Only time will tell about Mets' true level

Time will tell about Mets' true level

NEW YORK -- Even the most intense and knowledgeable baseball person tends to go back and forth a bit on the topic of the New York Mets.

Are the Mets a potential October juggernaut, head and shoulders above the rest of the National League? Or is the success of this team hanging by a thread, a thread that seems too slender for the good of this entire operation?

In this corner, it's about 65-35 in favor of the more generous assessment. The Mets have the most roster talent of anybody in the NL. This does not seem to be a particularly disputable notion. But this does not seem to put them in the category of a postseason lock. And that is what this season will be about after the disposition of the necessary 162 games: whether the Mets can take the next logical step and reach the World Series.

Tuesday night, frankly, was not a particularly good time for the juggernaut concept. The Mets lost to the Braves, 13-5, and Atlanta scored those 13 runs without mainstay Chipper Jones. But it is never advisable to judge a team on either its best or worst night, and this was a night too uncomfortably close to the worst end of the spectrum.

The record will clearly show that in the previous four games against the Braves, over the past 12 days, all Mets victories, Atlanta's offense, third in the NL in runs scored, had been held to a total of six runs. So as far as the Mets' recent pitching performances against reasonable opposition, Monday night was the aberration.

It was also far apart from the norm for Mets starter Orlando Hernandez, who, until this outing, had not lost a decision since July 4. El Duque's usual command was not in evidence on Tuesday night, and he was shelled for eight runs in three-plus innings.

"My control tonight was not good," Hernandez said, but he added that the sore tendon in his right foot that had caused him to miss his last start was not a problem

"You're used to seeing him hit his spots all year," manager Willie Randolph said. "He just didn't have a good outing. His location was off, obviously."

When Hernandez is on, people talk glowingly about his rhythm on the mound and his assortment of stuff; a blend that leaves hitters somewhere between baffled and helpless. When Hernandez is off, people talk about how he is probably older than generally imagined.

(In this regard, two Braves, Brayan Pena and Yunel Escobar, like Hernandez, Cuban expatriots, were asked how old they thought Hernandez was; 37 or 41 or whatever. After some consideration, Pena and Escobar said they really didn't know. But they said this in both English and Spanish, so it was a positive cross-cultural moment.)

The thing with El Duque is a microcosm of the issue with the Mets. He can be masterful, and you've seen his postseason performances, he's a certified big-game pitcher. But then, however old he is, Hernandez is at the point in his career where he is susceptible to physical breakdowns.

In the same vein, one of the greatest pitchers of this generation has returned to the Mets after shoulder surgery. Pedro Martinez has both the record and the presence that sets him apart from every other pitcher in the game. But what can reasonably be expected from him when push comes to postseason shove? He could be great. He could be a 35-year-old fellow who hasn't recently pitched much.

Pitching is paramount in the postseason. On paper, the Mets have a surplus of starters for October. Tom Glavine (13-6) is going to the Hall of Fame. Oliver Perez (14-9) has been nothing short of brilliant at times. John Maine (14-9) survived a slump and delivered a big performance when the Mets needed it most, immediately after the four-game sweep by the Phillies.

With Hernandez and Martinez, both presumably healthy, that's a highly reputable crew, one which would be the envy of the vast majority of Major League teams. But is there anyone among that quintet that reminds you, as we speak, of, for instance Jake Peavy of the San Diego Padres? Is there anyone as likely as Peavy, a distinctly possible postseason opponent, to absolutely shut down a team on a given night?

Offensively, the Mets have a wonderfully diverse offense, even with a disappointing campaign from Carlos Delgado. David Wright is a reasonable MVP candidate in a crowded NL debate over that award. The Mets still have substantial pop, and they still have Jose Reyes, who can put the other team on the defensive in a way no other contemporary player can. If he has not had a terrific second half, Reyes still is a unique talent and a real concern for any Mets' opponent.

And the bullpen? Closer Billy Wagner seems to have come back into form at exactly the right time. Ditto for setup man Aaron Heilman. Lefty Pedro Feliciano is more than competent. If the Mets aren't forced by short starts into heavy use of their secondary relievers, they're in good shape. But that's a scenario common to many clubs now, even for some of the elite teams.

Despite Tuesday night's setback, the Mets have won nine of their past 11 and remain six games ahead of the Phillies in the NL East, with only 18 left to play. At this point, a 13-5 defeat, when it comes on a night when the Phillies also lost, is practically pain free, because the lead has been maintained and one more day has been sliced off the season's calendar.

The Mets have sent out mixed messages most of the season regarding their true level. Are they on the verge of greatness or are they merely pretty good with serious drawbacks? In today's NL, being faced with this question does not represent a crisis.

On talent alone, the Mets should be the class of this league. When it comes to October, we'll find out if they have enough postseason pitching prowess to live up to the expectations, the aspirations and the time of the year when all of this matters most.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.