10:36 am Jul. 30, 2012
Just think of Mike Baxter, who returns to the Mets Monday at the expense of demoted Kirk Nieuwenhuis, as the Rip Van Winkle of the New York Mets.
Back on June 1, Baxter, a waiver-wire pickup by Sandy Alderson on a team constructed of the bits of string Alderson found in ownership's pockets, made an astonishingly brave catch in left field to help preserve Johan Santana's no-hitter.
Baxter, a Queens boy, essentially sacrificed himself to save the game: He suffered a separated shoulder, a displaced collarbone and fractured rib cartilege in making the play, and couldn't sleep in a bed for more than a week.
The loss was felt by the Mets, too. Baxter had been hitting at a 152 O.P.S.+ clip, better than anyone on the team but David Wright. He'd been such an effective pinch-hitter that he'd started to earn regular playing time in left field. His production disappeared, and no one has provided it since.
In the two months that Baxter has missed, much has changed for the New York Mets as well.
The no-hitter was a transcendent moment for the Mets in a larger sense, giving them their first no-hitter but also allowing them to climb within a game of first place in the National League East. A day later, they'd pull into a tie for the division lead, at 31-23.
That's looking like their high-water mark for the year. The Mets are now 12.5 games out of first place, and 8.5 behind the Atlanta Braves for the final wild card spot. Since starting 31-23, they've gone 18-30.
Johan Santana sported a 2.38 E.R.A. following his big game. He pitched to a 6.54 E.R.A. in eight starts following the no-hitter, and is currently on the disabled list.
Other players on the roster have followed a similar trajectory, after promising starts to the season.
Lucas Duda homered in the no-hitter, playing all nine innings in right field; he slumped so badly in the 39 games after that he was sent to Triple-A, with the Mets acknowleding that they didn't plan to continue trying to force feed him into a right field position he really cannot handle. Kirk Nieuwenhuis was hitting .301 on June 1; he's hit .185 since, with almost twice as many strikeouts (43) as hits (22) in 129 plate appearances.
Only Ike Davis has really improved in the two months Baxter has been away, and while his change has been similarly dramatic (from .167, five home runs through June 1 to 15 home runs and nearly a .900 O.P.S. in the two months since) it hasn't been nearly enough to arrest the team's slide. Case in point: Ike Davis had three home runs on Saturday night, in a 6-3 Mets loss.
But the fall of Nieuwenhuis and Duda, and the consistency of Jason Bay, who has continued his three-year pattern with the Mets of getting hurt between awful stints of playing (.095 average in 69 plate appearances with Baxter out), gives Baxter an opportunity, perhaps the best one this 27-year-old will ever receive, to establish himself as a regular player in the major leagues and a part of the Mets' future.
Baxter has a career 129 O.P.S.+ in 123 plate appearances as a major leaguer, which suggests a frontline corner outfielder, particularly given his defensive prowess. In center field, where interestingly he spent some of his rehab time and which also looms as a hole for the Mets, those numbers would make him an All-Star.
But Baxter has just 13 plate appearances against lefties as a major leaguer, with no hits and six strikeouts. This is too small a sample to mean anything, but then again, you could almost say the same thing about his major league record.
The Mets may now put Mike Baxter in the lineup every day, playing him in left, in center, in right, against lefties, righties, even Pat Venditte, should he ever be promoted.
Baxter is relatively young, he's cost-controlled, and the two outfielders they have behind him at Triple-A should he falter are ... Lucas Duda and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
While he was away, the Mets ceased to be a contending team. Now, they really ought to be Mike Baxter's team, for better or worse.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
Pedro Ciriaco helped beat the Yankees again, this time with a tenth-inning bloop single. He's now 11-for-22 against the Yankees in his career, which will be more than a footnote only if this series win sparks a season comeback. The Red Sox still trail the Yankees by 9.5 games, though they do have nine more against New York. And Pedro Ciriaco.
Designated player Tim Cahill will be introduced to the media Monday afternoon at Red Bull Arena.
Yao Ming believes that Jeremy Lin's move to the Houston Rockets will be good for both Jeremy Lin and the Rockets.