By Joe Lemire
May 03, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- In routing the Phillies on Friday night, the Mets won their eighth straight game, staved off their local rival's first challenge to their National League East lead and looked like a team ready to offer a season-long challenge to the three-time defending division champions.

But convincing losses in their next two games in Philadelphia cost them their grip on first place and reinforced the sense that the Mets still have a serious question mark before they can establish themselves as the team to beat in the division.

That shortcoming is the art of the comeback. In 25 games (and 14 wins) this season, only once have the Mets won after trailing by more than one run -- and that was against the Nationals on April 9, when they were behind 2-0 after the top of the second inning. In their recent streak of 10 wins in 11 games, the Mets led for all but a total of four innings, and each time their deficit was just one run.

Admittedly, that was largely a testament to their strong starting pitching -- in those 11 games the starters had a 1.63 ERA -- but it was that very strength that suddenly looked like a weakness in Philadelphia. The Mets can't rely entirely on long outings from their starters to keep them in games. Entering the weekend, Mike Pelfrey had been as good as anyone else in baseball (4-0, 0.69 ERA), but he was roughed up for six runs in four innings on Saturday. And on Sunday, ace Johan Santana, who had given up just seven runs in five April starts, was rocked for 10 runs by the Phillies and didn't make it out of the fourth.

New York can't be a serious contender until it shows the necessary mettle to rally from behind, which it failed to do against the Phillies. In both games, the Mets offense was nowhere to be found over the final five innings.

On Saturday, after the Phillies scored six runs in the fourth inning to break open a scoreless tie, the Mets had no hits and only two baserunners from the fifth inning on -- Jason Bay was hit by a pitch and Angel Pagan reached on an error. Granted, the Mets were opposed by Roy Halladay, but the Mets barely put up a fight, as he needed only 45 pitches to breeze through those final five frames.

On Sunday, after the Phillies scored nine runs in the fourth inning to turn a 5-2 deficit into an 11-5 lead, the Mets again failed to get men on base or even work counts with much success. A walk by Bay was their only baserunner over the last five innings and Jamie Moyer and Philadelphia's bullpen managed to cruise to the finish line on just 67 pitches.

That's no runs, no hits and only three baserunners in the late stages of consecutive games against their biggest rival in their first meaningful series of the season.

If the loss to Halladay on Saturday was understandable, the implosion by Santana on Sunday was almost unbelievable. Of the career-worst 10 runs allowed by the two-time Cy Young winner, nine came in the decisive fourth, a development that left Mets right fielder Jeff Francoeur "shellshocked."

It's hard to blame Santana too much, as he was one strike away from escaping without a run scoring before Raul Ibañez hit a two-out RBI single. He was the first of nine straight Phillies to reach base, a streak that ended with Santana out of the game and Philadelphia comfortably ahead 11-5 thanks to a grand slam from Shane Victorino and a two-run homer by Chase Utley.

"It all happened so fast," Francoeur said. "I don't think I comprehended it until I got in the dugout."

This isn't to say the Met's can't or won't make their share of comebacks, but so far they haven't. Contrast that with what an established Phillies team did Sunday night. Strange as it may be for a city that was long starved for championships until just two years ago, but an expectation of winning has arisen around Philadelphia's baseball team, thanks to its consecutive National League pennants and 2008 World Series title. The message sent by the Phillies' bats with their nine-run inning -- and seemingly catalyzed by the deafening roars of their 51st straight sellout crowd -- was simple: This is still our division.

Expectations have a powerful effect on perspective. Consider the pregame comments of the two managers on Sunday and see how strikingly different a similar record -- the Mets entered the day 14-10, the Phillies 13-10 -- can be perceived.

Philadelphia, biding its time without injured shortstop Jimmy Rollins, has an explosive offense and the ultimate trump card in Halladay. Despite the rest of the starters underperforming and the back of the bullpen in disarray with Brad Lidge coming off the disabled list just as Ryan Madson went on it, there would hardly seem to be cause for serious concern. Yet it was hard to guess they were just a half-game out of first judging by skipper Charlie Manuel's comments.

"Our starting pitching has got to be better," Manuel said. "It's got to be better. And our bullpen has to be better. I think they know that, and if they don't, I'll tell them. We've just got to be better. If we want to be better, we need to have more than Roy."

For the Mets, there's a tone of wonder to their hot play. They started poorly and were thought to be longshots to compete, at least until Carlos Beltran returns from a knee injury. They're still waiting for key lineup catalyst Jose Reyes to start playing to his potential as he recovers from offseason surgery on his hamstring and a thyroid condition that caused him to miss most of spring training.

"I would say I'm surprised in that sense to be where we are because we haven't really seen Jose," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "If we had seen Jose early and blah, blah, blah he'd been doing his thing and we were in first, it wouldn't be a surprise."

Reyes has certainly played better of late. In his first nine games he batted .150 with no triples (his trademark), one steal, three runs and 10 strikeouts; in his 11 games since he has batted .295 with two triples, three steals, nine runs and only four strikeouts. Still, Manuel rightfully expects much more, particularly since he's gambling by moving Reyes from his traditional leadoff spot to No. 3 in the lineup.

"No, I don't think he's quite himself," Manuel said. "I think he's still trying to find his timing and rhythm. When he is up to .280, .290 with triples, doubles, stolen bases, walks and doing those things, then we can say, 'Hey, he's back.' That still could take some time."

The Mets' offense has already improved with the promotion of first-base prospect Ike Davis, whose entrance into the big-league clubhouse perfectly coincided with the team's winning ways, but Reyes needs to be the engine that sparks rallies with extra-base hits or stealing second after drawing a walk.

The weekend in Philadelphia was an important litmus test for the Mets because none of the three opponents in the recent winning streak -- the Braves, Cubs and Dodgers -- has a winning record, and two of the three reside in last place in their divisions.

The season is barely into its second month and the Mets have exceeded what many thought they could do to this point, so there's reason for optimism, but they need to learn to put up a tougher fight.

"Inside the clubhouse it is what it is, and that's a lost series and a lost opportunity," said Mets third baseman David Wright. "We knew coming in that [the Phillies] are a good team, one of the premier teams in the National League. To get to where we want to go, we're going to have to go through Philadelphia. We'll see these guys again, and hopefully next time we're going to play a little better baseball."

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