The New York Mets are introduced at Shea Stadium as the 2000 National League Champions, words that are also painted on the grass behind home plate. It takes more than a public address system and a few coats of latex, however, to reconcile the current version of the Mets with the one that won the pennant; it takes a leap of imagination. Not once this season has New York looked like a contender by reeling off even a modest stretch of crisp play (the Mets were 13-25 after victories). "No, I can't say that we've ever felt we were ready to get on a roll," catcher Mike Piazza says. "When we have chances, it seems we always get a flat tire."
The Mets are the dark side to the postulate that the baseball world turns more quickly than it ever did. With a 38-51 mark at the All-Star break, New York was in fourth place in the National League East, 13 games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies. They were on pace to become only the fourth team to lose 90 games the season after playing in the World Series, though two of those teams—the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics and the 1998 Florida Marlins—could blame their collapse on fire sales. The only club to go from pennant to 90 losses without selling players, the 1974 Mets, had won only 82 games the previous season, the fewest ever for a playoff team.
What happened to the National League champs? These Mets bet that free-agent starting pitchers Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel (combined 7-18) could replace the departed Mike Hampton and Bobby Jones (combined 26-16 for New York in 2000)—a severe miscalculation. They also have scored fewer runs than any other team in baseball (3.8 per game), thanks to offensively anemic outfielders (18 total homers, or one fewer than Arizona Diamondbacks journeyman Reggie Sanders has) and woeful clutch hitting (.194 with two outs and runners in scoring position).
The Mets, however, are only the most obvious example of unpleasantly surprising teams. That group also includes the:
Chicago White Sox. Off-season acquisition and erstwhile ace lefty David Wells is 10-13 since starting the All-Star Game last year, including 5-7 this year.
Cincinnati Reds. Injuries to centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., shortstop Barry Larkin and reliever Scott Williamson have been crippling. The Reds are 11-31 at home and have yet to win consecutive games at Cinergy Field.
Oakland A's. Buried by a 2-10 start, the 2000 American League West champions haven't recovered, because new leadoff hitter Johnny Damon (.301 on-base percentage) hasn't set the table and their cleanup hitters (.193, seven homers) haven't cleaned up.
Toronto Blue Jays. The combined efforts of starters Joey Hamilton, Esteban Loaiza and Steve Parris—13 wins in 52 starts—define mediocrity.