2006 NEWS

2006 News > 4/20/06

OLD LEFTY CAN LEARN NEW TRICKS

By Johnette Howard, Newsday

This was a heartbreaker, all right, but it was not one of those days that the Mets' Tom Glavine had so many times against the Braves before, back when playing his old club seemed like a full-blown psychodrama for him. Whatever pitch Glavine served up, it seemed to make no difference. The Braves, the team he never really wanted to leave in the first place, owned him. Balls screamed off their bats and into the gaps and over the fences. Though Glavine would stay pokerfaced throughout and afterward answer every last hard question, you could see it was killing him inside.

But these days - and for some time now, really - Glavine is changed. Yesterday at Shea, he pitched an absolute masterpiece for the third time in three starts this season. The Mets still lost, 2-1, but only because the Braves made all the defensive plays they had to behind their equally magnificent starter, Tim Hudson, while the Mets did not.

Still, the way Glavine pitched and the things that he said afterward were telling.

All the migrations he needed to make in his heart and his head since he signed with the Mets before the 2003 season and didn't find instant success finally seem complete.

He's in no hurry to return calls from his old boss, John Schuerholz, even though the Braves' GM has been phoning him since spring training to give his explanation for the passage in his new book that irked Glavine by revealing their private conversation that led to Glavine's free-agent departure to the Mets. ("We just keep missing each other," Schuerholz claimed this week.)

Glavine also finally quit griping and worrying about being squeezed on ball and strike calls by umpires working in a QuesTec world. So he begrudgingly adjusted instead.

Even the idea of playing the archrival Braves has nearly melted into just another game.

"The idea that I'm standing on the mound now going against guys that have so much information on me is kind of gone," Glavine said yesterday.

That transition might have eventually happened anyway, given that both teams have so many new faces. But at 40 Glavine has also dramatically changed, too, Braves manager Bobby Cox and Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson independently agreed yesterday.

"I think Tommy is better than he ever was. I really mean that," Cox said. "He throws inside now and you just can't hit him."

Cox said a lot of the Braves' hitters used to dive out over the plate, knowing Glavine made a living on the outside corner his entire career. But yesterday, when Braves slugger Andruw Jones guessed Glavine would try the same tactic in the fourth, a startled Jones barely got out of the way when an inside fastball came whistling below his chin.

Jones struck out swinging that at-bat, then later got to Glavine for a seventh-inning, opposite-field homer. But it was the only earned run Glavine surrendered all day. Third baseman David Wright allowed the winning run to score in the eighth by committing two of his three errors.

Earlier this spring, Glavine said he thought he'd "found something" that explains the tear he's on. But as Peterson said yesterday, "It actually started last season. Most people forget Tommy was the third-best pitcher in the National League the second half of the year."

Glavine finally surrendered to the idea that major-league home plate umpires are so strictly monitored now in video evaluations, they weren't going to give him the outside strike calls he used to get.

"He knew he really had to change his game," Peterson said. "And typically, what can come with any change is doubt: 'Is this going to be effective?' "

The two of them had a lot of long talks.

"We talked, for example, about how Tiger Woods went out and won the Masters by 12 strokes and then decided that he needed a new swing," Peterson said. "That was quite a statement."

It's a good day if Glavine's fastball tops out at a serviceable 89 mph. But Glavine, like teammate Pedro Martinez, is so masterful at changing speeds, it often doesn't matter if he keeps hitters guessing. Once he began buzzing strikes under their wrists while they were looking for him to go outside, and getting outs, his self-belief grew.

"Now he's got a game that's very difficult for other players to make adjustments to during the game," said Peterson, "because he's not only dialing down the speed as he goes along inning by inning. He's also changing speeds on all three of his pitches and pitching now to both sides of the plate."

Yesterday it all worked with dazzling efficiency against the Braves, his onetime nemesis. Glavine's eight-inning, four-hit effort lowered his season ERA to 1.38. His two wins have raised his total to 277 in 20 seasons.

"If I keep pitching like this," Glavine said, "I'm going to win a lot of games."