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Mets eye baseball's biggest prize

Mets hope to ride season success into playoffs

NEW YORK -- The second half of the Mets' season, mostly free from tension, hasn't been without its challenges, some real, some perceived. And the National League East champions have responded well for the most part, asserting themselves each time they believed it was the prudent course of action.

They saw an opportunity to convince the Braves of their superiority in late July and swept three games in the park that had been a house of horrors for them. They wanted to reduce the chance of facing the Astros -- and all that playoff-proven pitching -- in the postseason and twice took two of three games from them. They saw the Cardinals as a likely October opponent, thought it wise to impress them and did so with a sweep. And, after three losses in Pittsburgh, when they recognized additional delay in clinching might give the wrong impression, they stiffened and beat the Marlins with a comprehensive performance in their ensuing game.

"We never turn it off," Paul Lo Duca said in the saturated madness that followed the clinching. "But sometimes we do dial it up."

Now the time has come when the Mets -- and all the other survivors of the preliminary 162 -- must twist their dials to the hilt. The challenge that awaits them is greater than the National League Division Series opponent; greater and different. And they don't have a clue if they're up to it.

Not because Pedro Martinez's next pitch will be thrown in about eight months. Even with Martinez, the Mets would have entered the NLDS as postseason plebes, unfamiliar as a unit with the stresses of baseball's postseason tournament, unsure of how they would handle playing for keeps with no safety net.

In that way, these Mets, winners of more games than any National League team this season, are a first-time team, rather than a first-place team. What they have accomplished since April 3 means no more this month than what their predecessors accomplished in other Octobers. For all they have done thus far, they are merely one of eight teams with 0-0 records aspiring to win 11 more games.

Until Martinez's season disintegrated, what distinguished the Mets most from the others were the expectations that developed around them while they were laying to waste the rest of the division. They existed perhaps because the Mets dominated the entire league in a manner comparable, though not equal, to what the storied Mets of 1986 had. Or because they became the first team to clinch. Or because they won nine of 10 games on a June road trip. Or because they displaced the Braves. Or just because we have reached a round-number anniversary of the last Mets World Series championship.

Whatever the reasons, frivolous or meaningful, the expectations had become conspicuous, burdensome, dangerous and, most of all, unrealistic. They have been diminished somewhat by Martinez's absence.

Shea Stadium

Shea Stadium once was known as a pitchers' ballpark at least partially because of those who threw there -- Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Nolan Ryan, et al. Now it is called "the last of the fair ballparks," an identity it has retained despite the introduction of PETCO Park and Comerica Park and the re-introduction of RFK Stadium. A pitcher still can survive a mistake at Shea. The park has yet to see its first broken-bat home run.

Shea was second to the Washington ballpark in the cookie-cutter era and has retained symmetry despite some alterations. The video board in left has reduced effect of the winds since the time Willie Mays called Shea's center field the "toughest to play." Winds still have some effect. And Shea can be as cold as any park.

It no longer is the "dark" park it once was, and newer on-field seats have encroached on foul territory over the years. The changes favor hitters, though not dramatically.

It is not a house of intimidation as is the ballpark in the Bronx. But Shea is as loud as any park. La Guardia's departing flights are less of an issue now, but the fans and the blasting speaker system make for a din. The players requested more volume in the 2000 NLCS, and $36,000 worth of speakers was installed.

"I'm sure there's all kinds of panic in New York," Tom Glavine said Thursday after Martinez became a postseason scratch. "And maybe that's good, because we really hadn't done enough for the expectations to be as high as they were.

"People had us in the World Series, like we had a bye. We haven't done it long enough. And we haven't done it before as a team."

Glavine, of course, knows of what he speaks. He is entirely too familiar with the weight of expectations and dealing with the folly that he experienced more than once in his Octobers with the Braves -- the notion that for a team to have a rewarding season, it must win the World Series.

Glavine scoffed when he heard that view applied to the Mets in August. That all-or-it-means-nothing thinking might have applied to the 1996 Braves, he said, "because we'd won [the World Series] the year before and we'd been in a few times with basically the same team."

