game behind the Dodgers), considering that other than a couple of guys, we really haven't played well yet," Barry Bonds said. "Our hitting hasn't been in synch. I really believe that the strike zone has had a big effect on veteran players, because we don't know what's a strike and what's not except when the veteran umpires are behind the plate. So a lot of players don't know what to take and what to swing at and we're dealing with different count situations. And, besides that, we just haven't felt right."

The Giants have the winningest pitcher in the NL in Russ Ortiz, the leading hitter in Rich Aurilia, arguably the NL's best closer in Robb Nen and a sensational comeback by Benito Santiago, who midway through March couldn't find a job and on Sunday was hitting .373 after winning Friday night's game. "We also have a lot of things that haven't gotten going yet," Baker said.

Hernandez, perhaps distracted by his father's illness, has been throwing in the low-to-mid 90s, while Kirk Rueter struggled to re-define his strike zone until shutting out the Expos on Thursday. J.T. Snow, Jeff Kent and Bonds have yet to hit to their potential, and while Armando Rios and Russ Davis have nine homers between them, they are, after all, replacing Ellis Burks and Bill Mueller. The pitching has been in the bottom half of the league, the fielding has been dead last. In 2000, the Giants were in the top three in most runs scored, fewest runs allowed and fewest errors. The fans and talk shows have been riding Marvin Bernard, but Baker has stuck by him and Bernard is starting to hit. "Where else are you going to find a center fielder who can leadoff?" Baker asks. "One talk show even has a .200 club for him, as if they want him to fail. He's not the only one who struggled for awhile here, and he'll come out of it."

"We have to expect players with track records to produce," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. "Considering where we are, we've played pretty well. I can't say enough about Santiago. We're great believers in veteran catchers; that's why we went so hard after (Joe) Girardi. Benny has handled the staff, he's hit, he's thrown well (gunning down five of the last 10 attempted basestealers), he's been great. I guess he lasted so long because he was a tweener, a guy who should start, but too good, maybe too expensive, to be sitting on the bench. But he's in maybe the best shape of his career." How much do teams like the Giants and Cardinals believe in veteran catching? The Giants think they would not have lost the Mets playoff series if they had a veteran catcher, and the Cardinals believe they would have been in the World Series had Mike Matheny not been hurt. "This brings me back to Piazza," Sabean said. "This guy never gets enough credit for the job he does behind the plate and handling pitchers. He takes a lot of guff for not throwing people out, but he is great with pitchers and hits like a Hall of Famer and wants to play every day."

The gut-check against the Mets was important for the Giants, who Tuesday begin a road trip to Florida, Atlanta and Arizona -- a trip pretty much assured of seeing at least a half-dozen filthy pitchers. "In our division, we can't get too far behind," Sabean said. "I really worry about Colorado. They have some signs that are scary with the way Mike Hampton is pitching, and they could have that tremendous home-field advantage that could go a long way."

But while an "OK" 20-16 start is considered to keep the Giants' head above the waterline, the Mets are another story. "I guess if you're going to get off to a slow start, this is the right year," manager Bobby Valentine said. "But what we have to think about is when does it stop being early?"

Granted, there is comfort in the fact that the Phillies are the only team in the NL East above .500, that the Braves went into Mother's Day three games under .500 and that the Mets were still .500 on May 16 last year and made it to the World Series. "That's all fine and good," Valentine said, "but you have to show signs of snapping out of it and you don't want to end up with too many teams to climb over."

Valentine says the right I-like-our-team thing, but he is clearly concerned. He's not the clubhouse meeting type, but the Mets have already had three such meetings -- the last came after Thursday's debacle in Colorado when they got two balls out of the infield against Shawn Chacon. Then they went out and lost their second straight road series and added to the indignity of being outscored 48-12 after running up a 9-0 lead in the first game at Coors Field. "We need something, badly," said Al Leiter, whose stuff in a three-inning simulated game Friday was outstanding and now could start this coming Friday. "Can someone psychoanalyze us?" asks Todd Zeile, who except for one week has labored to find his timing.

The Mets, like the Astros the year before, underestimated the loss of not only Mike Hampton's record, but the bulldog mentality he took to the mound every fifth day. Granted, they have had a lot of injuries -- Leiter will have missed a month, Benny Agbayani, Timo Perez and Jay Payton have been hurt and Robin Ventura has moved slowly because of his hamstring injury. On Friday night, Mark Gardner jammed one Mets hitter after another with 85 mph fastballs. "That's a timing thing," hitting coach Dave Engle said. "We have a few guys with that leg kick, and that's timing, and a lot of the veterans haven't hit."

These are the ugly facts they faced on Mother's Day: The Mets have been outscored by 56 runs (tied for worst in the league with the Pirates), they've hit into nearly twice as many double plays as they've turned and the staff ERA is over 5.00 with Rick Reed the only starter under 5.00.

Valentine was perturbed last winter when ownership declined interest in Ichiro Suzuki, and the fact remains that the only deal they've made since the World Series is the acquisition of Donnie Wall for Bubba Trammell. Now, they have a lot of Tom Martins. And while New Yorkers call for a trade for a starting pitching and a big-time left-handed bat (GM Steve Phillips has tried to get Tony Clark and John Vander Wal without success), the problem is that the farm system is dry. Alex Escobar may or may not be a future star, but he is the only positional player close. Pitching? Grant Roberts may have found himself in the Norfolk bullpen, but there is nothing else on the Triple-A level. Simply put, they don't have much to trade to get what they need.

"This could be just a slow start," Valentine said. But it could also be a senior moment. Veteran players don't talk to that, but they talk about how much better the Phillies and Marlins are now that they've played together the last three seasons.

It seems the Giants and Mets are two trains running – destination, unclear.

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