2003-05-23 / Sports

Mets Looking At A Summer Without Piazza

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Mets Looking At A Summer Without Piazza By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist


BRYAN HOCHBRYAN HOCH

For the first time since Todd Hundley called Shea Stadium home, the Mets are prepared to face an entire summer without the services of one Michael Joseph Piazza.

After the catcher suffered a severe Grade Three strain of his right groin last week, Piazza will be out until at least the All-Star Break in July and could possibly miss the entire rest of the season. Considering all of the wear and tear that goes with catching in the major leagues, the injury actually occurred in an unorthodox fashion, with Piazza scrambling to duck out of the way of a 95-mph Jason Schmidt fastball.

As he crumpled to the dirt around home plate at San Francisco’s Pacific Bell Park, Piazza said he "felt something pop like a guitar string," which, as MRIs would indicate, was actually an avulsion that pulled some muscle entirely off of his pubic bone, tearing and fraying many fibers in the process. Sources familiar with the images of the MRIs later said that the muscle had actually wrinkled up like an accordion, further complicating the issue.

It’s just as nasty an injury as it sounds, and while Piazza expresses no doubt that he’ll be back playing baseball and in pursuit of Johnny Bench’s all-time home run record for catchers someday, he’s not so sure if it’ll be this summer.

"I always try to be optimistic," said Piazza. "I’m not looking that far ahead. [Being out for the year is] in the back of your mind, that’s the ultimate fear, but I’m not really looking at it right now."

"It’s possible [Piazza could be out for the season]," GM Steve Phillips admitted. "We’re leaving it as an indefinite period of time. We can’t pinpoint it. It depends on the symptoms and the rehab process."

For Piazza, the most frustrating part is that he’d just begun to pull his own weight at the plate. In his last seven games leading up to the injury, Piazza had been scorching red-hot, raking National League pitching to the tune of a .500 (12-for-24) batting average while belting four homers and driving in nine runs. If Piazza were to have scripted it, that would have been the turning point of his season. The period when he could finally put behind the four-game suspension in April, the ongoing media frenzy over his possible move to first base, and whatever scandals du jour might pop up at Shea.

After that, Piazza would dream he’d bat at that .500 clip the rest of the way and lead the Mets to their first World Championship since 1986. It wasn’t to be. "I really felt like I was swinging the bat well," Piazza said. "To go from a low period to a high period and then back to a low period, it just sucks. You go from seeing the ball as well as I was, to the freaking training table. It’s disappointing." Looking at the rest of their season with a pair of backup catchers – Vance Wilson and Jason Phillips - the Mets’ cellar-dwelling season has both the potential to get a lot more interesting and a lot worse.

Jason Phillips hadn’t played first base regularly since 1996 in the Alaskan Collegiate League, but his hot bat somehow allowed him to steal the starting first base job from slumping Tony Clark. Vance Wilson is among the NL’s best defensive catchers (a guy who can throw a seed to second base? I’m sold!) and rookie third baseman Ty Wigginton would run through the Home Run Apple if there were a catcher planted on the other side.

On the other hand, you have to remember that this is the major leagues, and when you throw a Triple-A Norfolk Tides lineup out there on most nights, you can’t really hope for too much. Despite the $120 million bleeding from Fred Wilpon’s ledger, the Mets will not be playing baseball in October, and when they continue to flounder into June and July, look for several key chips – 2B Roberto Alomar and closer Armando Benitez being the most prominent, to be shipped off to clubs with a fleeting chance of the postseason in the first steps in a much-needed Mets makeover.

Bryan Hoch can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.


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