The Mets arrived in Philadelphia on Friday for what amounts to a reality check. Their 4-0 start stunned baseball, not to mention prognosticators.
They came back to earth, losing their next two games to Washington. So playing the Phillies, who've won the East the past five summers, this weekend becomes an early season test.
The Phillies won 11 of 18 games against the Mets last season, including six of nine in Philadelphia.
With that in mind, it figures if the Mets can somehow squeeze out two victories during their three-game weekend set, they might even resurrect Tug McGraw's "You Gotta Believe" battle cry he coined for them in 1973.
They took the first step toward that goal with a convincing 5-2 victory over the Phillies and their nemesis, Cliff Lee, on Friday night. It was Lee's first loss in four career starts against the Mets.
So, with such an important early season series on tap, there was this image of Collins -- beginning his second season in this difficult gig -- gritting his teeth before Friday's game. Tap on his office door at Citizens Bank Park, then duck.
Instead, three hours before R. A. Dickey's first pitch (the knuckleballer worked seven strong innings to win his second game), Collins was laughing, joking and "as happy as I've ever been in a managerial job."
Sure, he'd read all the negative preseason predictions -- and knows his players did, too. He refused to sugarcoat the fact the Mets' payroll had the sharpest reduction (from 2011) in Major League history and this is a young, unproven, team.
With All-Star third baseman David Wright, whose bat was instrumental in those first four victories, out with a broken finger, facing the Phillies seemed to be a Herculean task. Wright hit .583 with a homer and four RBIs in those four games.
All that did was make Collins more optimistic, which has become his modus operandi.
His personality and approach to managing a baseball team has taken a dramatic turn. In fact, considering the myriad of negative factors pulling against the franchise, there's none better to manage this team now than Collins.
"No question, I'm much more patient about the whole process," he said. "I was a very demanding manager. I demanded my players to do the right things and play the right way. To be honest, when things didn't go well, I took it personally. I wasn't mad at them. I just didn't think I did the job preparing them. That's where I rubbed them the wrong way."
Wright said: "It's fun to come to the ballpark every day knowing you're going to get that type of energy, that type of enthusiasm out of your manager. It rubs off on the players. It's such a long season. And when you have a manager who has that kind of emotion, it provides a shot in the arm for the players."
Before the Mets took the field to face Lee, Collins held a team meeting.
He talked about taking advantage of the Phillies, who are without All-Stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
"When they don't have Utley and Howard in the lineup, if you're going to beat them, now is the time," he said. "The Phillies are very good and very talented. But when you've got them banged up like they are, you have to take advantage of it."
And the Mets did just that.
At the meeting, Collins talked about his hitters being more aggressive -- especially against Lee, who entered the game with a lifetime 2-0 record and a 0.43 earned run average against the Mets. He had not allowed a run or an extra-base hit in his last nine innings against them.
"Lee is a great pitcher, and it's not that I want them to be overly aggressive," said Collins. "Part of the whole plan is to be disciplined and get something good to hit. The other part of that is, it could be the second pitch of the at-bat. You don't have to go up there and just take pitches. You might be able to get a good ball to hit on the first or second pitch of the at-bat.
"If Lee is in the strike zone, yeah, do some damage."
With Collins' words obviously ringing in their ears, the Mets greeted Lee with back-to-back doubles by Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy for a quick 1-0 lead, then vaulted ahead, 3-0, on Jason Bay's homer to right field.
"The first inning was huge," Collins said after the game. "You don't get to guys like Cliff Lee that way. It was a great start for us."
Scott Hairston's leadoff home run to left in the fifth put the Mets up, 4-1.
Collins said a dark cloud was lifted from above the franchise when team owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz settled the lawsuit relating to the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. Also, the sale of 12 minority shares of the team that raised $24 million was also important, "easing financial pressure from the franchise."
"Something I've learned over the years is if you think the players are naïve enough to not know what's happening, you're crazy," said Collins. "The idea is to make sure the guys you've got -- keep 'em up, keep 'em positive. Get them prepared. We cannot worry about what you don't have. You have to make your guys believe they can get the job done."
Collins repeated if the Mets can finish the weekend with two wins against the Phillies, "it will be huge for us. It'd speak volumes and would help our fan base. We've been talking all spring [about how] we're better than people think we are. So if we can win two of three, it tells everybody, 'Hey, they are better than people think they are.'"
Collins adds, "We've got to start raising the spirits of our fan base and the people associated with our club -- because ... what's happened in recent years has created a huge negative atmosphere around here we're trying to change. We've changed it in the clubhouse, and now we've got to do it on the field."
As boos from the 208th Citizens Bank Park sellout filled the air, the Mets wobbled off the field with their fifth victory in seven games. They've won five of seven games and are in second place a half-game behind Washington.
"For us, tonight's [game] was a huge victory," said Collins. "We talked about getting out of the gate fast, and we have. To come in here and win, it's all about building confidence, especially for the young players. If they start believing in themselves, we've got a chance to have a dangerous lineup."