Can the Mets Keep It Up?

l megdal 4 Can the Mets Keep It Up?The Mets did a lot of heavy lifting on their recent road trip, amassing a 5-3 record against the National League East-leading Phillies and the wild-card-leading Cardinals.

The success of the road trip, punctuated by three straight wins in Philadelphia, catapulted New York into the thick of the National League playoff race. The Mets further solidified these gains with a pair of shutout victories Tuesday and Wednesday against the Giants, and they now stand just 1.5 games out of first place in their division, and just 3.5 games behind St. Louis for the wild card.

But how successful the Mets are down the stretch will be determined in large part by the team’s success on and off the field between now and the end of July.

It is paramount for them to take advantage of a soft stretch in the schedule. The Mets defeated Tim Lincecum and the Giants Tuesday, and Jonathan Sanchez on Wednesday. New York has one more with the Giants, a team that is 14th in the National League in runs scored. With New York’s John Maine facing San Francisco Thursday, the Mets have a good shot at sweeping.

Colorado follows San Francisco into Shea, and the Rockies, though playing better of late, are also well under .500. Then comes the All-Star Break, followed by a trip for four games against mediocre Cincinnati. A solid performance in the next seven games would help to put the .500 mark in New York’s past for good. And with struggling Philadelphia going up against St. Louis, Arizona and Florida at this time, the Mets could find themselves in first place by July 20, when those three series end for both teams.

Aside from the upcoming schedule, the Mets could have one important thing going for them that they haven’t had for a while.

It is somewhat astounding, for example, that the team is even in contention with so little production out of their corner outfield positions — two spots that traditionally provide much of a team’s offense. They have received just 49 at-bats from left fielder Moises Alou all season, and just 40 at-bats from right fielder Ryan Church since May 26.

Alou’s on-again, off-again return from various injuries would be amusing if it weren’t so vital to the team’s success. Most recently, he was sent last week to Port St. Lucie to begin rehab games—but several were rained out. He finally got into action Tuesday night in Binghamton, and hinted that he could be ready as soon as Friday—or perhaps after the All Star Break—although he abandoned his most recent start with a hamstring cramp. Those closest to the team don’t even bother to hazard a guess on his timetable at this point.

Church is arguably more troubling, with symptoms apparently stemming from a pair of concussions suffered this year recurring Sunday, and sending him back to the disabled list. With so much unknown about treatment and timetables for concussions, the Mets have no way of being able to judge Church’s return, either.

After a half-season of total offensive ineptitude, left-handed Endy Chavez and right-handed Fernando Tatis have given New York some recent production in the outfield. Together, the pair could provide at least an adequate stopgap platoon in one of the corner outfield spots for the remainder of the season. If they can now acquire even a mid-level talent like Pittsburgh’s Xavier Nady, then their lineup would become a lot more solid even without Alou and Church.

Another factor that already seems to be having a positive effect on the Mets’ disappointing season is the new leadership. It is strange, given that the Mets played inconsistent, .500 baseball for the better part of a year, that such improvement can suddenly seem plausible. But under manager Jerry Manuel, the Mets have played better. Their record is 13-9 since he took over from Willie Randolph, good for a .591 winning percentage. And even in the team’s losses, improvement is visible, such as last week’s rally from 4-0 down against St. Louis in a game the Mets eventually lost, 8-7.

The next few weeks will be critical for the Mets. But suddenly, they seem to be setting the stage for a meaningful October.