He thought it probably applied to the Big Red Machine in 1976, because it had won the '75 World Series, and to the 1998 Yankees -- mostly because they said it did. But these Mets, these first-timers?

"No one ever knows how they'll react until they get there," Glavine said.

Willie Mays batted .239 without a home run in 20 World Series games. Long before Alex Rodriquez learned more than the leaves change in October, Ted Williams batted .200 in his only postseason. Bobby Richardson, a modest run producer, drove in 12 runs in one seven-game series. And Bobby Jones, a Steve Trachsel-George Stone hybrid, one-hit the Giants the last time the Mets were postseason players.

Glavine recalled how Mark Lemke emerged as a postseason force in the 1991 and 1992 World Series -- whether it was a case of him raising his game or maintaining it while those around him were in descent. And he knows the Braves, with all their talent and opportunities, have added no jewelry to their fingers since 1995.

"You never can tell unless you've been there," he said.

And even then you don't know for sure.

Glavine pitched eight scoreless innings in Game 6 of the '95 Series. His record in the postseason otherwise is 11-15. He pointed that out himself and said, "You never can tell, no matter what kind of season you've had."

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So here the Mets are after a wonderful regular season. And what are we to make of them? They rushed to the largest April lead, seven games, any NL East team ever has established, pushed it to 15 games by Aug. 13 and consequently played relatively carefree baseball for more than a quarter of their season. Even when they "dialed it up" for the perceived challenges, they performed with that safety net.

The net is gone now. Their lead zero. And they spent the last two weeks of the regular season wobbling.

The 1983 White Sox led the American League West by 11 1/2 games on Sept. 1. They never were tested in the final month and won the division by 20 games. Their first playoff game, a 2-1 victory against the Orioles, prompted their veteran Carlton Fisk to say, "The best thing we did was win. The second-best thing we did was almost lose. We hadn't been tested in a long time. It got us going again."

How the Mets perform without a net, how they execute when the consequence of an at-bat, a pitch or a play isn't diminished by a padded lead is a question that has no answer until Game 1. They can't know now how tightly they may squeeze the bat then.

Jose Reyes and David Wright are young and without postseason resume. But Lo Duca and Carlos Delgado have played 22 seasons between them and have no October histories either. Billy Wagner has one, and it includes a 7.71 ERA. It's another "you never know."

All of which is not to paint a bleak picture. Horses for courses applies in baseball too. Ralph Terry allowed a Game 7 walk-off one year and achieved the final out of a Game 7 two years later. Dave Winfield provided the game-winning hit, such as it was, in the 1992 World Series, 11 years after his 1-for-21 with the Yankees. And Timo Perez fueled the Mets against the Cardinals in the 2000 NLCS and then downshifted in the World Series against the Yankees. You never can tell.

"It's why they play the games on grass, not paper," Tom Seaver said years later, after the Mets staged their walk-on-the-moon miracle in 1969. "Because you don't know."

Al Weis, hardly an offensive threat, hit a home run in the Mets' decisive victory. And so did losing pitcher Dave McNally.

The team dynamic can change a player's outlook from one October to the next. If he thinks he's sharing the load, he may react differently than if he's doing the heavy lifting single-handedly. Maybe Lemke made it easier for Terry Pendleton in 1991. These Mets have shared the load. Maybe Jose Valentin will make it easier for Carlos Beltran. Beltran made it easier for Lance Berkman in 2004. Who knew anyone would hit as he did?

Through most of the Mets' success this season, the load has been shared. The load may seem like a burden in October. Who can say?

And it's not as though the Mets haven't experienced adversity at times -- if not in the standings and the race, then in the trainer's room. And they persevered through it. Valentin picked up Anderson Hernandez after Hernandez picked up Kaz Matsui. Aaron Heilman stood up when Duaner Sanchez fell down. And, all things considered, Endy Chavez has been the Mets' second best all-around outfielder. Who knew?

Who knows? With Martinez now a non-participant, with no comfy lead and with all the normal levels of "Let's knock off the best team" and "Kill the team from New York," the Mets may have gone from favorites to unfavored.

Another challenge.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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