Opposites attract in Game 1
Leadoff men figure to be center stage in Big Apple
NEW YORK -- One team knew since mid-May that it would be here. The other didn't know until the final beats of a 181-day season.After waiting an extra day for Major League Baseball's three other Division Series to play through, the Mets and the Dodgers hit the spotlight late Wednesday afternoon, to test each other and a couple of the sport's unwritten laws. And "Play Ball!" arrives not a minute too soon for the Mets, who on the eve of the series opener continued getting beat up emotionally the way no National League foe could touch them during a 97-win season. Tuesday morning, teammates extolled the big-game mentality of Game 1 starter Orlando Hernandez. Tuesday afternoon, El Duque was on his way to a hospital for MRI exams on a right calf muscle that threatened to keep him off the mound. The MRI revealed a muscle tear, leading to Hernandez being scratched -- and left off the first-round roster. Rookie right-hander John Maine was assigned to pitch in El Duque's place against the Dodgers' Derek Lowe. Starting pitchers are always on trial, but a jury of 56,000 will convene in Shea Stadium to also see arguments in two other common postseason cases: One, it's not what you have done, but when you did it.
Two, it all flows from the top. You've heard various people in the game give the same assessment of the postseason: "It's not the best team that wins, but the hottest team." That would be the Dodgers, who enter the dance with seven straight victories. Similarly, teams with dynamic leadoff men live and die by their feet. A short series narrows the focus even tighter on Rafael Furcal and Jose Reyes, the shortstop fuses of the Dodgers and Mets, respectively. "It starts with Furcal for them," said Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca. "You've got to keep him off base. And the same goes for us -- they've got to deal with Reyes." Appropriately, Furcal tore through September at a .369 clip as the Dodgers drove down the stretch. His ignition is one element helping convince Los Angeles manager Grady Little that his team is at its peak. "I don't think we've been this good all year," Little said. "When we won 17 of 18 [July into August], we weren't as good a team as we are now." Not that the Mets come in stone cold. But after securing their National League East title on Sept. 18, they did struggle through eight losses in 11 games before closing with four consecutive wins. But "struggle" continued to be the hot-button word in their clubhouse during Tuesday's workouts, to the point that when he heard it, Lo Duca winced and moaned, "Still? C'mon, man.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.