What's Next for Surprising Mets?

Before the Mets embarked on their Arizona and Houston road trip last week, the best the team and the fans could have hoped for was three wins. Four tops. Considering they were to face five aces with an offense still searching for consistency or pop, anything more would have approached delusion. When the Mets failed to notch wins against journeyman Casey Daigle and Elmer Dessens in the first two games of the trip, the vultures took to the skies.

At that point, the Mets were 14-19. The possibility of returning ten games under .500 was not a prospect exclusive to pessimists. Here came Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens. Did anyone, including the Mets, truly believe that they could fell even one of these pitching goliaths let alone four?

When Mike Piazza's two-run, two-strike two-run home run in the 9th spoiled Roger Clemens' bid for his eight straight win, this road trip was made regardless of the game's ultimate outcome. Jason Phillips' unlikely game winner four innings later capped what surely was the Mets season zenith.

But will it be their defining moment? What is next for a team that just weeks ago had more trouble scoring runs than a bunch of Tee-ballers without a Tee? What is next for a team that is searching for a full five-man rotation? Those qualities are not the stuff of contenders, yet here the Mets sit just three and a half games behind the World Champion Florida Marlins for first place in the NL East.

Mets fans have been teased already this year. A series win against the Braves in early April prompted Bobby Cox to declare the Mets much improved. They were promptly swept at Shea by the pedestrian Pirates, scratched out a four-game split with the punchless Expos and were swept again this time by the Cubs. They have since gone 11-7, primarily against teams that were at or near first place in their respective divisions. Good signs indeed, but what really to make of it?

The Mets have looked dreadful at times this year. After that April stretch against the Pirates, Expos and Cubs, it was easy to dismiss the Mets as pretenders. Yes, they missed Jose Reyes. Yes, they missed Cliff Floyd. Maybe they missed Scott Erickson (remember him?). But good teams have depth and the Mets were exposed as thin once their intended lineup and rotation became a disabled lineup and rotation. Floyd has returned, and though he still hasn't caught up to a few of those weekend fastballs, his Grand Slam on Friday was evidence of his essential presence.

Though Mets pitching should not be ignored, the home run was the real weapon in last week's surprising run. First there was Matzui's leadoff drive against Randy Johnson for the only run of the game. The following night, Vance Wilson provided the spark with a three run blast. Then there was Floyd on Friday. And of course Mike Piazza's epic bomb on Sunday to be followed by Phillips. Danny Garcia, Ty Wiggington and Mike Cameron also got into the act. That's good balance.

There is reason to believe that once (or if) Jose Reyes returns, the Mets might be better than good. Their offense, with Floyd healthy and Piazza fresh, could do some regular damage. With their intended lineup in place, the Mets would have Todd Zeile, Shane Spencer, Danny Garcia and Eric Valent to hit late in games. Those are good choices for Art Howe who seems to making a lot of them lately.

The pitching may be their undoing however. Glavine is in fine form, but two years ago he was a Cy Young favorite half way through the year only to collapse after the All-Star break. Leiter has been lights out, but how healthy is his shoulder? Steve Trachsel continues to be Greg Maddux-lite, but he always has to be on. The rest of the rotation is reeling.

It's not too early to assess the Mets. They have played inspired baseball over the last couple weeks. Their team ERA is among the league leaders. Despite a high error total, they continue to make stellar defensive plays. A fresh Piazza at first serves them well on either end of an inning. The outfield, with the exception of Cameron's Ks, is productive. They have a dominant closer in Braden Looper.

Look for the Mets to hover around .500 for the next month. No way can they reel off a big stretch of wins with their current rotation. But should they stay consistent into late June, don't forget Fred Wilpon's promise to spend if the Mets contend. And should Jim Duquette go out and get a good arm or bat, maybe the Mets will indeed be playing meaningful games in September.

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