Long Road Ahead

Preparing his club for Opening Day and the long road that lies ahead, manager Art Howe believes that the Mets are just about where they need to be.<p> Right. And the Titanic just had a leak.

The truth is, whatever possibly could have gone wrong for the Mets this spring training did – can we call it Bob Murphy's law? – flushing a good deal of the Mets' joyous enthusiasm out of camp and scorching expectations of a hot start.

As Murphy, the retired broadcasting legend, would have said, the Mets are looking at nine miles of bad road right about now. Tom Glavine hasn't even thrown the season's first pitch yet.

The Mets built their game plan for the season around defense up the middle, planning upon seeing Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui whirling gorgeous double plays around the bag with the greatest of ease. Instead, Reyes will begin the season on the disabled list, the victim of yet another painful hamstring injury in a trend that's becoming all too familiar.

Matsui, the Japanese version of Cal Ripken, suddenly took on the fragile nature of Ken Griffey Jr. upon joining the Mets. He missed a good portion of camp with two separate injuries and didn't really hit as much as expected, struggling along to a .192 average and impressing only with his great speed on the bases.

Howe could send the less-heralded combination of Joe McEwing and Ricky Gutierrez onto the diamond at Atlanta's Turner Field on Tuesday, the latter of whom wasn't even in a Mets uniform until the end of camp.

Gold Glove centerfielder Mike Cameron morphed into limping 2000 Met Darryl Hamilton from just about the very second the ink dried on his three-year, $19.5 million contract, reporting to camp with a bone spur in his left big toe that will nag him through the entire season (although it hasn't limited his mobility – yet).

Cliff Floyd continues right where he left off, soldiering on favoring a right Achilles' problem (this time, it's scar tissue crackling and burning from his corrective surgery), while Mike Piazza was bothered by a twinge in his upper thigh, the result of a strenuous first base workout and a scary reminder of the torn groin that ruined Piazza's 2003.

In fairness, despite not being especially agile, Piazza actually looks capable at first base. He won't figure in the balloting for the Gold Glove, but neither will Jason Phillips, New York's regular first baseman. As long as infielders can get the ball to the bag with a minimum of effort on the part of either Piazza or Phillips, the Mets should be OK.

No. 3 starter Al Leiter stopped an Alex Gonzalez line drive with his head on Saturday and will delay his first scheduled start of the year, although both the Mets and Leiter are thankful that the frightening event didn't turn out even worse.

"It was a half inch from my temple and an inch from the orbital bone (in my eye socket)," Leiter said Sunday. "You go from being upset and mad to thinking, ‘Boy, was I lucky.'"

Jae Seo (spring: 0-2, 7.48 ERA) was supposed to be written in concrete as the Mets' No. 4 starter, but never really seemed to find his groove and will begin his season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Now, Seo – the club's second most reliable pitcher last year -- has no idea what the future holds for him around Shea Stadium, or even if he'll get back there by season's end.

"If I don't pitch well in two or three games in Norfolk, are they going to send me down to Binghamton?" Seo asked reporters, through interpreter Daniel Kim.

Grant Roberts (spring: 1-1, 5.33 ERA), a relief pitcher in a starter's body, was supposed to be the favorite to snap up the Mets' vacant No. 5 starting slot, but a sluggish end to spring training -- combined with an unfortunate bout with the flu -- sealed his bounce back to the bullpen.

Instead, one season after David Cone put together a vintage spring only to flop out of the gate, the Mets are again going with an aged veteran as their No. 5 starter, selecting 36-year-old Scott Erickson (spring: 0-2, 3.75 ERA) to join 38-year-olds Leiter and Glavine in taking game balls in the early going for New York.

The Mets still have concerns regarding Roberts' inability to pitch on back-to-back days, and would love to have a reason to re-think his placement into the pitching rotation. A slow start by Erickson might give them that excuse, or at least help soothe Seo's longing for New York.

Of course, Roberts might even have the opportunity to pick up a save here and there -- closer Braden Looper (spring: 0-1, 6.75 ERA) has been bothered by back spasms and looked more like a batting practice hurler in several of his appearances.

To the Mets' credit, it's not all doom and gloom -- it just feels that way. At the plate, Piazza and Floyd have been hitting comets all spring, with both looking primed for the regular season.

Young Tyler Yates (spring: 3-1, 4.00 ERA), who takes over Seo's lost No. 4 spot, is throwing nasty heat in the high 90's -- electric territory that no Mets starter has sniffed in years. Reliever Orber Moreno (spring: 1-1, 0.47 ERA) came out of nowhere to earn an unexpected roster spot, while the Mets finally found a way to clear unwanted Roger Cedeno out of the picture.

Overall, though, it was not a good spring in Port St. Lucie, especially for a club that desperately needs to erase the public perception of ‘same old Mets.'

Ownership knows it -- several reports placed Fred Wilpon and son Jeff as perturbed with the club's sluggish exhibition season, especially their 2-8 record in televised games beamed back to New York – and the players do too.

"There's no reason for us to concede anything in this division," Cameron said. "(But) it'll be good if we can get out of the gates fast."

Regardless of what happens tomorrow in Atlanta, the Mets will spend the rest of the day tied for first in the National League East, which is always nice to see.

But we've got a sinking feeling that Mets fans had better enjoy it; it's something we may not see a lot of this season.

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