Clubhouse Confidential: Open auditions

The white flag finally came up Friday at Shea Stadium, with the ever-optimistic Willie Randolph conceding that the rest of the month would be used to audition relievers.

It would appear Braden Looper's final opportunity as the unchallenged closer came on Thursday, when Looper lost a 5-4 lead – thanks in part to two New York errors – and Washington completed a sweep of the Mets with a 6-5 victory at Shea Stadium.

Looper has said that he would like to return in 2006 with the Mets as a setup man, but with a $5 million club option hovering as a price tag, it appears the Mets would be much more likely to simply trigger the $250,000 buyout to get rid of Looper and pursue other options like free-agent-to-be Billy Wagner.

But perhaps the Mets can fill the need from within – unlikely, but September will become audition time for Randolph, as he mixes and matches pieces.

Randolph's fascination with Shingo Takatsu – dumped by the White Sox following an 19-save season in '04 – figures to only increase, as the "funk" Takatsu yields continues to be explored. Randolph said Friday that Takatsu will get a shot at closing games, as should Danny Graves and possibly Roberto Hernandez as well.

"[Takatsu] is intriguing to me in a lot of ways," Randolph said. "He's different than most guys."

There's a trend with the three choices there. All are tried former major league closers who have wound up with the Mets; two off the MLB scrap pile, one as a legitimate spring training stroke of genius.

Meanwhile, the free Heath Bell campaign – the right-hander hasn't pitched this month – continues. Randolph said he'd swap Aaron Heilman's role around a little (Heilman says he intends to pitch in winter ball as a starter), while using Tim Hamulack as a lefty specialist and trying Juan Padilla in a variety of situations.

"I think our bullpen has done a little better job than I thought they'd do, actually," Randolph said.

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After a four-hour drive to witness Game 1 of the South Atlantic League Championships on Monday, one distinct impression was left – Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium certainly has … character.

The Suns advertise their home park as "historic", and it does have a certain charm (as should any park that held its first game in 1930).

Willie Mays played his first professional game in that stadium, patrolling the same sloping outfield (raised left to right) that Hagerstown's Dante Brinkley roamed this week.

The locals still murmur about the great crowds drawn when Jim Palmer visited Hagerstown – then an Orioles affiliate – for a rehab stint, and the manually-operated left-field scoreboard invoked a certain vision of Fenway Park, except for the numbers replaced from the front, not the back like in Boston.

All that said, it was a little disappointing to see a sparse crowd in attendance for the opener of Hagerstown's series with the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators.

When we say sparse, it's not like the light crowd that showed up for Thursday's matinee at Shea against the Nationals – this is downright tiny, with the reported (and accurate, we presume) attendance at 904.

The problem was that the Suns' previous playoff series with Delmarva came down to a fifth and deciding game, leaving precious little time for Hagerstown to promote Monday's game in newspapers and on the radio.

Of course, Tuesday's contest – a 5-3 Suns win – only drew 913, so maybe promotion wasn't the problem. Regardless, the Mets are reportedly extremely happy with their move to Hagerstown (an hour's flight from New York), and the locals appear to be as well.

The Mets have their Class-A prospects involved in community relations, something previous tenants Toronto and San Francisco didn't do in recent years, and are establishing a bond with a locale that previously would have been considered heavy Orioles territory.

For 2006, Mets fans should certainly consider rolling down the windows and making the pleasant rural drive from New York to catch a game or two in Hagerstown, a blue-collar, red-brick city not without its charm.

***

The Mets' Sterling Award winners will be on hand at Shea Sunday, honored in a pre-game ceremony for their achievements as the top minor league players in the system.

Well, all but one – Pitcher of the Year Brian Bannister is still overseas, pitching for Davey Johnson's Team USA.

But Player of the Year Mike Jacobs (he has to be here, it's his job) will be joined by RHP Jason Scobie (Norfolk), IF Anderson Hernandez (Binghamton), UT Andy Wilson (St. Lucie), OF Carlos Gomez (Hagerstown), OF Joe Holden (Brooklyn), 3B Matt Anderson (Kingsport) and SS Emmanuel Garcia (Gulf Coast).

As an aside, it looks increasingly more likely that Hernandez will be here Sunday in a suit, not suiting up in a Mets uniform.

Randolph continues to have a fascination with the guys who got the Mets here, and that means Kaz Matsui – not Hernandez, who hit .330 at Binghamton and .303 at Norfolk – will continue to get starts as the Mets play out the '05 campaign.

Besides, the Mets would need to make a 40-man roster move to add Hernandez, a September shuffle they don't appear inclined to do.

***

Inside Pitch managing editor Bryan Hoch appears every Friday with Clubhouse Confidential, an inside look at the New York Mets organization. Contact Bryan at metsinsidepitch@aol.com.


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