The New York Mets have done surprisingly well so far this season, and as June nears, there are whispers of a playoff run.
They have the tools at the plate. David Wright has an all-multiverse batting average of .373, and the Mets have been pleasantly surprised by the output of Mike Baxter, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Murphy and others once considered little more than fill-ins.
Props also go to the starting pitchers. Any lingering concerns about Johan Santana's surgically repaired shoulder were erased in his complete game shutout of the San Diego Padres last week. R.A. Dickey is having an All-Star season.
Props are also due to closer Frank Francisco—for his last few outings, anyway. A change in his bullpen sessions has improved his pitching tremendously after a very shaky start to the season. At one point, his ERA was above 8.00 and he was consistently throwing more than 20 pitches an inning. That is not a winning formula for a closer.
Still, Francisco has 13 saves this season—one off the National League lead. Concerns that he was tipping his pitches seem to have abated.
Here's the rub: Francisco's recent success has come against underperforming teams. The Mets are into their toughest stretch of the season so far, with series against the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and the surging Washington Nationals. Then comes their interleague series against the Yankees, always a tough slog for the Amazins no matter how the Bombers are performing.
With the recent adjustments to his mechanics, it's possible that Francisco will be up to the task, assuming that the Mets can hold at least a few leads into the late innings. But Francisco has a troubling characteristic: It doesn't take much to get him off his game.
Do the Mets need a new closer?
Take his blown save against the Miami Marlins earlier this month: Francisco was angered by a few close calls on pitches and was eventually tossed from the game by the home plate umpire after blowing the lead.
Solid hits by opposing players have also rattled Francisco. On those occasions, he's acted like he's been possessed by Armando Benitez. When his cool evaporates, so does his control.
That leads to another concern: high pitch counts. Francisco has kept his pitch count down the last few games, which is an encouraging sign. But if he resumes throwing upwards of 25 pitches an inning, it won't be long before his stamina is played out.
The Mets would do well to seek out a quality reliever who could step into the closer role in the event Francisco falters. That won't be easy this year. Injuries have bedeviled bullpens everywhere, and a number of closers are having disappointing seasons. The competition for healthy closers is bound to be fierce as the trade deadline gets closer.
Brett Myers, anyone?