NEW YORK - Here's the way it works in baseball, the way it's worked forever: Baseball teams spend all spring training talking about the importance of getting off to a good start. Then, if they don't, they spend all April talking about how early it is and how they have plenty of time to turn things around.
The New York Mets didn't even have that safety net this year. Not after coughing up late-season leads in 2007 and 2008 and completely falling apart last season. Nope, the other team in New York needed to open quickly, or goodness knows what hell might break loose. And it wasn't going to be easy. They were coming off 92 losses (Possible slogan: Thank God we're in the same division as the Nationals). They had a front-loaded schedule that include a heaping helping of both '09 playoff teams and home games, where the Citi Field fans demonstrated that booing wretched performances isn't strictly a Philadelphia phenomenon. It could have gone ugly early.
So when they began 3-9, the dailies dispatched additional reporters to St. Louis in anticipation of news, even though it was less than 2 weeks into the season. When the Cardinals won the series opener, the writers began mentally composing Jerry Manuel's managerial obituary and . . .
. . . The Mets are 10-2 since, including winning their last seven and vaulting into first place in the National League East in the process.
Go figure. It might turn out to mean a lot or nothing at all. At a minimum, it adds some luster to the early-season series beginning tonight at Citizens Bank Park, matching clubs whose rivalry went from boiling to frozen over in near-record time.
"You're going to see where you stand pretty quick," leftfielder Jason Bay, who signed a 5-year, $66 million contract with the Mets last offseason, said before Tuesday night's doubleheader sweep of the Dodgers. "You don't really know where you stack up until you play those guys, and they're going to be good, no question. The last few years, they've been the best team in the National League probably, and they didn't rest on their laurels."
Added rightfielder Jeff Francoeur: "It should be a blast. For me, I'm excited because I really haven't gotten the feel of a true Mets-Phillies series [after being acquired last year from the Braves at midseason]. Last year, we were out of it by the time I got here. It should be rockin' up there, and I love that. That's like a football atmosphere for me, and it's going to be right up my alley."
There's no single reason for how and why the Mets have turned themselves around. But the middle game at Busch Stadium is as good a place to start as any. You might remember it. Twenty innings. Scoreless through 18. Position players pitching after the bullpen was depleted.
St. Louis had the bases loaded in the 10th and 12th. And didn't score. Had runners on second and third with nobody out in the 14th. Didn't score. Runners in scoring position in the 15th and 16th. Didn't score.
The Mets went ahead, 1-0, in the 19th. The Cardinals tied the score in the bottom of the inning. And the Mets still won. It was the kind of game a losing team could have given up on with a we'll-get-them-tomorrow shrug a half dozen times. But they didn't and, since running that gantlet, they have been a different club.
"I got a little [ticked] off when I heard people say we were playing that game like it was Game 7 of the World Series," Francoeur said. "To me, what's wrong with that? A win's a win. Who cares if it's a nine-inning game or a 20-inning game? You want to win it, and that was a huge win for us . . . I think that was some momentum for us."
Bay said he didn't want to suggest that the Mets wanted it more.
"I would venture to say that we needed it more, given where we were at recordwise," he said. "So it would have been doubly tough to swallow. It was a long, emotional game. We've played better since then. That's the type of thing that can bring a team together, and maybe it did."
But other factors have contributed to the resurgence:
* The promotion of first baseman Ike Davis. The Mets were 4-8 and in last place when he arrived from Triple A Buffalo. They're 9-1 since.
"He comes with a lot of fanfare and, in a place like this, that fanfare tends to get even bigger," Bay said. "But he's a level-headed kid, and I think the nice thing is that nobody here expects him to be the savior of the New York Mets. He's hitting sixth? Perfect spot for him. Just blend in and be another offensive guy and I think that's the way we view it. He's not the guy who just got called up. He's a legitimate major league bat that can help us."
* The emergence of Mike Pelfrey as a legitimate No. 2 starter. New York has an ace in Johan Santana, who has been successful so far, despite a noticeable drop in velocity. He starts Sunday. But the modern paradigm is to have a 1-2 hammer at the top of the rotation and, so far, Pelfrey, who will start tomorrow, has given them that. He hasn't allowed a run in his last 24 innings.
"You look around the league, most teams that get to the playoffs and win the World Series have a legit 1 and 2. And that's what we have right now and that's huge," Francoeur said.
* The pitching in general. The Mets staff has a 3.06 earned run average.
"You live and die by pitching, and they've been great so far," Francoeur said.
* Moving Jose Reyes from leadoff to the third spot in the order. The Mets are 6-0 since the change. The intention was to give Bay, the cleanup hitter, more fastballs to hit. More important, it signaled a shift in philosophy. A year ago, the Mets sat around and waited for their injured stars, such as Reyes and Carlos Beltran, to return. They learned that sometimes players don't come back as quickly as you hope, and Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya have moved more aggressively this year to juggle the lineup and bring up Davis.
Beltran is still out, recovering from surgery on his right knee. And an offense that has sputtered is showing signs of coming around. Bay hit his first home run as a Met on Tuesday night. Third baseman David Wright was batting .227 and had struck out in 13 straight games going into the nightcap Tuesday. In two games since, he's 5-for-7 with a walk and four RBI.
The Mets still haven't won anything. Just because every team talks about how early it is at this time of year doesn't mean it isn't true. But for now they've relieved some of the pressure, quieted speculation about who might be fired first and turned the attention back to the field. And that counts for a lot. *