Mets end on high notes, ready for NLDS

The Mets have selected their Game 1 starting pitcher, found their good vibes in a weekend trip to Washington, and finally, they know who'll be joining them this week at Shea Stadium.

The race for the NL West between the Dodgers and Padres came down to the season's final game Sunday, but that was perhaps the most normal occurrence as the Mets prepared for their first postseason since 2000.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, not Pedro Martinez, will be on the mound as the Mets take on the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday at 4 p.m.

The Mets had held out hope that Martinez could make the start, but in sobering news, the achy ace was deemed out – not just for the playoffs, as originally feared, but for much of 2007 with a torn rotator cuff that will require surgery this week.

Still, the Mets believe they are in good hands with El Duque, a pitcher of indeterminate age but undeniable postseason cache. One of the top October competitors of his time, the high-kicking right-hander was in good spirits over the weekend, dancing to upbeat Latin music at RFK Stadium and animatedly engaging in conversation with teammates.

"It seems that every time someone is out, someone new steps up," David Wright said. "That's what makes it fun to come to the ballpark. … It forces this team to come together through adversity. We're going to get through it and we'll be a stronger team."

El Duque said he willingly would accept Martinez's spot in the playoff rotation.

"I have to assume the responsibility that they give me," Hernandez said. "I'll be ready for it."

The Mets are prepared, in part, because of the confidence of manager Willie Randolph. Through his storied career, Randolph has almost spent more years in the playoffs than not. He has spoken to players periodically over the last few weeks, answering any lingering questions that the Mets may be asking.

"As a manager, it's different," Randolph said. "[The postseason] is where I feel comfortable. This is my time. I've been through this many times."

The Mets' trip to D.C. brought numerous positive messages. Outfielder Cliff Floyd (sore ankle) played Sunday and declared himself ready for the playoffs, and Game 2 starter Tom Glavine pitched brilliantly in a six-inning tune-up Saturday against the last-place Nationals. Steve Trachsel left the club briefly to attend to a personal matter in Phoenix but will re-join them on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest blemish on the weekend was a note left on the locker of rookie outfielder Lastings Milledge, who – according to reports – was involved in a verbal altercation with a veteran player during the team's trip to Atlanta.

The two-sheet message on Milledge's locker read, "Know your place, rook!" and was signed, "Your teammates," but Randolph shrugged the event off as "clubhouse stuff." Regardless, Milledge likely will not be on the Mets' postseason roster, especially with Floyd's ankle good enough for duty.

As New York's fate has been decided – officially – since Sept. 18, when the Mets clinched the NL East against the Marlins, the team has had some time to tone it down a notch.

A four-game winning streak at Atlanta and Washington puts them into the playoffs on a high note, but they'll be seeing a red-hot West clubs, who enjoyed the passion of the pennant race into the last moments of the season. Matching the intensity will be a key.

"They've been playing to the wire," Floyd said. "But we shouldn't have a problem matching that."

The Mets will be rewarded with a day of rest Monday – except for David Wright, who is having a Delta Airlines plane ("The Wright Flight") dedicated in his honor at LaGuardia Airport – and go through a brief workout Tuesday at Shea Stadium.

Confidence reigns supreme, and the Mets vow they're ready for the challenges of going deep into October.

"We match up well against anyone in the National League if we go out and play our game," Wright said. "The rest will take care of itself."

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