By Ernie Palladino
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As the Mets’ season winds its way to the end with virtually no hope of re-entering the postseason race, it has become evident that youth is the way to go for the rest of the year.

So to Sandy Alderson, we say, “Do it now.” Don’t even wait until September roster expansion. Do it now.

Why? Because it’s clear that even Johan Santana has become a question mark, a potential square in the grand circle of Alderson’s offseason puzzle. And because a guy like Matt Harvey has stepped up to the task and performed better than even the optimists out there could have hoped.

Harvey suffered a terrible beating against San Diego, and threw a horrendous, 33-pitch first inning last week in his 4-0 loss to Atlanta. But guess what? He came back after that two-run first Friday to shut down the Braves over his final four innings on 68 pitches.

He’s showing the qualities of a winner despite a losing, 1-3 record. And there is more from where he came from — specifically, Triple-A Buffalo.

You see, this is more about Santana than it is about the youngsters. It’s not just that the Mets’ struggling ace gave up eight runs in a 1 1/3-inning disaster in Saturday’s return from the disabled list. It’s that nobody really knows why it happened.

He said the right ankle, which put him on the DL in the first place, produced no pain before or after the game. Same with the surgically-repaired left shoulder.

He did hit 90 with his fastball, so that would indicate all is well physically. Athletes do tend to fib when talking about their aches and pains, but velocity rarely lies. So one can discount a new injury.

Rust? Possibly. He couldn’t locate his slider.

That 134-pitch load he carried in pitching the Mets’ first no-hitter way back on June 1? It’s hard to believe that two-plus months hence, the potential fatigue from a single game would still haunt him. But the numbers, as pointed out in Sunday’s Daily News, have not been encouraging post-no-no. He’s put up a 7.98 ERA since then, having allowed 61 hits in 44 innings while becoming only the third Met in history to give up six or more runs in four straight starts.

Still, Santana’s bulldog personality and pitching style would seem to defy the theory that any single, labor-intense outing could ruin his season.

So who knows what is truly eating at Santana. What is known is that the idea of shutting him down for the season in hopes of bringing him back healthy and strong next year is a distinct, and probably a viable idea right now.

With the division and wildcard races gone, there seems little reason to continue using him and risk a real injury. And, let’s face it, with Harvey looking like a major league pitcher, not some scared rookie, maybe it would be worthwhile to see Zack Wheeler up here, too.

Wheeler, a 22-year-old who is even more highly-regarded than Harvey, comes off a strong start in his second appearance for the Bisons since his promotion. He allowed just one run in six innings.

His Triple-A debut last Monday didn’t go nearly so well, as Wheeler threw 101 pitches in a 4 2/3-inning struggle. But the Mets’ collective brass think the world of the kid, so why not bring him up now. Harvey’s doing OK, so maybe Wheeler will, too.

Then they can salt Santana away for safe keeping. Faced with finding a reliever with an arm and an outfielder with some semblance of power, the last thing Alderson and his budget needs on his off-season plate is a high-priced replacement for a hurt starter. They already may have to baby Chris Young through the rest of the year, and they can’t count on Mike Pelfrey to be effective after a year off.

They need Santana in 2013, badly, if only because the fans are getting restless. Might as well have him as healthy as possible.

Do you think it’s time for a sneak peek at Wheeler? Sound off in the comments below!

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